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Mending Your Ways

Schools and universities can enrich maintenance programs by experimenting with new products and cleaning techniques.

From the outside looking in, a facility's cleaning and maintenance efforts sometimes tend to be unnoticed until something goes wrong. Any number of things can inhibit a maintenance program's productivity, from inefficient cleaning schedules to outdated products. Schools and universities can enrich their maintenance programs by experimenting with new products and cleaning techniques, and using those strategies that best match the needs of their programs.

The product vs. the process

Improving productivity can be as simple as taking a hard look at what products, chemicals and procedures are being used and whether they still are efficient.

It's easy for a school to start with a basic line of chemicals and add various products over the years, says Randy Mincke, director of housekeeping in the operations and maintenance division of the physical plant at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Duplicate chemicals can accumulate over time, resulting in a needless expense. Sometimes products are significantly outdated and no longer work with the cleaning strategies being used.

This was the case at the University of Arkansas, which has been using an outdated floor finish. The finish had been designed to be maintained using the older, slow-speed buffers that once were used for cleaning. The university now is working to find a new floor finish.

“We're going to be doing some testing with floor finishes that are compatible with what we're doing now and matching up how we maintain to make sure we have the products that support that,” Mincke says.

Experiment with cleaning strategies

A switch in procedure also can enhance maintenance productivity. Education institutions can experiment with team-cleaning strategies to see whether this method fits their facilities and staff.

With team cleaning, a group of workers can go through an area at a faster pace; each worker accomplishes a different task — one emptying waste cans, one vacuuming floors, one dusting. With traditional area cleaning, an individual worker cleans an entire area, which allows him or her to become familiar with the specific needs of that area.

There are pros and cons to each technique. Area cleaning often results in a more thorough cleaning process, but team cleaning can be more efficient and less expensive because equipment can be shared, according to the U.S. Education Department's Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities.

Atlanta Public Schools is beginning to experiment with team-cleaning techniques that would allow it to operate with a reduced staff.

“Like many other schools, we're also facing budget shortfalls and are trying to look at opportunities where we can save,” says Robert Thompson, director of maintenance in the Atlanta district.

The University of Arkansas uses team cleaning on a limited basis, such as when cleaning around people in public spaces, but it relies on traditional methods for cleaning most of its buildings.

“In the past I've done team cleaning, and I've never really been successful in making that as productive as other ways,” says Mincke.

Cleaning techniques should be designed for the facilities in which they will be used. The amount of staff needed and the procedure used should be relative to the facility, says Mincke.

“While you might have an average square footage that everyone should clean, I think you have to be looking at the use the building gets, and in some cases, you need much more staff than other buildings,” says Mincke.

Labor-saving equipment

Some schools are investing in equipment that can conserve resources, either by doing most of the work by itself or making the job easier for workers. Some labor-saving products that education institutions use include all-surface cleaners, automatic floor scrubbers, backpack vacuums, battery-operated equipment and chemical dispensers:

  • All-surface cleaners

    Atlanta Public Schools is trying all-surface cleaning machines to increase maintenance productivity in its schools. This equipment has the capabilities of a pressure washer to spray down fixtures within restrooms and has a wet/dry vacuuming capability for soaking up water. It also has a removable tool caddy, which makes it an all-in-one-type application, says Thompson.

    “We're just exploring that and…we haven't used it fully to understand what the impact of using it will be, but we do see some improvement,” says Thompson.

  • Automatic floor scrubbers

    Waterville Public Schools, Maine, uses automatic floor scrubbers, which put water and cleaner down while a brush rotates to loosen dirt. The scrubber then picks up all the waste after the floor is clean.

    “Everything is done in one step and basically leaves the floor, for all practical purposes, dry when you're complete,” says Jim Reny, business manager for Waterville Public Schools. “It eliminates slipping and falling. It's really a time saver and increases productivity substantially.”

    Using the automatic floor scrubber, workers can cover the same amount of area in a shorter time or a larger area in the same amount of time, says Reny.

  • Backpack vacuums

    Employees of the Waterville district find backpack vacuums to be more efficient than traditional vacuums, says Reny. This equipment is much easier to move around the building and can be used for dusting as well as vacuuming.

    Atlanta Public Schools also uses backpack vacuums in a few of its schools. As far as satisfaction with the product, the jury is still out, says Thompson. The district does not have enough data to determine the impact of the backpack vacuum, and it traditionally has purchased upright vacuums for staff members.

  • Battery-operated equipment

    To allow the custodial staff more mobility, Atlanta Public Schools uses battery-operated burnishers and floor scrubbers, which have improved its maintenance program.

    “The battery-operated equipment has made a difference because it allows a lot more access and freedom of movement vs. a corded electric machine, and that has made some improvements in the cleanliness of the facilities,” says Thompson.

  • Chemical dispensers

    In order to save time and money, many education institutions install chemical dispensers that connect to the water system and dispense chemicals at a certain dilution rate rather than having the custodial staff mix them before each use.

Atlanta Public Schools is having chemical dispensing systems installed for the district.

“We've already developed our specifications for what we know is now industry practice, and that was based on research and testing,” says Thompson.

