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Rise up to the task of cleaning ceiling tiles

September 19, 2010
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A large area often overlooked and one that is often a trouble spot to clean, especially without the right tools and knowledge, is right overhead: The ceiling.

The lifespan and usability of just about every component in a facility is dependent on its upkeep, including the ceiling. This is especially true of acoustical-tiled ceilings, found in many buildings from schools and offices to concert halls and convention centers.

If ceilings are properly cleaned and maintained, the tiles last longer — a major cost savings — and make the entire facility appear bright and clean.

And, because acoustical ceilings are often installed for fire retardation purposes and to help “quiet” a facility, the cleaner they are, the better they perform these tasks.

As a general rule, acoustical-tiled ceilings should be thoroughly cleaned every two to five years.

Because of the high levels of pollutants found in commercial kitchens, cafeterias, airports and hotel lobbies, as well as other facilities, this frequency may vary, but ceilings tend to need cleaning attention on relatively frequent schedules.

About acoustical-tiled ceilings
First introduced about 50 years ago, acoustical-tiled ceilings are found just about everywhere in commercial settings. They are also used in homes and residential facilities, which makes servicing them a perfect opportunity for building service contractors (BSCs).

In order to adequately maintain them, these ceilings must be correctly installed. A T-structure or grid is used to hold them in place, slightly below the existing ceiling.

A heavy-gauge steel grid system tends to hold up better than an aluminum grid, preventing the tiles from bending or dropping out.

Additionally, because many of these tiles are used to cover pipes, wiring, and computer cables, a sure-fit keeps these mechanicals hidden from view.

However, as these soft and absorbent tiles age, several changes take place.

As dust, pollen, nicotine, pollutants, and microorganisms become airborne, they are often re-circulated by a building’s HVAC system and eventually absorbed into the tiles.

Additionally, cooking grease, smog, and water leaks may develop, all of which cause the tiles to darken and turn brown.

Since this happens gradually, building occupants and cleaning professionals are not aware of a problem until mold develops, which can be environmentally unhealthy, or the discoloring becomes obvious.

The tiles also will begin to chip, loosen, or lose shape and their fire retardation and sound-absorbing qualities are minimized or eliminated.

If caught in time, a thorough cleaning can help restore the tiles and considerably extend their useful life.

If not attended to, specific tiles may need to be replaced, which results in an unflattering “checkerboard” appearance, or all the tiles may need to be replaced so they “match” — an expensive remodeling project.

Maintenance options
Like carpets and hard surface floors, tiled ceilings usually require regular ongoing maintenance as well as detailed occasional cleaning.

On a regular basis, they should be:
  • Checked for dust and lint
  • Vacuumed to remove dust, especially around HVAC vents and ducts
  • Examined to make sure the grid system is not bending under the weight of the tiles
  • Inspected for roof/ceiling water leaks.
When the ceiling tiles have become discolored, facility managers are often tempted to paint the ceiling with a light, reflective coating.

Although they may “appear” better, conventional paints will usually damage the sound-absorbing and fire retardant qualities of the tiled ceiling.

And, because the tiles are usually painted in place on the ceiling, it often leaves them stuck to the grid system, impeding access to the hidden mechanicals.

A more efficient maintenance system involves restoring the tiles using wet/dry cleaning equipment designed for a variety of different cleaning tasks, including ceiling cleaning.

Using wet/dry cleaning equipment to clean ceilings can help prevent shrinkage or damage to the acoustic tiles.

The chemical used for ceiling cleaning in this type of machine is a mild phosphoric acid designed to loosen and dissolve soils as well as brighten the ceiling without harming the tiles.

Some of these machines, which can also be used to clean draperies, furniture, and wall panels without removing them, have “instant” adjustable heat systems.

Heat can improve the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals.

Although the wand looks similar to those used for carpet extraction, it is usually smaller and lighter, making it easier to handle.

These wands are also spray only. The solution used is allowed to evaporate, which helps brighten the tiles in the process.

The grid and metal venting holding the tiles in place will require wiping by hand.

In some cases, the acoustical-tile manufacturer will provide instructions on how the tiles are to be properly cleaned and maintained as well as what chemicals can or should not be used.

However, often the client will no longer have these instructions so, as with many other cleaning tasks, it is always advisable to test a small area of the ceiling first and then evaluate the results with the client.

Training and charges
Before tackling a ceiling cleaning project, it is wise to learn as much about the process as possible.

Training programs are available from some manufacturers and distributors of ceiling tiles and many JanSan distributors are familiar enough with the cleaning process to be a reliable source as well.

Charges, like carpet cleaning charges, can vary significantly. Often, a local JanSan distributor will be able to assist in determining current rates.

In most cases, these rates are based on square footage cleaning, similar to carpet cleaning.

In some situations, even after cleaning, the tiles may be aged or discolored to such an extent that they may still not appear clean and are in need of replacement. But usually this happens only when ignored for several years.

In most cases, acoustical ceiling restoration is effective and can prove to be a lucrative sideline for cleaning professionals that also saves facility managers time and money and results in a healthier, cleaner, and more pleasing indoor environment.


Steve Williams is senior vice president of U.S. Products, manufacturers of professional carpet, floor and restoration cleaning equipment.

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