The Portable Restroom Cleaning and Disinfecting Conundrum

There’s a difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, and you may not be doing either process correctly
The Portable Restroom Cleaning and Disinfecting Conundrum

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When cleaning portable restrooms, whether a quick washdown on location or a thorough scrubbing back in the yard, it’s important to use the right technique to match the products you’re using. You probably throw around the terms sanitizing and disinfecting, but do you know the difference?

Using the word “sanitized” may not always be the proper terminology. To explain, let’s define “clean,” “sanitize” and “disinfect.” In layman’s terms, these words mean the following:

  • Cleaning a surface refers to removing soil on that surface; often this refers to the removing of visible soil. While the visible soil may be removed, that does not mean pathogens that could harm human health have also been eliminated.
  • To sanitize means to eliminate or reduce the number of pathogens on a surface by 99.9 percent.
  • A disinfectant takes this a step further and eliminates 100 percent of the pathogens on a surface per the label “kill claims.” The label will indicate what types of microorganisms the disinfectant is designed to “kill.”

When workers clean an office building or even a school, very often all that is needed is to clean surfaces and then use a sanitizer on them. However, to ensure portable restrooms are hygienically clean – meaning the potential for cross-contamination has been eliminated – a disinfectant should be used. Because of this, you need to have a deeper understanding of how to use these powerful chemicals and, just as important, how not to misuse or overuse them.

Disinfectant: The fine print 
In Canada, parts of Europe, and other areas of the world, there are green-certified disinfectants. These have been independently tested and have met certain guidelines that determine they are effective while also having a reduced impact on the environment. However, in the U.S. – at this time – there are no green-certified disinfectants nor can a manufacturer even imply their disinfectant is “environmentally friendly.” In the U.S., disinfectants are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, which evaluates the product both for its effectiveness and its impact on the environment. If the product meets specific guidelines, it is labeled an EPA-registered disinfectant.

As referenced earlier, on the label of a disinfectant will be listed the kill claims of the product. The kill claims will read something like this: “Effective against Clostridium difficile (spores); Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB); or Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA).”

However, very often we are unsure of what pathogens may be on a surface. In such cases, portable restroom operators can select a “broad spectrum” disinfectant designed to kill many types of microorganisms. In such cases, the label will list several types of pathogens and read something like this: Kills MRSA, HIV, TB, VRE, and Hepatitis B and C.

Issues with use
Just because a disinfectant has been applied to a portable restroom surface does not mean that pathogens on that surface have been eliminated. The following three things must occur to ensure pathogens have been eliminated:

  1. The surface must be cleaned first; this means all soils on the surface have been removed. It also implies that cleaning and disinfecting is a two-step process. Very often this is not understood or not adhered to, due to pressure to clean restrooms as fast as possible. (In some cases, the disinfectant may indicate it is a “cleaner disinfectant.” In such cases, the two-step cleaning and disinfecting process may not be necessary.)
  2. Allow the disinfectant time to be effective. Returning to the product’s label once again, the “dwell” time will be noted. This may be anywhere from five to 10 minutes and indicates how much time the product needs to kill pathogens. This also is often misunderstood. For example, recent studies have indicated that even though grocery shoppers may wipe their carts with a disinfectant, germs and pathogens are still found on the cart and on their hands. The reason: The cart is touched seconds after the wipe has been applied; the disinfectant had no time to work effectively.
  3. The product must also be properly diluted; the dilution ratios will be listed on the product’s label and different disinfectants will have different dilution ratios. This is very important because too much water will weaken the disinfectant so it will not work correctly, but more is not necessarily better either. If too much disinfectant is applied it can leave a chemical residue that can act like a magnet, drawing more soil and contaminants to restroom surfaces. Another concern about using too much disinfectant is that some pathogens and microorganisms are becoming immune to disinfectants just as people are becoming immune to some antibiotics. In both cases, this is happening due to overuse. 

As to the dwell time, there is another issue portable restroom operators should be aware of. What if several portable restrooms are cleaned at the same time, and the disinfectant dries on the surface? This can diminish the disinfectant’s effectiveness.  It must remain “wet” while dwelling in order to work effectively.

Cleaning and disinfecting portable restrooms
In many cases, once the restrooms contents have been pumped out, the interior surfaces are manually wiped with a cleaning agent and then the entire unit is rinsed with water. If a disinfectant is used, it likely is mixed with the cleaning solution and rinsed moments after application.

As discussed, this is not an effective way to ensure harmful pathogens have been eliminated. A more effective approach is to use a spray-and-vac cleaning (no-touch) system. With these systems, there is no touching of the actual interior or exterior surfaces. The machine applies cleaning solution and a disinfectant to all surfaces. The operator may then repeat the process on several restrooms at the same time.

The operator then returns to the first unit and begins pressure washing the restrooms. This process allows for dwell time and the pressure rinse helps ensure all pathogens have been removed from surfaces. There are studies that indicate these spray-and-vac machines can remove harmful pathogens on their own without cleaners and disinfectants. However, this is not recommended by the manufacturers and not a good idea when cleaning portable restrooms.

The last step, if needed, is using the system to vacuum up remaining moisture after cleaning. This ensures the entire unit is dry and ready for use minutes after cleaning.

We live in a world where many people are afraid to touch anything in a public bathroom. This fear often intensifies when they must use a portable restroom. With these fears and the public’s increasing knowledge of illness outbreaks, portable restroom operators will likely be under more and more pressure to keep their units as pleasant and hygienically clean as possible. This involves the use of disinfectants, and just as important, the proper use of these products as discussed here.

Paul South is the president and general manager of Valley Janitorial, a 30-year-old janitorial supply company based in Hamilton, Ohio.  


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