By Diane M. Calabrese / Published January 2024
What’s the surest sign of a vibrant place? Food trucks.
Yes, food trucks; not traffic congestion, throngs of pedestrians, or noise.
Food trucks signal a thriving area. It could be a city center or a factory entrance. It could be a county or state fair.
Where people are engaged and doing, food trucks enter the picture to provide easy access to a meal or a snack. Convenient and compact, the trucks require the same attention as every other facility that prepares and serves food. That is, food trucks must be cleaned, and they must be cleaned to meet the expectations of regulators.
Steam can be a great asset in cleaning food trucks. Phil Petty, general manager at Williams Cleaning Systems in Bakersfield, CA, sells steam cleaners to certain customers who use them to clean and to sanitize.
“The Optima Steamer [from manufacturer Steamericas] can be used for just about every part of the food truck,” says Petty. “It can be used for spot cleaning on upholstery and other nonfood areas of the truck.”
But the way steam tackles the food preparation areas is most noteworthy. Indeed, Petty relays some feedback from one of his customers. “The customer likes the versatility of areas it can get into with different wand/gun sets,” explains Petty. “They can clean the counter tops and sanitize at the same time.”
Most of us have only seen the inside of a food truck by peeking in the sales window. Still, we know how small the working area is. Cleaning requires a flexibly configured machine.
A longer wand enables the user of a steam cleaner to “get behind the tight areas and chase the grease and food scraps to an area where they can wipe/clean it up,” says Petty. But the benefits of steam don’t end there.
“The flue hood and stack get cleaned with the steamer only,” explains Petty. That means “no chemicals, which saves money, and it alleviates any worries of cleaning product residue.”
The steam cleaner Petty sells will serve customers whether they require dry steam or wet steam. Often they need both.
“The dry steam is used for surface cleaning and disinfecting,” says Petty. “For the harder spots or embedded stains, the machine we sell has a moisture valve, and you can get wet steam that penetrates the harder items.”
In most municipalities food trucks must meet the same health code regulations as owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Licensure may involve towns and/ or states.
“Most food trucks during deep cleans are [not within] their permitted area of sale,” says Petty, “like the ones brought into their shop.”
Although there is high heat coming from the steamer, the machine stays outside the truck. Moreover, if the fuel source for cooking involves a propane tank, the tank is typically removed before cleaning, explains Petty.
The NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] takes a keen interest in food trucks. NFPA’s fact sheet provides safety checklists for solid fuel and propane as well as for general safety and power sources.
Contractors considering the addition of a food truck cleaning service will find the sheet provides a good introduction to the vehicles. [See https://www.nfpa.org/downloadable-resources/fact-sheets/food-trucksafety-fact-sheet?l=0.]
The response that Petty receives from customers who have used steam for cleaning food trucks is positive. They point to a “versatile tool” that has “cut down on cleaning times” as well as reduced the cost of cleaning material because the steam cleaner can disinfect and sanitize.
KITCHEN ON WHEELS
“How can food truck operators establish a routine maintenance and cleaning schedule that ensures both operational efficiency and adherence to safety and hygiene standards, especially given the unique challenges of mobile operations?” is an overarching question, explains George Erskin, co-owner of Cyclone Eco Cleaning LLC in Sacramento, CA.
Cleaning food trucks is a niche contractors can fill. But before advertising the service, consider a few of the basics.
“While steam cleaning offers many advantages in terms of deep cleaning and sanitization, its use around propane tanks and solid fuels must be approached with caution,” says Erskin. “With proper precautions and adherence to safety protocols, risks can be minimized, ensuring effective cleaning without compromising safety.”
Where to begin? Know which parts of the truck are the best matches for steam.
“Hands down, the flue and exhaust systems are prime candidates for steam cleaning,” says Erskin. “Limited space and rapid accumulation of grease can reduce effectiveness of other cleaning methods,” he adds.
