Thursday, June 14, 2007

kitchen floors

A reader recently* e-mailed me with a question. Here's what she asked:

This will likely sound like a lame-o question but I thought I'd ask all the same:

What is the most effective method for cleaning kitchen/bathroom floors?

It seems like a simple enough endeavour (and maybe I'm just thinking it out too much) but the idea of using a mop that incrementally just pushes/sloshes ever increasingly dirty water around the floor, doesn't seem very "clean" to me.

Any tips?

Okay. First: There are no "lame-o" questions. Unless I'm asking them. I ask a lot of lame-o questions, myself. But in this case - not lame.

And yes, I have some tips. Thank you for asking. (Besides - my kitchen floor happened to need cleaning this morning - perfect opportunity to take some photos at 7:00 a.m.)

Second: You are entirely correct. Pushing around a bunch of increasingly dirty water with a mop is not exactly "clean." I remember once reading some household tips from Marlene Dietrich, and her view on floors was that the only way to truly clean a floor was by hand. I tend to concur.

(Just as an aside: MD was apparently a bit OCD about cleaning. Her daughter, Maria Riva, in her memoir of her mother, frequently mentioned MD's habit of carrying around cleaning products with her whenever she travelled, and fastidiously disinfecting every hotel bathroom attached to every room she stayed in.)

Here are my eco-friendlier tips for cleaning kitchen (and bathroom) floors.

Sweep or vacuum the floor first. This is to remove any crumbs, pet hair, dirt, food, toe jam, etc. Vacuuming was my preferred way to get junk off of floors when I cleaned for other people, but honestly I don't like the noise, myself. Plus I'm kind of going "unplugged" with my cleaning these days. Just be aware that sweeping/dry mopping often takes longer, and can be more frustrating if you have lots of pet hair flying around. Just saying.

Sometimes I wish I was a Quaker. Like, in the 19th century. They had pegs on the walls where they could hang their wooden chairs while they swept. When I'm sweeping a kitchen floor, I either move all the chairs to another room, or turn them upside down on the table, if they'll fit. While the chairs are upside down, I usually take the opportunity to remove any pet hair/dust from the felt pads I tend to put on the bottoms of all my chair legs.

My smaller cat, Guy, enjoying the jungle gym created by the upside down chairs. Also: Supervising my cleaning.

These are the things you will need to clean a kitchen or bathroom floor. (The types of surfaces that this post applies to include vinyl, tile, sealed cork and terrazzo. For wood, laminate and stone floors, some of these techniques could potentially damage the floor. Proceed at your own risk. I'll deal with those kinds of floors in another post, BTW. Sometime.)

A) A bucket. Mine is stainless steel, from Lee Valley. (Actually, it's a compost pail. But I use it as a cleaning bucket.)

B) Vinegar. Any kind of vinegar will do, although I wouldn't necessarily recommend balsamic, because that's kind of yucky. Also: Expensive. I usually buy white Heinz vinegar in 4L (4 quart) bottles, to use for cleaning. More on vinegar, below.

C) Rags. I prefer terry cloth rags, because they hold more liquid.

D) Rubber gloves. These are actually optional, but if you do a lot of cleaning, or at least a lot of cleaning ALL AT ONCE, your hands will get all chapped from being wet and dry and wet and dry. Just saying.

E) Knee pads. Because, dude - if you're going to wash a floor on your hands and knees...

My knee pads. I bought mine at a local hardware store. You can also find them at lumber or home improvement stores, I think. Being made of some kind of foam, they are not so eco-friendly. But they are waterproof, which is useful for washing floors on your hands and knees. Plus they last a long time.

Okay, here's the vinegar I use. You'll notice that it's pickling vinegar. The difference between picking vinegar and regular vinegar is that the former is a little more concentrated - 7% acetic acid vs. the 5% acetic acid in regular white vinegar. You can also buy 10% acetic vinegar in the eco-friendly cleaning supply section of major grocery stores and health food stores, but in that case you need to be VERY CAREFUL with the vinegar. Like, always wear gloves, and don't splash it on your skin. Which is a total drag. Buying 7% just means that it will last longer, because you'll need less than if you used the regular kind. That's all.

Add some vinegar (about 1/2 cup) to your bucket.

Fill the bucket about 1/4 full of hot water. I like hot water for washing floors because A) it's not quite so bone-chilling on the hands, and B) it dries faster. I do realize hot water is not so eco-friendly because of the energy taken to heat it up, okay? Enough said.

Example of what 1/4 full looks like.

