Frequently Asked Questions

Following are questions about how chemical cleaning processes work, including descriptions of industry standards, environmental impacts, and chemical cleaning best practices.

Are chemicals labeled “natural” safer than other products?

Products labeled “natural” are only sometimes safer than alternatives, depending on their ingredients and effects. The “natural” label usually means that the chemical derived from an organic source. For instance, some manufacturers process corn for their chemicals instead of petroleum. Because the ingredients are the same, they would pose the same environmental and health risks as their unlabeled alternatives.

Why do water-based cleaners require agitation?

Agitation involves recirculating cleaners into soils. The increased exposure to the chemicals allows water to attack soils more quickly and efficiently.

What do alkaline aqueous solutions do?

Alkaline aqueous solutions are water-based mixtures with pH > 7.0. They clean grease, oil, soil, petroleum, and other waste using surfactants, emulsifiers, and sequestering agents. Alkaline aqueous solutions may require corrosion inhibitors for use on metals such as aluminum and special procedures for disposal.

What are high-alkaline water-based cleaners, and are they dangerous?

High-alkaline water-based cleaners have high pH levels that temporarily separate oils from surfaces. Because oil can be redeposited on surfaces as it floats, these cleaners have limited effectiveness. Highly alkaline chemicals can cause burns and choking vapors, and are too corrosive for disposal down drains.

What does “biodegradable” mean?

Biodegradable means capable of decomposing due to biological agents such as bacteria. Chemicals that biodegrade are generally safe for the environment because they do not leave behind hazardous compounds.

What are petroleum-based solvents, and are they hazardous?

Petroleum-based solvents include chemicals such as trichlorethylene, benzene, and xylene. They create hazardous smog, causing many state laws to prohibit their use. Water-based detergents are generally safer alternatives.

How does pH affect waste disposal?

A chemical’s pH level determines whether it is safe to drain into a sanitary sewer. State laws prohibit the discharging of liquids with pH > 5.0 or pH < 9.0, as they can corrode pipes.

What is a VOC?

VOC is short for Volatile Organic Compound, meaning organic chemicals that evaporate at room temperature. They include acetone, formaldehyde, alcohol, ethanol, and other substances common in consumer products. State and federal laws regulate VOC emissions due to the hazardous ozone they produce.

Do all surfactants biodegrade?

Most surfactants biodegrade in sewage treatment plants or septic tanks after drain disposal. Aerobic microorganisms can divide them into water, carbon dioxide, and minerals. However, surfactants do not always biodegrade under anaerobic conditions. Cationic surfactants have higher toxicity than anionic or non-ionic surfactants.

How do quaternary disinfectants kill microorganisms?

Germicidal quarternaries are positively charged, which attracts them to negatively-charged areas of microorganism cells. This attachment disrupts lipids on the cells’ surface, killing the cells and then the organism.

Why does hard water tolerance matter?

Water hardness can reduce quaternary disinfectants’ effectiveness. Calcium (Ca +2) and Magnesium (Mg +2) cations in hard water attach to microorganism cells, preventing quaternary disinfectants from disrupting them. Sanitizers and disinfectants typically list their water hardness tolerance in ppm.

Why does contact time matter?

Contact time determines the amount of time disinfection takes. Short contact time is ideal for saving on labor. The minimum required contact time is 1 minute for food contact surfaces and 5 minutes or less for other surfaces. The maximum contact time for any disinfectant is 10 minutes.

What are “broad spectrum” disinfectants?

The EPA defines “broad spectrum” disinfectants by their ability to eliminate all three major pathogen types: bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Sanitizers do not qualify as “broad spectrum” because they only target bacteria.

How do “gram positive” and “gram negative” bacteria differ?

Gram-positive bacteria can be stained black or blue while gram-negative bacteria cannot. Gram-postive bacteria include Listeria, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus while gram-negative bacteria include E. coli, Salmonella, and Legionella.

What are antibiotic resistant bacteria?

Antibiotic resistant bacteria have mutated so that formerly effective antibiotic levels no longer destroy them. For instance, many Staphylococcus strains are resistant to Methicillin and Vancomycin, requiring alternative means of disinfection.

How does the EPA regulate antimicrobials?

The EPA requires efficacy, toxicology, and product chemistry data for registration and periodic reregistration. Manufacturers must disclose products’ safety, effectiveness, formulas, manufacturing processes, and analytical methods according to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance (OEC) can suspend and revoke registrations, levy fines, seize property, and make arrests.

What factors determine whether or not a disinfectant works effectively?

Dilution rate, contact time, temperature, pH, soil levels, and targeted organisms all affect disinfectant performance. Bleach works best in cold water and acidic conditions, while quaternary disinfectants work best in warm water and alkaline conditions. Disinfectants vary in their health claims against particular pathogens but generally require proper dilution and removal of heavy soils.

Can quaternary disinfectants clean floors with acrylic finishes?

