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Cleaning truck cabs in the age of COVID

April 21, 2021
From bleach to bi-polar ionization, there isn’t one best solution to cleaning truck cabs and combatting COVID-19. But there are good practices fleets can use to keep drivers and other staff safe.

During the early days of COVID, the Kenan Advantage Group (KAG) struggled with the best protocol for cleaning the truck’s cab used by a driver who came down with COVID-19 symptoms. The largest bulk liquid hauler in North America, KAG has 7,000 drivers and just as many trucks in its fleet, which operates throughout the U.S, Canada and Mexico.

Kirk Altrichter, KAG’s executive vice president of fleet services, said that his fleet, like others in the early days of the pandemic, needed to develop a plan for equipment that could be contaminated with COVID. 

“Hiring somebody to come in and clean the truck was very expensive,” he said during an educational session at the American Trucking Associations’ 2021 TMC Spring Virtual Meeting hosted by TMC’s Cab & Controls Study Group. “None of our technicians, none of our personnel wanted to get into the cabs to clean them. We later decided to just quarantine the truck for three to five days. We started with five days and then quickly moved to three days.”

After a three-day truck quarantine, the staff then went into the cab, wiped down all the surfaces, and did a thorough cleaning. 

For years, trucking companies have been looking for the best ways to clean cabs. But in 2020, the main reason for finding the best way to clean a driver’s workspace changed. 

“Why is there a need for in-cab cleaning and deodorizing?” Altrichter asked during the April 20 session. “For many years, we’ve been doing this as trucking companies for slip-seated trucks and drivers.”

Session moderator John Adami, principal at NW Heavy Duty, noted: “I don’t think anybody would disagree that truck cabs and sleepers haven’t always been the most hygienic or healthy working environments. It’s incumbent upon us to address the bigger picture of cleanliness and health — not just the current pandemic — when it comes to cleaning.”

Until the COVID-19 pandemic made people think differently about sterilizing workspaces, truck companies were focused on fighting the residue and odor left by cigarette smoke and other dirt and grime that builds up inside the cab. This was done to make the truck ready for the next driver for fleets that share trucks or to fight potential bug infestations. Fleets also would focus on cab cleaning in advance of selling trucks, Altrichter noted. And while fleets are still concentrated on clean cabs for resale and other reasons, things changed in 2020.

“Most recently, I think, it’s more about bacteria and viruses,” Altrichter said. And when it comes to fighting bacteria and viruses, there are good products for inside the cab as well as cleaning products that fleets should avoid because they could damage the equipment.

Adami noted there are two approaches to cleaning inside cabs: chemicals and devices. “When it comes to cleaning, there’s no one product, there’s no one solution,” he said. “It’s a layered process.”

List N products

Scott Harris, president of Environmental Quality Management, suggested that fleets rely on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of disinfectants that fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. 

The EPA expects all products on its List N to kill the coronavirus when used according to the product’s label instructions. These products can come as sprays, wipes, concentrates or fogs, for example. Harris said it’s important to note the “contact time” for each product. Contact time is the amount of time the surface should be treated for. The surface should be visibly wet for the duration of the contact time, which varies by product. 

Contact times to kill COVID-causing germs can vary from 15 seconds to 10 minutes, in which the product must remain wet on a surface to do its job. 

Harris said that if a product says it “kills 99.9% of germs, or something between 99% and 99.99%, it’s not going to be true for the human coronavirus … that’s really intended for a very small list — like salmonella or E. coli or something like that — in laboratory conditions.”

He also said to be wary of any product that claims it “kills on contact,” noting that it would take at least 15 seconds of wetness to kill SARS-CoV-2, and it could take up to 10 minutes for some products, according to the EPA’s List N. 

For example, ethanol wipes need five minutes on a surface before killing most germs. Lysol disinfecting spray and wipes need 10 minutes to do the job. 

While bleach can be one of the best things to clean and kill germs on surfaces — and is readily available — most OEMs recommend against cleaning inside cabs with bleach because the fumes could damage circuit boards and other electronics in the trucks, Altrichter said. Straight bleach can also damage or discolor cab surfaces.

