The 1950s welcomed several inventions designed to simplify our lives and maximize our time — among them Velcro, the home microwave oven and the automatic scrubber.

“The autoscrubber was created as a result of a mock-up of a single disc machine and a wet vacuum combined,” explains Jim Van Dusen, Northwest, Southeast business manager for Pioneer Eclipse, Sparta, N.C. “But the real machines became prevalent in the 1960s with the incorporation of the battery into the design.”

Another significant development in automatic scrubbers is the move from stainless steel to plastic casings, says Keith Willey, marketing manager for Clarke Industries, Springdale, Ark.

Other Advancements
The evolution of the autoscrubber has resulted in a machine that is easier to use and easier to maintain, say manufacturers. Many of the new features found in today’s models reflect this trend toward simplicity.

“Machines that are easier to maintain and keep clean provide longer value to the customer,” says Brian Simmons, product manager, Nilfisk-Advance Inc., Plymouth, Minn. “We have a strong philosophy of using tools-free whenever we can. For example, a scrub deck can be pulled out of the machine without the use of tools, repaired, and slid back into the machine. Or you can have interchangeable scrub decks that allow you to switch from a 24- to 32-inch deck without having to buy a new machine.”

Eagle Power Products, Eagan, Minn., also focuses on trouble-free maintenance by selling autoscrubbers that use the same parts.

“It allows distributors to carry the parts, thereby lowering cost and making maintenance easier,” says Pat Marsh, president. “We try to make it easy to fix the machine. For example, if the vacuum motor in an autoscrubber breaks, before you’d have to take about 20 components out just to get to the motor. Now, you open it, and it’s right there.”

Manufacturers are also making machines easier to operate with simple user interfaces and one-touch operation that guarantees consistent, repeatable results — a necessity in an industry where turnover rates are high and companies often can’t keep up with training new employees.

“We have a feature in our new machine that allows a supervisor to set it up and lock in into one setting,” says Kyle Strait, senior product manager, Tennant Co., Minneapolis. “Companies like the fact that regardless of who’s behind the machine, it will deliver consistent results.”

Not only are today’s machines easier to operate, they also clean more thoroughly, which in turn allows workers to be more productive. Developments such as cylinder brushes help ease the cleaning professional’s task.

“Using brushes instead of pads allows cylindrical brush scrubbers to more effectively ‘deep scrub’ a floor compared to a conventional rotary machine, which helps in removing soils and contaminants in porous floor and grout areas,” says Mike Schaffer, CEO of Tornado Industries, Chicago. “This improves worker efficiency, which can translate into improved productivity, because the number of passes over heavily soiled areas is reduced.”

The Lean, Green Scrubbing Machine
The advent of green cleaning has led to several new developments in autoscrubbers over the past few years.

“The push is to be more environmentally friendly,” says Willey. “End users are showing more interest in machines that use less chemical. Our machine uses 70 percent less chemical and water; however, a number of distributors make a large portion of their revenue from chemical sales. Some see the value [in green cleaning], while others are concerned about diluted chemical sales.”

In response to environmental concerns — and to make the operator’s job easier — manufacturers are building chemical metering systems into their machines.

“Chemical metering is up and coming with nearly everyone,” notes Rusty Simmons, international sales and marketing manager, Windsor Industries, Denver. “You can leave water in your tank, and when you’re done with the shift, you don’t have to drain it out, so there’s less waste. Metering of chemicals is more accurate as well.”

Tennant Co. has developed a foam scrubbing solution aimed at reducing the amount of chemical and water needed to do the job.

“When you activate the chemical with air, you use less chemical and less water to clean with,” explains Strait. “The operator can also scrub longer and make fewer trips to the janitor’s closet to empty and refill the machine.”

Improvements in squeegees have also helped reduce the amount of water used. “We’ve designed a second set of squeegees that are placed in front of the main squeegees to keep the solution in contact with the floor longer, thereby using less water to clean with and doing an effective cleaning job,” says Windsor’s Simmons.

Power Up
“Traditionally, autoscrubbers were electric,” says Douglas Schouten, head of product development and sales, Cleanfix, Wyckoff, N.J. “The introduction of batteries has really freed up an operator’s ability to clean spaces and not have to worry about dragging a cord behind him.”

Battery powered autoscrubbers generally have longer lives and are easier to maintain.

“The move is toward maintenance-free batteries,” says Willey. “They’re more expensive, but the lifecycle cost is reduced because you don’t have to replace them as often.”

Nilfisk has had success with low-cost lead acid batteries, but Simmons admits that maintenance is key to prolonging battery life and reducing the amount of batteries disposed of in landfills. Recently, the company introduced an on-board battery watering kit to ease maintenance and improve employee safety.

“With the battery watering system, all caps are permanently in place, and there’s a manifold system that connects all the cells in the batteries,” says Simmons. “A tube and hand pump is permanently attached to the machine. You fill the tube with distilled water, operate the hand pump, and all the batteries are precisely filled.”

According to Van Dusen, the latest evolution in autoscrubbers is the propane-powered machine that provides unlimited runtime. Pioneer Eclipse sells a 33-inch propane-powered scrubber with a scrubbing rate of 33,000 feet per hour.

Finding The Perfect Fit
Some manufacturers note a trend toward smaller autoscrubbers. “There is a definite movement to make machines more compact,” says Van Dusen. “Ride-on scrubbers have become smaller in scrubbing width. We are now down to 26 inches, which equals a midsize walk-behind scrubber.”

Prior to the trend in size reduction, rider scrubbers were large and lacked maneuverability, making them best suited for industrial applications. Today, smaller riders are capable of traveling down supermarket aisles, sailing through doorways, and cleaning in tight spaces.

“With today’s riders, you can clean at a faster rate than a walk-behind machine, and there’s less fatigue on the operator,” says Marsh.

However, despite the advantages, the rider’s higher price tag guarantees that walk-behinds will still have a place in the market.

Eagle Power Products is launching 11 new autoscrubbers this year designed to “right-size the cleaning operation,” says Marsh.

“We’re trying to give companies more options,” Marsh notes. “We’re going with bigger tanks, smaller units, smaller tanks and bigger cleaning heads. If you match a customer with the right autoscrubber, they can get a return on investment in three months.”

For example, Marsh explains that if it typically takes four or five hours to clean with a 20-inch scrubber, a customer can get a bigger machine that costs more, but it will clean the same amount of square footage in two hours.

Examining the overall cost of a floor care program is important. “Don’t try to save money on a smaller or inferior scrubber,” Van Dusen cautions. “Use the right tools so that the job can be done efficiently and with the desired result. Remember 85 percent to 95 percent of any cleaning budget is labor.”

Schaffer agrees that end users often suffer “sticker shock” when they see the price of some autoscrubbers. “The distributor must emphasize that the increase in worker productivity can more than offset the cost of the machine,” he says.

When speculating about the future of automatic scrubbers, manufacturers agree that current trends will persist, with smaller, quieter, greener machines that continue to enhance productivity and safety while at the same time reduce costs.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.