One day, and it could be sooner than we think, we may dimly recall mains-powered cleaning machines like smokers in restaurants – or diesel cars on our roads. (The latter could be banned from UK cities before too long and mainstream politicians in the Netherlands are proposing that carbon-powered cars are driven off the roads by 2025.)
The question for our industry is when will battery-powered cleaning equipment become the norm – and will all plug-in machines eventually reach the end of their tether? We don’t know the answers right now, but it’s clear that battery alternatives are steadily and stealthily gaining ground on their cabled counterparts.
The drivers are not pollution and carbon emissions, of course. In cleaning, the internal combustion engine has been confined to industrial and outdoor applications, but even in these niche applications cleaner electric alternatives have taken over. Cordless or not, our cleaning equipment relies on the same electric power; whether or not it’s generated from renewable sources is another matter.
But the pull factors driving the switch to batteries are strong, if not yet all-powerful. The main issues, in no particular order, are:
- Safety, flexibility and productivity
- Technological advances
- Daytime cleaning
- Cost and return on investment
SAFER, MORE FLEXIBLE – AND PRODUCTIVE?
It may not be the clincher for clients, but most do recognise the safety benefits of going cordless. Trailing power leads stretching across rooms and corridors pose a tripping hazard for building users and operatives.
That risk shouldn’t be under-estimated. The Health & Safety Executive says slips (a different cleaning issue) and trips are the most common cause of major injuries at work. Its information sheet on the importance of floor cleaning puts cables and leads from cleaning equipment top of its list of potential trip hazards.
The more corners, fixtures and narrow spaces the greater the hazard of snagging cables, and the increased flexibility of a cordless machine. Operatives don’t have to stop continually to unplug, coil the cable and find the next socket either. This boosts productivity. Some have countered that the time spent recharging and/or swapping batteries can negate those productivity gains, but advances in battery technology are overcoming the drawbacks.
Short run times held back the adoption of battery power but their developers are making great strides. Like other sectors, the cleaning equipment industry is reaping the benefit of pioneering work for motor and device manufacturers.
Lead-acid batteries are used when weight is not an issue and come in different forms, each with its own features and benefits. Their cost and maintenance requirements also vary.
- Deep-cycle, flooded or lead-acid – These are the oldest types of batteries used in professional cleaning equipment, and are similar to those used in cars. The charge from within the battery comes from an electrolyte that is approximately 65 per cent water and 35 per cent sulphuric acid. Traditionally the most economical choice, they must be installed properly to prevent any discharge of the electrolyte, and maintaining them correctly takes more work.
- Gel batteries – These first came onto the market around 30 years ago. They also use sulphuric acid, but in the form of a gel. As they are completely sealed and do not need to be refilled with water, they are safer to work with and low-maintenance.
- Absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries – The electrolytes in these batteries are absorbed into a glass mat. While AGM batteries are more expensive than other options, they store well, hold their charge longer than other types, and offer greater manoeuvrability.
Lithium-ion is the ‘modern’ choice for portable equipment, having replaced nickel-cadmium (NI-Cd) technology.
The rechargeable batteries now on the market operate longer between charges and energy usage is also improving. This rising ‘charge efficiency’ means operators get more power out for the amount of energy that’s put in. They are faster to re-charge so managing the downtime of a fleet is simplified. Past concerns about the reliability of battery-reliant equipment are also being allayed.
A major advantage of this new battery technology – especially lithium ion – is the lightness of the batteries, making them suitable for a wider range of machines.
The older generation of battery-powered machines tend to be heavier than the new models, which can detract from their manoeuvrability. Yet, while lead-acid batteries are much heavier, this can still be an advantage in certain applications. For example, we use lead-acid units in the Orbis Cordless Burnisher and the Orbis Battery Scrubber, where the additional weight applies more contact pressure with the floor, making for a more thorough and efficient clean.
On the other hand, we adopted lithium-ion technology for the battery version of our Multiwash scrubber-dryer. It needs to be highly manoeuvrable while its counter-rotating cylindrical brushes ensure scrubbing power is not compromised.
Compact as well as lightweight, lithium-ion batteries are also ideal for vacuums, such as our new cordless Valet Comfort Pro Backpack and Valet Battery Upright, which we will be launching later this year and early 2017. Another advantage of lithium-ion technology is the ability to top up the battery’s charge without having to discharge 100 per cent first, which can be awkward to synchronise with shift patterns. Swapping batteries is also easier.
The shift to daytime cleaning is continuing for many reasons – one being the availability of quietly efficient cordless machines. In turn, the financial and environmental case for moving away from night-time cleaning drives the growing demand for battery-powered equipment.
A cordless kit is particularly well suited to hospitals, retail outlets, hotels and transport hubs where continual cleaning is required throughout the day, and contact with the public and employees is guaranteed. Operatives can manoeuvre the machines around more easily – and less noisily – with no need to unplug, coil the cord and re-plug elsewhere.
COST AND RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Another self-reinforcing factor in the rise of battery power is cost. As production of batteries and cordless machines rises, unit costs fall. As the price gap narrows, the alternative to mains-powered models becomes more attractive.
In various applications, the productivity boost can increase the return from investing in a battery version. The time saved by operators using more flexible machinery can be significant, given that labour costs typically account for two thirds of a cleaning budget.
There are other costs, of course, that need to be factored into the equation. Although modern batteries are becoming more robust, their life cycle, the need to invest in replacement batteries for longer shifts, and constraints on facilities for storage and charging of back-up batteries may tilt the balance in favour of mains power.
Also, it would be foolish to overlook the parallel advances in conventional cleaning equipment. Mains-powered machines are becoming quieter, safer, more powerful and efficient too.
The reality is that as long as it is practicable and cost-effective – by virtue of the operating requirements of the site and/or a price differential – there will continue to be a market for the plug-in cleaning machine. However, as environmental, legislative and consumer pressures drive the development of battery technology for applications in other sectors from space travel to smartphones, we will be able to harness those advances in the cleaning industry too.
It’s not time to pull the plug from the socket just yet, but watch this space as the battery-powered cleaning workhorse charges ahead.