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Not all steam is created equal

September 19, 2010
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The popularity that steam vapor and steam vapor machines have long enjoyed throughout Europe is rapidly gaining momentum in the U.S., particularly as more and more attention is being paid to green cleaning methodologies and the potential hazards that exist when cleaning with solvents and other chemicals.

It''s important to understand the fundamental principles involved in using steam vapor technology effectively.

Don''t be misled
There is no shortage of videos and infomercials on television showing off the apparent ease and versatility of various units ("just aim, pull the trigger and voila!"), but these can be misleading.

Quite often, the television demonstrations have a model or actor holding the nozzle one or even two feet away from the kitchen or other surface; when they engage the steam, the grease and grime melt away almost instantly.

Steam vapor does not work that way.

This is not a high-pressure cleaning system.

In order to be effective, the steam must be trapped at the surface of the area to be cleaned.

For this to occur, the tool must be in very close proximity to the surface, not held a foot or more away from the intended target.

To keep the steam trapped, microfiber or terrycloth towels often enclose the cleaning head; brush arrangements also exist that trap the steam at the surface in a similar manner.

When the steam is trapped, it allows both the heat to be concentrated at the surface and penetration by the steam into the surface''s pores.

When the steam is not trapped and the heat is allowed to dissipate immediately, penetration is not as deep and cleaning is not as effective.

Steam stands alone
Some units incorporate a vacuum feature designed to vacuum away the soil dissolved by the steam vapor.

While a logical premise, in practice, this offsets the steam vapor''s efficacy.

If the point is to trap the steam to let it work and maximize effectiveness, having a vacuum working at the same time can only serve to negate that point.

While it may remove visible soils, microscopic bacteria and soils embedded in the surface often still remain.

This is especially evident when cleaning a grouted surface compromised by mold since the steam does not have the chance to penetrate deep into the grout to destroy the mold mycelia or "root system."

A more thorough "kill" is achieved with steam-only units.

Vacuuming also adds another level of complexity to the overall system.

Another tank must be emptied and cleaned and the vacuum itself must be properly maintained or else the operator risks downtime from malfunctioning equipment.

Giving the operator the ability to control the pressure is also important for maximum results.

Control offers more versatility and effectiveness; many lower-end units comprise only a boiler, a hose and a nozzle, with no way for the operator to assert control over the pressure being employed, resulting in uneven coverage and lowered efficacy.

The best pressure controls, however, are next to useless if the operator has not been properly trained on how to use them.

Manufacturer and distributor support is often the deciding factor between fully realizing the potential of a piece of equipment and having an expensive "paperweight" that gathers dust in a corner of the equipment closet.

When price is the primary consideration, the cliché "you get what you pay for" is often borne out.

Some units purchased through infomercials or similar venues do come with demonstration videos that can be helpful, but they are really no substitute for the hands-on and personalized training available directly through a manufacturer or distributor.

Know your technology
As with training, not all steam is created equal.

There is a relatively simple process — originally developed to prevent scale from building up in boilers — that takes the minerals found in tap water and encourages the formation of micro-crystals.

When the water transforms into super-heated, low-moisture steam, these crystals accelerate to help disrupt the cell membranes of the microbes on the surface being cleaned, making them more sensitive to moist heat.

While steam is an effective disinfectant — hospital autoclaves use steam to sterilize equipment and other objects — testing has shown that steam produced by this particular process kills microbes, including the notoriously resistant Clostridium difficile (C. diff).

Steam vapor continues to make inroads in residential, commercial and industrial cleaning.

This eco-friendly, chemical-free technology is already being used in the food and engineering industries as well as the environmental sector in situations from reconditioning machinery to weapon and aircraft cleaning.

The growing awareness and demand by consumers for cleaner, greener methods proven to eradicate microbes and remove soils can only serve to raise the profile of steam vapor technology.

Rick Hoverson is the principal of Advanced Vapor Technologies, Edmonds, WA.

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