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Chemical-Free Floor Care

Floor care — specifically stripping and refinishing floors — poses many challenges for building administrators. First, it’s costly. This is due to the fact that it is typically both time- and labor-intensive. It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of the cost of floor care is attributable to labor costs, and as such it can be one of the most costly of cleaning tasks.

For sustainable facilities, stripping and refinishing floors can also cause the kinds of significant environmental impacts that administrators try to avoid. One of the biggest concerns is the actual chemical stripper that is used to remove old finish and soils from floors. Traditional floor stripping chemicals are among the most powerful — and potentially harmful — cleaning agents in existence.

According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, conventional floor finish typically contains butoxyethanol, sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), and ethanolamine in varying degrees. All of these chemicals can be corrosive to eyes and skin and harmful if inhaled. Risks increase if they are used improperly or an accident occurs.

Further, butoxyethanol can be absorbed through the skin, potentially damaging the blood, liver, and kidneys. Because of these and other chemical ingredients, the slurry that typically results when stripping a floor is considered to be so potentially harmful that cleaning workers in California can no longer pour it down drains. Instead, it must be placed in sealed containers and delivered to a hazardous waste location.

While green-certified floor strippers are now available, their performance does not always match those of their conventional counterparts. And if a green stripper performs poorly, more time and effort is needed to finish the task, causing costs to go up.

One way building administrators, especially those operating their facilities in an environmentally responsible manner, can address this issue is to use a different type of floor machine. The conventional floor machines that have been used since the 1930s (if not longer) are rotary-style machines. With these models, stripper is first applied to the floor. Then a stripping pad is attached to the floor machine, and this pad is rotated in a circular fashion on the floor. As it rotates, its abrasive action, along with the effectiveness of the stripper, removes layers of finish and soils, which then accumulate on the pad. As the pad is used, it becomes less and less effective and therefore must be replaced, often frequently, during the floor stripping process.

However, a rather new technology (or at least new to the United States) known as cylindrical brush floor machines is now available from some cleaning industry manufacturers. Instead of a rotating pad, these machines have cylindrical rollers that roll instead of rotating. Finish and soils are pulled off the floor and, due to centrifugal force, do not accumulate on the rollers. The result is that the rollers stay cleaner and more effective than conventional pads, speeding up the cleaning process and reducing the costs of stripping a floor. (Cylindrical brush floor machines have been used in Europe and other parts of the world for more than 20 years. They work well cleaning the kinds of older, uneven floors that are often encountered in older facilities in Europe.)

There are considerable environmental benefits to using cylindrical brush technology as well. These machines have greater contact pressure on the floor — for instance, two 16-inch cylindrical brushes exert about five pounds of down-force, as much as 15 times the amount of down-force of rotary machines. This means the machine does more of the actual work. Because of this, some cleaning experts report that these machines can strip floors successfully with no chemicals at all.

Chemical-free cleaning is a growing phenomenon in the professional cleaning industry, regardless of the cleaning task being performed. Further, chemical-free cleaning is the ultimate in green cleaning because it has very little impact on the environment. With floor care, this is all the more significant because floor strippers are such powerful cleaning agents.

An additional green benefit of these machines is that roller brushes last considerably longer than pads–as much as 100 times longer by some estimates. This results in considerably less waste, something green building administrators are always concerned about.

Daniel Frimml is Technical Service Coordinator at Tornado Industries, manufacturers of professional cleaning equipment.

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