The bucket of vinegar-water and some clean, dry rags, ready to wash the swept floor.

I almost didn't take pictures of the process, because A) I was actually washing my floor, and didn't want to stop and take my gloves off to use the camera, and B) I thought people could figure out how to wash a floor by hand... but then I kind of experienced some doubt about the latter, so: Immerse a clean rag in the bucket of vinegar-water, wring it out, and wipe a section of floor with the damp rag. I usually do an area about four feet wide by two or three feet deep with each "wring" of the cloth.

I should probably add: I use vinegar because it is a mild disinfectant (it's used for pickling because it kills some germs, and therefore preserves food), and it's safe enough to use with pets and children around. My cats will not leave me alone when I wash a floor. I would never dream of using anything stronger than vinegar with them around.

I like to wipe my floor dry as I go - basically because of the cats, who will just walk across a wet floor like it was nothing... and then get wet kitty paw prints all over everything else they walk on. Also: My apartment is really humid right now, and wet stuff takes a long time to dry. If you dry the floor as you go, you can walk across it almost immediately after you're done. Just use some clean, dry rags, and change the rags often as they get wet.

(Below is a snapshot of the above scene, about two seconds later - providing compelling proof that cats WILL walk on wet floors. At least, mine will.)

Repeat the dip-wring-wipe and dry steps until you've finished the entire floor. Yes, it will take a while if you have a really large floor. I've done whole houses like this, and it can also be really tiring. But I actually find it harder on my body to use a mop to wash an entire house, believe it or not.

Above is my bucket, after I've finished the floor. I should probably add that if your floor is REALLY dirty, you can change the water in the bucket part-way through the job. As many times as you want to or need to.

My floor - all clean and dry. Hard to see in this photo, but my floor is not a perfect, shining surface. I live in a building that's about 80 years old, and the floors have seen a lot of wear and tear. I NEVER use floor wax - it only attracts dirt, and adds another chore to your life. My floor may not have a glossy sheen, but it has a soft glow, and reminds me of the lives that have been lived in this place, long before I came along.

*Okay, a confession. The e-mail was received in October 2009. Yes, I realize the date on this post is June 14, 2007. I am apparently a time-travelling blogger, alright? Cool, eh?

Actually, I saved a draft for a post on kitchen floors on this date, and didn't actually publish the post until October 2009. My bad. But anyhow - it doesn't matter as far as the content is concerned, just wanted to explain why the photos were of my new apartment (with cats), and not the apartment I was living in in 2007.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

a short history of cleaning

Do you want to clean green?
This post is (almost) totally unresearched and off the top of my head. But interesting and thought-provoking. (I hope.)

How did people clean before there were modern cleaning products? How do people STILL clean in many parts of the world where they don't have access to expensive cleansers?

And why in the world do we even bother cleaning our homes and our stuff, anyhow?

I think several discoveries and trends converged in the late 1800s and early 1900s to create our modern culture of cleanliness. The discovery of pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and the realization that sickness and disease could be prevented by improved hygiene were key developments.

The creation of a new subject of study - Home Economics - in the late 1800s as part of the American land grant university system brought applied science into the farmhouse and the domestic sphere. Eventually this new domestic science also had a profound effect on consumer culture, as women were "educated" in the values of pure products and safety standards, and encouraged to make discerning choices about the items they brought into the home, by considering such factors as quality, cost, durability, safety, and ease of use.

(Eww. Momentary flashback to all of my dreariest high school Home Ec. classes...)

At some point along the way the manufacturers of the consumer products jumped on the science bandwagon, touting the special germ-killing and deep-cleaning benefits of their products as selling points.

And then we consumers stopped thinking for ourselves. The scientific "experts" who were manufacturing our "necessary" cleaning agents had become sources of valuable knowledge and wisdom not to be questioned. Funny how the "science" that made new cleansers better, stronger and faster (in the name of making this world a better place) also made the cleansers more toxic, dangerous, and eco-unfriendly, isn't it?

What's even more ironic is that the solution to the ill health of our planet may rely on turning back the clock, and returning to the cleaning products and techniques of our "uneducated" great-great-grandmothers.

In many parts of the world, cleaning consists of sweeping floors and other flat surfaces, washing things with water, and disposing of refuse. In many religions and spiritual practices, cleanliness is considered a positive spiritual attribute. Daily devotions that involve ritual cleansing are common.

How do we bridge the two worlds? How do we clean ourselves, our homes and our possessions without destroying the planet with our germ and dirt phobias?

