Floor strippers are some of the most dangerous products in a cleaning professional's arsenal. These products, which vary widely in their formulations and levels of performance, can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation as well as emit hazardous fumes.

There has been a recent push in the industry over the last few years, however, to develop products that are safer for cleaning crews, building occupants and the environment. In fact, end users can now use green floor strippers to create a healthier work environment.

Oh, The Odor

Traditionally, the key ingredient added to floor stripper formulations was ammonia, as it has the properties to unlock the zinc cross-linking bond found in metal interlocked floor finishes. Although ammoniated strippers worked particularly well, cleaning professionals who worked on the frontlines, can recall the shortcomings associated with these products.

"You would slosh that stuff on the floor and the ammonia would be so strong that you had to literally leave the room to get some fresh air," says Dave Collins, vice president of marketing and training for Gem Supply, an Orlando-based jan/san distributor. "Then you dash back in and started scrubbing it. They were nasty. They were high pH, plus the ammonia was overwhelming."

While the focus of product development was once to create the strongest chemicals to complete a stripping job, manufacturers have tinkered with the chemical makeup of floor strippers over the last couple of decades to make them less harmful for cleaning professionals as well as the environment. In fact, one major change — to the delight of cleaning professionals and building occupants alike — has been the elimination of the strong odor that has long been characteristic of strippers. Manufacturers have removed ammonia from their formulations so the odor when stripping a floor is more manageable. Although ammonia is no longer a common ingredient, these low-odor products, which now contain amines, perform comparably to traditional products.

"The lower odor products have become more and more preferable," says Vince Sortino, vice president of sales, Philip Rosenau Co., Warminster, Pa. "People like the fact that it smells better and one of the benefits is that the cleaners that are using it also get the benefit of having a product that isn't unpleasant to work around."

Besides eliminating the pungent odor, manufacturers have followed industry trends by developing green floor strippers. While distributors say that traditional strippers may still be preferable for some floors, today's environmentally-preferable strippers can offer the same level of performance as their traditional counterparts — but at a lesser harm to the environment.

On top of formulating green floor strippers to be safer for the environment and cleaning personnel, manufacturers have upgraded these products' packaging materials to promote safer use. Many strippers today are packaged ready to use in dilution control systems. This helps reduce accidental contact with the skin because there is less chance for spilling or splashing when diluting the product, says Sortino.

Gone Green

When green strippers first came to the market a few years ago, distributors say end users questioned the product's effectiveness. In fact, the questionable performance and perceived higher price points deterred many end users from immediately making the switch to green, says Sortino.

"Like everything else, the predecessors of the current green products didn't perform as well," he says. "So when products came out that did do a pretty good job like a traditional stripper, it was a 'let's wait and see,' or 'let's try it and see how it performs.' And over the last couple of years we've gotten some really good products that have come out, work really well and are certified by Green Seal and EcoLogo."

For strippers to qualify for certification, Green Seal requires these products have a pH no greater than 11.5 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of 3 percent by weight at the greatest dilution and 7 percent for heavy build-up. Undiluted strippers should still not be corrosive to the skin or eyes. EcoLogo requirements state that strippers must have a pH no higher than 7 percent. Traditional products, comparatively, have a pH of 13 or 14 and are 10 to 30 percent VOC. These elevated levels of pH and VOCs means the solution has high levels of acid, are considered toxic and can result in poor indoor air quality (IAQ).

End users that once were reluctant to use green strippers just a few years ago are now finding these products to fit their floor care and sustainable needs. In fact, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Sanitary Maintenance's sister publication, Housekeeping Solutions, 75 percent of in-house service providers use green floor finishes and strippers in their cleaning programs (an increase of 20 percent from 2008). Building service contractors, however, have been a little slower in the adoption of green floor care practices, as 39 percent of contractors recently polled by Contracting Profits magazine, another sister publication of SM, are using green floor finish and stripper. This number is expected to rise in the near future, as 60 percent of BSCs polled who are not currently practicing green cleaning say they plan on changing to green finishes and strippers.

Educational facilities have been the leaders in the green floor care movement, says Mike Sulkin, president of LBH Chemicals & Industrial Supply Inc.

"It's being pushed by the parent-teacher associations and the parents," he says. "They read in the newspapers and hear the news that some of these chemicals are harmful to their kids. They don't want to send their kids to schools where they can get sick."

Green legislation has been passed in several states, including New York and Illinois that mandates green-certified floor care products, including strippers, be used in K-12 schools.

Green Limitations

Although some end users have gravitated towards green strippers, end users often gripe about their effectiveness when it comes to removing multiple layers of floor finish, says Pete Deverey, president of Tartan Supply, Brookfield, Wis.

Green floor strippers are best used in a floor care program that includes green floor finishes. Unlike traditional floor finishes, which have metal interlocks, green floor finishes have calcium interlocks that can be easily broken by the chemical composition of green strippers. When using a green floor stripper on a floor that has a metal interlock finish, distributors say it typically takes more stripping solution to break the metal bond in the finish.

"Does a green stripper that is designed to break a calcium interlock work as well on a traditional floor finish which uses a metal interlock? The answer is no," says Collins. "Because one is designed to break zinc and the other is designed to break calcium. But if I'm using a green finish, I can always use a green stripper to break it. But I can't always use a stripper on a non-green finish and make it work as effectively."

By using a green stripper on a non-green floor finish, some end users are finding themselves stripping floors more frequently to achieve the desired level of shine. Increasing the frequency of stripping and the amount of product being used has sparked debate among jan/san professionals on what it truly means to be green.

"The greenest chemical you use is the one you don't use," says Collins. "When we take green strippers and strip a floor three times a year or four times a year because the calcium based finishes as opposed to the metal interlock finishes don't hold up as well, and we strip, even if we're using a green finish, it's not very green. What the greenest thing to do is scrub the floor correctly and scrub and recoat for three to five years without stripping."

As the debate over whether it's better for the environment to do more passes using greener products, or to strip floors less often but with less environmentally-desirable products continues, support and education of how to properly use floor strippers will continue to play a large role in a facility's floor care success.