“Steam cleaning with its high temperatures not only effectively melts away the grease but also ensures a sanitized environment, reducing fire hazards and ensuring compliance with health standards,” explains Erskin. And the good outcomes extend to other surfaces that must be cleaned.
Other surfaces include grills and cooking surfaces, refrigeration and cooling units, and floors and workspace areas. “Over the years I’ve observed that cooking surfaces in food trucks, due to their constant use, can become hotspots for stubborn grime,” says Erskin. “Steam cleaning can be a game changer here because it results in spotless surfaces free of chemical residue,” he comments.
As for the refrigeration and cooling units, expect mold and mildew as the “common adversaries,” especially in humid climates, explains Erskin. Steam cleaning not only effectively counters the accumulation but also ensures equipment longevity and food safety.
Then, look to floors and workspaces. “The compact nature of food trucks means spills and splatters are an everyday occurrence,” says Erskin. “Steam cleaning provides a deep clean, ensuring these spaces are not just visually clean but also hygienically sound.”
The regulations encompassing food trucks are always evolving (like other regulations). Erskin says it’s important for contractors to be engaged with professional organizations that keep pace with the rules.
Erskin is a member of UAMCC [United Association of Mobile Contract Cleaners]. “We often engage in dialogues with regulatory bodies, providing them with insights from the field and staying updated on any potential changes to cleaning standards and regulations,” he explains.
At the core of all regulations is the quest to mitigate risk (maximize safety)—in this context for the consumers of food. Evaluating outcomes and disseminating information about best practices are most often the concern of regulators, although some recommend specific methods.
Specificity from regulators is usually tied to a method with a known risk, such as chemical contamination, explains Erskin. “For example, certain cleaning agents might be prohibited if they pose a risk of contaminating food or harming the environment.”
Wastewater rules may be exacting, says Erskin. “Some jurisdictions might have guidelines on wastewater disposal, especially if cleaning methods produce runoff laden with grease and chemicals.”
Public health departments in municipalities most often have the licensing responsibility for food establishments of any sort—“any sort” because their expectations put an umbrella over everything from a temporary food stand to a cart to a truck or restaurant. That’s the case in San Bernadino County, CA.
So detailed is the San Bernadino document that it separates food trucks by hygienic risk level. Low risk offers only uncut produce and prepackaged meals/snacks. Medium risk offers shaved ice, coffee, and soft serve ice cream; while high risk offers hamburgers, plated meals, etc. Expectations include the temperature of water for hand washing, water that must be present even on push carts that sell food.
The NFPA guidance on food trucks is just that: guidance. The organization aims to prevent fires with its extensive (and routinely updated) advice on safety standards.
“While the NFPA doesn’t specifically prohibit steam cleaning, it’s essential to consider the safety implications,” says Erskin. “Electrical components should be protected from moisture to prevent short circuits. Additionally, care should be taken to ensure that no water or steam enters areas where it might create a hazard, such as slippery floors or potential electrical issues.”
Both propane tanks and solid fuels (e.g., wood, charcoal) used by food trucks can pose risks. Be aware of the inherent risks and avoid them.
A barrier or protective covers should be used to cordon off propane tanks and solid fuels in the vicinity of steam, explains Erskin. “Before and after steam cleaning, a thorough inspection of propane tanks, valves, seals, and solid fuel storage areas should be conducted to ensure no damage or compromise has occurred.”
And “proper training” of operators of equipment is a must, says Erskin. Not only are propane tanks vulnerable to thermal expansion, but also they may suffer the loss of valve and seal integrity if exposed to steam. If steam condenses on tanks over time, the water can lead to corrosion.
Solid fuels also come with potential risks, explains Erskin. They can absorb moisture that yields unwanted smoke. If operators fail to ensure they are cool, contact with steam can result in a flare-up (and burn danger); and if steam comes in contact with ash and other residues, it can make them sticky and capable of clogging ventilation or air intake systems of stoves.
These are all good reasons to remove tanks or solid fuels to a separate area before using steam. Vibrant community places and safety fit together as hand in glove.