Defining Clean

By Robert Kravitz

In a world where public-health scares are a frequent concern, it is time to consider whether the surfaces in facilities--and most specifically in restrooms--are hygienically clean. Until recently, this has been a difficult question to answer. While building managers might swab surfaces and use a Petri dish to test for potentially harmful germs and bacteria, this process could take days--days during which people could be infected by or come into contact with potentially harmful microorganisms.

Photos courtesy of Kaivac

Photos courtesy of Kaivac

Other scientific methods to determine the presence of germs and bacteria on surfaces are available. But many of these also take a few days to produce results, and they can be costly and require a specially trained technician to perform the tests and then report the findings.

Today there is a method for park and recreation managers to determine if restroom fixtures and surfaces in their facilities are hygienically clean and healthy. This technology--hand-held ATP monitoring--was introduced to the professional cleaning industry about five years ago.

How ATP-Monitoring Systems Work
ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate, a molecule found in all living things, including plants, animals, bacteria, yeast, mold, etc. Finding ATP on a surface can indicate the presence of bacteria or pathogens that might cause cross-contamination and endanger human health. According to John Richter, Technical Director for Kaivac Inc. (a manufacturer of ATP-monitoring devices), while these devices are relatively new to the professional cleaning industry, they are not actually a new technology.

ATP was first discovered over 80 years ago, and technologies were developed soon thereafter to test for its presence. “However … early ATP technology was often slow, complicated, and required the use of mainframe computers to produce results,” Richter explains. “That is no longer true today.”

“The biological importance of ATP is now considered second only to DNA,” he continues. “When it comes to protecting human health, it has become a total game-changer for the professional cleaning industry, scientists working in laboratories, and even grocery stores that need to ensure that their refrigeration systems are hygienically clean.”

The ATP-detecting systems most cleaning professionals now use are known as “hand-held rapid-monitoring devices.” Manufactured by several different companies, these systems are somewhat larger than a television remote control, and weigh about as much as one. They typically have a read-out display that makes test results available in 15 seconds or less. “Because results are available so quickly, and because these systems have become relatively inexpensive, ATP monitoring has become a prominent player in the cleaning industry in recent years,” Richter says.

However, just because ATP is found on a surface--for instance, a counter top--it does not necessarily indicate the presence of harmful pathogens. Instead, these findings should be interpreted as a warning that, at the very least, more thorough cleaning may be needed to make the surface safe for human contact.


Looking Clean Is No Longer Enough
How might ATP monitoring prove beneficial in a park and recreation location? Consider the following example. About 10 years ago, 113 surfaces were evaluated over a two-week period in hospitals located in the U.S.and the U.K. The surfaces were cleaned using conventional cleaning tools--mops, buckets, sprayers, cloths, etc. The surfaces were then visibly inspected, and researchers agreed the surfaces did, indeed, look clean.

The same surfaces were then tested using an ATP-monitoring system. Researchers were shocked to find that the same surfaces were not clean at all--76 percent of them were “unacceptable” (meaning they were not up either to the hospital’s standards or, in some cases, standards required by law). Researchers also found “the sites most likely to fail [having the highest ATP readings, indicating the presence of potentially harmful pathogens] were in restroom and food-service areas.” These are the key areas most associated with cross-contamination and the spread of disease. This is no less true in a park and recreational facility.

Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor, author of two books on the professional cleaning industry, and a frequent writer on cleaning issues. He may be reached via his website at
How To Properly Use An ATP-Monitoring System

To ensure swab life, swabs should be stored in a refrigerator at no more than 46º Fahrenheit. If not refrigerated, swabs can tolerate storage at room temperature (up to 77º Fahrenheit) for about four weeks.

  • Avoid leaving swabs at room temperature for more than 20 minutes.

  • An ATP system may need to conduct a “self test” for about 60 seconds when it is first turned on. Avoid using the unit until it has finished conducting this test.

  • For flat surfaces, swab a 4-inch by 4-inch area, moving the swab from left to right as well as up and down.

  • For irregular surfaces such as door handles, swab a sufficient area to collect an adequate sample.

  • Rotate the swab while in use so all areas of the swab come into contact with the surface to be tested.

  • After using the swab, return it to its tube. Then snap the top of the tube to release the liquid that protects the sample.

  • Hold the tube vertically and shake it for about five seconds.

  • Keep the swab upright.

  • The swab is now ready to be inserted into the monitoring device for testing.