A re-engineered way to clean

Water-based technologies are making green cleaning greener

by Robert Kravitz — Originally published in the June 2016 issue of ISSA

In early 2013, administrators at Boston’s Logan International Airport issued a directive to its cleaning service provider that its workers were to only use the least harmful, most environmentally friendly cleaning products and procedures possible when maintaining the facility. A few months later, the cleaners were also instructed to also use the most sustainable cleaning products and practices possible.

All About Reduction

In summary, engineered water technology:

  • Reduces the cost of cleaning and sanitizing supplies.
  • Reduces the number of products used for cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Reduces employees’ exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Reduces a facility’s carbon footprint.
  • Reduces chemical residue on surfaces.
  • Reduces the need for training of multiple cleaning solutions.

In most cases, and certainly if these directives had been issued 10 or 15 years ago, the cleaning service provider would just assume this meant switching to green-certified cleaning solutions. These products have been tested to have a reduced impact on the environment—ideally making them less harmful. And some green-certified cleaning solutions are made using renewable resources so they often offer sustainable advantages as well.

However, this cleaning service decided to take a different course of action and began using what is currently referred to in the professional cleaning industry as an “engineered water” cleaning system. The type they selected for the Boston airport was aqueous ozone, which creates ozone through the interaction of electricity and oxygen that is then infused into water. Like most other forms of engineered water, the system generates active ingredients on site, which manufacturers say, reduces the use of harmful chemicals, promotes sustainability, and is easy to use. Although this has not always been the case, it also appears some engineered water cleaning systems can produce effective cleaning results as well as possible cost-savings when compared with conventional chemicals. But one thing is certain: The systems are finding a definite niche in the professional cleaning industry.

What is “Engineered Water”?

The term used to describe these water-based systems—and there are a few different models—has been evolving over recent years. Originally, cleaning without the use of added chemicals was referred to as “chemical-free” cleaning. Most likely this was the result of a book published in 2010 called Extreme Green Cleaning by Vincent Elliot. The book suggests that there are many ways to effectively clean surfaces without the use of chemicals. While we are unsure if Elliot actually coined the term, his book certainly made the words “chemical-free cleaning” a key part of the lingo in the professional cleaning industry.

However, as more non-chemical cleaning technologies were introduced, the name no longer seemed accurate. So because most of these technologies, in one way or another, convert water into a cleaning agent—the systems are “re-engineering” plain water into a cleaning agent—the term engineered water was adopted. This change in terminology is also a good thing because technically, according to Allen Rathey from the Healthy House Institute, when you refer to “electrolyzed water” and “ozonated water” (aka, aqueous ozone) “chemical free” is a misnomer since the first process uses tap water to which an electrolyte (e.g., salt) has been added or is in the water before electrolysis, and ozonated water is tap water infused with ozone. Thus, both output solutions are chemical solutions generated on-site, but these solutions are considered to not be harmful.

In addition to aqueous ozone, other technologies falling under the engineered-water heading include:

Electrolyzed water

This term can apply to different but related technologies, all of which are based on the principles of physics and electrical engineering. According to forensic sanitarian Dr. Robert W. Powitz, these systems work by applying a small amount of electricity to water after adding an electrolyte such as pure sodium chloride (salt) which “breaks down the water’s molecules, lowering its natural surface tension and creating positively and negatively charged water ions.” In this electrolyzed form, it comes into contact with soils and “the charged ions in the water attach to the soil and help lift it from the surface,” (Food Safety Magazine, August/September 2010). The process creates two streams, one is alkaline for general-purpose cleaning, and one is slightly acidic for sanitizing or disinfecting. These streams are then split for separate dispensing and application.

The electrolyzing process can also increase the alkalinity of the water, which further enhances its cleaning ability. Manufacturers of automatic floor scrubbers were among the first companies to use forms of this technology. While there has been some concern that these systems may not work well for heavily soiled or greasy floors, for many day-to-day cleaning needs, they have proven effective.

