A Closer Look at Wastewater Management in Carpet Cleaning
When it comes to making carpet cleaning greener and more sustainable, cleaning professionals typically think of using environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals and implementing systems that ensure carpets dry quickly, minimizing or eliminating the possibility of mold, mildew, and bacteria growth. However, there is another aspect of carpet cleaning that can also have a big impact on the environment: the wastewater generated by carpet cleaning.
Most of today’s portable extractors used to clean homes and office buildings release approximately 1 to 1.5 gallons of water per minute. Typically, it takes about one hour to clean the carpets in an average-sized home, meaning 90-plus gallons of water are used. If a carpet cleaner services five or six homes a day, that amounts to approximately 500-plus gallons of water per day. Much of that water is disposed of as wastewater.
Carpet cleaning technicians often proudly show the customer how soiled this wastewater is as a way of demonstrating how effective the cleaning has been. But the technician and the customer are often unaware of just how contaminated that wastewater actually is. It often contains the following contaminants:
- Sand, bodily wastes (human and animal), gums, resins, petroleum, and carbon from automotive exhaust
- Highly alkaline chemicals and chemical enzymes (both used in the cleaning process)
- High levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Disinfectants (sometimes used in the cleaning process)
- High concentrations of sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, and/or sodium silicate (often found in carpet cleaning chemicals)
- Dyes, polymers, bleaches, a variety of solvents, esters, and forms of butyl (which dissolve or remove soils and brighten carpets)
In large concentrations, all of these ingredients are potentially toxic. They can be harmful to humans and can negatively affect the lives of insects and aquatic life if they are released into waterways without proper treatment. In some cases, they can even eventually get into the food chain. While many of these ingredients have been removed from green-certified carpet cleaning chemicals, some are still present in reduced amounts.
When we are reminded of just how many millions of gallons of water are used each day for carpet cleaning, the amount of potentially harmful soils and chemicals discharged in wastewater is considerable.
Dealing with Wastewater
Under the umbrella of the Clean Water Act of 1972, federal, state, and local government agencies have created a number of regulations dealing with how to properly dispose of wastewater—including water from carpet cleaning and other industries. These regulations generally forbid releasing wastewater into local waterways, creeks, rivers, or storm sewers. Many also forbid a practice known as “indirect” discharge. This refers to disposing of wastewater on land where it can eventually damage vegetation and soak into groundwater and wetlands.
Most carpet cleaning technicians are well aware of these rules and regulations as well as the stiff fines and penalties associated with violating them. As a result, most dispose of wastewater properly. However, the problem of improper or illegal discharging of wastewater persists in carpet cleaning as well as other industries.
Fortunately, new technologies are doing a great deal to help. For instance, one way the carpet cleaning industry is addressing this issue is to develop carpet cleaning technologies that use less water. Some systems are now available that use less than a gallon of water per minute. Additionally, and what is an even bigger step forward, portable carpet extractors are now being manufactured that actually filter and recycle water and cleaning solution several times before they must be discharged as waste. These systems can reduce wastewater significantly.
The industry is also taking steps to educate its members regarding proper disposal of wastewater and the reasons behind these laws and regulations, as well as the need to select green carpet cleaning products and systems. These changes will make the industry greener and, at the same time, protect the health of both people and the planet.
Doug Berjer has written extensively on cleaning, carpet cleaning, and water conservation issues. He has worked for a large jansan distributorship in St. Louis, Missouri, as the equipment specialist and has also worked as the operations manager for a large building service contractor that specialized in servicing shopping malls and anchor store retailers throughout North America. Berjer is now brand manager for CFR, a manufacturer of carpet care equipment.
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