Proving Cleanliness

Janitorial companies are starting to use handheld monitors to document thorough cleaning. Will the ATP technology they use migrate to the portable sanitation industry?
Proving Cleanliness

With public health threats including the H1N1 virus, Dennis Wilson, owner of a cleaning service in San Diego, Calif., says his company's clients are becoming keenly interested in protecting the health of the people who use the bathrooms.

It seems that preventing disease motivates those who hire janitorial services much more than just having a visually clean restroom. Clients want to know that their facilities are hygienically clean – that is, beyond just looking clean, that they are free of contaminants and infectious agents.

Is the same concern brewing among your portable sanitation customers? If so, how can a portable restroom operator prove a unit is more than just visibly clean – that it is also free of disease-causing viruses
and bacteria?

Wilson was fairly confident that his crews were effectively cleaning public bathrooms for clients. His procedures included using no-touch, spray-and-vac pressure-washing systems to sanitize and hygienically clean the bathrooms. But he lacked a way to scientifically prove this to customers.

To address the challenge, the firm turned to adenosine triphosphate, or ATP technology. This technology has been used for years in laboratories and grocery stores to ensure surfaces are hygienically clean. It was introduced to the professional cleaning industry about five years ago and is now commonly used in all types of facilities. Now the question is: Will it find a place in the portable sanitation industry as well?


ATP is an energy molecule found in all organisms; its presence on a surface is therefore considered an indicator that some form of life is present. When testing shows the presence of ATP on a surface – metal, tile, plastic, laminate, plumbing fixtures, etc. – it can mean that health-threatening microorganisms are present as well. ATP-sensing technology does not detect specific organic substances – microbial cultures and other tests are necessary for those results. But the presence of ATP should be viewed as a red flag that a potential problem exists and that more thorough, hygienic cleaning is needed.

Although ATP is certainly not a household name, it is not new. In fact, systems that detect ATP began to be developed in the United States and England shortly after World War II to detect potential contaminants on surfaces in laboratory settings. As the technology developed, it became easier to use.

Rapid monitoring handheld systems have been developed that provide accurate ATP readings in literally seconds, making the technology applicable to a variety of industries – including portable restroom operations. The testing process consists of these basic steps: A pen-like device is swabbed over a surface. The device is then inserted into the handheld reader. In seconds, the system calculates the relative amount of ATP detected.

Using these results, many facilities have developed standards for acceptable levels of ATP. If the results of the test are below a certain threshold, the surface is deemed clean and safe; above the threshold the surface may not be considered safe and must be cleaned and sanitized again. ATP testing results can validate that a piece of equipment, a workstation, a restroom surface, or a similar area is clean enough to be used. Portable restroom operators can use the device to prove to their customers that they are delivering and maintaining units that are safe and hygienically clean.


Of course, the presence of ATP – even high levels of ATP – does not prove health-threatening microorganisms are present. In fact, since ATP is present in all living things, its presence can actually be quite benign. For instance, the inside of a tomato is relatively sterile and does not usually contain bacteria – but it does contain a huge amount of ATP.

On the other hand, when used as a red flag that a potential problem may exist, ATP tests offer an opportunity to quickly identify and correct a potential health risk before it can do any harm. In fact, no less an authority than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes use of ATP technology in just this manner. Although it does not require ATP testing in food service/marketing locations, the FDA uses it when performing inspections. If ATP is detected, inspectors insist that the test area be cleaned and sanitized again.

Many janitorial service companies are now using ATP technology as a marketing tool. For the first time, they have the ability to prove to customers that their work is effective, preventing the spread of contamination and protecting health.


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