Carpet/Rug/Upholstery Cleaning / Restoration / Web Exclusive Features

The New K-12 Clean Standard: What Does it Mean for You?

What defines “a normal fungal ecology,” “biologically safe” or “low VOC?"

ATP MeterThe cleaning and restoration industry has been vexed with this issue for years - exactly how clean is clean? Whether fungal contamination, biological or chemical, there are continuing debates about what defines “a normal fungal ecology,” “biologically safe” or “low VOC?” While the debate continues within the restoration industry, it also is going on in areas as specialized as health care and as routine as general custodial work. For example, the janitorial cleaning industry has been struggling with how to define and agree upon what “clean” means, and how to get there.

Of course, clean is more than visual. Though our first indication of clean is the absence of visible soil and debris, in recent decades hand hygiene, airborne contaminants and cross-contamination of food preparation areas have found their way into society’s evaluation of clean. But until recently there has been a distinct lack of objective measurements that could be used to justify a change to the cleaning program, particularly alterations that are designed to improve the conditions for the occupants.

Introduction of the ISSA Clean Standard: K-12

An overwhelming body of evidence shows that cleaning service personnel - no matter how well trained - cannot visually ascertain a surface’s cleanliness. Only science-based evaluation can make that determination. The Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) has worked with the ISSA (a global association that represents the janitorial and sanitation industry) for years, conducting research that led to a new way to evaluate the effectiveness of cleaning schools - the new Clean Standard: K-12.

CIRI started with buildings that are densely occupied by our youth: schools. K–12 education buildings are often cited as places where diseases most quickly spread. Research was required to arrive at a measurable definition of clean. Samples were collected from tens of thousands of touch points in schools throughout the nation. The goal was to define the expected outcome when a standard cleaning practice of wipe/spray/wipe is performed on high-touch surfaces. In the independent and unbiased scientific research performed by Drs. Richard Shaughnessy and Gene Cole, the cleaning spray used was selected at the discretion of each school, but the wiping cloths were microfiber, folded in such a way that a clean face was used each time a surface was wiped.

Following each round of cleaning, four surfaces were identified for analysis: classroom desks, cafeteria tables, restroom stalls and sink surrounds. For comparison purposes, biocontamination was measured using two methods: a low-cost immediate results method alongside a more rigorously scientific method. The outcome of the side-by-side tests confirmed the accuracy of the more affordable field method (ATP testing). This means that work procedures, chemicals and equipment can be easily evaluated by cleaning personnel.

As many individuals in the restoration industry know, since they use such equipment for mold or water loss projects, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabs are used to collect samples from small areas of a surface, and then are inserted into a luminometer, which provides a numerical level of biocontamination. For the Clean Standard: K-12 the sample results were collected into charts that are easy to use. Specific tables of values are provided in the Standard for different surface types and three manufacturers of luminometers, since each manufacturer uses a different scale in presenting their numbers.

Understanding the Details

So, the science-based evaluation has been done. The new Clean Standard, offered free to the public through ISSA’s website (, is a common-sense combination of a visual assessment and representative surface sampling to produce a building audit. Now the definition of clean is measureable and reasonably determined. Although the Standard was developed to be simple enough to be read and applied by the layperson, as with any new guidance, there are plenty of quirks to work through as it is applied to specific buildings.

To assist individuals in understanding and applying the concepts in the Clean Standard: K-12, CIRI has developed a training and certification program. The one-day training class for supervisors/assessors contains the core instructional material that explains the Standard, details the approach to visual assessments, and spends plenty of time going over the sampling process with all three of the ATP meters discussed in the document. Details of the various CIRI-certified classes can be found on their website (

Can the Standard Be Applied to Other Industries?

With the recent news of a major cruise line having to return one of their premiere vessels to port two days early because of suspected norovirus, questions were again being raised. How could the passengers on the next trip be assured that their voyage would be free from unusual illnesses? What methods were the management company and the contractors involved in the cleaning using to verify that their procedures were adequate to protect the ship's staff and visitors?

In the light of such regular, yet serious, incidents it is bewildering why neither the hospitality nor the health care industries have defined standards for surface cleanliness similar to what is now available for schools. There are a number of factors that seem to make sense for utilizing the Clean Standard for hospitality cleaning situations even if the same rationale does not apply to health care.

Cruise ships and schools have many similarities including high occupant density, large food service operations and a variety of interior spaces including meeting rooms, auditoriums, pools and gyms. The same can be said for most hotels. In a similar fashion, cruise ships and hotels provide accommodations for both children and adults. In most cases these occupants are of reasonable health, although the large groups of people do include some with a variety of sensitivities and allergies.

In contrast, health care facilities tend to concentrate the weakest and the sickest occupants in a particular location. Therefore, it seems that until specific surface cleanliness measurements are detailed for the hospitality and health care industries, applying the numbers from the Clean Standard: K-12 would make more sense for hospitality situations than health care settings where especially susceptible occupants are present.

The Industry is Changing and Contractors Have to Change with It

As noted previously, the use of ATP meters has been working its way into the cleaning and restoration fields over the past five years. Previously, they were almost exclusively utilized in the food preparation and pharmaceutical industries, but the ability to offer quick and inexpensive indications of biological contamination on surfaces has rapidly pushed these tools to the forefront of other industries.

Now another major barrier has been broken down. With the publication of the ISSA Clean Standard: K-12 there is a reasonable system available for professionals to use to evaluate the cleanliness of surfaces in schools. Utilizing the tried and true method of a detailed visual inspection along with objective measurements, the Clean Standard is sure to have a major impact in the educational community. For those contractors that provide emergency services to schools, becoming certified assessors/supervisors would allow them to verify that all of their work is in conformance with the new standard.

 The potential applications of the Clean Standard move well beyond schools as restoration companies provide services to many other industries - including general business, hospitality, and residential buildings - where the measurements in the Clean Standard could be adapted. Providing factual data regarding the quality of work is clearly a trend that will continue into the future, and those contractors that adapt to this trend sooner rather than later will be the ones that survive and thrive in a constantly changing industry. 

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