Hunting Contaminants: Choosing the Right Vacuum for your Cleanroom

Under the burden of such heavy regulations, manufacturers must continuously evaluate their housekeeping regimens to ensure that all controlled areas are properly cleaned and maintained. Vacuuming with cleanroom-compatible machines designed specifically to collect and retain microscopic particles enable manufacturers to prevent airborne particulate contamination; ensure air and product purity; and safeguard the health of employees.

From pharmaceuticals to semiconductors, cleanrooms are highly regulated environments. Under the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) strict criteria put forth in 2001, manufacturers across the board have fallen under a great amount of pressure to keep cleanrooms—clean, and have been forced to evaluate and improve their housekeeping regimens. The risks associated with failing to do so affect a company’s efficiency, employee health and ultimately, the bottom line. So what is the best way to tackle contaminants when the very act of cleaning can affect a room’s ultra sensitive environment? Cleaning with both a HEPA-filtered vacuum and traditional wipe-down methods are standard in most cleanrooms, but is one method better than the other? Well, Yes.

Measurements taken in one cleanroom setting found that a dusting system using disposable cloths polluted the space twice as much as a system using a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner. Though wipe-down methods are necessary in many cases, vacuuming is often the most efficient method because particles are retained inside the machine with little chance of being exhausted into the atmosphere; however, not any vacuum is acceptable. There are many factors to take into consideration when choosing the right vacuum for your cleanroom.

The Source

First, it’s important to pinpoint common cleanroom contaminants and how they can be prevented from entering the cleanroom in the first place. Contaminants are typically generated by three major sources: cleanroom personnel, materials, and equipment.

Personnel

Of course, one of the most common – and hard to control – cleanroom contaminants is people. While cleanroom gowns and other garments are designed to limit human contamination, it is impossible to regulate uncontrollable actions like sneezing and coughing. The typical working person generates approximately 1 million organic airborne particles greater than 0.5 microns per minute. In instances of human contamination, wipe down methods are often the best, as they prevent contaminants from even entering the cleanroom.

Materials

Cleanroom consumables – such as gloves, masks, wipers, swabs, hairnets, booties, HEPA filters, and tacky mats – can be a breeding ground for contaminants if the proper preventative measures aren’t taken. For example, if employees do not decontaminate their gloves before entering the cleanroom, everything they touch may be contaminated – including the finished product. The costs of repairing such damage can be exorbitant. Once again, it is vital that all consumables be thoroughly decontaminated prior to cleanroom use.

Machinery

Another potential source of contamination is the equipment already found within the cleanroom. The vibration of this equipment alone is often enough to cause a breakdown of particles, which then circulate in the ambient air. The most efficient way to prevent this type of contamination is to keep all machinery as dust-free as possible, and this is where a HEPA-filtered vacuum comes into play.

What to Look for in a Vacuum

When selecting an industrial vacuum cleaner for your cleanroom, many people fail to recognize the key role of the vacuum filtration system. In essence, superior filtration is what you’re shopping for, not just a vacuum, and because most vacuum filter systems are different, it is helpful to know what to look for when choosing the right vacuum for you.

First and foremost, any vacuum cleaner used in a cleanroom MUST be HEPA-filtered to ensure that 99.97% of all particles down to and including 0.3 microns are collected and retained. In addition, it is absolutely critical that the HEPA filter be installed after the motor to filter the exhaust stream. The motor’s commutator and carbon brushes generate dust, and if the exhaust stream is not filtered that dust will be released into the environment. A word of caution: not all HEPA-filtration systems are created equal. Make sure the vacuum you select contains a multi-stage, graduated filtration system for peak operating efficiency. A graduated filtration system uses a series of progressively finer filters to trap and retain particles as they move through the vacuum. The largest particles are captured first by coarser filters; smaller particles are then caught and retained by the finer HEPA filters. This multi-stage system protects the HEPA filters from blockage and excessive wear-and-tear, maintaining peak performance. (When equipped with an ULPA filter, the system should retain up to 99.999% of all ultra-fine particles, down to and including 0.12 microns in size). Additionally, the filtration system in your vacuum should use oversized filters, which slow airflow across the larger surface area and optimize the air-to-cloth ratio. This allows the vacuum to easily collect large volumes of debris over extended periods of time with minimal maintenance.

Besides having an exceptional filtration system, any vacuum used in a cleanroom should be constructed of non-particle-generating materials. For example, non-porous, stainless steel vacuums – equipped with smooth hoses and attachments – enable personnel to quickly wipe down and decontaminate equipment for faster, simpler sanitization and validation. Many vacuums are also autoclaveable, but be sure to check with your vacuum manufacturer first; otherwise you’ll destroy your investment.

Spill response should also be taken into account when purchasing a vacuum. At least one of your vacuums should be capable of wet and dry collection.

Central Vacuum Systems vs. Portable Vacuums

Another question manufacturers run into when purchasing a vacuum is whether a central vacuum system or several portable vacuum cleaners will be more efficient. The following pros and cons of both may help ease the decision.

Portable Vacuums

PRO: Portable vacuums are best for cleaning around work areas where human contamination is prevalent, enabling personnel to effectively clean their area at the end of each shift.

PRO: Many portable vacuums are designed for both wet and dry collection, while central systems are only capable of picking up dry materials.

PRO: Due to their easy maneuverability, portable vacuums are often used to clean remote or overhead areas that the central systems’ hoses can’t reach.

CON: Unlike central systems, portable vacuums occupy precious cleanroom space. When purchasing a portable vacuum, look for a compact model.

CON: Emptying a cleanroom vac can be hazardous, especially when picking up potent compounds. When purchasing a vacuum, look for a unit that comes with a safe collection/disposal container.

Central Systems

PRO: The biggest benefit of a central system is that it enables personnel to take collected dirt outside of the cleanroom, where they can dispose of it without any threat to the manufacturing process.

PRO: Because they are located outside of the cleanroom, central vacuum systems free up coveted floor space.

CON: Central systems don’t provide the flexibility you need to expand your operation because you may not have the appropriate vacuum capabilities to support a new area.

CON: If a contaminant enters the central vacuum system, the whole system may become contaminated – requiring a thorough, costly decontamination process.

Conclusion

Under the burden of such heavy regulations, manufacturers must continuously evaluate their housekeeping regimens to ensure that all controlled areas are properly cleaned and maintained. Vacuuming with cleanroom-compatible machines designed specifically to collect and retain microscopic particles enable manufacturers to prevent airborne particulate contamination; ensure air and product purity; and safeguard the health of employees. There are many options out there, but when choosing a vacuum, be sure to know why you need the vacuum and what it will pick up, especially if you are using it to eliminate hazardous compounds. This will allow the vacuum manufacturer to provide you with the correct machine for your needs. And if you have questions or are unsure which vacuum will solve your contamination problem, request a free demo. A quality vacuum manufacturer will be pleased to visit your cleanroom in order to assess the situation and match the correct vacuum and filtration system for your application.