Based on the results from some test schools, the district has calculated a potential savings of 20 to 30 percent by installing the dispensing systems, says Thompson.

Restructuring the workday

Finding a solution to improving maintenance productivity sometimes can be more involved than experimenting with chemicals and cleaning strategies. The University of Arkansas restructured its custodial shifts so that most of the cleaning is done on the second or third shift instead of during the day, says Mincke.

The university previously had two custodial shifts: a day shift that started at 5 a.m. and ended at 1:30 p.m. and an evening shift that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 1:30 a.m., says Glenn Grippe, associate director of the business and administration services division of the university's physical plant.

“It was structured that way because, like most campuses, there are some buildings where there's so much day activity that if you try to clean during the day, it's like you have to get out of the way every 50 minutes with the class change and run for your life,” says Grippe.

The two shifts were accommodating the university's need to clean after classes were over, but the system was disjointed. The university responded by developing a three-shift operation. All routine cleaning for education and general-purpose buildings (E&G) occurs on two shifts: the evening shift, which starts at 3 p.m., and the graveyard shift, which starts at 11 p.m., says Grippe.

The dayshift workers then begin policing heavy-traffic buildings at 6:30 a.m. During their eight-hour shifts, they repeatedly clean high-traffic public areas, mop floors, and clean and restock restrooms, says Grippe. This increases productivity, and allows a more thorough and connected cleaning schedule.

Schools can gather a wealth of ideas when considering ways to improve a maintenance program, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each education institution should evaluate its maintenance program, and use those strategies that work best for its buildings and staff.


  • 10 TO 11

    The square footage, in thousands, a custodian should be able to clean in an eight-hour shift when cleaning for a “spotless” building as might be found in a hospital.

  • 18 TO 20

    The square footage, in thousands, a custodian should be able to clean in an eight-hour shift when cleaning to meet high standards in restrooms, special-education areas, kindergarten areas or food-service areas.

  • 28 TO 31

    The square footage, in thousands, a custodian should clean in an eight-hour shift when cleaning to meet normal standards in school facilities.

  • 45 TO 50

    The square footage, in thousands, a custodian can clean in an eight-hour shift at a level that is not normally acceptable for a school environment.

Source: Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities,
Note: These figures are estimates. Additional variables should be taken into account when determining workload expectations.

Sidebar: Focus on employees

The best cleaning tools, the newest maintenance technologies, and the best planning strategies hold little value if workers do not use them efficiently. Maintaining a good relationship with the custodial staff can be an important part of maintaining the facility itself.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has taken steps to retain hard-working employees and has made an effort to match employees with working environments in which they will be happy.

In 2000, the university hired facility consultants, and it now is nearing conclusion of the reorganization and re-engineering of the facilities department and its 360 employees. Before the university began restructuring its maintenance program, employee turnover was high, and an average of 10 to 20 positions remained vacant. This was largely because there was little opportunity for employees to build a future at the university.

“Our problem was we had too many housekeepers that had zero supervisory experience,” says Glenn Grippe, associate director of the business and administration services division of the university's physical plant. “We could never promote internally, and that was frustrating for employees.”

The consultants helped the university eliminate 10 custodial cleaning positions and transform an additional 10 regular positions into lead positions. The lead position was created for someone that leads a small group of people, but also cleans. This created a career ladder for employees, giving them the opportunity to move from a regular position to a lead position, and then to the position of first-line supervisor.

It also gave employees control and responsibility in their salary so they don't have to leave the university to find a higher-level job, says Randy Mincke, director of housekeeping in the operations and maintenance division of the physical plant at the university.

“I think that kind of positions us better for the future,” says Mincke. “As we grow, as we expand, as we have turnover, we now are developing some really good people who have a renewed interest.”

The university also is making an effort to match employees with environments in which they are comfortable working. Some staff members work at a fast pace and can handle the task of maintaining a building that has a large amount of students. Other staff members work at a slower pace and would be suited better for cleaning in quieter areas, says Mincke.

“I think you need to constantly look at the function that's happening in each building and match your people with that,” says Mincke. “Every building is different, and it's important to match the personality of the custodial worker with the personality of the building.”

Another way the university has encouraged maintenance productivity by giving attention to employees is by having a contest for its maintenance staff in an effort to diminish some of the complaints and negativity toward the department.

“One of the problems I had, it seemed, was we were always dealing with the negative,” says Mincke. “We were always counseling people and dealing with it from a negative standpoint.”

To help combat this problem, the department gave a six-week notice for a contest that would find the “best of the best” in facility maintenance and cleanliness on campus. During one week, a blind quality measurement was done in every area to determine the cleanest facility.

“We had a rally at the end of it, and I was frankly pretty pleased with how our people responded to it, got involved with it, and improved the quality,” says Mincke. “It gave us an opportunity to reward those people who are really doing the job, and kind of drag some of those lower performers along with them and force them into a situation.”

It's important to focus on the positive side of things, says Mincke.

“When you hear of a problem, take that as an opportunity to improve your level of service,” says Mincke. “I think that's one thing that we have tried to do here.”

Strahle is former assistant editor for AS&U.

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