I trust I do not show my age, but I was a cleaning contractor in Northern California during the state’s 1977-78 water shortage. With California now in its fourth year of drought, which looks like it will be even worse than the one nearly 30 years ago, I thought this would be a good time to discuss the impact of that earlier water crisis on the professional cleaning industry and what new options cleaning workers have today.*
What is happening in California should not be viewed as just a California problem. Virtually the entire western half of the United States is having some type of water challenge, from moderate to severe drought conditions. In fact, just recently TheNew York Times published an article by journalist Michael Wines, called “Mighty Rio Grande Now a Trickle Under Siege,” on water shortages confronting Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
“Drought’s grip on California grabs all the headlines,” writes Wines. “But from Texas to Arizona to Colorado, the entire west is under siege by changing weather patterns that have shrunk snowpacks, raised temperatures, spurred evaporation, and reduced reservoirs to record lows.”
As serious as the conditions are, especially for farmers, the article does indicate the water crisis in the west is not necessarily all doom and gloom. “This whole running-out-of-water thing isn’t really doom,” says John Fleck, a journalist and scholar at the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, as quoted in the article. “When water gets short, farmers get very clever.”
That same principle applies to building service contractors (BSCs), as well. It’s time we all start becoming clever in how we use water to clean and maintain our clients’ facilities.
In the late 1970s, many restaurants contracted out their cleaning needs to BSCs. Today kitchen staffs usually handle the cleaning. My company cleaned six restaurants, so I saw firsthand how much water we used in cleaning and where we had to make changes. For instance, standard operating procedure for cleaning kitchen floors in those days was to deck down the floor (clean the floor with a brush attached to a mop handle) with a cleaner or degreaser and then pressure wash the floor using a garden hose.
Most garden hoses come in three sizes—one-half-, five-eighths-, and three-quarter-inch widths—and these hoses will use nine, 17, and 23 gallons of water per minute, respectively. In addition to the floors, the clients also wanted us to hose down the sidewalks directly in front of the restaurants each day.
When we had to cut our water consumption, use of a hose was the first thing to go. However, what options did we have to replace it? Unfortunately there were not many. Mopping a soiled, greasy commercial kitchen floor turned the mop and mop water dark and soiled very quickly. In fact, we changed mop heads every day, as there was no point in keeping them. With no hose and no replacement, we usually mopped the floors twice, which increased our work time considerably.
Today, a trolley-bucket system that dispenses fresh water/cleaning solution directly to the floors is a viable option. These systems generally result in effective cleaning and use considerably less water than a traditional mop and bucket. The floors can then be decked down, as needed. If a dispense-and-vac unit is attached to the trolley-bucket, it can vacuum up the water and soils. Hosing down the floor is not necessary, which means far less water is needed and the water that is consumed is used far more responsibly.
Another change we implemented was to hire a dishwasher as a cleaning worker. Before, the first thing we would do was put stove vent filters, knobs, small and removable cutting boards—just about anything that would fit—into the dishwasher. Commercial dishwashers are fast and fantastic, but one reason they work so well is they can use huge amounts of water. Except for the filters, everything now had to be cleaned by hand.
Cleaning carpets became a serious problem. Because we cleaned the carpets using portable extractors, which in those days likely used as much as two gallons of water per minute, our only option was to scale back on carpet cleaning. In most of the restaurants, the carpeted dining rooms were extracted once per month, more if needed. This was trimmed back to every three or four months.
In its place, we shampooed and bonnet cleaned the carpets monthly. This was effective for a couple of months, but by the third or fourth month, we could tell just by the soil collected on the pads and bonnets that the carpets needed to be extracted.
Options today would be to use the encapsulation method for interim cleaning. Encapsulation is a dry carpet cleaning method that does not use water and is relatively effective. However, it should also be supplemented with extraction. For this, a recycling carpet extractor—which was not available roughly 30 years ago—can be used. These machines consume one-seventh of the water of a conventional extractor.
If It’s Yellow, Let It Mellow
Fortunately, when it came to restroom cleaning, our cleaning services did not require a lot of water. However, by the late 1970s, consumers—and our clients—had become aware of just how much water a toilet and urinal can use: around three gallons of water per flush, and often more.
We were asked to find ways to reduce this consumption; however, there really were few. The popular cliché of the day was, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” suggesting that toilets be flushed only for solid waste—a policy that most Californians adopted.
However, manufacturers in those days did not put much emphasis on water consumption when it came to restroom fixtures. Today, things are much different. High-efficiency toilets use about 1.28 gallons per flush, and many restaurants have abandoned traditional for waterless urinals for two key reasons: Not only do they eliminate the use of water, but the flush handles/mechanisms on urinals tend to be vandalized frequently. Waterless urinals do not have flush handles, so this problem, as well as the water usage, is eliminated.
Probably the best step cleaning contractors can take when it comes to water is simply to pay attention to how much water they are using in their cleaning tasks. Far more water is used to clean than many realize. Everyone in the industry, whether in California, the west, or elsewhere in North America, must learn to use this natural resource responsibly and efficiently.
* In the 1977 drought, Californians were asked to cut back water consumption by 25 percent. However, some areas of the state, such as Northern California, were asked to cut back even more because areas north of San Francisco were in even more dire conditions.