As the old saying goes, everything old is new again. Such is the case with oxygenated cleaners. While the technology has been around for more than three decades, these products have only recently gained favor among professional cleaners and the general public.

Since their re-emergence into the cleaning market in the mid-1990s, oxygenated cleaners have enjoyed sales increases of 60 to 80 percent each year. This meteoric rise in popularity has created an entirely “new” category in the cleaning industry, with product entries from numerous manufacturers.

Although each product varies (some are dilutable concentrates while others come in ready-to-use wall-mounted or hand-held dispensing systems), the technology behind each is similar. Basically, they release oxygen bubbles that devour organic stains and odors imbedded in a carpet.

The product is applied to the spot (as a pre-spray, in a bonnet cleaner, or as a post-spray) and then agitated. The oxygen binds to the material, weakens its grip, and then lifts it to the surface where it can be vacuumed, swept, or wiped away.

Traditional cleaners use harsh or toxic ingredients such as alcohol, glycol ether, acid, ammonia, and bleach — many of which simply mask the problem or bury it deeper in the carpet. Oxygenated cleaners include a drastically reduced amount of chemical, if any, and break down into naturally occurring elements that erase the stain and odor while leaving behind little or no residue.

“We’re talking about oxygen and water,” says Frank Mauro, president of professional products for OrangeGlo International, headquartered in Greenwood Village, Colo. “It’s the air you breathe and the water you drink. It is an environmentally friendly product, and you can’t say that about a lot of traditional cleaners.”

The products work on organic molecules, such as pet stains, juices, coffee and blood, but are not a good solution to such problems as motor oil and bleach.

But Do They Work?
The equation seems almost too simple — can these products really perform as well as traditional chemicals? Manufacturers say yes.

In fact, one manufacturer was surprised himself when he saw how well the product performed. EnvirOx, a manufacturer based in Danville, Ill., stumbled into this technology while trying to create a “green” cleaning product. The company’s hope was to make something that worked about as well as traditional products.

“When we got into oxygen we found we were able to actually improve performance,” says Patrick Stewart, the company’s president. “It was pretty exciting stuff when we found it worked dramatically better.”

An Easy Sell
The magical performance of these cleaners is probably the best news for distributors. Everyone understands the value of demonstrations in the janitorial supply business. Manufacturers promise that a 30-minute tabletop demonstration will win over customers.

“The system sells itself,” Stewart says.

Distributors can use an oxygenated cleaner as a lead-in product. Because these products are so new to most people, distributors can use them to differentiate themselves from the competition. It might help impress current clients or get a foot in the door with a potential customer. Earn their trust with this, manufacturers suggest, and then sell them other products.

“Don’t go in with a bathroom cleaner that everyone else is offering,” Mauro says. “Go in with something new that you can demonstrate to prove how well it works.”

Another selling point of this product category is cost. An oxygenated cleaner can replace as many as five other cleaning agents, according to the manufacturers. Many distributors hear that and worry that they will lose money by selling these products. But manufacturers say that won’t happen. Revenue density on the account remains the same because one oxygenated cleaner will cost the same as the total cost of the five products it replaces. The savings come “down the stream” in the form of fewer worker’s compensation claims and reduced freight, storage and training costs.

The cleaners are also environmentally-friendly. In addition to being significantly less toxic than traditional cleaning products, manufacturers claim that they reduce packaging materials and, therefore, landfill space because they can replace so many other products. This aspect of the product is becoming a more valuable selling point.

“In this industry, the buzzword is ‘green,’” Mauro says. “And it will become even more of an issue.”

Good markets for this message are the eco-conscious, such as government offices and public schools, says Mike Kelm, a project manager for London, Ontario-based Oxygon Technologies.

Nearly every business will be clamoring for these cleaners as the concern over volatile organic compounds (VOCs) continues to swell. Oxygenated cleaners release no VOCs, Kelm says.

