Philadelphia’s Temple University has cleaning needs that would make any sanitary supply distributor salivate. The main campus alone has 50 large buildings, and the university has five other campuses to boot. Every day, more than 30,000 students are herded in and out of classrooms, restrooms and dormitories, leaving plenty of refuse in their wake.

Every so often, a distributor attempts to land this substantial account by offering to supply the campus with a chemical proportioning system. Virginia Arnsberger, director of housekeeping for Temple, has heard it all a hundred times before.

“First, I always ask them if they’re going to give me a proportioning machine for each building,” she explains. “They usually say no, so that means I’d have to have a full-time employee in charge of filling up chemicals at the proportioning station and running them to each cleaner in each building. I tell them no thanks. I’m in the housekeeping business, not the bottle-filling business.”

Truth be told, Temple University does use a chemical proportioning system. However, it’s not a system that utilizes stationary proportioning equipment. Instead, Arnsberger attaches 2-ounce chemical “filters” to the top of each 1-quart container of water. When the water is poured out, it mixes with the concentrated chemical, much like a pre-measured chemical packet.

In a recent SM survey of in-house professional cleaning staffs, nearly 66 percent said they use stationary dispensing equipment. Almost 10 percent said they use mobile dispensing equipment, and 9 percent said they employ the kind of system used at Temple, pre-measured chemical packets. An additional 15 percent said that they use a combination of all three methods.

The key for distributors is matching the right system to the right building, and taking into consideration the manpower of the cleaning staff.

Even though these options exist (stationary proportioners, mobile proportioners and pre-measured packets), many in-house cleaning professionals still manually mix chemicals in a bucket via the “glug-glug” method. Out of nearly 200 building managers polled, almost 70 percent said they’ve used the “glug-glug” method in the past to mix chemicals.

The Color of Safe
No system is 100 percent foolproof, but a proportioning system is far better than manually mixing chemicals when it comes to safety.

“I once had a customer that owned a supermarket in Arizona,” says Luis Salazar, president of American Chemical in Los Angeles. “He took it upon himself to mix his own chemicals manually, and he combined a heavily ammoniated cleaner with bleach. Unfortunately, he ended up in the hospital.”

Had the customer invested in a proportioning system, there would be little chance of making such a potentially hazardous mistake. Most proportioning systems either come with a color-coded program to separate chemicals safely, or they are designed to be used with a color-coded system.

“There’s definitely an increased safety concern among end users, and I think that’s the reason the proportioners are becoming more popular,” says Adam Heller, president of Gibson Discount Janitorial in San Bernadino, Calif.

When cleaning professionals were asked to give the most important feature they look for when purchasing a proportioner (in addition to overall savings), 66 percent selected the color-coded safety option as the No. 1 feature.

Mixing chemicals properly is more than just a safety issue; improper combinations can damage some surfaces as well. “Some of the tile cleaners are manufactured with hydrochloric acid, and if it’s not diluted properly, you’ll tarnish and damage any metal fixtures or surfaces,” says Salazar.

Some distributors sell color-coded bottles and other containers in tandem with the proportioner itself, while others actually give the proportioner and containers away in exchange for a long-term partnership to sell the cleaning chemicals. Still others sell proportioners and color-coded containers separately.

Know Thy Customer
If the customer plans to purchase several stationary proportioners throughout a building, the distributor will mostly likely not give them away in exchange for additional business, says Heller. “Stationary proportioners are usually a couple hundred bucks per unit,” he says. “If it’s a big place, they probably are going to buy 10 or 20 units for each cleaning station. That really adds up and end up being a large order.”

Stationary proportioners offer a lot of advantages if they are in close proximity to larger areas that require consistent cleaning, such as the main floor of a supermarket or a hotel lobby. “Historically, we’ve sold a lot of chemical proportioners to hotels,” says Mike Corcoran, owner of Corcoran Chemical Products in Topeka, Kan. “There’s one employee who is in charge of mixing the chemicals at a station, and all the cleaners just run by and pick up the containers so they can clean.”

