Down and Dirty

Oct. 1, 2001
The following 10 tips can help school and university custodial staffs maintain a healthy physical environment.

If institutions want to improve the health and learning environments in their facilities, administrators need to provide custodial personnel with a solution that fits within their budgets.

Often, the easy excuse is that there is no budget for cleaning. The obvious solution is to increase the budget; however, this is not always realistic. A better solution is for staffs to be more efficient with what they have.

Cleaning the carpet once before school starts and once at the winter break is not enough. Schools need to deal with the dirt as it accumulates, and that means a programmed approach.

From a day-to-day maintenance point of view, where does a custodial supervisor begin? Following are 10 recommendations that will make a significant, immediate difference in keeping carpets clean and contributing to a healthy environment:

  • Trap dirt outside. By keeping parking lots, playgrounds and sidewalks clean, less dirt ends up inside. More than 80 percent of dirt on indoor carpets is tracked in on shoe soles.

  • Use walk-off mats at all entrances. These should have pile, be at least 20 lineal feet long, and be able to trap both dry dirt and moisture. It is important to vacuum these mats daily; this will remove a great deal of the dirt being tracked in. In winter, vacuum more often, and replace mats when they become wet.

  • Vacuum floors daily. This is the most important thing to do. Vacuum all high-traffic areas, entrances, main hallways — all areas where a lot of children walk — every day. It may be necessary to vacuum some entrances twice a day. The more vacuuming custodians do, the less cleaning they will have to do. The majority of the dirt that comes into a building is dry dirt and is removed most effectively through vacuuming. Think how often a custodian dust mops the hallways in a school; this should correlate to the frequency of vacuuming.

  • Lift pile. Use a pile lifter on a regular basis, perhaps weekly and certainly monthly. This opens the yarns and stands them up vertically, so that vacuuming is more effective.

  • Remove spots every day. Establish a simple spot-removal program that encourages and makes it easy to clean up and remove spots every day.

  • Clean carpet based on usage. Maintenance staff does not have to clean all the carpet all the time, just the areas of greatest use. These include high-traffic areas where students and staff walk.

  • Use a maintenance plan. An effective plan can guide where and when the cleaning equipment should be used — not the other way around. The plan should “drive” the equipment, rather than the equipment “driving” the plan, a distinction that is critical for those managers committed to being in charge of their carpets.

  • Focus on lower floors. Spend more time and effort cleaning and vacuuming ground-floor areas. The dirt comes from the outside at ground level. The more cleaning done there, the less that is needed on the upper floors.

  • Clean all areas periodically. Plan to clean the less-used carpeted areas at the start of the school year and at winter or summer break. Many methods can be used to accomplish this task effectively. The trick is to keep the highly used carpeted areas in a clean, maintained condition between the times of overall cleaning.

  • Use efficient vacuums. Make sure that your vacuums are in good operating condition. Check belts, beater bar and brush agitators, vacuum bags and filters. Be sure to take care of and maintain vacuums. Even the best vacuum performs poorly when not maintained.

Greeley is director of technical services for HOST/Racine Industries, Inc., Racine, Wisc.


  • 46
    Percentage of new elementary-school space carpeted in 2000, down from 49% the year before.

  • 29
    Percentage of new middle-school space carpeted in 2000, down from 39% in 1999.

  • 22
    Percentage of new high-school space carpeted in 2000, down from 33% the year before.

  • 47
    Percentage of new college and university space carpeted in 2000, up from 45% in 1999.

Source: American School & University, 27th annual Official Education Construction Report, May 2001.


Publish a cleaning and vacuuming schedule in a public place to send the message that the staff and institution are serious about cleaning. Stick to the plan, and watch others in the building begin to respond. They may even help out by clearing areas or picking up after themselves. A clean facility is everyone's responsibility.

These maintenance strategies also accommodate the way many school facilities are used — year-round. That trend increasingly moves custodial managers away from a giant summer or holiday cleanup to an ongoing maintenance strategy for schools. Through daily maintenance, buildings and the furnishings in them can be kept clean year-round.

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