Maintenance managers and their staff are on the front line of the battle to rid their facilities of poor indoor air quality (IAQ).
Pressure is mounting from building owners and occupants, concerned parents, government agencies, and environmental groups to change how we think about cleaning.
There are hundreds of variables at play, but a quality, high-efficiency vacuum cleaner is considered to be one of the most effective tools for achieving green standards of indoor cleanliness.
Environmental Protection Agency data show that indoor air pollutants are up to five times higher than outdoor levels.
Some studies have found that between school, work and home, people spend up to 90 percent of their time inside.
That makes for a very good chance of developing breathing disorders, such as asthma, or other illnesses and allergies.
Biological pollutants, such as bacteria, yeast, pollen, and fungal spores, lurk and thrive in every corner, especially in damp settings.
Vehicle emissions combine with volatile organic compound (VOC) pollutants, such as cleaning supply residue and emissions from office equipment.
Insulation and fabric fibers, sloughed skin, and decaying organic matter comprise much of the dust that accumulates on desks and in hallway corners.
These larger particulates can attract the aforementioned biological and VOC particles, giving these irritants another means to become airborne and reach the lungs.
If dust quickly gathers on surfaces or plumes out of drapery and upholstered chairs, it’s a good bet that your cleaning regimen is not working.
Setting the bar
Many builders and building managers are using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System as a guide to improving IAQ.
Certain baseline requirements must be met for consideration.
These include removing asbestos and PCBs, as well as controlling tobacco smoke.
Next is to evaluate the heating and ventilation system for optimal circulation and filtration for the building size, location and number of occupants.
Is enough outside air being circulated inside, and if so, is it prone to pollution?
Are there ways to limit those sources of pollution?
For instance, most schools don’t allow buses to idle while on the grounds.
Once these tasks are complete, establishing a comprehensive cleaning program will help ensure that indoor pollutants are kept in check.
A program such as Team Cleaning is a flexible and cost-effective system that groups tasks into four functions.
Employees are cross-trained on light duty, vacuuming, restroom cleanup, and utility tasks.
But, this coordinated effort can only be successful when using the right tool for the right job.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill conducted a study that compared two cleaning methods — Zone Cleaning with upright vacuums and Team Cleaning with backpack vacuums.
They measured airborne dust levels, fungal spore counts, bacteria levels and VOC emissions before and after cleaning.
Team Cleaning convincingly prevailed in the tests as hard floor dust levels dropped by half, carpet floor dust levels dropped by a factor of four, and fungal spore levels were reduced by 90 percent.
Very versatile vacuums
The facilities you manage are a diverse landscape of carpeted cubicles, laminate hallways, and desk-filled classrooms.
Your vacuum should adapt to the varying terrain.
Plus, the staff doing the cleaning should find them comfortable and easy to use.
An ideal vacuum is a combination of high-powered suction, an exceptional filtration system, and good ergonomics.
Larger facilities with a wide range of flooring types are well-suited for canister and backpack vacuums.
A study by ISSA’s Cleaning Times found that backpack vacuums clean 10,000 square feet per hour.
Canisters cleaned 3,000 square feet per hour and upright vacuums 2,850 square feet per hour.
If you are considering a backpack vacuum, look for models that are lightweight, have good weight distribution, and properly fit the members of your staff.
Repetitive motions over long shifts are a real issue and can lead to muscle fatigue and stress injuries.
Using backpack vacuums has helped to reduce the occurrence of these medical conditions.
To make the job even easier, some manufacturers have adjustable wands, a range of accessory kits, and an easy-access carrying belt at the waist for attachments.
Most uprights have a beater bar, so they are best suited to unseat dirt trapped in mid- to high-pile carpeting.
For sensitive areas where a high standard of cleanliness is necessary, uprights may not be the best choice since beater bars can throw more dirt into the air than a vacuum with straight suction.
Models with a floating powerhead automatically adjust to different flooring types, while others need to be manually adjusted.
Also, consider models that have a dual motor system — one powering the suction and the other turning the beater bar.
This technology improves performance over models with just one motor powering both mechanisms.
Further advancements in vacuum technology and accessories give you more to think about.
Some models have a quiet mode for daytime vacuuming that brings decibel levels down to 50 or less (as loud as conversational speaking).
Other options to look for are wall-mounted storage stations, power nozzles, full filter bag indicators, and air freshening agents.
A vacuuming plan is pointless if the machine you use allows the dirt it captures to escape.
With powerful motors that can achieve 100 to 150 cubic feet per minute of airflow and 75 to 100 inches of static lift, the vacuum should have a solidly built body and several levels of filtration to back that power up.
Quality filters can have up to eight layers to afford more surface area to collect particles — about 2,400 percent more than single-ply bags.
Some companies include further lines of defense like a micro cloth filter, a dome filter, and an exhaust filter.
And, lately, a lot of attention has been placed on HEPA-level filtration vacuums.
They are intended to remove a minimum of 99.97 percent of particles, .3 microns or larger, which can include smoke and carbon.
HEPA filters are a must in environments such as industrial clean rooms and asbestos cleanup projects, but are now making their way into buildings that seek optimal IAQ.
However, if the HEPA vacuum isn’t sealed by industry standards or the filter is improperly disposed of, it will not provide the benefits people expect.
Filters must be emptied and cleaned frequently.
Full filters restrict airflow, putting stress on the motor and reducing suction.
Some vacuums have a thermal protector device that automatically shuts off the motor if it overheats.
Given five to ten minutes to cool and a good filter cleaning, the vacuum can be turned on again.
The seal of approval
Look for companies that have put their products through testing, such as the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label program.
The CRI tests vacuums for filtration, soil removal levels and carpet appearance retention.
Since the launch of this test in 2000, CRI has certified more than 100 backpacks, canisters, central systems, and uprights.
Other third-party testing results that measure both airflow rates and extraction levels will be provided by some manufacturers.
Another way to measure the quality of a vacuum is the warranty provided.
A three-year warranty on parts, labor, and motor is a good standard to go by.
Added repair costs and time wasted waiting for replacement parts to be shipped significantly subtracts from the bottom line.
There are many factors when it comes to achieving a higher standard of indoor air quality.
Proper planning with your staff, building owners and the people who work, live, and learn in your facilities will help create a healthy indoor environment.
Dave Jansik is a freelance writer focusing on the JanSan industry. He resides in Boise, ID.