The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased hygiene requirements in many facilities and institutions. Cleaning teams are working around the clock in hospitals, nursing homes, and even supermarkets, where they’re sanitizing trolleys after every use. When activities like dining out and travel resume, enhanced cleaning in areas such as restaurants, airports, hotel rooms, and retail spaces will also be necessary to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from resurging.
There are multiple ways to tackle these cleaning challenges. In many cases, the best solution is a simple one that has been around for decades: steam.
Steam cleaners work by heating water to a very high temperature (typically in the range of 100-150°C). When you spray this superheated water onto a surface, it penetrates even stubborn materials like grease and biofilms, reaching into cracks and crevices that even many chemical sanitizers can’t access. Because it can eliminate most pathogens without chemicals – or with fewer chemicals, in the event that they are used – steam is not only a highly effective cleaning solution, but a sustainable one, as well.
Of all cleaning techniques, steam is the most flexible. It can be used indoors and outdoors, on porous and nonporous surfaces, and for cleaning everything from upholstered furniture to food processing equipment.
The table below provides examples of steam cleaning applications in environments with high hygiene requirements.
● Trolleys and baskets
● Department counters and display cases
● Checkout counters and conveyor belts
● Butcher-shop cutting tables and boards
● Deli food-preparation and food-service areas
Schools and daycare centers
● Mirrors and windows
● Tables, desks, and chairs
● Food-preparation and food-service areas
● Sports equipment and exercise areas
Benefits of steam cleaning
As mentioned earlier, steam cleaning is both effective and sustainable.
Top 3 benefits of steam cleaning
- Effectiveness — Quickly remove both dirt and pathogens
- Convenience — Reopen zones faster
- Sustainability — Use less water, less energy, and fewer/no chemicals
1. Effectiveness — Quickly remove both dirt and pathogens
Steam is commonly used in environments with heightened hygienic requirements because it cleans both quickly and thoroughly. A report from the UK Department of Health and Social Care found that steam not only removes soil effectively, but also “completely removes selected test microorganisms (MRSA, Acinetobacter, Klebsiella, and Clostridium difficile spores) and completely disinfects the cleaned surface.” The same researchers also looked into concerns about contaminants becoming aerosolized and traveling through the air. Their results found “no evidence of dispersion of viable organisms.”
As of this writing, there has not been any specific research into the use of steam cleaning to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), but the virus is known to be sensitive to high-temperature exposure.
Hot water cleaning vs. steam cleaning
There are two main methods for harnessing the cleaning and sanitizing power of heat:
- With hot water, using a hot-water high-pressure washer, or
- With steam, using a steam cleaner.
Both methods provide fast and effective cleaning, but there are some differences that make each of them best suited for different applications.
Pressure-washing is ideal for applications involving significant build-up of soil on a surface. Because they use high pressure, they can loosen the most tenacious dirt. However, the water in a pressure washer isn’t hot enough to turn to steam, so the water on its own isn’t sufficient for sanitization or disinfection. It can start the process, but a chemical disinfectant is still required.
Steam, on the other hand can cut through soil, but not to the same extent as a pressure washer. However, steam is consistently hotter than 100°C, which eliminates the need for chemicals. This is why steam is preferred for applications, like restroom and hospital cleaning, that require sanitization but don’t involve a lot of built-up dirt.
2. Convenience — Reopen zones faster
Because steam cleaning uses less water than other cleaning techniques, and because the water it does use is superheated, surfaces dry very quickly after cleaning. In most cases, the surface will be completely dry in less than 10 minutes, compared to the 30-60 minutes common for techniques that use more water.
The result is that zones can be reopened sooner after cleaning. As many hospitals are currently overwhelmed, the availability of beds can mean the difference between life and death.
3. Sustainability — Use less water, less energy, and fewer/no chemicals
Finally, steam uses less water than other cleaning methods, and chemicals aren’t required for sanitization. The machines also tend to use less electricity, resulting in greater all-around sustainability.
Best practices for steam cleaning
Follow these best practices to achieve a thorough clean while keeping your cleaning team safe.
- Before you start, remove everything that doesn’t need to be steam cleaned. This includes removing any built-up dirt. By doing this, you enable the steam to have maximum direct contact with the surfaces needing cleaned.
- Use the right accessory for the surface. Steam cleaners come with a wide variety of accessories (floor tools, crevice tools, etc.). For disinfection to take place, the steam must come into direct contact with the surface before it dissipates. Using the right accessory will ensure this happens.
- Don’t touch the machine while it’s running. A steam cleaner is essentially a boiler, which means it’s hot. Be sure to touch only the handles, tools, and other parts of the machine that are clearly indicated as safe.
- Don’t rush. Even at a high temperature, the steam needs a minimum exposure time to achieve the desired results. Aim for at least 20-30 seconds of exposure. You can accomplish this by cleaning slowly, or by performing a second pass.
- After cleaning, vacuum up the water. Steam cleaning leaves a thin layer of hot water that contains all of the dirt and germs that have been loosened from the surface. Vacuum this water to remove the dirt and germs completely, and to reduce the drying time.
- Add a chlorine or bleach tablet to the dirty-water tank. This extra safety measure will guarantee that all pathogens are neutralized.
- Wear personal protective equipment (PPE). While steam doesn’t aerosolise, it is possible to experience back-spray if you’re close to the surface you’re cleaning, so you should always wear protective gear. When cleaning in areas where pathogens may be present, follow national, regional, state, and/or local guidelines for wearing PPE.
What to look for in steam-cleaning equipment
Many steam-cleaning solutions are available. Look for these features to get the best results from your investment.
- A high-quality, commercial-grade machine. Steam cleaners are available for residential, commercial, and industrial cleaning, but there is a big difference between machines designed for homes and those designed for hospitals. Look for robust, stainless-steel construction, good ergonomics, and long runtime -- best-in-class machines can run for up to 12 hours at a time, and still last for several years.
- An integrated vacuum. Steam cleaners come in three main configurations: steam only (SO), steam + vac (SV), and steam + detergent injection + vac (SDV). An SV machine, which allows you to steam and vacuum at the same time, is ideal for the applications discussed above.
- A constant-fill tank. There are two types of cleaning tank: constant-fill and stop-and-fill. With a constant-fill tank, the water reservoir can be refilled while the machine is in use. With a stop-and-fill tank, the machine must be turned off to cool down before refilling. When speed is important, constant-fill is superior.
- A complete range of accessories. Select a machine that includes accessories that match your surfaces to be cleaned.
- Easily removable dirty-water tank. At the end of each cleaning session, the dirty-water tank must be removed and emptied. Be sure to select a machine that makes this task easy, without causing operator strain or spill risks.
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