Understanding Ultrasonic Cleaning

Burnt house after the fire.

By Jay Van Deusen

Ultrasonic cleaning is one of the most efficient ways to clean items in the restoration industry, but ultrasonic cleaners are employed by many industries—including jewelery, manufacturing, restoration, and most recently, agricultural commodities for food safety applications.

Ultrasonic cleaning actually dates back to 1894 when British torpedo boat destroyer “Daring” found that its underperformance in speed was due to the propeller working against the water as opposed to working with it. This finding led to the theory of “cavitation.” Cavitation explained how the reaction of the bubbles against the propeller created pressure as well as noise with ultra-high frequency sound waves. This reaction—albeit not effective for submarines that needed to operate at high speeds and in silence—introduced a scrubbing action that could be harnessed for cleaning.

Eventually, additional factors were added to aid in cleaning, such as a temperature to increase the ability to sanitize and clean as well as detergents or cleaning products to break down invisible surface dirt and malodors. Today, ultrasonic cleaning is a common method for deep cleaning used in the restoration industry.

Why ultrasonic cleaning?

Enhanced ultrasonic cleaning as we know it today allows restoration contractors to quickly, safely, and effectively clean a significant portion of damage. Items that are best for the ultrasonic cleaning process include those that have soot and dirt from fire damage, Category III water damage and all of the ills that come with it, and mold or mold staining on durable surfaces. Ultrasonic cleaning is the preferred process over cleaning items by hand, which is much more tedious and increases the likelihood of neglecting areas that could retain odors and other possibly
harmful contaminates.

ultrasonic cleaning

Images courtesy of Fireline Ultrasonics.

As the ultrasonic cleaning process has evolved, new equipment has been introduced to help us take maximum advantage of not only ultrasonic waves, but also the advancement of cleaning detergents available for different tasks. Detergents used in ultrasonic cleaning will have varying pH levels associated with them, depending on the type and severity of the loss. Utilizing the right cleaner with the proper pH, temperature, loading, and frequency is key.

Ultrasonic cleaners are capable of cleaning a wide range of items including soft good items like silk flowers or fabric blinds; hard-surface items like glassware or ceramics; and even a limited array of electronics. The multi-functional nature of an ultrasonic cleaner makes it an invaluable resource for restoration.

Ultrasonic cleaning requires training

Because an ultrasonic cleaning system is not a cheap investment, it’s crucial to appropriately train team members before they participate in the process. Inventory training can also be provided via inventory support software, like Encircle or iCat, which are used to simplify the organization of the thousands of potential items that result from house fires or floods.

As for training cleaning and field teams on the ultrasonic process, equipment training is best provided by the manufacturer of your system. Additional advanced training can be completed through the Contents Loss Specialist and Fire Loss Specialist designations process of the Restoration Industry Association.

Be efficient from the start

The ultrasonic cleaning process starts out in the field while you are packing up the items to clean from a restoration service job.

Organization is the key to efficiency when packing teams and deciding what to add to ultrasonic cleaning kits for a project. Items you’ll be taking to clean will need to be organized according to how they will undergo the ultrasonic process (i.e., all hardware together, software together, etc.).

As an example of how organization might look, the process at my company is to organize contents into these categories: ultrasonic cleaning, hand cleaning, specialty services, and ASAP processing—and then by soil level. We then group and label the boxes according to their cleaning processes.

Once packaged, we deliver all of the organized and damaged items to our functional cleaning space. Our company uses a “vault-style” facility that packs items and personal possessions into moving vaults. Vaults are stored until they are ready for cleaning, at which point we transfer them from storage to the cleaning facility.

As dirty vaults are unloaded and processed, the cleaned and repackaged items get scanned and loaded into clean vaults. Regardless of your facility style—rack and pallet, vault, etc.—the storage and inventory process must accommodate the ultrasonic cleaning system.

The process is simple

There are many important steps to follow in ultrasonic cleaning, but overall, it’s a relatively simple process.

ultrasonic cleaning

Images courtesy of Fireline Ultrasonics.

  • Unpacking: When items are unpacked from pre-organized boxes, it’s important to color-code items with tags to ensure they remain organized.
  • Pre-cleaning: This process actually begins in the field with the removal of loose dirt or soot with a lambswool duster. Air scrubbers are also used to help capture airborne particulates. Pre-cleaning must take place before you begin the ultrasonic process. For especially dirty items, you may need to pre-soak them.
  • Pre-soaking tank: This tank allows for the first penetration of loose dirt and grease not freed up from the pre-cleaning/soaking actions. No ultrasonic waves or cavitation are used in this process as the tank has a water current moving through it to gently soak and remove loose dirt prior to the ultrasonic process. Filters also grab dirt and stash it away to keep your solution clean.
  • The muscle: The ultrasonic machine works on remaining dirt and grease that is loosened in the pre-soak tank. With the cavitation bubbles imploding and creating friction and heat, cleaning takes place at a rapid rate. The transmission of the ultrasonic waves happens through stainless tanks, so you can insert a smaller tank inside the main tank, allowing for different solutions to have varying detergents and pH levels working for you at the same time. Note: Ultrasonic waves do not discriminate in what they scrub away, so be careful with items that have gold edging or hand-painted finishing. To prevent damage to delicate pieces, dip by hand and keep an eye out for any wear on those sensitive details.
  • Detail rinse: After the ultrasonic cleaning process, items are rinsed as a final attempt to remove any remaining loose dirt, solution, or water.
  • Dry: To dry, items are “air washed” by carefully applying dry and filtered, compressed air to items coming out of the detail rinse area. To avoid potential for mold, eliminate as much moisture as possible with a high-powered tunnel dryer.
  • Re-packing: Once all items have been thoroughly cleaned and dried, items are packed in new boxes for their return to the owner. Inventory tags are a great way to help keep items organized
    before their delivery back to the client.

While it may be an expensive initial purchase, an ultrasonic cleaner is easy to use and incredibly effective for deep cleaning and long-term value to your business. As a restoration contractor, I see it as an invaluable investment worth making.

Jay Van Deusen is the franchise owner of Rainbow International of Northeastern Maryland, a Neighborly company, and an independently owned and operated franchise business. He serves as secretary of the Executive Committee for the Restoration Industry Association Board of Directors and as a member of Rainbow International’s Franchise Advisory Council. Van Deusen is designated a Contents Loss Specialist and Fire Loss Specialist through the RIA. He can be reached at [email protected].

Cleanfax Staff

Cleanfax provides cleaning and restoration professionals with information designed to help them manage and grow their businesses.

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