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Taking the Steam Out of Wet Area Maintenance

Dirt, mold, mildew and bacteria can make your steam room, sauna and showers unclean - and unhealthy.

Strange green and black blobs in the corner, hair balls on the floor ... can this steam room really be clean? It can be easy to let steam room and sauna maintenance fall by the wayside. After all, behind that door, out of sight can be out of mind. But, your members and guests will know all too well if your maintenance and cleaning routine is not up to par. These small enclosures can be a breeding ground for dirt, mold, mildew and bacteria. Keeping these yucky things at bay is relatively easy, and not particularly labor intensive, provided that, like anything else in your fitness center, you have a good preventive maintenance and cleaning program. It can save you plenty of time and maintenance in the future.

Mold, mold, go away

Try as you might, it's impossible to have a mold-free environment in an area such as a locker room or shower. Mold grows easily in moist environments on organic matter such as soap scum, and can start growing in as little as 24 hours when growing conditions are ripe. The poorer the ventilation, the more people using the space and the higher the humidity levels, the more quickly mold grows. One of the main things you can do to prevent mold in these (and any) environments is to control moisture, provide adequate ventilation and lower humidity levels. The Environmental Protection Agency website has quite a bit of information on controlling mold in commercial buildings at www.epa.gov/mold.

Steam rooms and showers

The humidity levels in steam rooms and showers can wreak havoc with lime and mold buildup on tile grout and shower curtains, and rust on light fixtures. To clean away the lime, each month you should remove the water nozzles of your steam shower and soak them in a lime solution for about 30 minutes. It will keep the chrome shiny, and keep your spray jets spraying with full force and in the right direction.

Mold-wise, steam showers require a lot more maintenance than even a regular shower - especially in the summer months where usage and humidity levels are higher. Grout is porous and, over time, water seeps through the grout and gets trapped behind it, feeding on dirt that naturally accumulates in and behind the grout. This combination is a perfect breeding ground for mold. The use of sealants can help protect your tile walls, but, with the temperature expansion and contraction of tile and grout, constant vigilance is needed to keep things clean and to remove the growth risks.

A good, thorough cleaning and disinfecting regimen will go a long way toward keeping your steam rooms and other tile surfaces clean. Use brushes with enough friction to sweep away the mold buildup and soap scum, but not so much that it damages the tile or grout, which can cause further mold troubles.

There are a variety of cleaners on the market, and many fitness centers are moving toward "green cleaning" out of respect for their members' and employees' safety and wellness, and for the good of the environment. The environmentally friendly way to handle dirty shower curtains is to clean them with a "green" cleaning solution as opposed to throwing them out and starting over. If you do clean them, make sure they are thoroughly dry before rehanging them. It can be easy when checking for mold in the showers to push the curtain aside and forget to check it. But, don't. Moldy shower curtains are a major locker room complaint.

Protection from harmful mold

It's important to use humidity gauges and a humidistat throughout your fitness center, and especially in higher humidity areas. These measure the amount of humidity in the air and, when it gets too high, automatically turn on the HVAC system. You may also choose to keep air circulating with overhead ceiling fans, although you should have more than ceiling fans to keep your locker room air quality high.

Your maintenance staff should know that certain types of molds, and the cleaners for them, can harm people. When cleaning any locker room areas, and particularly areas with mold, have staff wear rubber gloves and some type of respiratory protection. The EPA recommends an N-95 respirator, which covers the nose and mouth, and filters out 95 percent of the particulates in the air. Maintenance staff should also wear goggles without air vents. Both of these can be found in hardware stores. If employees are cleaning an area with a lot of mold, a more protective HEPA filter mask, including eye coverage, is recommended. Or, even better, call in a professional.

Once the mold is cleaned up, fix the problem that caused it in the first place. This includes more frequent cleaning and disinfecting, repairing grout, improving air quality and humidity levels, fixing water leaks behind walls, etc. Finding the source of the mold may not be easy, but it is crucial to your members', staff members' and your building's safety.

Dry saunas

The lack of moisture and high heat in dry sauna rooms make them the one place mold may not accumulate, and, therefore, these areas are easy to maintain. Regularly sweep and vacuum out the sauna to remove hair and dirt. Then wash the wood seats and walls with gentle soap and a small amount of water - don't use harsh chemicals and don't drench the wood. When you are rinsing the soap off, use a clean wet cloth.

Occasionally, the wood in your sauna may need a deeper cleaning with chemicals such as oxalic acid and trisodium phosphate. These are harsh, and proper handling and eye protection is necessary. Follow all warning labels and your materials safety data sheets for instructions.

If there are scratches in the wood, they can be lightly sanded down. Before applying any stain or other chemicals to the wood, check with your sauna manufacturer and the manufacturer of the chemical company because the high heat could cause toxic fumes.

The electric heater and stones only need to be wiped down with the same gentle soap as the wood. Every few months, wait until the stones are cool, and then clean each off individually and vacuum the stone compartment. As you are cleaning them, check the stones for cracking due to the high stress of heating and cooling. If there are cracks, replace the stones with new ones from your sauna manufacturer.

It goes without saying that your members should use clean towels when in the sauna. Perspiration is not only unhygienic, it also discolors the wood.

As a safety note, post adequate signage warning of the health risks of using the sauna, and have your staff members make periodic checks of the sauna throughout your opening hours.

Stay ahead of the dirt

Cleanliness is a major issue in the sweaty, humid environs of a fitness center. Keeping vigilant with daily cleaning and weekly deep cleaning can keep your facility clean and your members happy. Stay on top of maintenance as well. If mold becomes an issue, there is a reason, and it needs to be fixed.
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