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August 2014 A Clean Sweep

Keeping The McWane Science Center Clean

How environmental services keeps this unique facility safe for visitors, staff and aquatic animals.

July 31, 2014
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Over the past year, the redevelopment of Birmingham, Alabama’s, downtown area has generated positive press for the city.

As new parks, restaurants, breweries and venues have opened, magazines and news websites have reported on the resurgent city and its updated points of interest.

One of the earliest attractions to find its home in downtown Birmingham was the McWane Science Center.

The nonprofit museum opened in 1998, and it was built inside a refurbished building that used to house a Loveman’s department store.

A Full Tour

Phillip Moore, Director of Facilities for the McWane Science Center, explains that the museum has four floors, and each is home to a different type of exhibit or use.

The museum’s lowest level includes an aquarium as well as school lunchrooms and a vending area.

Next, the first floor is composed of the grand lobby, the IMAX Dome Theater entrance, a small food court style café, the Adventure Halls section with multiple exhibits and the museum’s store, Cool Stuff.

Currently, the second floor is home to an Alabama dinosaurs exhibit, and a new children’s museum area is under construction there as well.

Finally, traveling exhibits are set up on the third floor, and this level includes art and tech areas as well as an event center.

The museum’s environmental services team, lead by Environmental Services Manager Brian Ruffin, is responsible for the cleaning all the private and public areas in the science center.

This means the environmental services team regularly performs an array of cleaning activity: From cleaning up after special events and IMAX showings to vacuuming out the store and maintaining food court floors and trash cans.

For All Seasons

McWane Science Center’s — and the environmental service team’s — busiest time of the year is definitely spring due to frequent field trips and visiting school groups.

Moore estimates that McWane hosts anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a week, Monday through Friday; this total includes 4,000 to 6,000 school group visitors.

Weekend visitor counts in spring often depend on the weather.

The number of visitors decreases during the summer, but the facility hosts summer camps for campers in K5 through the eighth grade.

When fall weather arrives in late September and October, attendance picks up again.

For the winter holidays, McWane hosts a number of events and company parties, and the week between Christmas and New Years is especially busy with Birmingham families visiting the museum while school is out and offices are closed.

Why Cleaning Is So Important

“I tell all of Brian’s people, they are the first line of defense when it comes to the McWane Science Center,” Moore explains. “When people get off the parking deck elevator, they look at the lobby. Is the lobby clean? The next area is going to be the restrooms.”

Due to their location, one of the first places visitors go upon arrival is the lobby restroom.

“They don’t want to bring their families here or children here and go into a restroom that’s just not presentable and has an unhealthy appearance,” Moore states. “So we really, really stay focused on cleaning the restrooms.”

Ruffin says daily maintenance on the lobby restrooms is often more of a challenge because the restrooms are accessible to the general public as well as paid museum visitors.

Luckily, the center’s environmental services staff includes cleaning professionals with years of experience in the industry.

Ruffin manages four full-time and five part-time workers, and the full-time employees have several years of professional cleaning experience with the McWane Science Center or other organizations.

Of the five part-time workers, most of them also have full-time environmental service positions for another employer, according to Moore.

Since they work at the center in the evenings, some are able to work at schools, hospitals and a nearby sports arena during their off time.

The environmental services department can depend on the rest of the science center’s staff to help keep the facility clean as well.

“Everybody who works at the McWane Science Center is supposed to be an environmental services staff member to a certain extent,” Moore says.

This team effort means other employees often take the time to help keep the facility clean by wiping down wet restroom counters or picking up trash on the museum or theater floors.

Unique Concerns

As a science museum for children with hands-on displays and exhibits, infection control and cross-contamination prevention is a pressing concern.

Because of this, the environmental services team utilizes a no-rinse general sanitizer as part of its cleaning process.

After an area is cleaned using a cleaning solution, it is sprayed down with this non-toxic, no-rinse sanitizer.

Though the chemical’s touch and smell is similar to that of water, it effectively disinfects surfaces, according to Ruffin.

For high-traffic, hands-on areas like the museum’s play castle or sand enclosure, the environmental services team uses disinfecting foggers.

The fogger is set up in the area and run, and the disinfecting fog takes about two hours to dissipate.

After fogging, environmental services employees simply go in and wipe up the excess disinfectant.

Another unique area of concern in the McWane Science Center is the lower-level aquarium.

Here, the two open-top aquariums are self maintained through the use of bacteria — active bacteria is what keeps the aquariums clean, Ruffin states.

Yet, the chemicals used to clean other areas in the center are designed to kill bacteria.

Thus, in the aquarium area, cleaning workers cannot use ammonia or anything that will disrupt this system of bacteria, Ruffin says.

Since this level includes a tank where visits can touch small rays or sharks, hand soap and sanitizers are another aquarium concern.

“One of the things that we have to change [on this level] is using anything that’s oxygenated, like a foam soap,” Ruffin notes.

This type of soap will cause the protein skimmers that keep the tanks clean to overrun because they are trying to keep up with the new materials introduced into the ecosystem.

The hand sanitizer available to visitors on the lower level is different than the rest of the facility as well.

While the gel hand sanitizer used on this level is not as cost-effective as foaming options, it is necessary to maintain the aquariums.

Two Challenges

The two most prominent cleaning challenges for Ruffins’ department are the science center’s carpets and restrooms.

Carpet upkeep in a children’s museum with thousands of visitors can be a daunting task, but if the museum moved forward with a non-porous floor choice another concern would arise.

“It would be much easier to clean, but we also have the challenge of keeping noise down with the school groups,” Ruffin says. “Say for instance we took the carpet up in some areas where we have marble and limestone, we have to deal with the noise everywhere.”

Moore notes that the museum will be installing new carpet in the first floor public areas this fall.

As mentioned previously, the lobby restrooms are a cleaning challenge due to their proximity to the lobby elevators and their availability for public use.

Another part of the challenge with the center’s restrooms can be traced back to their design — the restrooms are not tiled completely up to the ceiling.

This limits the use of restroom spray-and-vac cleaning options and the efficiencies that they can offer.

New Technologies

Today, the science center’s environmental services staff calls upon technology such as a dispensed, certified green and safe chemical system, Ruffin states.

To learn about new technology or discover new equipment ideas, the department mainly depends on its vendors, according to Moore.

Vendors frequently contact Moore about a new technology, and sometimes they will provide a test run of a chemical or equipment.

“If we do like it — if it’s something that’s going to benefit us — we’re going to write it into the budget for the next year,” Moore explains. “We’re looking to say, ‘Hey, this will help us out. Save time, save money.’”

Finally, new technology ideas can come from the environmental services staff as well, Moore says.

Since McWane Science Center cleaning employees are experienced and also work in other facilities, staff suggestions have proven to be a good resource for new technology and techniques.

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