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Chemicals / Safety
December 2013 Feature 2

A Proactive Approach To Emergency Cleanup

Preparation and safety steps can help businesses, offices, schools and other facilities recover faster.

December 06, 2013
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Many times, while watching the news on television about a terrible storm, flood or hurricane, we think to ourselves, “That’s terrible, but it can’t happen here.”

It may be time for all of us to change our mind-sets because in the past few years we have had major weather events and natural disasters in some of the most unexpected areas.

Businesses, like the general public, tend to take a reactive approach to major weather events, dealing with them as they come.

However, taking a proactive position can make the cleanup operation easier and can help get businesses, offices, schools and other facilities up and running faster.

This is where cleaning professionals come in.

In most cases, cleaning and restoration crews will be some of the first to start dealing with the aftermath of a storm, and their level of preparation can have a significant impact on the cleanup efforts.

“The first step in the process is to have a plan,” says Debby Davis, product manager for Powr-Flite, a manufacturer of professional cleaning and restoration equipment. “Some sort of emergency preparedness plan can help minimize loss and get things up and running as soon as possible.”

According to Davis, a proactive emergency preparedness plan specific to contract cleaners and other cleaning professionals should include such things as the following:

  • A complete telephone list of all custodial workers for the facility or who can be called on for cleanup operations.
  • An extra set of customer keys and alarm codes stored in a safe place away from a facility so they are accessible should the facility be damaged by the storm.
  • Staffs should be trained in CPR and first aid and have an emergency medical kit readily available.
  • Cleaning tools, chemicals, equipment, battery chargers and similar items stored in a safe location and off the ground so they are not water damaged. (Cleaning contractors often have spare equipment handy to replace tools or equipment that needs service; these tools will come in handy in an emergency.)
  • Advise cleaning workers that remaining calm and not overexerting themselves will help make the cleanup operation less stressful, more effective and much smoother overall.

Equipment Needs

“There are two items that every cleaning professional needs to have on hand for a proactive emergency preparedness plan — an efficient wet/dry vac and powerful air movers,” says Davis. “Fortunately, these tools can also be used for nonemergency cleaning, so contractors do not have to select them just for an emergency.”

Regarding wet/dry vacs, Davis suggests avoiding systems available in hardware stores or at mega-retailers.

“Typically these are designed for home use; they simply will not hold up to commercial use or generate the power necessary especially in a disaster.”

Instead, she recommends selecting machines that have the following attributes:

  • Stainless steel construction with 15- to 20-gallon capacity; the units should have a “tip and pour” design or drain hose to quickly remove wastewater.
  • A motor and motor bearings with shields to protect the system’s vacuum motors. Moisture and soil in the bearings is the main cause of motor failure.
  • A 1.6 HP to 2.5 HP motor to tackle flood conditions.
  • A 360-degree hose rotation to ensure flexibility.
  • A multistage filtration system so that contaminants are not released into the air.

“As for air movers, bigger is not always better. In fact it may not be the best option in an emergency,” Davis says. “Some air movers are small but surprisingly powerful and can be stacked or placed on a daisy chain for extra drying power.”

The reason a smaller system may be preferable in an emergency, according to Davis, is that they are lighter, easier to carry and may demand less electricity.

“Adequate electrical power is often a problem after a major weather event,” she says.

Chemical Considerations

Another issue cleaning professionals should be proactive about is some basic knowledge about cleaning chemical safety.

“Unfortunately, what often happens in emergency cleanup situations is that some cleaning professionals may inadvertently grab whatever cleaning chemicals are available,” says Paul M. Wildenberg, national sales manager for Charlotte Products/Enviro-Solutions. “Some may not mix well or should not be used with other cleaning chemicals.”

Combining bleach and ammonia, for instance, can be deadly.

However, these are not the only chemical combinations that can be dangerous.

Others include the following:

  • Bleach and vinegar (vinegar is a form of acid)
  • Bleach and glass or window cleaner (glass cleaners may contain ammonia)
  • Bleach and chlorinated scouring powder
  • Drain cleaner and ammonia
  • Hydrogen peroxide and window cleaner
  • Bleach and chlorinated disinfectant.*

Wildenberg adds that there are other precautions cleaning professionals should take, such as:

  • Avoid mixing different brands of the same type of product. “While two cleaners may have the same purpose, they may have chemical ingredients that when mixed together produce toxins, fumes or cause the mixture to be ineffective.”
  • Properly dilute all chemicals.
  • If using cleaning chemicals stored in a janitorial closet, be sure they have not come in contact with each other. If there is a flood or water damage, mixed chemicals can release harmful fumes.
  • While hydrogen peroxide is often viewed as a safe cleaner/disinfectant, it should not be mixed with water or mixed with other chemicals and cleaners such as acidic cleaners (cleaners with a low pH, often used for removing rust and minerals from surfaces), bleach or disinfectants.
  • Be careful using reducing and oxidizing agents, often used to clean carpets, upholstery and fabrics, in emergency restoration situations. Inhalation of these agents can result in burning and lesions in the throat and accidental contact can cause damage to the skin and eyes.
  • Avoid mixing cleaning agents with hot water; this can release potentially harmful fumes.
  • Wear personal protective clothing such as electrically insulated boots, cut-resistant gloves, goggles, protective headgear and long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

“It’s a wise idea to also have an industrial concentrated cleaner available for emergency cleanup,” Wildenberg says. “A concentrated industrial cleaner can go further and some can be used for a variety of cleaning tasks, from pressure washing and floor scrubbing to cleaning carpets.”

The Aftermath

While reports vary, according to the American Red Cross as many as 40 percent of small businesses do not reopen after a major disaster such as a flood or hurricane.

Often this is because they were caught unprepared for the disaster, as were the cleanup crews they turned to.

Don’t let this be one of your customers.

Develop an emergency plan so you are prepared for an emergency, to protect not only your own business but your customer’s business and your community as well.

*Although bleach requires extra care to be taken, it can be a very effective cleaning agent when used properly.


Katherine Pickett is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. She can be reached at

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