Art of Cleaning: Understanding Chemistry

Understanding Chemistry 

Chemistry can be intimidating. Thinking back to my high school years I remember all those crazy symbols and strange words looked more like a foreign language than the science I was used to. It wasn’t until years later that I became very interested in how cleaning chemicals worked. And now I can proudly say (as odd as it may sound), I am very passionate about the chemistry of cleaning. As a refresher, let’s delve into a little chemistry 101.

The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline a substance is. The pH scale ranges from 0 – 14. A pH of 7 is neutral, a pH less than 7 is acidic, and a pH greater than 7 is alkaline. Mixing acids and alkaline together will neutralize their effects and offer a product with zero results. Mixing some products can even produce a deadly gas; such as bleach and pine sol. This forms an ammonia chloride gas that if not in a ventilated area can suffocate you. Please leave the mixing of chemicals to the chemist!

Pure water is neutral. However, when chemicals are mixed with water, the mixture can become either acidic or alkaline. Examples of acidic substances are vinegar and lemon juice. Degreasers, milk of magnesia, and ammonia are examples of alkaline substances.

Now let’s look into our cleaning products and how the pH scale affects their cleaning ability. When we approach day-to-day cleaning, we need to take a hard look at exactly what we are trying to clean. The types of stains, build-ups, odors and other soils play an important role in deciding exactly what product we will clean with. Time is money in our profession and understanding chemistry and the chemicals we use is a valuable asset to our customers

I know that sounds weird but I like receiving a phone call from a customer asking how to clean a certain type of surface, or remove a odor or a stain. I now have the pleasure of making my own cleaning products and look forward to helping friends and customers get the results they want. I laugh when I here people call me the fixer. I don’t sell cleaning products I listen to my customers’ needs and desires and help them meet their expectations. Whatever your situation might be we can help. Whatever your most horrific concern is we can help. It really is fun to walk on a property and listen to what is troubling them. I promise I have an answer and will help put you on the right path with a solution. I have noticed in our industry over the years chemistry is definitely becoming safer and effective. I work for a family owned business and with family around the manufacturing we wanted to make sure the products we make are safe yet effective. However there is still a time and place for strong acids and aggressive alkalines. For example those of us that are in hard water areas of the country will need an acid cleaner. A few areas that I can think of are the southwestern United States and Southern California. You can always check with your city’s public works and they will be able to tell you if your area has hard water issues. Therefore you would need to have an acid cleaner to help you through your daily cleans. There is now way around it. Acids break down the minerals caused by hard water. Minerals like calcium, rust, lime cause build-ups that must be removed with an acid. However acids have a harsh smell at times, which turns people off and they might shy away from them. Alkalines cannot remove these types of build-up and an acid must be used or some type of abrasive scrub to remove the build-up. Acids also help neutralize alkaline build-up from soap, degreasers and other general type cleaner (Fabuloso, Palmolive, greased lightning, simple green). So when you have those difficult mineral stains or build-up reach for a acid product that you can tolerate. We manufacturer a safe acid which will not burn the skin and does not have harsh fumes, but will effectively remove the hard water and mineral build-up from several types of surfaces. It is important to understand acid cleaners and when not to use them.  Acids will damage certain types of surfaces, so education is king! Acids should not be used on natural stones like marble, granite and terrazzo. Acids will etch and break down these minerals. Remember acids are used to break down calcium, lime and other minerals and natural stones are made up of minerals from the earth. Have you ever purchased muriatic from a home improvement store to clean your concrete? What happens when you pour muriatic acid on concrete? It foams up and starts to break down the minerals in the concrete, but it does brighten the surface. This is also why acid cleaners will clean grout better than degreasers or neutral cleaner.

Those that live along the coast have other issues like salt. Salt is a mineral which cause heavy buildup on glass, metals and pretty much everything outside. Salt can be very corrosive and will cause materials to rust more quickly. If salt is not neutralized on a regular basis then you will have a real issue with rust and the longevity of your equipment, buildings, AC units and grills will all experience shorter life cycles. Choosing the proper acid to use as a cleaner is crucial.  Some acids like hydrochloric, muriatic, sulfuric and even hydrofluoric will remove layers of metal and cause the material to break down even faster. Again understanding the cleaning process and talking with your cleaning professionals like chemical manufacturers, distributors and veterans of the industry are tremendous wealth’s of knowledge. I’m sure we all have damaged a surface or two in our times! Phosphoric and citric acids are some of the safer acids to use on salt build up, but be aware of the percentages in the products. Read the label! Should they be diluted or is it a ready to use product.

Alkalines are high pH products, which start at 9-13 on the pH scale. These are needed to remove cooking oils, body oils, sun tan oils and work to remove soap scum. Soaps are made from animal fats which are easily broken down by alkaline based degreasers. Acids are not able to breakdown the grease and fats. Oven and grill cleaners are alkalines which helps break down the proteins and animal fats. These strong alkalines can also cause damage with their aggressive ingredients like caustic or sodium hydroxide. Metals like brass and aluminum can be damaged by these products. Bacteria based products are also very good at breaking down proteins, organics and help reduce odors by breaking down these organic properties. We will discuss Bacteria, enzymes and peroxide based products in another news letter.

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