Cleaning machines - why battery power?

31st of October 2014
Cleaning machines - why battery power?

What are the main advantages of a battery-powered cleaning machine over a diesel or mains-powered one? And in the future is battery power more likely to gain ground – or die out? Ann Laffeaty asks battery companies, cleaning contractors and machine manufacturers their views.

No cords versus unlimited cleaning time? That is the essence of the argument on whether or not battery-powered cleaning machines can supersede traditional plug-in versions. Some argue that power leads place restrictions on the size of the area to be cleaned while also presenting a tripping hazard. Conversely, others claim that time spent recharging batteries can have an adverse effect on productivity.

But battery power is evolving rapidly and the limitations it used to pose such as shorter working times, frequent recharging and environmental concerns have become less of an issue than in the past.

Meanwhile, plug-in machines are also evolving to become quieter, safer and more powerful. And sometimes it is the size, type and accessibility of the area to be cleaned that determines the type of machine that should be used.

But which type of cleaning machine will triumph: battery or plug-in? Or will each of them continue to have a place? Battery manufacturers, machine manufacturers and cleaning companies all agree the flexibility of cordless cleaning is among the chief advantages of battery power. General manager of Battery Supplies Alexander De Soete adds battery-powered machines offer environmental and safety advantages over mains power as well.

“They are quieter in operation and there are no hazardous diesel fumes to worry about,” he said. “In sectors such as the food industry there is often a requirement to use battery-operated machines for hygiene reasons. Battery power also offers more flexibility since there are no cables and there’s no need to look for a grid connection. What’s more they are easier to manoeuvre and you can start cleaning whenever you want.”

He says the advent of lithium-ion batteries has helped to reduce the weight of battery-powered machines. “This is a real advantage and the lifetime of these batteries is far longer than that of lead-acid batteries,” he said. “Lithium-ion batteries are also smaller than traditional ones and are completely maintenance-free.”

Vice-president of marketing at Trojan Battery Elke Hirschman says battery-powered machines are the best choice in public facilities such as hospitals, schools and airports. “Unlike diesel-powered equipment they do not emit noxious fumes which makes them particularly suitable for environments impacted by health, safety and environmental regulations,” she explained.

According to Hirschman there are also cost benefits to using battery power. “The fact that battery-powered machines give operators more mobility to complete their cleaning tasks results in tremendous time and cost savings,” she said.

Anytime cleaning

“Battery-operated equipment also gives workers the flexibility to clean any area at any time of the day or night, bringing higher productivity and increased profitability.”

Besides their flexibility and health and safety advantages, she says battery-powered machines are also more convenient and efficient. “There is no need to budget for fuel or waste time looking for power outlets.  Just turn it on and go. “

Monobloc sales manager Europe and sales manager rail UK for EnerSys Chris Walsh says battery-powered machines are usually the best option in larger indoor environments. “These include hospitals, shops, offices, factories and public buildings since IC/LPG powered machines are often forbidden in such environments.”

“Mains-powered machines also have serious health and safety limitations in areas where people may be present due to the risks associated with trailing mains leads, as well as the limitations of power cable length and available mains sockets.

“Very often battery power is not only the most practical and safest option, it is also the most cost-effective option – particularly for mid-sized machines with medium to large areas of coverage.”

Companies that make both mains-operated and battery-operated machines also have high praise for the benefits of battery power. Truvox marketing and product manager Natalie Dowse says the chief advantages include versatility, safety and ease of operation.

“With no trailing cables to cause hazards in the workplace, battery-powered floor cleaning machines can greatly improve health and safety,” she said.

Dowse agrees with battery manufacturers that they are the best choice for hospitals, retail outlets, hotels and transport hubs. “These sites need continual cleaning throughout the day and contact with the public and employees is guaranteed,” she said. “Cordless machines lend themselves perfectly to such situations since operatives can manoeuvre the machines around more easily with no need to unplug, coil the cord and re-plug elsewhere.”

She adds that continuing developments in battery technology have led to cost and sustainability benefits. “The need to recharge more often can adversely affect productivity and the environment, so many manufacturers are investing heavily in developing rechargeable batteries that last even longer,” she said. “Energy use is also being improved, increasing the ‘charge efficiency’ of batteries – in other words, how much electrical energy has to be put into the battery when charging compared with how much energy is lost when the battery is used.”

Hako application technology trainer and consultant Klaus Serfezi says it is often the size of the machine required and the country where it is being used that dictates whether or not a company will choose a battery-powered machine or a mains-powered one.

