Steam Vapor in Restoration: The R&R Interview
Steam vapor has always seemed to be one of those technologies that should be catalogued under “Two steps forward, one step back”; for every hard-won step it takes further into the consciousness of the professional cleaning and restoration industry, there’s a midnight infomercial touting the multitasking ability of steam to “clean your bathtub, straighten your hair and get the wrinkles out of your pants; it’s just that simple!” And unfortunately, it’s sometimes easier to just lump the good information in with the bad, mix it all together and make your decisions from there.
But not this time. R&R recently took some time with Rick Hoverson, principal of Everett, Wash.-based Advanced Vapor Technologies, and asked him to explain the concept behind steam vapor technology, how it applies to the business of restoration, and where he sees the process going from here.
Restoration & Remediation: Briefly, can you give us a quick rundown as to what is meant by “steam vapor” technology?
Rick Hoverson: The marketplace has been inundated with a lot of products that use the term “steam” or claim to use steam, when in fact there may be no steam involved at all. The generic terminology has been so adulterated that we thought it important to distinguish what we do, hence the term “steam vapor” which may actually be a more accurate description on a generic basis of how the process works.
Basically, a live steam is generated by the system, and used in direct contact with the surface of concern, be it textiles, hard surfaces, whatever is being cleaned. It has very little water content, but a very high temperature. And because it has so little water, it’s very easy to control, and there is very little mess or residue left behind, which lends itself quite well to interior work.
R&R: In broad strokes, how does steam vapor fit with the business of restoration? Aren’t we just talking about another form of cleaning?
RH: It is a form of cleaning, but that’s the point. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old acronym TACT – Temperature, Agitation, Chemical concentration and Time – but that’s the basic description of any cleaning process. If you change any one of those items up or down, you also change the requirements of the other three.
In this case, the functional agent is heat. Heat is used as a disrupter; increasing the temperature reduces the requirements of the other three elements to remove soils from the surfaces being cleaned. Put cold water on a greasy dish, what happens? Not much. Now put hot water on that same dish; it cleans up very quickly. Now take that basic concept and apply it to the various situations a restorer faces on a regular basis, and you can start to see how natural the fit is.
R&R: Give us a quick idea, if you would, of the different ways in which steam vapor can be applied in a given restoration situation.
RH: It has many different applications. A great example is smoke or soot damage. Take a chandelier: a very intricate possession, a lot of angles, a lot of pieces, and potentially very difficult to clean. Depending on the size and construction, it may not lend itself very well to being placed in an ultrasonic cleaning unit.
Maybe it’s a picture frame that can’t have any type of solvent or cleaning solution applied to it. In a fire, fabrics can be soiled and also retain a lot of odor; steam has the capability to reduce or remove those odors. You can use it on equipment that has been thoroughly inundated with smoke; it’s a very quick, efficient way to remove the smoke particles that can easily work their way into the tiniest cracks and corners.
It’s a great way to destroy molds and mildews, especially in cracks, crevices and other areas that might be difficult or impossible to get to with traditional chemistry. Irregular surfaces were made for steam vapor.
We also do a fair amount of work with folks operating in the bio-recovery industry, and hear a number of stories as far as new and different uses guys have found for the system, as you might imagine.
The system is also very portable. You need power, of course, but there are no long hoses or other heavy equipment to move about with it, which makes it a very handy, multi-functional piece of equipment.
R&R: The process involves water, heat…and apparently little or nothing else? Can this really produce a disinfected surface?
RH: It can. Whether you know it or not, not all water is equal. Some is hard, some’s soft, there’s distilled, ionized…there’s all kinds of water. And different types of water produce different types of steam. What you want is the ability to produce a steam that can provide a consistent, rapid, broadly effective capability to destroy pathogens no matter your water source. Mold, mildew, c. diff, fungus, e. Coli, salmonella, you name it, things that we are always concerned about, but especially when some sort of disaster has occurred.
You need to be able to rely on the fact that you’re destroying these pathogens consistently, and that comes from having a system that reliably produces steam vapor capable of doing just that. In our case, ours is a patented component called TANCS that treats the water in such a manner as to produce the effect necessary to deliver the results we’re talking about.
R&R: What are the three most common questions you hear from people thinking about using steam vapor?
RH: Good question. Most often we get, “There’s no vacuum; where’s the dirt go?” The process works on a capillary basis. The steam is a disrupter; it breaks the bond between the soil and the surface, and the soil is simultaneously absorbed into a terrycloth bonnet.
We also get “Is it hard to use?” a lot. It’s not difficult, but it is different. There’s not a lot of scrubbing or surface agitation, which is counterintuitive for a lot of people. There’s some, of course, but nothing like what you’d use in a traditional cleaning process. The heat does the hard work.
Then there’s “How much does it cost?” There’s a lot of stuff out there, but a good quality commercial system is probably going to run you somewhere between $2,500 and $3,500, and should last you 8, 10, 12 years.
R&R: What’s the one question people should be asking about it, but aren’t?
RH: I think people are asking product questions when they should be asking process questions. Because steam vapor is a little different, people often have a misconception as to how it works, how it can be effective or efficient, and I think that’s what’s being missed: “How is this system better for me?” “What are the long-term benefits of the process?” “How can it help me accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish?” I think the process questions are really where we need to be.
R&R: Steam vapor is obviously a very “green” technology. How do you see this influencing its role in restoration in the years to come? RH: If you take a look at the chemical marketplace for the last five years, you’ve seen a lot of changes and reformulations. Government agencies are certainly becoming more involved in how they view these various cleaning chemistries, and there’s been a lot of work done in trying to establish the safety of these chemistries. You look at the trend, the trend is to reduce the amount of chemistry we’re going to be dependent on, or at least make it a lot harder to be reliant on it.
Because steam vapor uses nothing but potable tap water, there aren’t going to be a lot of collateral issues that are going to negatively impact the process going forward. You’ve got a product that’ll last 8, 10, 12 years, uses nothing but a little electricity and a little tap water. And make no mistake, water’s going to be a huge issue in the future; the less of it we can use and still accomplish the cleaning and disinfection goals that are set, the better.
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Advanced Vapor Technologies