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How to make a powerful cleaner from regular tap water


How do cleaning products work? Every day, people use cleaning products to remove dirt and unwanted contaminants from surfaces. Through the use of such products, surfaces are made more hygienic and the indoor environment is made safer for people.

Turning ordinary water into a powerful cleaning product.  The basic building block of effective cleaning products that make them work so effectively is a chemical called a “surfactant” (stands for surface active agent). To understand what makes a surfactant transform ordinary water into a powerful cleaner, we need to start with a little chemistry lesson.

Water and Surface Tension:  Water is the most abundant chemical on earth. Water (H2O) is a simple molecule composed of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen. The chemical structure of water is such that individual water molecules tend to stick together through a phenomenon called “hydrogen bonding”. This intense attraction between adjacent water molecules prevents water from spreading over surfaces. Instead, water tends to bead up as if being repelled from a surface. This means water has a high surface tension making water a poor cleaner all by itself.


Water beads up on surfaces. This sticking together of water molecules makes plain water a poor cleaner.


Water + Surfactant = Making Water Wetter:  Adding relatively tiny amounts of a compound called a surfactant radically changes the properties of water. The surfactant is able to interfere and prevent the hydrogen bonding allowing a cleaning solution to penetrate and lift dirt from surfaces. The resulting cleaning solution has a low surface tension which enables effective soil suspension. Everyday examples of surfactants include shampoo and hand soap.

Surface Tension Graphic

Hand soap and shampoo are common surfactants


Chemical Free and Onsite Generation of Cleaning Products:  Can water be altered to make a cleaning product without the need for surfactants?  There are systems that go by such trade names as Lotus, Geneon Technologies, Tennant ecH20™, ecH2O™ nanoclean, Orbio® sc-5000, Orbio® os3, and others. Without getting into how these products work, the systems produce solutions that appear to do little to alter the surface tension of water.

A Simple Demo shows the difference with a Surfactant:  A simple demo can show how surfactant based cleaners differ some of the systems described above.

Pour equal amounts of tap water, Orbio® os3 Multi-Surface Cleaner and Multi-Clean Century neutral cleaner diluted 1 oz per gallon (contains 400 parts per million (ppm) of surfactant) on different plastic plates. The visual results are dramatic.


On the left, 400 parts per million surfactant solution, right is the os3 Multi-Surface Cleaner

Surfactants are the building blocks of effective cleaning products.

Washing hands

Hand Soap is a common surfactant solution




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