Dry or vapor cleaning

Commercial-grade steam vapor (dry vapor) machines have been manufactured since the 1920s. “Commercial grade” refers to machines developed for professional cleaning that heat tap water to temperatures of 240 to 310 °F. This is far hotter than consumer steam vapor machines. About 10 years ago, the University of Washington tested a steam vapor system to clean restrooms and, according to American School & University (October 2006) ,hygienic improvements over other more traditional cleaning methods using chemicals were reported.

Spray-and-vac cleaning

While the developers of the no-touch (spray-and-vac) cleaning system do not recommend this equipment be used without cleaning solutions, disinfectants, or sanitizers, tests have found that the equipment can effectively clean, sanitize, and disinfect surfaces using just plain water in many cases.

We mentioned earlier that engineered water is currently the accepted term for reduced-chemical cleaning systems. Recently, however, some leaders in the professional cleaning industry suggest a more accurate term might be “on-site generation” of cleaning solutions. The reasoning behind this is that many of these systems can produce a cleaning solution “on-site and on demand,” according to Mike Draper, CEO of CleanCore Technologies, “essentially being put to use wherever the cleaning professional is working at the time.”

Winners & Losers

Earlier we mentioned that some engineered-water cleaning technologies have proven successful while others have not. The reasons for this vary. In some cases, although initially proving successful in the marketplace, a “losing” system proved too costly, had engineering issues causing malfunctions, produced unstable results due to variations in the water’s mineral content, or just did not prove to be an effective cleaning technology for today’s cleaning professional. An example of this are some hand-held units introduced with hotel and hospital cleaning workers in mind; they proved to be heavy, making them hard for cleaning workers to operate. Plus, they had to be recharged and refilled with water frequently, slowing cleaning operations. Another factor that

On the other hand, aqueous ozone has proven successful. Recently researchers at the University of Omaha reported that their tests of an aqueous ozone cleaning system indicated it was able to effectively clean surfaces and rid them of contaminants. More specifically, the university researchers concluded there was “a statistically significant decrease in E. coli and Listeria colony forming units (CFUs) found on the [treated areas]” after cleaning with the aqueous ozone system.

“Aqueous ozone has been used to safely and effectively clean and treat water in parts of the world since the early 1900s,” says Draper. “Because of this, these results should not prove surprising.”

Besides aqueous based models, another winner appears to be some of the systems that rely on electrolysis of augmented water as these are seeming to prove effective with at least one system offering a 120-day shelf life on the cleaning stream and 30 days on the disinfecting side, Rathey says.

What’s Ahead

If asked whether engineered-water or on-site generation cleaning systems will eliminate the need for cleaning solutions, the answer is no. However, if asked whether engineered-water or onsite-generation cleaning systems will play a bigger role in professional cleaning, the answer is yes. “There will always be a need for cleaning chemicals,” Draper said. “But on-site generation cleaning systems are playing a bigger role in professional cleaning.”

In addition to these systems proving effective at cleaning, other benefits are surfacing, most specifically sustainability. According to Stephen Ashkin of The Ashkin Group when most engineered-water or on-site generation systems are used, there are no chemicals that must be packaged, no fuel necessary to deliver the chemicals, nor is there waste, making these systems not only a greener—and we hope as more studies are done far healthier—cleaning alternative but also a sustainable one.

Additionally, manufacturers appear to be improving engineered water technologies. These improvements, along with the increase in end customers selecting engineered-water cleaning systems, are driving down the cost of the technology. This helps improve the return on investment considerably for the cleaning professionals who select these systems.

When it comes to engineered water or on-site generation systems, the bottom line is that many systems are proving effective, are continually being improved, and are becoming an option in our quest to protect cleaning workers and keep facilities clean and healthy.

Kravitz,RobertRobert Kravitz is president of AlturaSolutions Communications, a PR/communications firm serving the janitorial and building industries. He may be reached through his company website at www.alturasolutions.com

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