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Steam vapor sanitation: A better method for hard surfaces

September 19, 2010
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Steam vapor sanitation enables cleaning hard and porous surfaces more thoroughly than conventional methods — which helps improve appearance, indoor air quality and safety — while minimizing chemical use and labor costs.

A steam vapor system facilitates applying low-pressure (15 to 20 psi) steam ranging from 215 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit through a set of insulated tools to sanitize, clean and deodorize various surfaces.

Steam sterilization used in autoclaving requires 250 to 258 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period to destroy all living organisms, including spores.

Potent, safe sanitizing
Heat has been proven to sanitize, disinfect and even sterilize objects and is the most well-known germ-killing agent.

According to researchers at the University of Sioux Falls, moist heat provides the advantage of rapid penetration to facilitate protein coagulation, which kills microbial organisms.

Moist heat also has the ability to break down and destroy biofilms, which are protective coatings of bacteria-generated slime that enable germs to resist standard disinfectants.

Trapping steam
The surface temperatures achieved through the use of a steam vapor system are developed by holding the tool close to or in contact with the surface to be sanitized, confining the low-pressure steam to a localized area.

This maximizes the energy (heat) carried by the steam vapor and minimizes the need for scrubbing.

When the steam vapor is free to expand into the atmosphere, it cools rapidly as it leaves the tool orifice.

This fact is important to note as it relates to ease of use and control as well as operator safety.

Because the steam is saturated, it contains very little water, only 5 to 6 percent, enough to affect emulsification of grease, oils and all types of surface soils.

This makes a little water go a long way — the system will consume between one and one and a half quarts of water per hour of use.

Meeting the mold challenge
Steam vapor penetrates deep into surfaces where typical cleaning methods cannot reach.

Superheated steam, by definition, provides a fine water mist that carries energy in the form of heat.

Compared to other methods, this heat penetrates far deeper into porous areas, such as grout substrates, to remove mold as well as surface soils that feed mold.

Results are visibly superior and prevent the return of the mold for up to six to eight weeks.

This mold-free period can be extended almost indefinitely with quick periodic cleaning, using the system on a regular basis.

As an added bonus, toxic or offensive chemicals are not needed and harmful exposures are minimized.

Unlike strong chemical treatments, steam vapor sanitation will not damage the substrate.

In fact, the surface will be easier to clean in the future because the surface is not degraded.

Caulk restoration
Another substance that is also often difficult to treat is caulk.

This is not cementious grout, but an elastomeric compound often used to seal cracks and transition areas of one surface to another.

Some caution must be used when applying steam to caulking surfaces since too much heat will completely remove the caulk.

This is especially true if the surface was not completely clean before its application.
A dirty surface will adversely affect the bonding of the caulk as well as promote mold growth within the material itself.

Pros and cons
In case studies where steam vapor systems have been used, in such settings as health care, hospitality, university and school environments, results have been positive.

Users report that these systems are easy to use, reduce chemical use, produce visually better results compared to traditional cleaning methods, offer less call backs, and reduce labor times.

Equipment cost amortized over a five-year (conservative) lifespan, including wear and tear, is less than $1.50 per day.

Other considerations, such as reduced water consumption, reduced workers’ compensation claims, improved worker morale, improved indoor environmental quality, less facility degradation through misuse/abuse of chemical cleaners, less possible future liability pertaining to MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), and other chemical exposure can also be achieved by professional cleaning operations.


Rick Hoverson is a steam vapor system consultant and principal of Advanced Vapor Technologies, Edmonds, WA.

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