Back to Zero

Project cleaning to restore surfaces

Many years ago, when I worked as a school custodian, we were sometimes short staffed. During those times, our supervisor regularly directed us to “just hit the high spots,” explaining that we’d “get back to zero” during the break. That meant summer break, the roughly three months in the United States when school is not regularly in session. Getting back to zero meant restoring a surface to a level where routine cleaning could be used to maintain the health, practical use, and appearance of the surface.

The appearance of surfaces is the baseline from which our cleaning services are judged. However, over time, some surfaces become so saturated with soil that no amount of routine cleaning will improve their appearance level. Other surfaces may be damaged by the very methods we use to clean them. Bringing these surfaces “back to zero” requires project work, or work beyond your routine cleaning services. As such, it requires time and special planning.

Identify Items for Project Cleaning

To make the most of your project cleaning time, you should first identify all the surfaces that need to be brought back to zero. Start by dividing the room into categories: floor, ceiling, walls, and inventory, which includes all items inside of the room. You may also need to identify separate items within these groups.

Assigning Work

Determine how you need to clean each surface and who will do it. Much of the equipment and chemicals used for project cleaning require specialized training, so you will need to assign cleaners according to training and expertise. Wiping down inventory or moving it in and out of a room, while physically demanding, is a task that can be assigned to beginners or less-skilled workers. Operating extractors and scrubbers or applying finish to surfaces are tasks for someone trained on those specific pieces of equipment or processes.


This final step is the hardest. Start by estimating how long each area or item will take to clean. If you are not sure, use the 612 Cleaning Times from ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association. Don’t forget to include the time required to move inventory out of and back into a room. In developing your schedule, you’ll want to avoid inefficiencies like too much downtime—or not enough downtime—or overlapping tasks where specialists bump into each other.

Contract Out if Necessary

Some tasks, like refinishing a gymnasium or cleaning windows in a multi-level building, are better contracted out to a third party. While utilizing contractors may appear more costly in the short term, if you don’t have the in-house equipment or expertise, it can actually be the more cost-effective option.

Share the Plan

This step is often overlooked, but it is essential to efficient project work. Make sure both your cleaners and supervisors understand the project cleaning plan. If appropriate, give them the opportunity to voice their opinion. Those who deal with cleaning these areas on a regular basis may be able to provide valuable input. Don’t forget to report your progress to cleaning staff and your supervisor on a regular basis.

Back when I was a custodian, the school was ours for the entire summer and any holiday breaks. We could schedule our project work without interference from the outside world. However, most buildings—even most school buildings these days—never shut down completely, meaning that in addition to other scheduling issues, you’ll have to work around the needs of the school or business. This is a lot more complicated and causes a few more headaches than having a building empty for three months, but it’s necessary if we want to get back to zero—a good place to be in the cleaning profession.

Posted On August 25, 2016

Kevin Keeler

Founder of Keeler Consulting

Kevin Keeler is founder of Keeler Consulting. He specializes in the development and implementation of tools, technology, and systems that provide cleanliness, cost effectiveness, and accountability. Keeler is a co-author of Behind The Broom. For more information, visit

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