Hard (And Soft) Facts

The keys to successful cleaning and maintenance of floors and carpets are using the right equipment and establishing a regular cleaning schedule.

The goal in floor and carpet maintenance is obvious: Keep the dirt off...and the paint, the gum, the chocolate, the grape juice, the mustard, the coffee, and the countless other substances that can mar the best efforts of cleaning crews in schools and colleges.

But identifying a goal and achieving it are two different matters. School maintenance officials say the keys to successful cleaning and maintenance of floors and carpets are using the right equipment and establishing a regular cleaning schedule.

Carpets have become more popular in schools in recent years, says Chuck Volz, maintenance manager of the Redmond School District in central Oregon.

"It covers up tile that is too old and is no longer attractive," says Volz. "It quiets the building, especially the hallways. They do have a higher wear-out factor than tile, so there is a trade-off."

But schools still have plenty of tile or other hard-surface floors that need regular attention to keep them clean.

Powerful machines

Ask Jim Brewer, executive housekeeper with the University of Texas at Arlington, what changes in recent years have made floor maintenance easier, and one answer immediately leaps to mind.

"Our biggest time saver is being able to use propane-powered machines instead of electric," says Brewer. "It has turned an overwhelming job into just a big job."

The propane machines have been around for many years, but early versions weren't always safe for indoor use because of the carbon monoxide exhaust that could build up. But safety problems have been resolved, allowing cleaners to take advantage of the machines' greater power.

"An electric machine might be able to go up to 2,200 rpms, but when it's down on the floor, it slows down to 800 or 1,000," says Brewer. "The propane buffer doesn't slow down at all. It doesn't even know you're down on the floor. It goes about as fast as you can walk."

The extra power translates to faster and deeper cleaning. Brewer says an electric buffer applies about 12 to 15 pounds of pressure to a floor, while a propane machine can apply as much as 40 pounds.

"Instead of three guys working most of an evening stripping, two guys can do it in an hour," says Brewer. "Instead of 60 electric buffers, we now have just four propane buffers."

As an added benefit, floors cleaned with propane machines have a better, skid-resistant finish.

"The floors are shinier," says Brewer. "When the floor is shiny, people have the feeling that the campus is clean."

For carpets, the most important piece of equipment is a vacuum cleaner.

"You need a good vacuum cleaner and you clean every day," says Redmond's Volz.

The Carpet and Rug Institute, Dalton, Ga., says a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner should have powerful suction and an enclosed, high-efficiency particulate filtration bag. It also should come with adjustable cylindrical brushes to bring embedded dirt to the surface.

An eye to prevention

Before resorting to the heavy equipment, maintenance workers can take steps that will make cleaning faster and easier. Most important: minimizing the amount of dirt that gets into a building.

"The best defense in keeping dirt out of the building is a track-off mat," says Volz.

Walk-off mats at high-traffic areas, such as entrances and exits or in front of elevators, will absorb much of the dirt and grime that otherwise would get tracked through the building. Vacuuming takes care of most dirt, but when stains and spots are the problem, it often takes extra measures to get rid of them. Most stains can be removed with hot water and detergent, says Volz. About 20 percent of spots need chemical treatment to remove them.

"If you use a chemical to get out a stain, you need to follow up with hot-water extraction to remove any residual chemical," says Volz. "If you don't get the chemical out, people will walk on it, and the stain will come up again."

Different kinds of carpet require different methods and chemicals to clean or remove spots. To simplify its carpet upkeep, the University of Texas at Arlington has over the years purchased the same type of carpet to install throughout the campus.

"That way we have one procedure for everything," says Brewer.

Carpets have become easier to maintain, says Volz.

"Newer carpets are more stain-resistant. They have a good backing that doesn't allow stains to soak to the back of the carpet."

Keeping a schedule

The surest way to ensure a cleaning job doesn't become a serious problem is to establish a regular maintenance schedule.

"We vacuum everything once a day," says Volz.

Some school systems try to devote extra attention to heavily traveled areas where dirt can accumulate quickly, but Volz says he doesn't have the time or staff for that. In a larger system like the University of Texas at Arlington, monitoring parts of the campus most prone to dirt and stains is essential.

"You have to keep track of the areas that get dirty," says Brewer. "That way you can strip and wax just those areas that need it and not waste a lot of time on the places that don't get so dirty."

With many buildings and hundreds or thousands of students marching through them each day, maintenance workers should accept the inevitable: they won't be able to keep all their buildings spotless all the time.

"There are too many floors, the campus is too widespread," says Brewer. "Students eat anywhere and everywhere. You have to stay realistic. You have to decide what an acceptable level of clean is."

Special areas in schools and colleges to be aware of:

-Track-off areas: Where a carpet collects tracked-in soil from outdoors or from hard-surface floors-such as building entrances and internal doorways.

-Congested channels: A concentrated area of foot traffic, such as a doorway, stairwell, drinking fountain or elevator entrance.

-Traffic lanes: Areas with the largest amount of foot traffic.

A carpet-maintenance program should have three elements, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute:

-Preventive maintenance. Walk-off mats placed in entryways collect dirt before it gets to the carpet. Select colors appropriate to traffic and local soil conditions. Medium colors, tweeds and patterned carpets hide soil, while lighter colors mask fading.

-Daily maintenance. Vacuuming can remove more than 80 percent of dry soil. Vacuum heavy-traffic areas daily, medium-traffic areas twice weekly, and light-traffic areas once or twice weekly. To remove spots, use a professional kit, which contains a variety of cleaning agents, application materials and spot-removal instructions. Damage from spills can be minimized by acting immediately-blot with a clean, white absorbent towel, and repeat until the spill is fully absorbed.

-Periodic cleaning. Extraction cleaning, as needed or about every six to 12 months in high-traffic areas, will remove accumulated soil not removed by vacuuming and spot removal. Use the cleaning method recommended by the carpet manufacturer.

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