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Will Electrostatic Mist Ruin My Keyboard? Here's A Coronavirus Office Cleaning Primer.


Earlier this spring, Tangram, a curator of interior solutions for workspaces based in Southern California, made a quick pivot to sanitation, announcing a three-tiered, 24/7, nationwide electrostatic mist emergency workplace cleaning service, administered by professional disinfecting crews in full hazmat suits.

The return of tenants to U.S. office buildings is far from a stampede, even though many buildings are ready to open. Nationwide, 45% of companies haven’t even announced a return date yet.

This has given property managers more time to review myriad new cleaning and sterilization products and technologies such as Tangram’s. And time is helpful, because these options — from plexiglass desk dividers to touchless elevator technology to high-tech air-purifying HVAC retrofits — are far from cut and dry.

When it comes to electrostatic mist, it’s becoming more widely available across the CRE industry, but questions remain: How often does it need to be used in order to be effective? Is it causing damage to furniture finishes, carpeting or other office materials? What about electronic equipment? Does it kill the coronavirus? … What is it?

Bisnow talked to experts and put together a primer.

Electrostatic Cleaning Mist, 101

According to Clorox Senior Scientist Katherine Velez, a device called an electrostatic sprayer works by charging liquids, such as cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants, as they pass through the sprayer’s nozzle. Charged droplets “repel one another and actively seek out environmental surfaces, which they stick to,” forming “a uniform coating of sanitizer or disinfectant on sprayed objects, including hard-to-reach areas that manual cleaning can miss.”

Velez, a chemist who has supported clinical studies and product development for electrostatic spray technology as well as Environmental Protection Agency-registered manual surface disinfectants, has called electrostatic spray technology a “well-established” way to apply cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants to help facilities treat surfaces. To date, it has been used in industries including agriculture, automotive and tanning.

She said that the technology has only recently been applied to surface disinfection in spaces including classrooms, cafeterias, public restrooms, kitchens, waiting rooms, even vehicles, but findings indicate that it can be a good way to clean surfaces “often in less time and with better coverage than traditional cleaning methods.” 

Sounds great. But, what are the considerations?

Does It Work Against The Coronavirus?

Well, that depends on what you put inside of it.

That’s right: There is no one singular substance involved in “electrostatic cleaning mist.” The sprayers that dispense the mist will ionize any [compatible] cleaning liquid you load in.

The EPA has published a list of disinfectants it deems effective for disarming the coronavirus and other viruses, including stericides, acids and bleaches that can be used in electrostatic mist cleaners. 

“The disinfectants applied with electrostatic sprayers must be EPA approved, just like traditional manually applied disinfectants,” Velez told Bisnow. “The EPA’s current guidance on combating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on surfaces is to use a disinfectant that either appears on the EPA’s List N, or one that is approved for use against human coronaviruses.”


Will It Damage Office Equipment?

There is concern that in certain use cases, electrostatic mist cleaning methods can actually cause damage to office equipment.

“Those cleaning chemicals on typical office furniture will eventually degrade the color and edge banding,” furniture company iMovr CEO Ron Weiner said. “The glue seams dry out.”

Weiner said healthcare-grade surfaces and seamless, hermetically sealed designs are the necessities of office furniture that was designed from the start to be cleaned with powerful disinfectant chemicals, which need to be at least 70% alcohol. “On 98% of the desks out there, it’s actually going to destroy the desktop after a few weeks,” Weiner said.

Velez said that — while Clorox has found that an array of its own cleaning products did not harm hard nor soft finishes, including upholstery, when administered via an electrostatic mister — if you are uncertain about the impact it will have on a surface, test it in an inconspicuous area of the surface first, before applying the product broadly. (Bear in mind that one test will not serve to establish the effects of the cleaner on a surface over multiple cleans.)

Weiner added another consideration: “By the way, you’re spraying a fluid into electronics.”

Velez said that while it can be used around standard office equipment, mist “should not be applied directly to any sensitive electronics.”

