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The coronavirus cleaning boom is coming

May 11, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

“Bats get into people’s attics. Raccoons get into people’s attics. And we go in and sanitize that. So my thought process was, ‘What if we just took that…and we were able to do something for COVID-19?’”

So that’s just what Jim Sinkuc did. After researching EPA-approved cleaning chemicals, the owner of Advanced Pest Control Solutions, based in Brookfield, Ohio, turned the fogging machines he normally uses to disinfect after an animal infestation into weapons against the coronavirus pandemic.

“I piloted it through my existing customer base, and everyone was really appreciative of it,” he says. “It gave them peace of mind.”

Sinkuc says the desire to help in a crisis was his main motivation for pivoting from killing six-legged bugs to the microscopic kind. But there’s no denying it’s also transforming his business. He’s noticed a surge of interest in the service based on word of mouth alone, and he anticipates he’s going to be “pretty busy” as lockdowns begin to ease through May. Before the pandemic, he says, Advanced Pest Control Solutions had just four employees in addition to himself. He’s since doubled his staff, hiring four new workers to operate the disinfecting foggers.

Sinkuc’s pivot—and the resulting growth—are a microcosm of a much larger wave. After mandated lockdowns of shared spaces are eased, businesses from restaurants to office buildings to airlines will be going above and beyond to show customers that they’re keeping workers and guests as safe as possible.

Experts say that will mean a big surge in spending for cleaning equipment and staff—the cleaning boom is coming. According to Tim Mulrooney, a commercial services equities analyst for William Blair, that will be a fundamental change for the industry.

“Commercial cleaning is a mature industry. It grows in line with GDP,” says Mulrooney. “[But] after the coronavirus, I think you have a secular tailwind to commercial cleaning. Everyone from governments to corporates to individuals have a heightened focus on hygiene. And when you have a heightened focus, you have more dollars spent.”

How to clean up a virus

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus mainly spreads through the air, riding on droplets coughed or breathed out by people carrying the virus. Businesses will have to make a variety of accommodations to combat that risk, such as spacing workers farther apart and erecting barriers in open offices.

But the virus can also persist on surfaces and then infect someone when it’s carried to their eyes or mouth.

“Fortunately, this virus is easy to kill on surfaces,” says Joe Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and coauthor of the recent book Healthy Buildings. “EPA-registered disinfectants will work. The trickier part is around the frequency of cleaning. If you clean once a day in a highly trafficked area, that’s not enough.” High-touch areas like doorknobs and light switches will need particular attention, Allen says.

Maryland Cleaning & Abatement Corp. employees perform a preventive fogging and damp wipe treatment at an office building on March 21, 2020, in Hunt Valley, Md.
Rob Carr—Getty Images

That means more labor for cleaning crews.

“We’re asking more of our janitorial partners,” says Anna Squires Levine, North American general manager for shared workspace firm Industrious. Industrious has some spaces still open for essential businesses and is actively planning for the post-lockdown future. Coworking firm WeWork is also increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting, and both companies say that those changes will be in place indefinitely.

Not all of that increased labor will fall on conventional janitorial services, though: Many businesses are adding entirely new elements to their sanitation approach, including the kind of aggressive disinfection offered by Advanced Pest Control Solutions.

Servpro, a franchised cleaning business focused on disaster and hazardous materials cleanup, is seeing unprecedented demand for routine deep-cleaning to supplement janitorial services. According to COO John Sooker, that includes new or expanded agreements to regularly disinfect dozens of U.S. military bases and the facilities of a major U.S. aerospace firm.

Sooker describes the goal of these and other heightened measures as instilling “facility confidence” in both workers and customers, who will be looking at the world with a largely new set of concerns.

“As you’re walking into either a food service space, hospitality, health care, retail—anything,” says Sooker, visitors will ask: “What’s inside that building? Is there something there that could negatively affect my health?”

Clean growth

New technologies are also being deployed to instill that confidence. One in particular seems poised to become a symbol of post-lockdown public life: the electrostatic sprayer. The device, which looks a bit like a plastic gun, was prominently featured in a commercial touting Delta Air Lines’ expanded cleaning efforts. Electrostatic spraying is also the first bullet point in Southwest Airlines’ new cleaning plans.

The sprayers give molecules of disinfectant a positive electrostatic charge before they’re sprayed onto surfaces. That both attracts the molecules to surfaces, and repels them from one another, creating an even coating and pushing disinfectant into recessed areas.

“If I’m spraying a desk, it’ll go underneath the desk,” says Chris Gurreri, cofounder of Victory Innovations, the leading manufacturer of portable electrostatic sprayers. “We estimate it’s 60% to 70% faster than using a spray bottle and wiping.”

It’s also faster than lower-tech decontaminating foggers, which often require waiting several hours for particles to settle before a space can be used.

“Our business has gone crazy since the outbreak started,” says Gurreri. “We’ve been adding capacity every month, and our product is sold out into August.”

Gurreri says interest has come not just from hospitals, hotels, and airlines looking to improve their cleaning and disinfection protocols, but from businesses who want to have the sprayers on hand for routine use. He’s heard from restaurants considering spraying down tables after every patron, and even automobile retailers who want to be able to disinfect cars before buyers pick them up.

According to Allen, a less visible but just as necessary change will be how the air is cleaned—particularly in large buildings.

“We chronically underventilate nearly every indoor environment we’re in, largely in an effort to conserve energy,” he says.

Recirculating air keeps down the cost of cooling and heating it, but also concentrates indoor pollutants—potentially including coronavirus-laden droplets. Allen says leaving more windows open to bring in fresh air will be a solution for some buildings, while others will have to increase filtration in HVAC systems.

The new normal

Companies and experts anticipate that heightened cleaning standards will be in place for the long haul. “I think there’s no question that a permanent shift is coming,” says Allen.

That could have profound benefits for Americans’ health, even after COVID-19 is under control. The same chemicals and procedures used to slow the spread of the coronavirus also meet CDC guidelines for controlling influenza, which kills as many as 61,000 Americans a year, despite the availability of a vaccine.

Fresher, cleaner air will come with an energy cost, but it could also increase office health and productivity.

“Decades of science show that when we bring in more fresh air, we have fewer sick days, less disease transmission, and better cognitive function,” says Allen.

But it won’t be enough to just improve the actual cleaning: Businesses will have to demonstrate those improvements to customers and workers. That’s why Allen also expects more demand for third-party certification of the cleanliness of facilities, citing those provided by Fitwel and the Well Building Standard. Sooker says Servpro is planning, for the first time, to offer its customers window stickers to highlight that they’re using the company’s services.

“People want to trust that something has been done in their building,” says Sooker. “I know I have a cleaning service that comes in and makes everything look clean visually. But what are you doing for the things we can’t see?”

According to Mulrooney at William Blair, that element of anxiety will likely help benefits of the cleaning boom accrue to recognizable cleaning brands including Servpro, ABM Industries, and ServiceMaster Clean. Larger operations also tend to have more sophisticated cleaning protocols and better supply chains, helping them secure needed supplies and tools as demand ramps up. Those factors could drive consolidation of what has long been a fragmented industry with low barriers to entry.

“Going with a large, well-known brand is what facility managers are going to be looking for,” says Mulrooney. “Those companies are much better positioned as we enter the next phase of commercial cleaning.”

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