Quaternary disinfectants with neutral pH are ideal for preserving the gloss of finished floors. Acidic chemicals can damage floors and alkaline chemicals can leave film and dull the gloss.

Why is it best to pre-clean heavy soils before applying disinfectant?

Disinfectants attack soils and microbes indiscriminately. Cleaning soil before disinfection leaves more active disinfectant to fight pathogens instead of soil and grease.

What are the physical properties of quaternary, chlorine, iodine and phenolic disinfectants?

Quaternary disinfectants have no odors or skin irritants. They provide good cleaning abilities, soil tolerance, hard water tolerance, and shelf life, with moderate toxicity.

Chlorine, iodine, and phenolics all have odors, skin irritation, and low soil tolerance. Chlorine has good cleaning abilities but low soil tolerance, hard water tolerance, and shelf life, with high toxicity. Iodine has good cleaning abilities, hard water tolerance, and shelf life, with moderate toxicity. Phenol has poor cleaning ability and soil tolerance but good hard water tolerance and shelf life, with high toxicity.

What are the disadvantages of using bleach instead of quaternary disinfectants?

Unlike quaternary disinfects, bleach is corrosive to skin and metals. It has a significantly higher volatility and lower shelf life than quaternary disinfectants, leading to poor dilution rates. Hard water and organic soils quickly inactivate bleach, so its use requires frequent water softening and precleaning. Bleach also has a chlorine odor and the risk of hazardous reactions when mixed with other chemicals such as ammonia.

How can we remove hard water scale deposits from food service equipment?

Descaling equipment will temporarily solve the problem of scale deposits. However, softening water is the only way to prevent long-term scale buildup.

Is there a chemical difference between degreasers for food soils and degreasers for petroleum soils?

Good degreasers generally work on food and petroleum soils equally effectively. However, some are specialized to saponify heavy food fats or degrease axle grease, cutting oils, and other heavy petroleum soils.

Is it possible to remove heavy soil in floor finish without stripping?

It is possible to clean floors without stripping. The process requires deep-scrubbing soil from floors, rinsing, and refinishing.

What areas of a restroom require the most disinfection?

The restroom areas most in need of disinfection are actually the objects people touch with their hands. These include flush handles, door handles, sink handles, soap dispensers, hand dryers, baby-changing stations, and paper towel dispensers.

What does it mean when water tests positive for coliform bacteria, and what is the best solution?

Coliform bacteria can indicate that other bacteria may have contaminated the water source. Disinfecting and testing the water again will usually solve the problem.

What is the difference between disinfection and sterilization?

Disinfection eliminates most targeted microorganisms through physical or chemical reactions. Sterilization destroys all targeted microorganisms, including bacterial spores, through heat or liquid chemicals. Sterilization provides more protection than disinfection, and both require cleaning (removal of soils) beforehand.

What government organizations regulate disinfectants?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates low- and intermediate-level disinfectants used on contact surfaces in homes and workplaces. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates high-level disinfectants and liquid sterilants used on medical devices.

Can cleaning chemicals be absorbed through the skin?

Along with inhalation, absorbing chemicals through the skin is a major cause of irritation and other health problems. VOCs such as alcohol and corrosive chemicals such as chlorine bleach can irritate skin. Heeding warning labels and wearing gloves can mitigate the risk.

How should cleaning chemicals be stored in the workplace?

Unless otherwise specified, cleaning chemicals should be stored in cool, dry places where they will not hazardously react to high humidity or temperature. Storage rooms should be well-ventilated, away from HVAC vents that can spread fumes. Containers should be stored on shelves, not overcrowded or higher than eye level.

How and where should we dispose of cleaning chemicals?

Most cleaning chemicals can be safely discharged down the drain. However, corrosive or toxic chemicals may need to be taken to a toxic waste disposal site. Read labels for disposal instructions.

What cleaning chemicals should not be mixed?

It is never advisable to mix cleaning chemicals with anything but water. Mixtures of bleach with ammonia, vinegar, or rubbing alcohol can all be lethal. Drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, and Lysol contain ingredients that have toxic reactions with bleach. Mixing vinegar with hydrogen peroxide or baking soda can damage surfaces.

Why should piping be chemically cleaned?

Scale, oils, and debris can build up in piping and stop machinery from running smoothly. They may require a Clean-in-Place (CIP) procedure: rinsing pipe interiors with water to remove loose residue, caustic soda to dissolve waste, water to flush cleaning agents, and bleach to sanitize.

What are surfactant molecules and how do they work?

Surfactants, also known as surface-active agents, are molecules that reduce the surface tension of water. Surfactant molecules have hydrophobic “tails” and hydrophilic “heads”, so they adsorb water at its surface or between water and oil. Surfactants’ strong attractive and repulsive forces disrupt grease, oil, pathogens, and other lipid-based waste in the cleaning process.