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Shortcuts to Cleanliness

There's never enough time to clean. Every school has a dusty shelf or a less-than-shiny hallway floor that could use a little extra attention if more time or help were available.

The time crunch squeezing school maintenance staffs is even more pronounced these days. The regular school year is being extended, summer school is more common, and students and other members of the community are routinely keeping school facilities buzzing late into the night.

Ideally, maintenance and operations supervisors would like to have more money and staff to clean and maintain facilities, but in most education institutions, other needs have higher priority. When a budget needs to absorb a cut, it's often the maintenance department that takes the hit. So, school maintenance supervisors are always on the lookout for new equipment, resources and work strategies to help them clean facilities more quickly and easily.

“With schools in session for more days, we have less time to do what we need to do,” says Terri Horn, custodial services trainer with Fayette County, Ky., schools.


School maintenance workers are continually sweeping, wiping and scrubbing floors to remove the large amounts of dirt and grime that students, teachers and others bring into school buildings. Years ago, schools didn't rely on auto scrubbers as much because they were hard for many workers to push and maneuver.

More recently, auto scrubbers are available with traction drive. The machines propel themselves, so they don't require nearly as much muscle power from the worker steering it.

“We have a lot of tile and terrazzo floors, so we use traction-drive auto scrubbers a lot,” says Phillip DeRuntz, director of facilities for Libertyville, Ill., Elementary School District 70. “All the halls are really easy to maintain with these. We use them in the morning, after the kids are all in their classrooms, after lunch and at night.”

What had been drudgery became a tolerable, even enjoyable experience for workers.

“The workers like to run these machines,” says DeRuntz. “They look forward to doing the work. We couldn't use the old machines as much because of their bulkiness. They were hard to get in and out of halls and closets.”

Another timesaving tool for maintenance professionals is a high-speed buffer. It stands to reason — a pad that spins 1,200 or more times per minute is going to clean and shine faster and more effectively than one that goes around less than 200 revolutions per minute.

“The high-speed buffers cut the time it takes to do a floor by more than half,” says Pete Damitz, head of maintenance in one of Libertyville's schools. “What took 1½ hours with a low-speed machine you can do now in 20 minutes.”


Carpeting has become more common in schools, which means that maintenance staffs are using vacuum cleaners more frequently. Maneuvering those often-bulky machines around the tables, chairs and desks of a typical classroom can consume a lot of a worker's time. In Fayette County, Ky., the solution is backpack vacuums.

“We use the backpack vacuum cleaners in all our buildings,” says Horn. “It's easier to get into rooms and around the furniture with them.”

Horn says the units Fayette County uses weigh 10 to 12 pounds and have straps and harnesses that distribute the weight onto the users' hips instead of their backs.


In addition to improving maintenance equipment, technology also has provided tools to help maintenance departments manage their staffs more efficiently. Many schools have acquired computerized management systems to help them track their maintenance needs and spot potential problems before they get out of control.

Workers can use software programs to monitor the status of systems from a computer screen at a central location.

“We can take care of problems right here in the office instead of having to go out to the site,” says David Hayes, maintenance supervisor for Oconee County, Ga., schools.

Maintenance staffs also can enhance their skills through additional training. Some companies that sell their equipment and products to schools have begun to include training for workers as part of an overall service package.

“Part of the program is that they train all the personnel in the correct ways to use the products,” says Ira Davis, supervisor of physical plant and maintenance for Terrebonne Parish, La., schools.

Just as critical as having the right equipment and using it efficiently is hiring and retaining the right people, says DeRuntz. By making sure that he is offering competitive salaries and benefits to his maintenance workers, DeRuntz says he has been able to cut down the turnover rate of his staff. He can concentrate on keeping the buildings clean instead of devoting energy to filling vacancies.

“The key is getting the right people and giving them the proper training,” says DeRuntz.

SIDEBAR: Avoid mixing mixups

One of the many duties of school maintenance professionals is to handle cleaning supplies and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Using the wrong material or even the right one in the wrong quantity can put workers, as well as students and staff, at risk.

Schools can avoid those pitfalls by using chemical mixing stations. These stations dispense the appropriate chemicals in the correct proportions.

“You push one button, and the chemicals are mixed at the proper rate,” says Phllip DeRuntz, director of facilities for Libertyville, Ill., Elementary School District 70. “You never have to worry about custodians mixing things improperly. It's pretty much foolproof.”

Besides making the handling of cleaning supplies easier and safer for workers, it allows newer employees who may not be fluent in English to use the supplies with minimal training and oversight.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

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