- THE MAGAZINE
When I first entered this industry, “cleaning” generally indicated removal of any dust or soil contained in the item being on hand. It was easy to tell when carpet or upholstery needed to be cleaned because the soil was visually right there in front of you. It was equally easy to see the soil in the wastewater after it had been extracted. Obviously, the furnishings I’d been working on were now clean. And in restoration situations, a quick spray of disinfectant made sure that I was leaving my customer’s home clean and safe.
Or so we initially thought…
Our industry has grown and matured greatly over the past four decades, and while removal of soil and dust from our customer’s carpets and other furnishings still falls under the category of “cleaning,” as restorers we’re now much more aware of the hazards of substances other than dust and soil. By this, I’m referring to bacteria, mold, mildew and other potentially harmful living microbials which are either too small to see with the naked eye or are hidden from sight. If these substances are present to any degree once you’ve finished the job, can you consider it truly clean? And to a much greater degree for the restoration professional, neglecting to detect (and remove) harmful microbials not only creates health concerns for your customer, it can leave you susceptible to extended A/R collections, declined insurance payments, and in a worst case scenario can even make you legally liable for your customer’s future health issues.
Fortunately, these days we have a wide selection of tools to help determine if a surface or area is really “clean.”
TESTING SURFACES: ATP TESTING
On a recent survey of facility managers, one question was to name any new or improved technology that had helped their business over the last year. The No.1 response was ATP (adenosine triphosphate) testing.
ATP testing is a measure of surface cleanliness, and uses bioluminescence to detect residual ATP on surfaces. ATP is present in all organic material and is the universal unit of energy used in all living cells. The presence of high ATP numbers on a surface or in standing water indicates greater contamination, which indicates the presence of organic material usually bacterial and/or fungal growth. It also implies the potential for the surface to support additional growth.
To do ATP testing, a meter called a Luminometer and test swabs are required. The disposable test swab is swiped across a 4-inch square area in both directions and then returned to its container where a snap lid releases an activating liquid called a reagent. The swab is then dropped into the Luminometer and in 15 seconds a reading appears on the meter indicating the level of contamination. Initial readings may indicate hundreds – if not thousands – of ATP contamination. But when cleaning and sanitation are complete, the surface should read 50 or below. While standards for ATP numbers are still being determined for our industry, ATP testing has been widely used and accepted in the food preparation industry for some time. ATP testing is already recognized in Xactware under the code (WTR TESTATP) and pays approximately $20 per test.
ATP testing is a win for everyone.
First, it is a win for the homeowner. They will now be able to see, through scientific testing, that their home is as clean and sanitary. Second it’s a win for the insurance provider, who can now know with surety if the loss does or doesn’t need demolition and, at completion, if the restorer succeeded. Finally, the restorer can now verify what the loss was and that they succeeded in returning it to pre-loss conditions.
TESTING AIR QUALITY: PARTICLE COUNTERS
As the name clearly indicates, particle counters count particles or particulate matter in the air. Why would someone care how many particles are in the air? Because we all breathe air!
On an average day in the United States about 100 (estimates range from 52 to 150 per day) people die prematurely as a result of inhaling very small particles. These particles can be inhaled deeply into the lungs resulting in lung cancers and other pulmonary issues, contribute to hardening of the arteries and heart disease. These potentially deadly particles range in size from about 2.5 microns to about 10 microns. They are often classified as “fine particulates” to distinguish them from small particles in other size ranges.
Less serious health issues result from inhaling bacteria, pollen, dander, dust mite allergens, mold spores and fragments and smoke which may be only a fraction of a micron in size.
Handheld or portable particle counters are being increasingly used to reveal how clean the air is in any specific environment. Air is drawn through the particle counter by a small fan. Light from a laser beam is scattered by the particles passing through. A sensitive imager counts the particles usually by different sizes.
Just a few years ago, particle counters cost several thousands of dollars. Now, they’ve dropped in price to under $500. They are capable of counting particles between 0.5 to 2.5 microns or between 2.5 and 10 microns. This data can be collected over seconds, minutes, hours or all day. The data can be collected, stored and down-loaded to a computer for graphic analysis.
Breathe easy. Technicians can compare levels of mold spores/fragments in a room before and after cleaning, know if air filtration devices should be employed on a particular job and know if those devices are working properly or whether it is time for a filter change.
VIEWING HIDDEN AREAS: BORESCOPES
Sometimes microbial growth can be hard to locate when it is within walls or hidden elsewhere. That’s where borescopes (sometimes spelled as “boroscopes”) can be very helpful. Borescopes are devices used to visually inspect areas that aren’t easily accessible – such as in walls, air ducts or other confined spaces. They usually have a flexible extension and lighted end that can be inserted into an area and moved/turned to complete the inspection. Original models were only able to provide information to your eye (like a telescope). Newer models use a video display and can take pictures or videos for documentation.
Borescopes are minimally invasive for structures – meaning you don’t have to demolish an entire wall, but you do have to put a small hole in the wall (less than ¾”). This is helpful to locate microbial growth without a large danger of widespread contamination and makes for easier repairs after inspection. It can be used for air ducts without holes when inserted into register openings.
SCANNING HIDDEN AREAS: INFRARED CAMERAS
Another favorite and highly used tool for water damage restoration - the infrared (IR) camera - can be very useful in the discovery of mold. Mold is going to grow most actively where moisture is present. The IR camera can help to locate moisture that is otherwise not visible with the naked eye. It makes you feel a little bit like Superman with X-ray vision. However, it doesn’t actually “see” deep into materials, it identifies potential wet areas by detecting differences in the temperature on the surface of the materials. The IR camera is amazingly sensitive.
Recent advancement s in technology have made the cameras very affordable compared to a few years ago. The IR cameras will vary widely in price depending on the features and components. There are currently cameras available under $2,000 that offer very good performance.