For larger buildings, however, stationary proportioners increase the amount of legwork that cleaners have to do in order to complete each job, unless there are proportioners at multiple locations.

“I thought about just trying them in some of our larger buildings,” says Arnsberger. “The problem is, I have 12-story academic structures with at least 24 bathrooms in each one. We were going to have the proportioner in the basement, but that would mean the cleaners would have to get on the elevator and go down to the basement every time they needed to refill. I have them change the buckets after every two bathrooms, so there’s no way they can go up and down the elevator that often.”

Although Temple currently uses the 2-ounce chemical attachments for each container of water, Arnsberger has tried other pre-measured alternatives in the past. “I’ve tried some of the pre-measured packets of powder, and those could work for us someday,” she says. “It’s easy because you just drop them in the water, and the bag dissolves so that the right amount of chemical can mix in correctly.”

The particular brand of pre-measured powder packets that Arnsberger tried, however, weren’t powerful enough to attack the soiled floors and stains throughout the campus. “If I find a pre-measured powder packet that is more powerful, I might give it a try in the future,” she says.

Teach Them to Train
When it comes to maximizing the potential of a chemical proportioning system, survey results showed that adequate training is a key ingredient.

“Training is a big part of getting the most out of a chemical proportioner, and it takes an active effort on the part of the distributor,” says Salazar. “There are more and more OSHA regulations coming into play, as well as local agencies, so cleaners have to mix their chemicals the right way. A proportioner can go a long way in doing that, but only if it’s used correctly.”

When asked to name the single biggest problem facilities face with regard to chemical proportioning systems, 54 percent pointed to employee misuse as the foremost culprit. Frequent repairs was next (18 percent), followed by high cost (14 percent), splashes/messy spills (10 percent) and back flow (4 percent).

In a separate question, building managers were asked to place a value on training in preventing employee misuse of proportioners and getting the most out of the cleaning systems.

Of those surveyed, 72 percent said that training is highly valued, while 25 percent said that training plays a small role in their operations. Only 3 percent said that training was unimportant.

Training includes more than just mixing chemicals properly; it also encompasses the labeling and use of chemicals. “Quite often, the reason that buildings don’t pass inspections of state and local agencies is because of improper labeling of the cleaners,” says Salazar. “It’s easy for them to just grab products for cleaning and then put chemicals in the wrong containers when they’re finished.”

Distributors who are able to instruct end users in proper proportioner operations, as well as chemical use and storage, will build trust with their customers and open up opportunities for future sales.

“There’s usually a proportioning system out there for every customer,” says Heller. “They may prefer a different style, but they’ll all say that it made their job easier.”

SM Asked Housekeeping Professionals:

What kind of chemical proportioning system to you currently use?

  • 54% Stationary proportioning and dispensing equipment
  • 15.2% A combination of all three
  • 9.8% Mobile proportioning and dispensing equipment
  • 9.2% Pre-measured chemical packets

Have you or your employees ever used the “glug-glug” method to mix chemicals in the past?

  • 88.8% Yes
  • 6.1% No
  • 5.1% Don’t know

Besides overall cost (labor savings), What are the most important features of a chemical proportioning or dispensing system: (Respondents could choose up to three categories)

  • 66.1% Safety: color coded
  • 64.6% Quick filling
  • 57.8% No-mess features
  • 35.4% Safety: multi-lingual
  • 32.8% Backflow prevention
  • 28.1% Portability
  • 16.6% Decreased shipping costs
  • 20.8% Key lock
  • 21.9% Other

What is the single biggest problem your facility faces with regard to its chemical proportioning and dispensing equipment?

  • 53.5% Employee misuse
  • 4.1% Backflow
  • 11.2% Splashes/messy spills
  • 15.3% Frequently needs repair
  • 15.9% High costn policy