Weathering the Drought: Water Conservation and the Janitorial Industry

The most important liquid in any cleaning operation is plain old water. We use it in almost everything we do, usually without a second thought. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report named water shortages as the number-one crisis facing the planet in the next decade. As the summer temps heat up, the crisis is coming into sharper focus for most of us.

In California, the ongoing widespread drought is major news. Every day, Arizona and New Mexico use about 300 million gallons more water than is taken in through renewable supplies. The eight states around the Great Lakes are so concerned about potential shortages that they’ve passed the legally-binding Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which forbids the export of water to other states.

As water shortages threaten more and more of us, the cleaning industry is stepping up in innovative ways to help with conservation. Even in places that currently have plenty of water, high utility bills make saving water a smart fiscal move. The push towards “green” cleaning practices adds to the sense of urgency.

New cleaning strategies, and technologies for using less water more efficiently, are vital weapons in the war against drought. Here’s how you can help.

One Step at a Time

Cut down on your cleaning operation’s water use by learning new methods of cleaning and investing in more efficient equipment. These steps can be done incrementally, even on a tight budget.

  • Switch to microfiber: According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), microfiber mops use 90 percent less water and chemicals than traditional cotton mops. As an added benefit, they’re lighter and more ergonomic to use. While they’re more expensive than cotton and require more frequent replacement, the EPA found their extra efficiency cut down on labor costs enough to make the total cost less.
  • Vacuum hard floors: A vacuum with a soft brush and a good HEPA filter can be a waterless alternative which lets you extend the time between wet mops.
  • Cut down on floor stripping: The traditional stripping process uses a huge amount of water and chemicals. To extend the appearance level, use a high speed polisher to burnish the floor. When there is damage to the finish that won’t polish out, use a scrub-and-recoat procedure where you don’t strip all the way down, but instead you remove the top one or two coats of existing floor finish, and then top coat the floor. Today’s orbital floor machines and scrubbers are a great way to remove layers of finish without wet stripping.
  • Dry sweep wherever possible: When that’s not an option, when allowed by local or state ordinance, use a pressure washer or water broom. Hoses without a shut-off nozzle can use 8-20 gallons of water a minute. If you need to use water to clean up a mess, a pressure washer uses about 70 percent less water than a standard hose, while a water broom uses up to 90 percent less than a hose without a shut-off nozzle. Again, dry sweeping is always preferable and you should check before using any water method to see if it is even allowed by law in your area.
  • Use steam vapor units: Steam is an efficient tool for many cleaning applications. It cleans and sanitizes at the same time, cutting down on chemical usage and the need to rinse. The average steam unit uses about one pint of water per hour, while spray and vac machines can use as much as one gallon per minute.
  • Consider electrically engineered water: These can include units equipped with ozone technology or those that automatically convert water to an effective cleaning solution without the use of chemicals.
  • Consider water-saving auto scrubbers for floors: Units with high-speed orbital scrubbing heads use even less water than traditional rotary units, although all types of auto scrubbers can save water over other methods.
  • Use heated extractors to clean rugs and carpet: Heated units are much faster and more effective than cold-water units and you’ll use a lot less water in the long run. Also consider extractors with recycling technology.

Have Conservation Conversations

Some of the most powerful water-saving changes any facility can make require large-scale changes beyond the scope of a BSC or janitorial team. As the “boots on the ground” in a maintenance operation, however, you’re uniquely positioned to make a case for conservation.

Frame the conversation in terms of the pragmatic benefits to make it easy for facility managers to see the the value.

  • Report even minor leaks wherever you see them. Repairing leaking fixtures and pipes can cut a commercial building’s water use by up to 10 percent.
  • Make a proposal for matting. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Effective matting around entranceways greatly reduces the amount of dirt that comes into a facility, which cuts down on the amount of water needed to clean it up.
  • Prepare information on water-saving fixtures. Smaller, water-conserving replacements, such as switching from gel soap dispensers to foam soap dispensers, may be achievable even for tight budgets. When the time comes around and the money is there to replace older sinks and toilets, suggest alternatives to water-gobbling fixtures.
  • Look for opportunities to retrofit existing fixtures. Take this example: A single standard urinal can use up to 40,000 gallons of water in one year. Water-free urinals are available, but few facilities have the funds or time available to refit their bathrooms with brand new eco-friendly options. Instead, the regular flush valves could be exchanged for lockable flush valves, and odors controlled with the regular application of barrier fluid. This is a simple, cost effective solution with instant benefits. The potential annual savings of hundreds of dollars per urinal on the water bill make this an immediate win for the facility manager, plus there’s the potential for saving of thousands of gallons of water.

There’s a negative environmental impact of replacing functioning equipment. The resources (including water) that go into making new items are substantial. Unless your current equipment is egregiously wasteful, it may be beneficial to wait until the end of its natural life to replace it with a more water-friendly alternative.

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