When scrubbing a kitchen floor, it doesn't make much sense to use a toothbrush. And when vacuuming a 40,000-square foot facility, chances are an upright vacuum cleaner is not the best tool for the job.

Choosing equipment commensurate with the cleaning task is a no-brainer — whether cleaning a kitchen floor or a gymnasium floor. For vacuuming large, open facilities with wide hallways — think convention centers, airports, schools, hospitals, office buildings — there's no substitute for ride-on or stand-on sweeper vacuums, say jan/san distributors. The proof is in the efficiency.

"Walk-behind sweeper vacuums are nice," says Vince Sortino, vice president of sales for Warminster, Pa.-based Philip Rosenau Co., Inc. "But you always find that people prefer riding, and you're going to get an extra 10 to 15 percent production — maybe even more — out of a ride-on."

Ryan Myers, vice president of Myers Supply, Little Rock, Ark., estimates that a wide-area walk-behind sweeper vacuum can clean 5,000 to 6,000-square feet an hour, whereas a ride-on sweeper vacuum cleaner can clean up to 40,000-square feet an hour.

"You're looking at a lot of labor savings. And the machine is going to pay for itself pretty quickly," he says.

Rapid ROI

Just as labor and time savings can motivate customers to purchase a ride-on sweeper vacuum, return on investment can be an important selling point for distributors, particularly when dealing with customers that are hesitant to shell out $10,000-plus for a ride-on machine.

As budgets remain tight, many companies are hesitant to spend their money on major equipment.

"Most people are holding back on buying large rider equipment once you get over that $6,000 mark," says Myers.

Sortino adds that ride-on sweeper vacuum sales in 2010 were not great thanks to the economy. But Philip Rosenau Co. has had some measure of success selling ride-on equipment to customers that are focusing on reducing their staff.

"Generally, contract cleaners' customers are squeezing them to reduce or hold their costs," says Sortino. "So, instead of using an upright or even a wide-area vacuum with a cord, they're using a sweeper vacuum to eliminate hours or even people from a building — depending on the size of the facility."

Companies that switch from a manual operation, such as an 18-inch upright vacuum, to a ride-on sweeper vacuum can begin to see a return on their investment in as little as three to six months, Sortino adds.

And for customers that are still deliberating about whether or not they can afford a ride-on sweeper vacuum, distributors recommend demonstrating where and how the machine can save them money in the long run.

Teresa Farmer, green program specialist for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Kelsan Inc., says she has seen several customers that try to avoid spending money on ride-on sweeper vacuums — even though it would be more appropriate for their facilities and cleaning tasks.

One customer in particular, a school system, was doing a lot of manual cleaning. Farmer assessed the facility, taking into consideration the type of facility, the square footage, the cleaning tasks and frequency, and determined that the school district was short three custodians.

"We sat down and looked at the cost of new equipment that can actually compensate for the lack of employees vs. the cost of going out and hiring another person," explains Farmer.

The school system found that it was more cost effective to purchase ride-on equipment — and easier to approve than hiring an additional employee.

"Labor costs are easily about 8 percent of a budget, so any time we can save our customer money by reducing labor costs, that usually gives them a pretty good return on their investment," says Farmer.

Selling Points

Newer ride-on sweeper vacuums have come a long way since its forerunner, the ride-on sweeper. With the latest technology and HEPA filtration, ride-on sweeper vacuums have become efficient units for vacuuming large, indoor carpeted facilities.

"The products on the market now are true vacuums," says Sortino. "Originally, they were sweepers designed for hard surface, warehouse-type areas. Now, with the increased amount of filtration in the vacuum system, they're suitable for indoor carpeted flooring."

Battery technology has also improved over the past 10 years, allowing for longer run times.

"In years past, you'd only get 45 minutes to an hour run time for riding sweepers," says Sortino. "With some of the newer battery technology you can get three-plus hours run time, making them more user-friendly." Additionally, Sortino has noticed a move away from lead acid batteries that require regular maintenance to AGM and gel batteries that are maintenance-free.

Oversized buildings with thousands of square feet of carpeting stand to gain the most from ride-on sweeper vacuums — but customers need to look beyond facility size when considering a ride-on unit.

"If you have facilities with 30- or 36-inch-wide hallways, it's certainly more productive to use a battery-powered sweeper vacuum," says Sortino. "It does a better job, it's got a heavier brush, it lifts the pile up better, and it covers a much larger area in less time."

Similarly, Farmer encourages customers to evaluate their building's design when weighing their vacuum options.

"We look at the type of facility and the type of space," she says. "If it's an enclosed or tight area, it doesn't make sense to have a ride-on sweeper vacuum. But if it's open and has to be cleaned daily or often, it definitely makes sense to purchase a ride-on machine."

One of Kelsan's customers purchased a ride-on machine to vacuum a 400,000-square foot office building.

"They had a large amount of open, carpeted area with cubicles, large hallways, and a huge entryway," says Farmer. "In this case, they had so much carpeted area that they had to clean every day, so it made sense for them to purchase a ride-on sweeper vacuum because of the time savings it afforded."

The Right Fit

Once a customer has assessed the size and layout of the facility, it's time to focus on the size of the equipment itself.

"The distributor should evaluate a facility to make sure the equipment is the right size for what they're doing," says Sortino. "If it's too big or not maneuverable enough, it won't get used. And if it's too small, the customer won't get the productivity out of it."

And don't overlook accessibility: Will the unit fit in an elevator? Does it meet the elevator's weight limit? Will it fit through the doorways?

"I've seen some customers buy a machine, and they try to get it on the second floor, and it won't fit through the door," says Myers, "If you've got ramps it needs to go up, make sure it's capable of climbing steep inclines because some of them won't go above a 10 or 15 degree grade."

Customers also need to ensure that they have adequate storage space.

"I've had customers build facilities, like gyms, without closets to keep the equipment in," says Sortino. "So it sits in the hallway and things get damaged. It's not a good situation."

Finally, consider who will be operating the machine, and make sure they're properly trained.

"Choose equipment that's fairly simple to operate," advises Farmer, "and focus on the safety features. We try to make sure custodians understand the importance of operating the product safely and maintaining that piece of equipment because it's a big investment."

Despite ride-on and stand-on equipment's hefty price tag, distributors are confident that they can lead to significant savings — even in a sluggish economy.

"With all the pressure of budgets being squeezed, equipment really is the only way to save money," says Sortino. "It's a front-end investment, but in the long run it's going to save more labor, and that's where the real costs lie."

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