Clean and Green: Local cleaning companies rely on earth-friendly products
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After Heather Kniess moved into her 108-year-old Craftsman-style home in Wilkinsburg last fall, she gave it a rigorous cleaning with some heavy-duty commercial products.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Heather Kniess of Shiny Happy Cleaners cleans a home in Regent Square using all eco-friendly cleaners.
Click photo for larger image.
But she started getting headaches, and after reading the labels on some cleaning products, she asked herself, "Why am I cleaning my kitchen and bathroom with something that is toxic?"
Ms. Kniess, 31, not only worried about the effect on herself but also on her pets. Although Sasha, her Australian shepherd, generally stays out of the way when she's cleaning, Izzy, the family mutt, licks everything, as do her two cats, Naughty and Karma. So she started researching environmentally safe ways to clean her home.
"I found that eco-friendly cleaners worked as well if not better than the commercial brands found at the local supermarket," she said.
That inspired her to start an eco-friendly housekeeping service called Shiny Happy Cleaners.
While nontoxic methods of household cleaning have existed for years, large commercial cleaning companies and smaller concerns are starting to embrace eco-friendly cleaning as consumers strive to be greener and healthier.
Last month, Ms. Kniess and her independent contractor, Dan Straka, posted fliers in coffeehouses in Regent Square and the North Side's Mexican War Streets promoting the new service, and they've already picked up 15 clients.
Their arsenal includes cleaners made by Seventh Generation, Ecover, Method and Bon Ami, which is calcium carbonate. Another weapon is 20 Mule Team Borax, a product your grandmother may have used to brighten the wash. It became available in 1891.
For competitive reasons, Ms. Kniess did not disclose her company's rates but added that, "On average, each bottle of cleaner probably costs about $1 or $2 more. It does increase our rates, but we still try to be reasonable and competitive."
While eco-friendly cleaning is not a new concept, it's gathering steam, said Erin Murray, a product development manager with The Maids Home Services, an Omaha, Neb., company with three franchises in Pennsylvania, including one based in Verona.
"People are more and more health conscious and concerned about the environment. There's more awareness," said Ms. Murray, adding that many of her company's clients ask that their homes be cleaned with products that are free of hazardous chemicals.
"We have a lot of people who have asthma. They notice such a difference that they do ask for it. They don't want any hazards in their home," she said. The Maids uses its own line of "environmentally preferred" cleaning products made by a private label manufacturer.
That phrase, "environmentally preferred," means a product does not give off fumes or create hazards, is biodegradable, nontoxic and nonflammable, she said.
Most of the company's products, Ms. Murray said, meet standards set by Green Seal, an independent nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that uses scientific tests to verify the environmental impact and effectiveness of a range of products.
But they often require more elbow grease than traditional chemical solvents to clean stubborn dirt.
"There's no question that if you have certain ingredients in a chemical that may be a little harsher, it can remove things a lot quicker," she said. "You could be dealing with a lot of acids that aren't environmentally friendly, but they work. There's a lot of tough buildup out there."
Another large company, Merry Maids, which cleans more than 300,000 homes and has 400 clients in Pittsburgh, so far hasn't gotten many requests for eco-friendly cleaners here, said spokeswoman Sheron Bates. Merry Maids uses environmentally safe products that comply with standards set by the federal office of Occupational Safety and Health Administration but also will use homeowners' all-natural products if they ask.
Of Pittsburgh's 400 customers, about 20 ask for vinegar and water cleaning.
Of course it's possible for homeowners to do their own chemical-free cleaning.
Annie B. Bond is the author of four books, two of which focus on nontoxic cleaning methods. An upstate New York resident, Ms. Bond is executive producer of green living content on care2.com, a Web site and online community focused on health, the environment and social justice.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Bond said she worked at a restaurant in 1980 that had a gas leak, and she suffered damage to her central nervous system. She also was poisoned by a pesticide.
Afterward, she said, "I had to learn how to live without chemicals in our society. If you wanted a nontoxic product for some activity such as cleaning the oven or scraping paint off a board, you had to figure out how to make it yourself. Now, I believe, there is a green product on the market for everything you want to do."
Ms. Bond noted that The Maid Brigade, a company based in Atlanta, is switching to cleaning products that are certified by Green Seal.
She advises consumers to look at the back of standard cleaning products found in supermarkets for key words such as "Danger."
"If it's anything stronger than a caution, don't buy it," she said.
To clean the bathtub, Ms. Bond mixes baking soda with liquid soap or a liquid detergent made by Ecover.
"You can't buy anything better than that," she said.
Ms. Bond also uses washing soda, a heavy duty mineral that is a good substitute for solvents and is available in the supermarket's laundry section.
"If you have an engine oil spill in your garage or have to peel wax off a floor, it's heavy duty. You use a damp paste," she said.
Tea tree oil, a broad spectrum fungicide, "works really well for cleaning mold and mildew," she added.
To neutralize the scale caused by hard water, Ms. Bond mixes white vinegar with lemon juice.
First Published April 17, 2007 7:46 pm