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Portable power

September 19, 2010
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Back in the early 1990s, building service contractor Richard Sanchez was certain that having a cell phone would help his business.

Serving customers throughout Northern California, Sanchez was always on the go — meeting with clients, inspecting buildings, and supervising employees.

He believed having a cell phone would allow him to be closer to his customers and employees, while improving productivity.

Sanchez’s first cell phone weighed about 12 pounds, and the battery had to be recharged every few hours and replaced frequently.

Today, cell phones have changed dramatically as batteries can last all day — if not longer — and most cell phones are now extremely small and weigh just ounces.

One of the reasons that cell phones have gotten so much smaller, lighter and more popular is because the batteries used to power them have also gotten smaller, lighter and more powerful.

With the keen interest in improving worker productivity in the cleaning industry, some industry experts and manufacturers are now wondering if installing batteries in vacuum cleaners, floor machines and carpet extractors — essentially “untying” the worker from electric outlets — will help make workers more productive and efficient.

Most likely, such battery-powered equipment won’t replace your entire inventory of cleaning tools that are linked to electrical outlets, but using some “portable” cleaning machines may have practical benefits to your overall operation.

JanSan battery power today
There are a variety of batteries on the market today; most of these are lead-acid batteries that are being used to power all kinds of cleaning equipment.

Some smaller cleaning tools, such as electric sweepers, use dry cell batteries, which are commonly used to power flashlights, toys, cassette players, cameras, cell phones, hearing aids and watches.

Other types of batteries now used or considered for cleaning equipment include wet cell, gel cell and absorbed glass mat.

Wet cell
These batteries are very common in the cleaning industry and are often found in larger cleaning equipment, such as floor machines and ride-on scrubbers.

They are relatively economical, long-lasting, come in a variety of sizes and are powerful and reliable.

Wet cell batteries are usually not sealed, and require that the electrolyte — an acid found in batteries that produces a chemical reaction, converting it into electricity — be replenished with water.

When doing so, great care must be taken to ensure that the electrolyte is not exposed to the user’s skin since it can cause serious burns.

Also, during any battery change or maintenance, there should be proper ventilation to avoid the build-up of dangerous gases.

Fortunately, as technology has changed, wet cell batteries are becoming more maintenance-free.

Gel cell
Gel cell batteries are a newer technology. The electrolyte is in the form of a gel, the battery is totally sealed, and it cannot be refilled with water — eliminating the possibility of acid burns.

These batteries are considered relatively maintenance-free and are safer to use than wet cell batteries.

Gel cell batteries are being closely considered and evaluated for future use in larger cleaning equipment.

Currently, however, they cost more than wet cell batteries and do not last as long.

Absorbed glass mat
Absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries are another new battery technology.

Instead of using a gel, an AGM battery uses fiberglass to hold the electrolyte in place.

They are spill-proof, and are the most vibration- and impact-resistant lead acid batteries available today.

The downside, again, is cost, as they are even more expensive than gel cell batteries.

Power struggles
One of the most pressing issues regarding wet and lead-based batteries is their impact on the environment.

Dry cell batteries can often be recycled, which helps to minimize their effect on the environment.

However, most communities now have regulations regarding lead-acid battery use and disposal, and are now taking a closer look at where these batteries are used and how they are maintained.

Wet batteries must be handled properly, as they can present serious environmental problems and safety concerns.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed very strict guidelines regarding wet and other lead-acid batteries, and there are a variety of state and local laws, codes, ordinances and requirements pertaining to the storage, handling, spill, containment and disposal of lead-acid battery systems.

In addition, many U.S. school districts — big customers of the JanSan industry — are either discouraging or minimizing the use of lead-acid batteries in their school facilities for environmental reasons.

Maintenance and costs
Most wet/lead-acid batteries used in professional cleaning equipment can last from six months to as long as six years, depending on how the equipment is used and how well the battery is maintained.

The average run-time for most batteries is 1.5 to 3.5 hours (depending upon the size of the batteries), and many batteries can be recharged up to 500 times before they become ineffective.

However, the life cycle of a battery can be greatly reduced through lack of use.

Many variables affect a battery’s longevity and effectiveness.

For instance, the battery in a floor machine used for scrubbing or cleaning floors on an incline will probably require more frequent recharging.

This means that the run time may be shorter, the battery may need to be cycled frequently, and the overall lifespan could be shorter than a battery used in a less demanding setting.

Finally, there is the cost of the battery. Most batteries used in heavy professional cleaning equipment cost about $150 to $350 and some machines require more than one battery, which impacts your cleaning operation’s budget.

In addition, the initial cost of battery-powered equipment may be several hundred dollars more than a cord-operated machine.

This must be weighed against any productivity or return on investment that may be realized by using a battery-operated machine.

The future of JanSan battery power
Many cleaning professionals say they enjoy the freedom of cordless equipment, and tend to prefer battery-powered machines — but this is not necessarily the case with all cleaning equipment.

Machines that clean using AC power won’t go away soon, and current batteries available for backpacks tend to be heavy, with relatively short run-times.

It’s expected that this technology still has several years more to go before batteries become commonplace in the cleaning industry as the size, weight and cost of batteries must first be reduced.

However, the future holds great promise for the use of battery-powered equipment in the JanSan industry as these tools have the potential to greatly increase productivity, at least as a complement to cord-operated machines.

Dave Stanislaw is an engineer involved with new equipment design, technologies and testing of JanSan equipment for Chicago-based Tornado Industries.
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