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Full Steam Ahead

Full Steam Ahead

Written by Diane M. Calabrese | Published May 2024

Is steam given its due? No. The prowess steam had on sea and rail has been supplanted by other types of engines. So, who needs steam now?

We do, and we use plenty. (See last section.) Potent in its power to clean and move and heat to the threshold of sterilization, steam never disappeared as an industrial and commercial tool. But past bugaboos, such as steam-powered river boats exploding, tend to keep the word about steam low key.

John Cloud, the president of Gorilla Kleen in Sarasota, FL, says that concerns operators have about the inherent danger of steam have probably tamped down adoption of steam equipment a bit. But with refinements to equipment, the concerns will likely abate.

“I think most steam cleaners are low pressure,” says Cloud. And that should alleviate operator worries about things going wrong.

To be sure, safety is being built in at the design stage in all the equipment serving our industry. That includes steam machines.

There’s not just one type of steam. We know that just from the experience of boiling water in a teapot. Sometimes what’s emerging from the spout releases droplets that we observe falling.

High-quality steam has no water in suspension—that is, no liquid component. It is 100 percent steam.

The interplay between pressure and temperature determines the kind—or quality—of steam. For instance, there is superheated steam (which can be wet or dry), and there is supercritical water.

Dry (dry saturated) steam is water vapor under sufficient pressure (at its given temperature) that there is no liquid component. If there is no water in suspension (liquid component zero), steam quality is 100 percent. And the steam is designated as dry.

Wet steam (or unsaturated steam) retains a liquid component (droplets or mist) at its given temperature and pressure. That’s the abbreviated account.

Each type of steam has a different energy content. The measure of energy content per unit mass of a substance is called “enthalpy”’ in physics. When manufacturers design steam-producing units for any use (from moving turbines to cleaning), the term enthalpy becomes part of the lexicon. In lay terms, wet steam has less usable heat energy than dry steam.

Those engaged with steam-based equipment are enthusiastic about its myriad capabilities. Rightly so.

Lighter Touch

“In general, steam can be used to clean delicate surfaces that perhaps pressure or aggressive detergents would normally damage,” says Josh Wagner, retail manager at Atlantic Pressure Washers in Linthicum, MD. “In the past steam cleaning was not considered an economical solution as machines were considered too large for transport or exorbitantly overpriced for a compact.”

That’s all changed in the last five years, says Wagner. “Technology has advanced so far that most reputable detail shops have personal systems or at least have access to a mobile detailer that specializes in steam cleaning.”

The restoration trade, which attends to the revitalization of vintage vehicles and historic buildings and landmarks, has gotten a great boost from ever-improved steam machines, explains Wagner. The ability to restore structures benefits communities in which neglected areas can be refurbished to the point where they again have curb appeal and invite residents to inhabit them.

“I was in Rome several years ago and had a chance to see and tour the Colosseum,” says Wagner. “This happened to be around the third of fourth month of its first deep cleaning in several centuries”

Amusement Park Maintenance by Steam Cleaning

Amusement Park Maintenance BY STEAM CLEANING

Wagner talked with one of the project managers on site and learned that the private company hi red to do the job was using steam on the entire exterior and select interior portions. “The last time this task was taken on, it was completed by hand scrubbing select areas.”

Yet at present steam does not have the market share it merits. Wagner believes that many contractors hold back from adding steam cleaning to their repertoire because they simply do not know enough about it.

Familiarity with pressure washers and the wide use of pressure washers and ancillaries makes them more likely to be the go-to machines. Professional cleaning contractors are always looking for the optimal way to accomplish a task, however, so steam can be expected to gain ground.

“Once awareness grows to the point that more people are familiar with the tools that incorporate steam as well as the expected results, contractors will get more requests, which will drive the industry in that direction,” says Wagner. In other words, expect customers across sectors to ask about steam cleaning as they witness and read about steam cleaning.

Efficiency

Save time, conserve water, and reduce the number of pollutants—all are good outcomes, and steam cleaning helps achieve them. They are not the only good outcomes.

The target object or structure governs just how precise a match steam may be for the project. Let’s head to the amusement park.

“Roller coaster rides’ parts are cleaned with dry steam as part of safety management,” says Yujin Anderson, general manager at Steamericas Inc. in Gardena, CA. The alternatives to dry steam consume more time and could cause damage.

The conventional way to clean a roller coaster would be to disassemble it and put the components in a parts washer, explains Anderson. It works, but there can be unintended consequences.

“These parts washers would damage the metal and/ or chip the paint finishing,” says Anderson. Given the safety concerns on a roller coaster, the last thing anyone wants to do is damage the metal.

“As an alternative to parts washing, they have been manually wiping down surfaces using varsol, a very harmful chemical to breathe in and a very labor intensive process,” says Anderson. (The SDS for varsol, mineral spirits, points to the cancer risks it poses to organs such as kidneys and lists respirator, gloves, apron, and goggles as correct PPE when using the moderately flammable compound.)

“Dry steam was able to do the job more quickly, and it was safer for both workers and equipment in a far more sustainable way. And they were able to do this in their shop without having to worry about a huge puddle or mess.”

Of course, there is efficiency on the back side (less wastewater) and efficiency on the front side (less water tapped) with steam cleaning. “Just as we’ve adapted to water-conserving shower faucets despite initial reluctance due to the allure of strong water pressure and ample flow, steam cleaning is poised to replace some applications of high-water-volume washing in the long run,” says Anderson.

There may be some instances in which steam cleaning may be slower than pressure washing, explains Anderson. But steam cleaning uses about 50 times less water. Moreover, dry steam generates negligible amounts of wastewater runoff.

“There’s a growing recognition of the importance of sustainability,” says Anderson. “The balance between benefits and drawbacks is shifting, with more emphasis on eco-friendly practices.”

Rules from all levels of government are also causing many to give steam cleaning consideration. “In certain scenarios, steam cleaning is not just a preference but a necessity to comply with environmental regulations,” says Anderson. For example, in California, engineless steamers are exempt from the SORE [small off-road engine] rules.

As North American contractors, distributors, and manufacturers gain more understanding of steam in general, Anderson expects to see its use increase. She cautions, though, that there’s another issue: voltage.

The prevalence of 110 volts in the United States, for instance, restricts the ability of contractors to run high-performing steamers, which require 230 volts, explains Anderson. In places where 230 volts is standard, steamers are better known. “The 230 volts can run steamers that perform two times better.”

The lack of power to run steamers if they are all electric holds back their adoption in commercial settings, says Anderson. In a commercial setting, steamers that can last all day carry a rather high price tag because they must be built so that components can stand up to extreme high temperatures for a prolonged interval.

 

CATCHING UP…

As upgrades to the national electric grid in the United States take place, options for using electric-powered equipment and models of electric powered steam cleaning machines will keep pace. As for steam itself, it has never faded from favor.

Saturated steam (autoclaving) continues to be the top choice for sterilization of medical instruments and more. Steam turbines, which have been used to produce electricity since the 1880s, generate most of the electricity in this nation. In addition, there are 699 sites in the country that have combined heat and power (CHP) steam turbines, according to the Department of Energy.

For almost 150 years it has been full steam ahead in other sectors. Our industry is catching up fast.

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