October 29, 2007

Green Cleaning Revolution

I'm incredibly excited about cleaning floors at the moment. Ok, stay with me. I spoke at a large convention last week, the International Sanitary Supplies Association. It may not sound like there would be much green action, but there is definitely cutting-edge innovation happening back in the supply chain hidden from view. I saw what appears to be a remarkable green innovation at this conference.

First, full disclosure: This story is about Tennant, a quiet public company that makes cleaning equipment, and they hired me to speak. But I can say that the industry gave Tennant the Innovation Award at this conference,so it wasn't just me. I also checked this out with some of their test customers, so I'm really just reporting what I heard and saw.

So, here's the big innovation: water. Tennant just launched a floor cleaning machine called Echo that uses no chemicals at all. The machine oxygenates tap water to split it into an acid and base (alkaline) that are safe to touch, then it sprays the two streams on the floor. In 45 seconds, the two polarized water streams mix and become plain water again. But in the process, the mixture grabs all the dirt off the ground. Sounds too good to be true, but it seems to work. Test customers included the Minneapolis Target Center (where the Minnesota Timberwolves play) and Unicco, a building contractor that services many malls in the Northeast.

I talked to Jay Souza from Unicco, which manages the janitorial services for the malls, and he said Echo actually cleans better than a chemical-driven machine. The floor also dries faster. Most importantly, there is absolutely no safety issue. The thing takes tap water so there's no handling of toxic chemicals and no safety concerns.

The catch? It costs about $1,000 more (they're $5,000 machines and believe it or not, there's a $5B market for these things). The payback period from not having to buy chemicals is in the range of 1-2 years. When I talked to the purchasing guy from Unicco, Greg Zifcak, he said he couldn't be happier to pay more to avoid all the safety concerns — the short-ish payback was not even that vital. The other small catch: it doesn't clean every kind of surface or all kinds of dirt (oil-based things like brake fluid are created to resist water). But I got the impression that it cleans the same floors as regular machines. So, there will still be a need for chemicals for many uses for now. But this innovation covers an awful lot of surfaces out there.

How did this all happen? The CEO, Chris Killingstad, arrived on the scene of this quiet 138-year-old company a few years back. He told everyone that they would no longer be a "non-residential service something, something" (I can't even remember what their mantra was it was so nondescript). Now, he said, we'll be an "environmental cleaning solutions company." Ta-da. That created the mindset for R&D to run free. Borrowing the idea for the technology from other industries and countries (Japan apparently uses these ionized streams for things like cleaning wounds), came up with the idea to use the recombination step as a cleaning process, and went from idea in January 2006 to launch in less than two years.

This kind of innovation is sort of head-slapping in its obviousness — in retrospect. And enormously valuable to the company that can hit on it first.

World, meet the Prius of floor cleaning.


On December 12, 2007 4:27 AM, Stephanie said:

Wow! Encouraging... will it be developed for residential use too? I've been wondering if I could use vinegar & water in my carpet shampooer, and if a water rinse would be enough to remove the vinegar smell. I suppose I should just bite the bullet and give it a try... :-)

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