“Diesel, petrol or LPG-powered machines are usually larger ride-ons and in certain countries users prefer mains-powered machines,” he said. “Sometimes the job site may be too small for a battery-powered machine to pay off, or the wage structure of the cleaning staff is so low that it simply does not matter if it takes the user a long time to clean an area with a small machine."

He adds that battery-powered models are the better option in environments where noise could be an issue since combustion engines are noisier than battery-powered machines. “However, a mains-powered machine is always less expensive if only because there is no need to buy an extra battery,” he added. “And depending on how frequently the machine is used it might become necessary to purchase another – or even several -  batteries during the course of the machine’s life cycle if the battery is not charged correctly.

“From this perspective purchasing a mains-powered machine might be the better choice. However, profitability calculations will show which machine will be best for the job at hand. It is therefore important to take into consideration not only the initial acquisition costs but also the costs to be incurred over the entire life cycle of the machine.”

Obstacles to cleaning

According to Kärcher’s environmental matters public relations officer Linda Schrödter, physical obstacles can be a major problem when cleaning. “The more angles and corners there are, the less efficient a plug-in machine becomes,” she said. “The length of the cable also limits cleaning to a specific range and this costs time, since cleaning must be interrupted to change power sockets.
“And in some premises, power sockets are so scarce that a long extension cable would be required and this could prove a hindrance to the user.”

She agrees with Serfezi that the relative quietness of battery-powered machines is an advantage. “Unlike diesel-powered machines they can be used indoors since they don’t emit exhaust fumes,” she said.

“Another benefit is the fact that battery-powered machines can incorporate technical enhancements such as traction, brush after-run times, electric water volume setting, dosing systems and displays. Such refinements could only be implemented at great expense with plug-in machines.”

She says battery-powered models are the best choice for closed rooms where exhaust fumes could be a problem, as well as narrow, cluttered spaces where cables would be a hazard. They also work well in environments where there is constant public access, says Schrödter.

“In principle, battery-powered machines cost more to buy and the maintenance costs need to include battery wear and tear - especially with conventional lead batteries,” she adds. “But the more often cleaning is undertaken, the more economical a battery-powered machine becomes.

“The trend is towards longer life and high-energy batteries that are lighter in weight and more compact in size,” believes Schrödter. “Where machine cleaning is infrequent a plug-in machine can be used, but if daily cleaning is required then a battery-powered machine will usually be the more efficient alternative.”

The sustainability of battery power is a key advantage in the contract cleaning sector according to Carl Robinson, marketing manager of contract cleaning specialist Nviro. “Batteries are charged from a cleaner energy source resulting in fewer carbon emissions,” he said. “Electricity from the mains supply is useful for powering larger pieces of equipment such as wide-track vacuums, carpet cleaners and buffers. However in remote locations a mains supply is not always available.”

He adds that battery-operated machines tend to be smaller in size which makes them easier to manoeuvre in hard-to-reach areas such as stairwells. “Also if a machine has trailing wires, there is a very real risk of trips and falls no matter how careful the operative,” he said.

According to Robinson there is a common argument that battery-operated machines are more prone to mechanical faults and need replacement parts more frequently than plug-in models. “However as technology in battery power storage develops – perhaps driven by successes in the mobile phone market – battery life continues to increase along with the reliability of battery-reliant equipment.”

So with the increasing efficiency and productivity of battery-powered machines, could they gain the upper hand? “There will always be a place for mains-powered machines and the power they deliver,” said Nviro’s Carl Robinson. “But as the convenience and sustainability of battery-powered devices increases, so will their use.”

Trojan Battery’s Elke Hirschman agrees with this verdict. “The number of indoor environmental regulations is increasing all the time and as electrical grids worldwide strain to keep up with consumer use, plug-in machines may decrease in popularity due to ever-increasing electricity costs.”

Battery Supplies’ Alexander De Soete believes battery-power is already triumphing over plug-in. “We see more and more machines becoming battery-powered,” he said. “This is an evolution not only in the cleaning industry, but in most electrically-operated machines and equipment.”

Chris Walsh of EnerSys shares this optimism, but is more cautious about the future of the industry. “The likelihood is that battery power will continue to grow as battery technology evolves and flexibility becomes ever more important,” he said. “However, mains power remains the cheapest and simplest solution and thus remains attractive in many applications.”

But the viewpoint of Hako’s Klaus Serfezi is unequivocal. “Battery-powered machines have already pushed mains-powered models out of the market.”


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