But TMC’s Cab & Controls Study Group, in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and OEMs, found that ⅓ cup of bleach diluted with a gallon of water can effectively disinfect surfaces. (The ratio, Altrichter noted, should not exceed ½ cup of bleach per gallon of water.)

How to clean each part of the cab

“After using diluted bleach, the cab surfaces should be wiped down again with mild soap and water to remove any bleach residue,” Altrichter noted, as he walked educational session attendees through each part of the cab.

Switches and controls: Use mild soap and water or diluted bleach. Do not use ammonia. “The recommendation for the purposes of COVID-19 is to start with diluted bleach and then wipe them down with soap and water to remove the bleach residue.”

Seat belts/vehicle restraint system: Use mild soap and water. Diluted bleach is acceptable for metal and plastic buckle pieces but should not be used on webbing, stitching or strapping as it can discolor them. Do not use ammonia.

Steering wheel: For leather steering wheels, wipe (do not soak) with mild soap and water, followed by a leather conditioner. Diluted bleach or 70% isopropyl alcohol may be used but will likely dry out the leather and affect its appearance. Do not use ammonia. For non-leather steering wheels, mild soap and water or diluted bleach can be used. Do not use alcohol or ammonia. 

Seat adjustment controls: For metal or plastic seat controls, use mild soap and water or diluted bleach. Do not use ammonia. 

Door handles and grab bars: Mild soap and water, diluted bleach or 70% isopropyl alcohol works. Do not use ammonia. 

Seat cushion cleaning: Use only fabric cleaners or steam clean seats. It is OK to use 70% isopropyl alcohol for surface wiping only. Do not use any bleach (diluted or otherwise). Do not use ammonia. 

Information touch screens: Screens with touch film and anti-glare surface treatments are sensitive to chemicals, Altrichter noted. He said it’s best to clean them with mild soap and water or use an LCD cleaner that does not contain alcohol or ammonia. Do not clean displays with any bleach. Do not use alcohol. Do not use ammonia.

Interior trim pieces: Use mild soap and water or diluted bleach to clean interior trim. Do not use ammonia. 

Air purifying the cab

Air purification has found some success during the pandemic with needlepoint bi-polar ionization (NPBI), a technology that releases ions into airstreams through an HVAC system in a building or environmental control system within a vehicle. 

Charlie Waddell, founder and CTO of Global Plasma Solutions, which offers NPBI technology, said there are a lot of products that have come to market lately claiming to be able to clean the air of particulates. 

“This type of technology can be effective at reducing particulate in the space and also helping to reduce virus particles that are out there in the air as well,” Waddell said. “These ions that are generated from what we call needlepoint bi-polar ionization are already naturally occurring. If you have an air ion counter and you go out to waterfalls or if you go to the ocean, you can actually see very high levels of ions in these locations. So what you're trying to do with this type of technology is recreate those good environments — but do it in a safe manner without producing ozone as a byproduct.”

The CDC has recently noted that bi-polar ionization technology has matured, and earlier safety concerns about it have been resolved. The CDC suggests that those considering an ionization product need to be sure the equipment meets UL 2998 standard certification, which is intended to validate that no harmful ozone levels are produced. 

“Using this technology in your trucks or your buildings can reduce your particulate, which is going to help with the transmission highway of the pathogen itself,” Harris said. “It's also good for mold, bacteria, viruses — not just a COVID-19 strategy. It's effective against many different types of bacteria and viruses. I want to point out it's not the silver bullet, but it is a great layer in this fight against pathogens.”

As Adami noted earlier, when it comes to properly and thoroughly cleaning truck cabs, it truly is a layered process.

About the Author

Josh Fisher | Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Josh Fisher has been with FleetOwner since 2017, covering everything from modern fleet management to operational efficiency, artificial intelligence, autonomous trucking, regulations, and emerging transportation technology. He is based in Maryland. 

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