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Ultrasonic Cleaning Saves Delicates

Sound waves can restore electronics and delicate fabrics, wood and porcelain that traditional cleaning methods can’t handle.

March 23, 2011 Photo
When dealing with fire and flood damage in the past, too many items—from Hummel figurines to coffee makers to big-screen TVs—had to be declared total losses because there was no cost-effective way to get the soot, smoke smell, mold or other contaminants out of them.

Restoration of heirlooms, art, appliances and electronics has been hampered by the limitations of traditional hand-cleaning methods, which have restricted ability to get into hard-to-reach areas, such as inside hollow figurines or under tight electronic components where soot, rust or mold may reside. Hand-cleaning, vacuums and compressed air often cannot effectively remove residue, rust or smoke odor. The hand-cleaning process itself, whether with toothbrushes, sponges or cotton swabs, can also increase handling and breakage, particularly of sensitive or delicate items, such as crystal or figurines.

Typically, electronic items that were contaminated by fire or water would be disposed of because traditional cleaning methods were inadequate. When blown air was used to remove ash and soot, debris would remain inside components, causing corrosion. Other problems occurred after cleaning when electronic components were turned back on and the plastic elements would heat up and release smoke odors.

Ultrasonic cleaning is a fairly recent development in the salvage and restoration industry. It uses heat, water, ultrasonic sound waves, and environmentally friendly cleaning solutions and can be used on all sorts of delicate materials that don't respond well to traditional cleaning methods.

How It Works
With ultrasonic equipment, cleaning occurs as energy is released by the creation and collapse of microscopic bubbles formed at ultrasonic frequencies. The resultant micro-shock waves, combined with special detergents, break up and lift off dirt, soot and mold particles, and other contaminants.

The ultrasonic process has multiple steps. First, objects are placed in a metal basket, which goes into a pre-wash tank to remove any gross ash, soot or other dirt. From there, the basket is moved to an ultrasonic tank, which deep-cleans the objects. The ultrasonic tank generates thousands of microscopic bubbles per second, each acting as a tiny vacuum that sucks water and surface debris into itself on contact with a hard surface. The items are next moved into a rinse detail station and then into the drying process.
More sensitive electronic items, such as computers and laboratory testing equipment, that cannot be submerged in water are placed in an electronic cleaning cabinet, where a combination of finely directed de-ionized water spray, soap and heat are applied. The method is extremely accurate and thorough and removes 100% of contaminants remaining from fire or water damage. Once cleaned, objects are then placed in a drying chamber for several hours prior to final testing.

The list of items which can be salvaged through ultrasonic cleaning is virtually endless. It includes objects such as figurines, dishes, glasses, silverware, silk plants, picture frames, appliances, electronics and even blinds. The quick removal of soot, mold, calcium deposits and other damaging acids greatly increases the restoration success rate. The process doesn't destroy delicate items, and rust-damaged tools, firearms or other metal objects can be cleaned to pre-loss condition or better. The combination of the spray cabinet and heating chamber also removes smoke odor from appliances and electronics. The pores in the plastic are opened up in the drying chamber, and a deodorizing agent is applied so that all odors are permanently released.

The Benefits
With ultrasonic cleaning's heat, special cleaning agents, and microscopic cleaning bubbles—or the combination of the spray cabinet and heating chamber—professionals are able to clean, deodorize and save most residential or commercial items at a fraction of the cost of replacement.

Loss rates for contents damaged in fires and floods traditionally run at about 30% to 40%. Ultrasonic cleaning equipment can reduce that rate to as low as 5% to 10%, including heirlooms and electronics.

Frank Pedeflous is president of Omegasonics, a Simi Valley, Calif.-based manufacturer of ultrasonic cleaning equipment and specialized cleaning chemistries. He can be reached at (805) 583-0875 or frankp@omegasonics.com.
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