Monday, June 4, 2007

zen cleaning moments - rag stories

Do you want to clean green?
I've used horrible rags in my lifetime. Rags that were dirty. Rags that were frayed and bulky. Rags that were too big. Rags that were too small, and too thin. Non-absorbent rags made from old polyester clothes. Rags that had stiff spots of dried paint scattered all over them. Rags that were hard and wrinkled from being dried all balled-up. Rags that stank.

To some people, rag is a bad word.


When I was a little girl, my mother dusted her wooden furniture with a piece of old t-shirt impregnated with lemon oil. I hated the feel of that rag under my fingers - its greasiness gave me the shivers, and its sharp scent still brings back memories of hot Saturday mornings with my bangs damp and my bare feet dirty as I cleaned my bedroom before I could play.


Two summers ago the clothes dryer I used to dry my rags in every night broke down. We had an umbrella-shaped hanging clothes dryer in the backyard, so I carted my wet rags outside and hung them (all 70 or so) to dry overnight.

The next evening after work I took them down off the line (replacing them with that day's wet rags), and folded them up to take inside. They were stiff from air-drying, but clean and warm from the sun.

The first day I used the line-dried rags in my cleaning business, I nearly died from happiness. The rags (which had always smelled nice - from the gentle fragrance of the Arm and Hammer Washing Soda I use) smelled AMAZING! The line-dried scent lingered all day long, renewed every time I picked up another rag.

I looked like a fool, sniffing my cleaning rags as I walked from room to room. I replaced the indoor clothes dryer within a few days; for the rest of the summer, however, I kept drying my rags outside on the line. It was the saddest day of the season when the days got too cold for me to hang up the wet rags comfortably, and we took the umbrella dryer down for the winter.


I'm picky about the way I like a rag to feel in my hands. If it's too big, I get cranky. If it's too small or too thin, I get cranky. I like the rag to be just a bit bigger than my hand when the fingers are all spread out. I fold my terrycloth rags in half, and they're exactly the right size.

I like to use hot water when I clean. It's less energy-efficient, but the feel of a warm rag in my hand makes me happy. I don't like a rag that's dripping wet. I don't like a wet rag that's too dry. I don't like a dry rag that's too wet. I'm happiest when I can change rags frequently.

When I had my cleaning business, I threw the dirty ones into a galvanized steel bucket lined with a small muslin laundry bag. I made the muslin bags myself, and washed them with the rags every night.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

zen cleaning moments

Do you want to clean green?
I love to clean. Not everyone does.

(Believe me, I realize that. People's distaste for cleaning afforded me a rewarding career for several years, after all.)

Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason people dislike cleaning so much is because they rush through it without really enjoying it.

(And yes, there ARE things to enjoy about cleaning. Trust me.)

Before I started my cleaning business, I worked for five years as a live-in domestic. I was responsible for the household's cooking and cleaning, as well as childcare. The house we lived in was enormous, and I spent several hours on housekeeping each week. By Friday afternoon, when I had to finish all my tasks before the weekend, I would find myself rushing through the rooms, frantically pushing the vacuum back and forth, frenetically wiping surfaces, and whipping through everything as fast as I could go.

Needless to say, I hated the work. Cleaning was a job to finish as quickly as possible so I could move on to other things. My back and knees ached when I was done. My eyes and nose were scratchy from the chemical fumes. My hands were dry and cracked from working without gloves. And it seemed that no sooner had I cleaned everything but that it got dirty all over again.

Eventually a personal crisis forced me to slow down. When I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, I started to notice how much I had hated all the rushing. I paid attention to what I was doing. I gave myself permission to take a long time cleaning - and enjoy myself while I was at it. I switched to eco-friendlier cleaning products that didn't leave me feeling so sick.

It wasn't until I left that job and started my own business that I truly enjoyed cleaning for others, though.

The secret? Find as many ways as possible to make cleaning something really enjoyable. Reward yourself when you're done, if you have to. (Just don't rush through the cleaning to get to the reward.)

Don't let things get too dirty before you finally "break down" and clean. Set aside frequent, regular periods in your schedule to keep your home tidy, and use small pockets of time throughout the week to do small, easily-managed tasks. (Delegate to others the things you positively hate, if you can.)

Many people aim to get their house cleaned all at once. Yes, it's lovely to be in a home that you know is spotless from top to bottom. But if it takes hours to get it that way, and you're the one doing the cleaning, then cleaning can't help but become a chore that you despise - just because it tires you out so much.

