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Blount Schools 'green' cleaning receives national recognition

posted Oct 3, 2016, 7:56 AM by Chris Whitehorne   [ updated Oct 3, 2016, 7:57 AM ]
Walk into any of Blount County Schools’ 23 buildings, and you won’t smell the strong ammonia, lemon or pine odors people often associate with cleaning products. Instead, Blount County has replaced harsh chemicals with safer and more environmentally friendly products and practices over the past five years. “Many people went through the years thinking that clean has a smell,” said Gary Farmer, the schools’ facilities director. “Clean does not have a smell.” “I would put the cleanliness of our buildings up against any other school system, green or non-green,” said Rick Morgan, custodial supervisor for Blount County Schools.

Award-winning program

Blount County Schools’ cleaning program received national recognition with an honorable mention in the Green Cleaning Awards for Schools & Universities last month.

The only K-12 district that scored higher, from Athens, Ga., received last year’s honorable mention in the awards sponsored by American School & University magazine, the Green Cleaning Network and the Healthy Schools Campaign. Since 2005, 10 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some type of law requiring schools to consider environmentally friendly cleaning products and practices, but Tennessee is not among them.

Schools, vendor work together

Blount County Schools works closely with its vendor, Kelsan Inc., on the cleaning program, including training twice a year for the district’s 79 custodians on best practices and new products. Teresa Farmer, Kelsan’s e-commerce and education coordinator, said she usually works with higher education institutions in East Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, including Maryville College and the University of Tennessee. However, students in K-5 schools can greatly benefit from reducing the amount and harshness of cleaning chemicals, which can trigger asthma attacks.

Evolving effort

Blount County first tested a green cleaning initiative at Carpenters Middle School and Eagleton Elementary School in 2010. In addition to cost savings projected to be 10 percent to 15 percent annually, those schools also saw a slight increase in attendance, and the CMS principal reported fewer reactions among students and staff with allergies after cleaning at the school.  Schools across the district transitioned to the new cleaning methods gradually, over about three years, as they used up existing supplies, reducing the transition cost. As equipment reaches the end of its use, Farmer also is replacing it with more environmentally friendly options.

Standardized cleaning procedures call for disinfecting all “touch surfaces,” such as desktops, doorknobs, handrails and water fountains daily, with more intensive cleaning if a student is sent home ill from a classroom. Farmer thinks cleaning procedures have helped Blount County Schools remain open over the past three years when other districts have had to close because of widespread illness.

More efficient

“It surprised me that the green cleaners were as effective, if not more effective than, the volatile chemicals,” Morgan said of the initial switch. Now concentrated cleaners are dispensed through a wall-mounted chemical management system at each school that mixes the cleaners with the proper amount of water before use. Custodians wash and reuse color-coded microfiber clothes and dust mops, and they clean bathrooms with a pressurized water and vacuum system, so there is no mopping. Three of the four main cleaners the schools use are Green Seal certified for meeting health, environment and performance standards. The fourth is a hospital-grade disinfectant.
Instead of having to strip and rewax floors every year, now the schools can do that to most floors every four years. In the interim the custodial staff can top scrub and resurface the floor. 

Previously the staff used a bucket and a string mop that had to be thrown away, in a process that was tiring and hard on the workers’ backs, Morgan said. This year the custodians started using a system that applies wax from a backpack system with a sprayer and a microfiber pad that can be reused. The system also applies wax in a thinner layer than the old method, so it dries more effectively and creates a harder surface, Morgan explained. He estimates the schools will use 30 percent less wax with the new system. The newest ec-H2O floor scrubbers Blount County Schools is purchasing use no detergents, just electrically charged water, in a system estimated to also use 70 percent less water. While the savings can be substantial, Farmer said he’s particularly focused on the health benefits that can result from using safer products and procedures. “I’m proud of what we have done here and also proud of where we are going,” Farmer said. “It’s a safer way to clean.”

Amy Beth Miller-The Daily Times, Article

Tom Sherlin-The Daily Times, photographer