“The environment is not a factor to us — our customers don’t seem to be that environmentally conscious,” says Jerry Plount, owner of Sani-Chem Cleaning Supplies Inc., in Clearwater, Florida. “But they are concerned about employee risk. When you can show them an MSDS with a zero health rating, it gets their attention. When you show them the product works, it really gets their attention.”

Proceed With Caution
As is true with virtually any product in this industry, there are some potential problems with oxygen cleaners of which distributors should be aware. Without good training and proper use, these cleaners can destroy stain-resistant systems (such as Scotch Guard), take the color out of carpets and fabrics, or cause a carpet’s backing to separate.

These problems typically occur when the cleaning product is too alkaline and used improperly, says Carey Mitchell, a research scientist for Shaw Industries, the world’s leading carpet manufacturer.

Most carpet-related warranties are voided if a cleaning product with a pH higher than 10 is used, Mitchell says. The leading products in the oxygen cleaner category have pH levels of 7.0 to 11. Mitchell points out that the difference between a pH of 10 and 11 is a 10-fold increase (pH 11 is 10 times more alkaline than pH 10), which can be confusing for people who don’t understand the pH scale.

However, even those products with borderline-high pH levels will only cause damage if the cleaner is used incorrectly, Mitchell says.

“You don’t just dump it on,” Mitchell says. “That goes for any spot cleaner. The training needs to tell users to always try water first. Ninety percent of stains come out with water but people just don’t try that. We always tell people to try water first.”

Additionally, the potential for damage is only an issue for those carpets that have stain-resistant treatments and that are colored by pigment, not dye. This rules out most of the commercial and industrial market, Mitchell says.

As always, the key to success is good training. Users must be trained to know that these products don’t feel, smell, or look like other cleaning products, Stewart says. Concentrates must be mixed properly and ready-to-use products should be used according to package instructions. Problems occur when people add other chemicals to the mix, or use more oxygenated cleaner than is required.

“Some people believe that if one scoop is good then two scoops will be even better,” Kelm says.

Additionally, users should always test any carpet cleaner for color fastness. While most fabrics today are colorfast, some aren’t, and these products may harm them.

The only surefire way to know if a product will work on a particular carpet is to test it.

“There are instances where an oxygenated product would be the ideal solution and there are instances where it is not,” says John Manolas, vice president of operations at Venus Labs, headquartered in Wood Dale, Ill. “Each situation a cleaning professional faces is slightly different and they need to be armed with the right type of product for the job along with the training to do the job correctly.”

The Future Is Bright
If sales are any indication, customers have had few problems with oxygenated cleaners. The category is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to a spate of new customers each day and an excellent repeat purchase rate.

“We believe that in the long term, most general janitorial cleaning products will involve oxygen because it is less toxic and works better,” Stewart says. “We believe it is going to have very far-reaching and long-term effects on cleaning.”

While distributor Plount agrees that these cleaners have a bright future, he warns against overzealous selling. These are not the end-all be-all cleaning products.

“The biggest drawback to these cleaners is that some people think they will do anything. They won’t,” Plount says. “You have to be careful about overselling the product.”

Most manufacturers agree.

“This is not a miracle cleaner that will do everything for everybody,” Stewart says. “This is not a panacea. This is not a miracle juice. But it is a better solution, and we believe it’s a safer solution.”

Not Just For Carpet Care
Oxygenated cleaners work for far more than just carpet care. (No two products are the same, so always follow package labeling for correct dilution rates and uses.) Most of these products can remove mold, mildew, food and body oils, and other stains and odors from many surfaces, including:
  • Toilets and urinals
  • Bathtubs
  • Showers
  • Countertops
  • Tile and grout
  • Glass
  • Ceiling tile
  • Concrete, marble, and stone
  • Floors
  • Septic systems and drains
  • Unfinished wood decking
  • Dishwashers
  • Car upholstery

In addition to acting as a cleaner, some of these products can also be used as sanitizers, viricides, deodorizers, degreasers and fungicides.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.
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