Aqueous Cleaning Solutions Drive Safety and Profitability
The change to technologically advanced, environmentally friendly cleaning solutions can support a safer, more sustainable and more profitable workplace.
For more than a century, manufacturers, maintenance and repair operations and armed forces have used toxic solvents to clean contaminants from metal parts. However, trichloroethylene and other solvents have come under increased scrutiny for their health and environmental risks. As a result, solvent users are seeking greener alternatives as more companies are beginning to understand the benefits of safe and sustainable operating practices.
The emergence of aqueous (water-based) technology has brought a cost-effective, environmentally friendly option for cleaning and degreasing metal parts and components. Green solutions such as Bio-Circle cleaning products protect the environment, improve workplace safety and reduce industrial waste and operating costs.
What Is Aqueous Cleaning?
Through the years, manufacturers have used a variety of hydrocarbon/organic solvents to clean and degrease metal parts. Some of the most commonly used solvents include trichloroethylene, methylene chloride, toluene, benzene, mineral spirits, methyl ethyl ketone and other hydrocarbons.
While chemical solvents are effective at removing grease and other fluids from metal parts, many are harmful to workers and the environment. For example, perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene—two commonly used industrial solvents—are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) linked to a number of health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.
In sharp contrast, aqueous cleaning solutions, which use water as the primary solvent, contain no VOCs. Unlike many petroleum-based solvents, aqueous cleaners are nonflammable and overall, are less toxic than solvents. Commonly used methods of aqueous cleaning include:
- Immersion cleaning: Parts are immersed in a cleaning solution and some form of agitation and/or heat is added to supply the energy needed to remove contaminants.
- Automated washing: A high-pressure spray delivers more mechanical action to help remove soils from parts.
- Ultrasonics: A combination of water, detergent and high-frequency sound waves create bubbles that help to dissolve and displace particles from parts.
Although their cleaning methods differ from solvent-based systems, aqueous cleaners have proven to be just as effective. And because they’re safer to use, aqueous cleaners offer a number of other advantages that can benefit the bottom line.
In one example, Inner-Tite Corp., a manufacturer of tamper-resistant security products for utility company devices, switched from a vapor-degreasing parts cleaning process to an aqueous cleaning system. The Holden, Massachusetts-based company was able to eliminate its use of trichloroethylene (TCE) entirely. The factory became safer because the employees no longer were exposed to TCE—a suspected carcinogen—and the company saved nearly $2,500 per year in TCE purchasing costs.
By eliminating the annual use of 2,675 pounds of TCEs, Inner-Tite no longer had to report its TCE usage to state environmental authorities, saving an additional $1,100 in annual regulatory reporting fees. While reducing air emissions below the threshold for a minor-source generator, removing TCE from the facility also reduced the amount of time dedicated to preparing for emergency response and complying with OSHA and environmental regulations.
Bio-remediation is another twist on aqueous cleaning. The bio-remediation process has naturally occurred for millions of years, and has been recently harnessed to provide a safe, effective alternative to solvent-based cleaning systems.
In the bio-remediation process, live microorganisms within aqueous cleaning fluids break down oil, grease and other organic contaminants. Typically, the process takes place in a parts-cleaning sink, and the bio-remediating fluids require heat for optimal performance.
In much the same way that humans live by eating, breathing and producing waste, the microorganisms consume and digest the contaminants and convert them to harmless byproducts—mostly water and carbon dioxide.
“It’s a very simple chemical equation,” explains Patrick LaPointe, Vice President of Research and Development for Walter Surface Technology, which makes Bio-Circle aqueous cleaning products. “The microorganisms break the chemical bonds in the complex hydrocarbon chain, they derive some energy from the process, and the molecules take on a simpler chemical form as water and carbon dioxide. It’s a totally natural process.”