Further, fogging is a disinfection method that is similar to electrostatic mist but that does not electrocharge the cleaning molecules when they leave the machine. It also uses larger particle sizes. Envista Forensics recently released a paper cautioning business owners to turn off all devices and cover them before fogging, and warning that it believes that repeated fogging of electronic equipment will cause material degradation and functional failures.

“A drop of mineralized water on an unprotected electronic circuit board will cause corrosion and lead to electrical failures,” the Envista report said. “Some circuit boards, depending on their design specifications, are protected with a conformal coating. Therefore, some boards will suffer little to no degradation from exposure to corrosive disinfectants, while others will exhibit significant deterioration.”

Glass cleaner, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, solvents, powdered cleansers and disinfectant wipes can all harm the protective coatings on your laptop and phone screens and monitors. Manufacturers coat new phones and other devices with anti-scratch, anti-fingerprint and other coatings. Experts say using harsh cleaners may break those coatings down, and that if you must use an alcohol-based or other powerful cleaner, spray a small amount onto a microfiber cloth and gently apply it to non-screen parts of your equipment.

What Should I Ask Before Purchasing Equipment Or Contracting A Cleaner?

Hand-held or rolling car sprayers can be wielded by human teams of cleaners in personal protective equipment, and robots are also being deployed. Some sprayers use battery power to impart a charge on liquids, while others use a cord to draw power from a standard outlet plug.

Velez wrote that although cords can pose an additional challenge, they provide consistent power and droplet charging, which results in better system performance. Batteries simply aren’t powerful enough to generate a consistent, reliable charge to deliver the electrostatic performance needed to cover surfaces completely and evenly every time you spray. 

“Responsible manufacturers conduct testing of the entire system — the electrostatic sprayer paired with specific chemistries — to determine the proper personal protective equipment for the operator as well as safety considerations for bystanders,” she added.

“Be wary of companies that claim you can spray any product with their system. They likely have not done the proper testing required to ensure operator and bystander safety for the use of all chemicals. Ensure the sprayer itself is certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Intertek, to confirm electrical safety.”

Also, ask questions that establish credentials and experience. Norris Gearhart, a consultant for the cleaning industry, told The Atlantic in March that as demand for the service grows, companies with lack of training or experience using these sophisticated cleaning tools worry him.

“The fringe companies are just seeing the dollars and rushing after them, and I’m really concerned,” Gearhart said. While cleaning helps mitigate the risk of the coronavirus, complete disinfection is a different story. As Gearhart put it, “It requires knowing how to use disinfectants: Many of them — including bleach and Lysol — actually need to stay wet on a surface for several minutes, even though no ordinary person uses them that way. Some disinfectants can be used with electrostatic sprayers; others cannot. And in scenarios where risk of exposure to the virus is high, putting on and taking off your respirator and Tyvek suit without accidentally contaminating yourself is hard.”

How Often Is It Necessary?

“Electrostatic technology is not a replacement for manual cleaning,” Velez said. “This is because manual cleaning is essential for removing soils and gross filth on surfaces, whether the disinfecting product is applied manually or using an electrostatic sprayer.”

Phil Tierno, a microbiologist and pathologist at New York University and a medical consultant for AtmosAir (a bipolar ionization technology provider) added that while clean surfaces are certainly critical to reducing coronavirus risk, company owners and property managers will also want to consider air filtration, ventilation or ionization options because the coronavirus also hangs in the air, and research has not yet determined just how long it can stay suspended. 

On airplanes, Delta, Southwest and United each implemented electrostatic sprayers. For Delta, it was one half of a two-phase cleaning process between most flights. After the plane is sprayed front to back with the mister, a cleaning crew wipes down “all surfaces” with disinfectant. The frequency with which they undertake the process is a hint about its necessity. 

Just outside Seattle, Ernie Storrer provided disinfecting services through his company, Bales Restoration, mostly to healthcare facilities, but when the pandemic hit, his team’s business expanded to retail and all manner of other businesses.

He told The Atlantic that an office or other public building is ultimately only as germ-free as the people in it. While disinfecting services may provide peace of mind, Storrer warned, as Velez did, that they should not be considered a substitute for routine cleaning — often.

“As soon as we get done with our work, you open the door and somebody walks in, and boom,” he said. “It might be all over.”