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The Trifecta of Cleaning Agents

Chemistry is the basis for presprays, rinses as well as spot and stain removers. Different formulations will be more appropriate for use on some fibers or some types of soil than others. Some are less aggressive for the surface being cleaned, safer for the technician, his clients, or the environment. It is helpful to understand how and why one cleaning agent works differently than another. Cleaning formulas are built upon the foundation of the trifecta of cleaning agents. The vast array of cleaning formulas in the market today will incorporate alkalinity, surfactancy, and solvency to some degree.

The basis of cleaning is to remove oils and soils. The trifecta of cleaning uses these ingredients in multiple ways. Alkalinity is the least expensive, but a balance needs to be found to limit corrosion to the skin and any damage to natural fibers. Surfactancy includes greener materials and works at high dilution. Foam needs to be managed dependent on various performance factors. Solvency is highly regulated by VOC laws, which can limit its impact. Low VOC solvents have reduced traditional solvents making this category of ingredients less dominant than in the past. Balanced formulas generally have almost even representations of the cleaning trifecta. 

Alkaline ingredients are usually among the least expensive active ingredients in a formula. They can react with grease and oil rather quickly. Alkaline ingredients can react with fats or oils to form soap or similar substances. The soap is rinsed away from the carpet easier than fats or oils. But excessive alkalinity can be damaging to dyes, harm fibers, or pose a health threat. Alkaline builders may help to soften water, but some are negatively affected by hard water. They will perform less effectively in the presence of hard water.

Surfactants can work even when highly diluted. For example, surfactants may make up several percent of a rinse agent. The rinse agent is then diluted 1:320 or even 1:640 when in use. Still, the beneficial effects of the surfactant can be clearly observed. They reduce surface tension allowing cleaning solutions to penetrate into fibers. They help separate all types of soil from the fiber. Increasingly, non-ionic surfactants which are known for emulsifying oils, are becoming the foundation block for many new formulas with smaller amounts of alkalinity and solvents being used.

There are different regulatory, safety, health, and environmental concerns with some solvents. Solvents must be more concentrated than alkaline builders or surfactants to perform well. A formula of 100% high-quality solvents will be expensive and limited in its legal usage to dry cleaning. If solvents make up 10% (a mixture of low VOC and VOC solvents) of a formulated cleaning agent and that cleaning agent is diluted 1:32 in normal use, the solvent makes up only .3% (carpet cleaning formulas allow .1% of volatile solvent) of the ready to use product. This level of solvency may not be sufficient to do the job. For this reason, a balanced prespray also contains surfactants and alkalinity to perform a quality cleaning. For oily surfaces, more solvent may be required resulting in the addition of a solvent booster.  The solvent booster meets the regulatory standards of a general-purpose degreaser when necessary. Using a booster only on those jobs that require it can be very cost-effective and simplifies the basic cleaning formula.

In conclusion, the foundation of cleaning formulas relies on the use of the trifecta of cleaning agents to some degree or another. Other ingredients are used in clearly defined cleaning categories. Oxidizing and reducing bleaches are the basis for chemically changing organic and inorganic stains. Bacteria and/or enzyme-based products focus on removing and even digesting organic contaminants. These ingredients are vital for a small group of focused products, but the trifecta will always dominate the cleaning product category.



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