According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year about 75,000 people in the U.S. die of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). The most common bacterial and viral culprits are Clostridium difficile (C. diff), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as well as several other multi-drug-resistant organisms. The newcomer to this slate of deadly pathogens is SARS-CoV-2, which can spread quickly in medical environments. To try to gain the upper hand against these pathogens, many medical institutions are looking to technology that delivers advanced janitorial service.

Keeping deadly germs in check is a high priority for hospitals, as even small gains in disinfection can save thousands of lives. To enable hospitals to reach this lifesaving goal, several technology companies have developed robots that destroy dangerous pathogens automatically. This technology, while still in its infancy, has the potential to make hospitals and other medical settings much safer. 

Environmental Robots: A New Way to Disinfect

Effective cleaning agents have long existed. The problem is getting those agents onto the surfaces and into the crevices where drug-resistant pathogens reside. So innovative entrepreneurs are developing programmable and remote-controlled machines with the ability to maneuver within a room and deliver cleaning agents without human help. In other words, they’re building robots.

Cleaning robots fall into two basic categories—those that disinfect using chemical sprays, and those that use ultraviolet light to sanitize. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks.

Disinfection Robots that Clean with Chemicals

The most common chemical cleaning agent used by robots is hydrogen peroxide vapor (HPV), which is highly effective at killing MRSA bacteria and other pathogens, including spores. These machines, such as the Bioquell Q-10, can resemble a portable air conditioner. The Q-10 consists of two units. One unit releases a 35% hydrogen peroxide solution into the air, and another unit aerates the room to thoroughly disperse the cleaner. With this technology, a patient room can be thoroughly disinfected in about ninety minutes.

While chemical-cleaning robots are efficient, they do have disadvantages. Because hydrogen peroxide can damage lung and other tissue, no one can enter a recently disinfected room until the hydrogen peroxide has completely dissipated, which means the room must remain unoccupied for hours after cleaning. And to keep the HPV from escaping into inhabited spaces, the room must be sealed before the robot is deployed. Air vents and spaces around doors must be covered, a process that can be time-consuming. HPV can also damage exposed electronic circuitry, making its use problematic in spaces like radiology labs.

Disinfection Robots that Clean with Ultraviolet Light

Currently, both the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend chemical disinfection in hospital settings. But because chemical cleaning is toxic to humans, many of the newer disinfection robots use a different technology– ultraviolet-C (UVC) light.

UVC light has many advantages. It can disinfect a room more quickly than HPV, for example. Some UVC robots can sanitize a patient room in just 45 minutes, half the time it takes to disinfect with a chemical robot. Also, with UVC light, there’s no residual danger once a room is cleaned, so humans can enter a room immediately after the robot shuts down, without waiting for an aerosolized chemical to fully disperse. This means that rooms can be put back into use more quickly.

But UVC technology has its own drawbacks. For example, UVC robots aren’t able to disinfect areas that fall in shadow. UVC technology also suffers from the same disadvantage as chemical dispersal systems—it’s not safe for humans to be in the room while a robot is actively disinfecting. Because ultraviolet-C light can damage the skin and eyes, the robot must be locked in the room alone for the duration of the cleaning, though there is no need to seal the room as with chemical cleaning.

Environmental Technicians and Disinfection Robots – A Future Together

While disinfecting robots have come a long way, many argue that they’re still not ready for prime time. Both HPV and UV light technologies, for example, require that a human clean the room first to clear away dirt and grime. Neither disinfecting technology can remove liquids or solids, so a room must be “clean” before these robots can be effectively used.

Also, the price tag for disinfecting robots remains high, with systems costing up to $100,000. Because of these constraints, most institutions continue to rely on highly trained environmental technicians for both cleaning and disinfection.

But change is on the horizon. Tech companies are developing shields for their UVC robots, in order to make it safe for humans to be in the room while the robot is disinfecting. If these companies are successful, and as prices for these robots drop, some experts foresee a partnership forming between humans and robots. In this scenario, robots will work alongside their human counterparts, who both guide the machine and disinfect the hard-to-reach germ reservoirs that no spray or UV light can touch. If this happens, hospitals and other large institutions will gain the best of both worlds. Environmental technicians can ensure that rooms are truly germ-free, and robots can cut the time it takes to get them that way.

Sustainable and Effective Janitorial Services

PRIDE Industries is CIMS-GB-certified. We have extensive experience cleaning medical, commercial, and public facilities. Our highly trained environmental technicians clean and disinfect hospitals and other medical settings quickly and efficiently. For commercial customers, we design and carry out GBAC Star-compliant programs tailored to the specific needs of each business. Our custodial services are thorough, sustainable, and cost-effective