Entertain the thought that maybe it's okay to have everything more-or-less tidy, and only thoroughly clean one room at a time. Cleaning for half an hour every day rather than four hours every Saturday morning will seem like a lot less work, believe me.

Use products, supplies and tools that you absolutely love. Keep them clean and well-maintained, and store them in a space that's organized and easily accessible.

Play music that soothes you or energizes you. Try using essential oils in your cleaning products, and enjoy the sensory experience. Clean with a partner, and make a game of it. Keep each other company. (I still have the fondest memories of washing dishes with all the "womenfolk" at family holidays when I was a child.)

What do I love most about cleaning? Making something clean. I love seeing the dirt washed, swept, or vacuumed away. I love passing my hands over objects - wiping them, smoothing them. I love the way glass sparkles when it the dust is gone. I love the way laundry smells when it comes down off the line. I love the way porcelain feels when the grime is washed away.

Every moment when you are present (that's the "zen") is a moment when pleasure is possible. If you're not really "there" - no matter what you're doing - you're cut off from the possibility.

Don't throw away even one second of the pleasure that's your birthright. Enjoy it all.

"Put your heart, mind, intellect and soul even to your smallest acts. This is the secret of success." (Swami Sivananda)

"There is a Zen saying, 'Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.' What’s the difference? The tasks are the same. The need is the same. What about the frame of mind? Who is chopping? Who is carrying water?

"When you labor, stay awake. Notice the frame of mind you bring to your work. Do you approach your work as if it were a nuisance? Do you remove your consciousness from work so that you are filled with resentment or worry? What would you need to do to be more fully present in your work?"
(Tom Barrett, Interlude: An Internet Retreat)

Friday, June 1, 2007


Do you want to clean green?
This post was first published on my blog an organized existence (April 21, 2007).
I've been watching with interest as many businesses have been jumping on the "green" bandwagon. Just today I was grocery shopping at Loblaws and noticed a large display of their new President's Choice Green products, including eco-friendly cleansers for laundry and bathrooms.

I bought a bottle of their President's Choice Green Coldwater Laundry Detergent. I've been using eco-friendly laundry cleansers for years, and I'm happy with my current methods, but it's always nice to try something new and be able to give people feedback about the products that are on the market.

Many people don't realize how manufacturers have manipulated our opinions about cleaning dirty laundry. We've become convinced that our clothing is full of dirt and germs, and nothing short of the most powerful cleansers, bleaches, and fabric softeners will give us the brightest, whitest and fluffiest results.

The truth is, we don't really need their products. In many cases they actually make our clothes dirtier, or wear out our fabrics faster. Most people, for example, add too much detergent to each load of laundry. It can't be properly rinsed away by the end of the cycle, and when you add liquid fabric softener to your wash, or throw fabric softener sheets in the dryer, you create a waxy build-up on the fabric that attracts even more dirt.

Try a simple experiment. Take some clothes straight from your dryer and stick them back in the washing machine with a tablespoon of TSP (trisodium phosphate), which you can find at most hardware or paint stores. Run the load again without adding any detergent or bleach, and have a look at the water after the machine has begun to agitate. The water will be a dirty, scummy mess. And those were your "clean" clothes!

The biggest problem with most laundry detergents is that they are made from petrochemicals, which use non-renewable resources in their manufacture, and pollute our waterways when they are sent down the drain after each load of laundry. They are mildly caustic, and are a frequent cause of household poisonings. The residues they leave on our clothing can cause skin and respiratory irritations in people with chemical sensitivities to the dyes, fragrances, or surfactants they contain. Many detergents also contain chemicals that are suspected carcinogens.

There are plenty of sustainable, non-toxic alternatives to conventional laundry detergents. A quick look through the organics section of most grocery stores will reveal a range of choices, including Nature Clean and Seventh Generation products. I've been using Nature Clean's All-Purpose Cleaning Lotion for years. I love it because it's multi-purpose - it does everything from dishwashing to general household cleaning to laundry. When washing my clothes, I add about a tablespoon of the cleaning liquid to a full load of laundry, and add vinegar to the rinse water to soften the clothes, which I then hang to dry.

When washing linens (i.e my sheets and towels, which are white or natural 100% cotton), I use a combination of washing soda and TSP, and again add vinegar to the rinse. I would use washing soda for all my laundry, except it can occasionally leave a powdery residue on dark fabric - especially if it's washed in cold water. When buying washing soda, avoid Arm & Hammer if you are sensitive to fragrances, since they scent their product.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow