For several years, advocates in the cleaning industry have campaigned to reduce the amount of chemicals used when cleaning. And for the most part, chemical manufacturers have answered those requests by developing formulations that require smaller doses, are environmentally-friendly, and are not as harmful to cleaning personnel and building occupants as their traditional counterparts.

But some manufacturers as of late are taking it a step further and have found a way to remove the need for chemicals completely. In fact, several manufacturers have embarked upon a “chemical-free movement” by developing cleaning machines that allow today’s cleaning professionals to clean floors and other soiled surfaces with only tap water.

But with any new technology that hits the marketplace, there are those who are skeptical and question if these systems actually work. Thus, manufacturers are out to prove that their equipment, and their new method of cleaning, can compete with the more traditional machines that have maintained a strong presence in the cleaning market for many years.

Electrolyzed Water

Depending on a facility’s square footage, end users who use traditional floor machines can go through considerable amounts of water and chemical when cleaning a floor. Realizing that this process is heavy on chemical consumption, technology has been developed to eliminate the need for any chemicals by only using electrolyzed tap water, which cleans like a detergent, in automatic scrubbers.

The way it works is the tap water first passes through an electrified screen in the machine’s oxygenation chamber, creating highly oxygenated microbubbles. Next, the oxygenated water is sent through a water cell where an electric current is applied, creating a stream of blended, highly charged acidic and alkaline water that has the same attributes of a general purpose cleaner. In this activated state, the electrically charged water then breaks down dirt into small particles, removes it from the floor surface, and about 45 seconds later, the water returns to its original state and can be handled and disposed of safely.

Explaining how the machine works is quite simple. But getting end users to believe it is another story.

“Normally what we like to do is do a demonstration of the machine right in their facility,” says Mike Griffin, sales manager for Waukesha, Wis.-based San-A-Care Inc. “And we have done many where we’ve cleaned side by side with their current autoscrubber and show them that this machine actually cleans better than a neutral cleaner. The floor appears cleaner and there’s no residue left behind.”

In fact, when Griffin has helped customers implement these machines into their floor care programs, he says customers often notice that the machines pick up old residue that has been left behind from prior cleaning.

“We find foam and all sorts of things in the tank that would only be evident if we were removing some old residues,” he says. “That’s how we convince people — we bring it to their facility and show them how well it works. Of course we have testimonials and support material from the manufacturer, but when it comes right down to it, if someone’s very skeptical, that’s what we need to show them that it does work.”

Besides using less water — 70 percent less than traditional cleaning methods — the machine also promotes worker productivity, a great selling point for distributors whose customers are forced to clean more with less due to tight budgets.

“Because it uses less water, cleaners have to go back to the closet fewer times to fill the machine,” says Griffin. “So a worker can get more square footage done in a shift. That’s attractive to people.”

Since no detergents are needed, distributors say the environmental benefits and worker safety also are selling points. Thus, cleaning personnel are no longer forced to mix concentrates of chemicals or pour used detergent discharge into water systems.

Although these machines may sound enticing, distributors say that their upfront price tag is considerably higher than their traditional counterparts. However, Mike Gosson, president of Parish Maintenance Supply, Syracuse, N.Y., says end users should expect a payback in the reduction of chemical and water usage alone, in approximately two years.

Steam Cleaning

Another example of chemical-free floor cleaning is steam cleaning, a process that heats tap water to 300 degrees and creates a gas vapor. This method isn’t new, but has been growing in popularity during the last five years.

With steam cleaning, end users are able to penetrate the pores of any surface in their respective facilities. As the vapor enters into the pore, it expands and forces all the dirt from the bottom of the surface up to the top.

Cleaning professionals use these machines to clean and restore a variety of naturally hard surfaces, including tile, stone, marble, granite and hardwood floors, says Gosson.

The process is quite simple. Because water has an ability to hold energy, steam is a very efficient vehicle for transmitting heat energy to a surface. The transfer disrupts the bonds holding the dirt to surfaces and, in many cases, liquefies the soil itself, making it easier for removal and the surface is disinfected.

Steam systems are especially effective on irregular, uneven or textured surfaces, distributors say. Since steam penetrates pores that many chemicals and abrasive cleaners cannot, it is a thorough, reliable means of surface disinfection.

The fact that end users can achieve these results using tap water also frees them from any concerns related to chemical safety. With training, labor costs are equal to or less than conventional methods, and results last longer because no chemical residue remains on the surface of the floor, says Gosson.

Cleaning professionals are no longer exposed to potentially corrosive or allergenic compounds that may be found in traditional chemical disinfectants. Thus, Gosson says the technology presents an opportunity to improve and enhance disinfection programs in a variety of settings, while also reducing costs and greatly improving indoor air quality and the health of building occupants.

Despite the benefits for end users, distributors say the chemical-free market has not been fully tapped yet. Because budget constraints have hit end users hard during this current recession, many companies cannot indulge in these high-ticket items. However, distributors say their customers have expressed interest and are expected to take the leap sooner than later.

Surface Cleaning

While chemical-free floor maintenance has slowly crept into the market, manufacturers have also begun focusing their attention on chemical-free surface cleaning. A few manufacturers in particular have recently released electrolyzed water systems that come in rechargeable hand-held sanitizing spray bottles.

With these systems, when it is time to clean, the custodial staff doesn’t have to mix any chemicals, all they have to do is go to the tap and fill the bottle with water.

“So when it’s sprayed, the water acts like a cleaner that has surfactants in it,” says Stan Peter, president of Knight Marketing Corp. of New York, Maspeth, N.Y.

When used properly, these systems effectively remove 99.9 percent of bacteria from non-porous hard surfaces, including e-coli, staph, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), listeria and salmonella. But because the technology is relatively new, customers have a tough time believing that the handheld water machines’ claims are true.

“The best addition to that and the most effective addition is to use an ATP meter,” says Gosson. “That right there gets people’s attention because then they can actually see the results, scientifically.”

In fact, Gosson recalls an instance where he approached a customer who really didn’t believe one of these systems worked until he did a swab test with an ATP meter on an ATM machine. An ATP meter measures the level of microbial contamination on surfaces.

When Gosson took a swab on the ATM’s glass display it registered as a 135. Anything above 30 is deemed relatively soiled, he says.

“We cleaned it with the sprayer and wiped it with a microfiber wipe and it pulled it down to a one,” says Gosson. “The customer therefore became a believer.”

Distributors who offer this new technology say that the foodservice market has been using electrolyzed water to sanitize stainless steel in food preparation areas. Other customers are using the devices to sanitize commonly touched surfaces in their facilities as well as clean glass and spot clean carpet.