The Greenest Cleaner of All

June 2011 Feature By Janet Groene

You spritz the galley counter with anti-bacterial spray, wipe it away, and your houseboat's food prep area is clean, right?  Well, maybe. The cheapest, greenest cleaner onboard is also  the most eco-friendly. It's patience.  

While cruising the Bahamas, I learned to take time after visiting a remote island. The young people had already left to earn a living elsewhere and only the children were here now, tended by their grannies. These older women did chores in slow motion. Yet their homes were sparkling clean even though they had no electricity for  vacuum cleaners or washing machines.

They swept slowly, allowing dust to settle. They soaked sheets, giving bleach time to work.  Dishes languished in hot water while suds did the scrubbing.

Now we moderns are on speed-dial, demanding harsh cleaners that work instantly. Yet even little kids know the value of time when it comes to killing germs. They wash their hands for as long as it takes  to sing the birthday song.

Here are ways to use time to clean your houseboat, while preserving your strength and the environment.

* Buy cleaners formulated for marine materials. They work better and are less likely to pollute boating waters or damage holding tanks. They also contain protective elements, such as  UV inhibitors, not  found in household cleaners. Take time to allow the product to penetrate, bleach, spread or  bond. (Beware too of time limits; some products should not be allowed to linger too long.)

* Read labels. The most common eco-sin is to use too much cleaner, expecting better or quicker results. Liquid laundry detergents, for example, come in full strength, 2X and 3X. If you use more than a capful you can fade fabrics, require more rinse water, and leave fibers less soft.

* A 20-minute laundry soak usually does the work of a much longer wash and it doesn't require any elbow grease or electricity.

* Both blotting and wicking are slow, but very effective. Say, for example, you  drop something thick and disgusting on the carpet or sofa. Your first instinct is to flood it with cleaner but unless it's acid, which should be neutralized at once, flooding just dilutes and spreads the mess. First, scrape up as much as possible, working gently with a table knife or scraper that doesn't drive debris deeper into the weave. Then place several thickness of clean paper towels over the stain and weight with something heavy, such as a pile of books.

In 30 minutes, change to clean paper towels and repeat. Keep repeating until no more stain wicks into the paper towels, but don't let the stain dry. While it's damp treat it according to label directions for the type of stain.

* Another way to let time work for you is to apply a poultice, especially when a stain is in a porous material such as old gel coat, unvarnished teak or a granite counter-top. This can be tricky, best done with advice from an expert in the kind of surface you're cleaning.

Begin by noting whether the stain is oil-based (grease,  tar), organic (grape juice, tea, coffee),  metallic (rust, copper), biological (pet accident,  algae, sick baby), or chemical  (hair dye, nail polish, marker pen). Mix  up a paste that is (1) safe for the material you're cleaning and (2) suitable for the stain.  For example, Zud works well for rust stains and sink cleanser with bleach works well on kitchen plastics or gel coat. A little water turns them to paste.

When working with porous materials such as stone, saturate a piece of gauze with a suitable paste that is both safe and effective. Put the poultice on the stain, cover with plastic wrap, and weight it down. Let it dry completely. With luck, some or all of the stain will be drawn up into the poultice. 

* If you use those treated cloths sold specifically for ceramic stove-tops, use one first as a poultice over tough stains. Then wipe.

* Depending on what your owner's manual says about cleaning the toilet, you may be able to use less chemical by letting it work longer. Put cleaner in the bowl, swish around to wet evenly, then give it a few minutes before flushing. A mild acid such as white vinegar can help loosen calcium deposits on porcelain. Don't use abrasives. Once the glaze is abraded, stains build faster and penetrate deeper.

* Soap scum removers work better in the shower if they soak in, usually 10 to 15 minutes. Thick cleaners such as foams spread more evenly and  cling longer.

* When cleaning houseboat windows, keep them wet as long as possible before  rinsing (but beware of damage to adjacent surfaces). In boating you're dealing not only with the usual grit, but also with greasy stains from diesel exhaust and stubborn water spots from wind-driven spume.  Give cleaners time to emulsify greasy soot and soften water spots. 

* Burned-on food stains ruin a cooking pot? Fill the pot with enough water to cover the stain, add a couple of tablespoons of baking soda and bring to a boil. Covert the pot and let it cool completely. The carbon will probably lift off with light scraping using a nylon scraper. 


About the Author

Gordon and Janet Groene lived on board full-time for ten years. Their books include Creating Comfort Afloat and Living Aboard. Contact Janet at www.BoatCook.blogspot.com.

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