Is Greener Cleaning Just A Tap Away?

By Stephen P. Ashkin
From the September/October 2015 Issue

engineered-waterWhat would you think if someone suggested that an effective way to remove a stain on clothing was to clean it with water and two crushed aspirins? How about using vinegar and baking soda to clean inside a toilet bowl? Would you be willing to make your own disinfecting wipes, again using vinegar and baking soda? And how about if someone suggested you make window cleaner using a combination of white vinegar and water?

Your first thought might be that these are “home remedies” but certainly not usable or recommended for facility managers, and for the most part you’d be right. These are all ways that many consumers are using to clean their homes to avoid traditional cleaning agents. But what would you think about some facility managers using cleaning techniques and procedures that don’t even include these home remedy ingredients? Instead they are using nothing but tap water.

Professionals in the cleaning industry are taking a closer look at what was initially referred to as “chemical-free” cleaning, but is now known as “engineered water.” Engineered water can be defined as the use of regular tap water that has been activated, ozonated, electrolyzed, heated, released under pressure, or treated in some way without the use of chemicals that turns it into an effective cleaning solution.

Some managers likely are already aware of one such cleaning process that does not use chemicals. Commercial-grade steam vapor (dry vapor) machines have been manufactured since the 1920s. “Commercial-grade” machines are developed for professional cleaning use and heat tap water to temperatures as high as 240°F to 310°F. This is far hotter than consumer steam vapor machines.

About 10 years ago, the University of Washington tested a steam vapor system to clean restrooms and reported hygienic improvements over other more traditional and chemical-using cleaning methods tested.1 However, what got engineered water in the cleaning headlines several years ago was when some major manufacturers of floor care equipment introduced automatic scrubbers—machines used to clean large floor areas—that use activated, ozonated, or electrolyzed water to clean instead of traditional cleaning solutions.2 The reason for the headlines is simple: in most cases, these machines proved effective.

Two other forms of engineered water cleaning that have proved their value are 1) microfiber cloths and water to clean counters and fixtures and 2) spray-and-vac cleaning systems, otherwise referred to as no-touch cleaning by ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association. While many of these cleaning systems and machines were originally developed to use chemicals, there are tests have found they work effectively without the use of those solutions.

The driving force behind engineered water cleaning is that it is an environmentally preferable form of cleaning. Another benefit that facility managers can appreciate is the potential to reduce costs. Admittedly most of the cost of cleaning is labor, but depending on the size of the facility, chemicals certainly can become a cost factor. Other benefits include the following:

  • Safety for the cleaning worker is increased; studies have found that some of the most serious cleaning related accidents occur when workers are mixing and using chemicals.
  • No mixing of chemicals also helps to protect indoor air quality.
  • No chemical residue is left on surfaces after cleaning. Chemical residue can act like a magnet, collecting soils and contaminants.
  • Use of engineered water is more sustainable; tap water does not need to be manufactured, packaged, or transported.
  • With some systems, cleaning tools such as clothes, mops, etc., can be soaked in engineered water, helping to clean these tools for future use and increase the lifespan of the products.

Frequently Asked Questions

The two most frequently asked questions about cleaning with no chemicals are: Does it really work? And, can it be used for all cleaning tasks?

As to whether it works, some engineered water cleaning processes have proved to be effective at removing soils and contaminants from surfaces and fixtures. At the top of the list are the dry vapor and spray-and-vac cleaning methods already mentioned.

But should these be used everywhere? This is where things get more complicated. First of all, there are areas of healthcare facilities for instance that must be cleaned using EPA-registered disinfectants. In such cases, engineered water cleaning should not be employed.

While no-chemical cleaning solutions could prove beneficial in schools and large commercial facilities such as airports and convention centers, it probably should not be used in situations where there is a localized public health scare. In such cases, public health officials may suggest or require specific disinfectants or sanitizers be used.

And finally, in situations where there is considerable concern or skepticism over using engineered water cleaning, testing the procedure is recommended. Many cleaning contractors now use ATP monitoring systems to determine how effectively a surface has been cleaned.3 This includes testing a surface before cleaning with engineered water and then after cleaning. Many of these tests have shown that surfaces were as effective if not more effectively cleaned and sanitized using a no-chemical cleaning process.


  1. Rick Hoverson, “Steaming Clean,” American School and University, Oct. 1, 2006.
  2. An electrical charge is passed through the tap water that turns it into a safe but effective cleaning agent.
  3. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate bioluminescence. Microscopic amounts of bacteria and pathogens found on surfaces may contain hundreds, if not thousands, of ATP molecules. The presence of ATP molecules could indicate disease-causing contaminants are present.



Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to green cleaning education. He is also president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry. He has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF)

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