Chemical Free Cleaning: A Balancing Act

Some cleaning experts have indicated the next step in Green cleaning is using no chemicals at all, referred to as chemical-free cleaning. One of the strongest proponents of chemical-free cleaning is Vince Elliott. In his book Extreme Green Cleaning,* Elliott writes that the professional cleaning industry is moving beyond conventional or Green cleaning chemicals to emerging technologies that use plain tap water instead.

The key benefit of chemical-free cleaning is that it has essentially no impact on the environment. No chemicals—Green or otherwise—are used in the process. Elliott argues that even though Green cleaning chemicals are safer for users and the environment, “they still are chemicals. The typical [American] office building is using approximately 1,600 pounds of these chemicals each year, dumping about six billion pounds of chemicals into our environment annually.”

Further, Elliott says chemical-free cleaning systems leave surfaces with no chemical residue, which can ultimately attract more soils and contaminants. In addition, they are better for indoor air quality because no chemical fumes are released into the air. He mentions the following examples of chemical-free cleaning systems that are making headway in the professional cleaning industry:

• Spray-and-vac cleaning systems are also known as no-touch cleaning systems. Although they can be and often are used with cleaning chemicals, these systems use pressurized water to loosen and remove soils, which are then vacuumed up.
• Activated water systems use electrical currents to turn tap water into cleaner/sanitizer.
• Electrolyzed water systems are used for scrubbing and cleaning floors.**
• Commercial-grade vapor or steam cleaning systems heat water to approximately 248 degrees (F), more than 120 degrees hotter than tap water; these systems are used for cleaning tile and grout as well as eradicating bedbugs.

“Chemical-free cleaning may have caught some people by surprise because it has been evolving so slowly,” says Elliott. “But it is here and growing and will prove to be one of the most significant trends in our industry in years to come.”

Pros and Cons
Many in the professional cleaning industry agree with Elliott. For instance, Stephen Ashkin, long known as “the father of Green cleaning,” believes that in the future, more jansan manufacturers will introduce innovative, “breakthrough” technologies, many of which are just now in the testing and research stages.
And many end users that have experience with chemical-free cleaning systems agree. For instance, Rose Galera, a cleaning consultant and owner of Clean Plus Systems II (CPS II) in Hawaii, is enthusiastic about chemical-free cleaning and advocates its use in “all schools, preschools, and K–12.”

However, Jeff McGee, Assistant Director Building Services with the University of Maryland, says chemical-free cleaning will be more accepted once certain issues are addressed. “The challenge that I see is the ability of the ‘chemical-free’ device to demonstrate that it is working effectively. How do we know, for instance, that the chemical-free system has actually sanitized a surface? That it has thoroughly cleaned a floor surface?”
He reports that he has experienced difficulty “convincing and selling others” that at least some of these systems can clean and sanitize. Further, he has reservations about the amount of water some of these systems use.

A Chemical Manufacturer’s Perspective
If chemical-free cleaning becomes more and more popular and proves effective, the day may come when cleaning chemicals—Green or conventional—may be less necessary and in many cases not necessary at all. This idea may be difficult for some chemical manufacturers to consider, so we asked one, Mike Sawchuk, former Vice President of Marketing and General Manager of Enviro-Solutions, which makes Green cleaning chemicals, his thoughts on the matter.

“End customers and end users are looking for healthier ways to clean, so for that reason alone, I do believe, chemical-free cleaning methods will grow in years to come,” says Sawchuk. “However, the growth will be uneven, and cleaning chemicals will always play a significant role in the professional cleaning industry.”
Sawchuk believes that some scrubbers that use electrolyzed water will be used more frequently and will become more popular, as will spray-and-vac cleaning systems as well as steamers. “But some [chemical-free cleaning] systems have significant drawbacks.

For instance, some are quite costly to purchase, are battery operated and must be recharged frequently, are not ergonomically friendly, and some [chemical-free] floorcare machines are best suited for ‘light-duty’ cleaning, not heavy-duty cleaning.”

Where and When
While it appears the jury is still out among some manufacturers as to how effective chemical-free cleaning systems are and how much they will impact the professional cleaning industry, there does seem to be some agreement, at least among end users now using chemical-free systems, as to where they work best. Most enthusiastic is Galera, who believes they can be used just about anywhere including in schools, hotel guest rooms, offices, and long-term-care centers. But, she says, they should not be used to clean high-risk areas such as restrooms, kitchens, and some floors that must be disinfected.

McGee says his crew has found the best results using chemical-free cleaning systems in lobbies and elevators and on glass, steel, and some stainless steel surfaces as well as some desktops and floor coverings “if the proper machine is utilized and [there is] assured efficacy.” However, he agrees with Galera that restrooms, oily surfaces, and what he calls “high-water areas” such as showers, tubs, and pools are best cleaned using traditional methods with chemicals.

While chemical-free cleaning may not become the “biggest thing since sliced bread,” as the expression goes, it will likely continue to grow in the professional cleaning industry. However, Ashkin likely sums it up best saying that chemical-free cleaning involves trade-offs, some of which the end user will ultimately have to grapple with and justify.

“No-chemical cleaning means little or no environmental impact, less packaging making it more sustainable cleaning, and potentially safer cleaning as well. However, it still must perform, it may use more water, and the products may be more costly and even harder to use. [The pros and cons make it] a balancing act, but one way or another chemical-free cleaning will play a bigger role in our industry in years to come.”

Robert Kravitz is a writer for the cleaning and related industries.

* Publisher: The Chemical Free Cleaning Network; First edition (September 23, 2010)

**With these systems, a small electrical charge is passed through tap water producing two ionized solutions with negative and positive charges, respectively. The alkaline or negatively-charged stream applied to surfaces functions as a mild all-purpose cleaner while the acidic or positively-charged stream acts as a sanitizer ~~~ Allen P. Rathey president of InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc.