Responding Vs. Reacting

In January 2008, Infection Control Today published the results of an online survey asking facility managers and members of the professional cleaning industry their thoughts on a common culprit--restroom odors. What was most notable, according to the report, was how strongly some respondents felt about this issue.

For instance, when asked if an odor present in a public restroom made respondents feel more concerned about germs, bacteria and other health-threatening pathogens, nearly 85 percent said yes. They have a right to be. Many experts believe that odor is sensory evidence of biological/bacterial activity.

The survey also found that:

• 71 percent believe restroom odors are the result or a sign of improper cleaning.

• 81 percent believe that a fresh-smelling restroom, or at least one without a noticeable odor, is a sign of a well-maintained restroom.

• 66 percent indicated that an unpleasant restroom odor would deter them from returning to a restaurant or a store.

Although restaurants were at the top of the list as to where the respondents most encountered foul restroom odors, this was quickly followed by public places such as airports, sports arenas, convention centers and park and recreation centers.

Interestingly, although respondents almost overwhelmingly indicated a fresh-smelling or odor-free facility was a sign of a well-maintained restroom, they also indicated they had considerable reservations as to what it means when a restroom has a scent such as “pine,” often the result of a cleaning chemical or a fragrance system designed to add an aroma to a restroom. Fully 68 percent said pine or similar odor in a public restroom does not mean that the restroom is clean.

Off With The Masks

"Masking odors with a fresh scent will not fix a restroom-odor problem,” says Angelo Poneris, customer-service representative with Valley Janitorial, a distributorship in Hamilton, Ohio. “This is true whether the problem is in a home, office, school or park/recreation facility.”

Unfortunately, when there is a restroom-odor problem, adding a fragrance system is employed “too soon, long before managers and cleaning professionals take a serious look as to what is causing the odor problem,” adds Poneris.

Odor-controlling systems do serve a purpose and should not be discounted. In a busy facility, such as an airport or convention center, the systems are designed to keep restrooms as pleasant-smelling as possible between cleanings. Many are even specially designed for this purpose. They are engineered to release more aromas and fragrances when the restroom is busy and less when fewer people are using it.

However, if an odor problem exists, these systems do not help correct the problem, and can make it worse. “Restroom odors are invariably the result of bacteria building up on floors, in drains, on walls and fixtures, even on ceilings,” says Poneris. “Eventually, these areas have to be thoroughly cleaned, often using nontraditional cleaning methods, to fully rectify the problem.”

Causes And Conditions

Restroom odors typically build up over time. Even though a restroom looks clean, it can still have re-emerging and persistent odor problems. There are several reasons for this. First, looking clean does not necessarily mean a restroom is clean. Today, scientific systems, such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), can almost instantly indicate if and where hidden pathogens are located on a surface.* If found, these can be the source of odors.

Additionally, odor problems can be amplified in warm temperatures and humid climates. The warmer and more humid the restroom, the more hospitable it is to bacteria, mold and mildew growth. An interesting example of this is urine, one of the big odor-causing complaints in restrooms.

Urine does not release a great deal of odor until bacteria develop. As the bacteria grow, so does the odor. The warm, acidic urine changes from an acid to an alkaline, attracting more moisture and allowing the odor to intensify. “As the process continues, the odor becomes stronger and stronger,” says Poneris. “Eventually, the only way to eliminate the odor is to eliminate the source, which can only be accomplished through hygienic cleaning.”


Poneris’s solution to the odor problem requires closer scrutiny. “Hygienic cleaning is the key, and this is not conventional cleaning,” he says. “It is more thorough cleaning, not necessarily using more powerful cleaning chemicals, but using [cleaning] systems scientifically proven to effectively remove contaminants.”

A problem now emerging about many conventional cleaning methods, such as mops and buckets, handheld sprayers and cleaning cloths is that, as they become soiled, they spread germs and bacteria. When it comes to removing urine from floor areas, for instance, a mop can spread it over the entire floor area, often “pushing” it into grout, floor pores, and other hard-to-clean areas. Bacteria are then absorbed (hidden) in porous grout lines and other niches where traditional cleaning methods cannot remove them.

One way to rectify this problem is to change the mop and bucket water frequently, for example, after cleaning each restroom. “However, this does not always get done, and [the] solution and mop become more and more contaminated,” says Poneris. “And some restrooms are large enough that the mop and bucket should even be changed a couple of times in the same restroom. This can slow the cleaning process considerably.”

What Poneris suggests as an alternative is using an indoor pressure-washing system, referred to as no-touch or spray-and-vac cleaning. With these systems, chemicals are applied to all areas to be cleaned. A limited amount of dwell time--five to 10 minutes--is required to allow the chemicals to begin loosening and dissolving the soils. The system then pressure-washes the same areas and, using a built-in wet/vac cleaner, removes the solution and contaminants from the surface area.

According to Frank Wiley, one of the founders of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute, “No-touch cleaning systems have been proven to be 60 times more effective in reducing bacterial contamination on tile and grout surfaces [when compared to cleaning with mops].” Effectively reducing bacterial contamination on surfaces is what eliminates odors.

Keeping Up Is Easy…

People in the military often use the expression, “Keeping up is easy; catching up is difficult.” Both Poneris and Wiley agree with this statement. They also believe some facilities allow odor problems to grow to such an extent that routine cleaning, even routine hygienic-cleaning, may not be enough. Instead, restorative cleaning--more time-consuming and labor-intensive--may be required.

One way to prevent this from happening is to incorporate no-touch cleaning with conventional cleaning on a scheduled, regular basis, according to Poneris. “Although many facilities have transferred completely to no-touch cleaning from conventional cleaning methods,” he says, “at least if the [no-touch] system is used on a regular basis, surfaces stay cleaner and more hygienic, and odors are less of a problem.”

Dawn Shoemaker is a freelance writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. She may be reached at

* If ATP bioluminescence is present on a surface, it serves as a red flag that potential odor- and disease-causing germs and bacteria are present. Some ATP systems are referred to as “rapid detection” or “hygiene monitoring” systems because of their speed and accuracy.

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How To Locate Mystery Odors

Finding the source of odors in facility restrooms may take a super sleuth. We know that the most common culprits--tile and grout areas, porous floors, inadequately cleaned fixtures--are places where bacteria are developing.

However, sometimes restrooms are cleaned top to bottom using the most advanced cleaning technologies and skilled cleaning professionals, and malodors still persist. In these situations, managers may need to put on their Sherlock Holmes caps to locate the mysterious odors.

Many times, odors are emanating from restroom ceilings, which may be moist, providing a perfect habitat for airborne bacteria to grow.

If checking the ceilings does not solve the mystery, examine the floors--or more specifically under the floors in the drains. Many managers do not realize there is a reason for the “U” shape found in drain plumbing. This holds a small amount of water, which blocks odors from coming up from the sewer.

Unfortunately, the water may evaporate over time, allowing sewer odors to escape. Very small amounts of “ever-prime” products, which never evaporate, can be poured into the drain, preventing sewer odors from coming up the drain, solving the mystery odor problem.

-- Klaus Reichardt, Founder and CEO, Waterless Company