By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2020
Big, busy, and necessary…It’s a parking garage in the best of times.
Like every cleaning project, a parking garage presents a few trials for the contractor. A single header sums up many of them.
“Access is the biggest challenge for cleaning parking garages,” says Henry Bockman, president of Commercial Restorations in Germantown, MD. “Access to the garage due to height restrictions and turn radius, access to areas to be cleaned due to cars left behind, access to water, access to lighting, access to ventilation, and finally, access to a legal way to discharge the wastewater.”
Complexity aside, parking garages require regular attention. The effort on garages is needed “to maintain cleanliness, prevent slip and fall injuries from oil leaks, and prevent tracking soil into buildings,” explains Bockman.
Even so, owners of garages may not be cleaning them frequently enough. “They should be cleaned twice a year at a minimum,” says Bockman. “Most garage owners clean them once a year.”
Bockman recommends customers set up a routine schedule of cleaning. He suggests “two to three times a year in order to maintain a cleaner appearance throughout the year.” In many cases owners schedule regular sweeping and somewhat less frequent cleaning.
Just how many parking garages are there in the United States? It’s an interesting question that has no clear estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Estimates on individual parking spaces have been put as high as two billion, with some cities, such as Houston, having 20 or more spaces per resident. But estimates of garages, or multi-level facilities, come in as low as 40,000 nationwide.
To get a better picture of the number of garages that would benefit from cleaning, think locally. How many airports, hospitals, town centers, and office buildings stand in tandem with garages or have underground parking? In metropolitan areas, vibrant mass transit stations have multi-level garages where commuters park and then ride the rail.
Garages are now often built into the development plan for transit hubs. The hubs allow in-bound suburban dwellers to stop and park and then move to a vehicle from a ride-share company for the trek to a city center.
Landing opportunities in garage cleaning begins with talking with the facility managers of smaller venues and searching RFPs issued by regional governments and businesses. Contractors with the resources to complete large jobs will want to investigate state and federal bid solicitations.
And get to know the scope of offerings of the National Parking Association (NPA) at https://www.weareparking.org. The NPA, among its many endeavors, disseminates certain RFPs for parking garage work, including some cleaning.
There is a lot to know in order to do a cleaning job correctly, but it is also worth noting at the onset that the work is rewarding.
“We love doing flatwork using surface machines, and parking garages have tons of that,” says John Tornabene, owner of Clean County Powerwashing in Kings Park, NY, and a teacher of garage cleaning techniques. “The largest parking garage we clean is slightly greater than two million square feet of flat surfaces; we absolutely love it.”
There is also the reward of a good return on the big jobs, explains Tornabene. “The money we make cleaning these giant beasts is pretty darn good.”
Challenges, of course, are part of any type of project, including parking garage work. “The biggest challenge revolves around water, as in not having enough water to keep up with the flow with multiple machines in use,” says Tornabene.
“The other huge challenge is rinsing the surface off after you power washed it because of all the sludge you now have,” explains Tornabene. “One of the ways to overcome the water shortage is to have larger water tanks or more of them at the job site.”
Something of a workaround exists with sludge, too. “As for the problem of producing a lot of sludge, if you sweep the garage first, this helps to greatly reduce the problem; so rinsing becomes much easier and faster to do,” says Tornabene.
In his experience, does Tornabene see owners of parking garages contracting for cleaning often enough? “No, which is a mistake on their part, especially in the colder regions where salt and sand is tracked into the garages from automobiles after the roads were salted and sanded after a snowstorm,” he explains.
Salt is much more than just a cosmetic menace. “If not power washed out of the concrete, the salt will eventually cause the concrete to start cracking,” says Tornabene.
The cracking can begin a cascade of consequences, some potentially dangerous. “If salt sinks in deep enough over the years, it will rot out the rebar which holds the concrete together,” explains Tornabene. “And if that happens, the garage floors will be compromised to the point where a garage can be condemned and no longer usable.”
Cost to an owner to replace a condemned garage may be staggering, if not prohibitive. Maintaining the concrete through regular cleaning makes great economic sense.
As for how his customers schedule, Tornabene puts it at an even split. “It’s 50-50 on that,” he says. “Some we power wash for every year, others every other year, and others could be whenever—as in quite a few years after the last washing.”
Does Tornabene recommend to customers that they consider a routine schedule of cleaning? “Yes, because not only will it make the garage look much better, but it will also help protect people for health and safety reasons because there is less brake dust to breathe in and to track into the buildings the garage may be attached to,” he says.
The boost cleaning gives to safety is important, too. “The parking stalls will become much less slippery after you clean the oil spots,” explains Tornabene.
From the Empire State to the Golden State, the slippery spots in a garage can cause big problems for the owner of the structure. By scheduling routine cleaning and maintaining a record of completion for the cleaning, the owner gains some protection in a litigious society.
Should someone slip and fall in a garage and claim that the incident happened because of an oil spot, the documentation provides a counter argument: The garage is cleaned to remove such hazards.
When the team of Jim Gamble, owner of Crystal Cleaning Company LLC in Antioch, CA, is on the job, documentation of cleaning begins when the work is in progress. “On my website I have a closed area no one can get into except my clients—they get a password,” he explains.
Customers can see pictures of their garages being cleaned. Gamble also does a final inspection with owners after the job is completed and the surface is dry. A wet surface can conceal oil stains.
“I’ve cleaned garages for almost 30 years,” says Gamble. “Educating your customer as to the many ways—levels—of cleaning is essential. I always recommend a walkthrough before bidding.”
Two sets of eyes on the status of the garage—with meaningful discussion and give and take—are easier with contractor and owner on site together. But, the interest in such a prelude to a bid varies.
“Managers of HOAs [homeowners associations] don’t want to do a walk-through most times,” says Gamble. “All they need is a piece of paper saying we cleaned it in case someone slips.”
Gamble, who periodically teaches a free online course in garage cleaning, has two big concerns about the way contractors approach the niche. One is that they do not charge customers enough. The other is that they do not always give sufficient consideration to the volume capability of the wastewater collection system they will use.
Charging to make a profit is a must. If a profit is made because of shortcuts of any kind, it damages all contractors working in the sector.
Gamble wants contractors to be sure they use the correct tools to get the job done. In 2005 he started to design his own equipment. To own and deploy the tools needed for the toughest jobs, such as tools with state-of-the-art hydraulics, contractors must make the money needed to buy and maintain them.
Twenty-four cents per square foot may sound impossible, but Gamble has been able to get that much for parking garage jobs. Success comes from selling correctly. That includes educating customers regarding the best approaches, such as how synthetic and regular oil respond differently to heat and the role of chemicals in cleaning.
As for a wastewater collection and filtration system, Gamble says the system should be able to handle 2.5 times the flow being used to wash and rinse. For example, with one machine in use that has an eight gpm flow, the collection and filtration system must have a 20-gallon capacity.
Finally, Gamble says contractors should work with regulators to foster understanding. He builds good relationships by inviting regulators to visit sites. Cordial interaction is important, and particularly so when as many as seven permits are needed to complete one job in California.