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The writing’s on the wall… but not for long!


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Two of the most annoying and messiest problems for the buildings manager are increasing – but fortunately, so are the counter measures. The two big problems are graffiti on walls and signs, and discarded chewing gum on walkways and entrance mats.

It is always an exasperating situation whenever a would-be Banksy (the now-famous British graffiti ‘artist’) ruins an outside wall – but sometimes the mess can be cleared up with an organisation’s own labour force, and the same now applies for gum removal.

Received wisdom says that graffiti is increasing, but there are very few firm figures on the subject. In the UK, it has been said on several occasions that the estimated cost of graffiti to the country is over £1 billion a year. An estimated $12 billion a year is spent cleaning up graffiti in the United States. The London Underground has said that its most expensive remedy is replacing glass windows that are etched with graffiti, which costs £10 million, compared to the £2.5m it takes to clear up other kinds.

The clear-up costs are unequally divided between materials and manpower. In October 2010, the education authorities in Egypt, southern Illinois, reported that they had spent $15,000 to clean graffiti in the previous four months, almost $5,500 of that going towards repainting surfaces, which is generally reckoned to be the most cost-effective method.

On average, graffiti found on small surface, such as an electrical box, can take as little as 15 minutes to paint over. The same size graffiti on a large surface could take a half-day to clean up, because of the problem of matching the surrounding area - one area re-painted can stand out and look very strange, so managers often decide to re-paint an entire wall, however large.

While a single incident does not seem serious, graffiti has a serious cumulative effect – the appearance of a first defacing appears to attract more. This has other implications – for many members of the public, the presence of graffiti suggests a failure to protect citizens and control lawbreakers – thus, on a corporate building, the suggestion is that the company involved is not in control of its affairs. Graffiti has been said to ‘generate the perception of blight’ and heighten fear in society.

For the buildings manager, the big question is of how to respond to graffiti. The two major principles are to try and prevent it occurring, and to act quickly when it does.

Some targets and locations appear particularly vulnerable to graffiti: clearly, easy-to-reach targets, such as signs but curiously, particularly hard-to-reach locations, such as bridges, are very vulnerable (they increase the vandal's reputation in the graffiti world). It has been suggested that dark wall surfaces do not generally attract as much graffiti, although they can certainly be defaced with lighter paint. A local council in the UK has suggested that the planting of shrubs, climbing plants, and similarly difficult-to-pass vegetation can discourage graffiti vandals.

There have been some notable successes in pre-empting graffiti – when the Nottingham Tramline sought for ways to protect its windows, it decided to look both at preventative measures and ease of removal. The company decided to use 3M™ Anti-Graffiti Glass Protection Film, which is a ‘sacrificial’ product – that is, when damaged, it is peeled off and replaced with a clean one. There is also a laminated version, 3M™ Security Film, which has been used to improve passenger safety – there are people who will throw things at vehicles, and this film has prevented windows shattering and stopped glass being spread inside a carriage.

When graffiti has occurred, speed of action is important for two reasons. The West Berkshire council in Britain has noted that the quicker graffiti on brickwork is dealt with, the easier it is to remove - if left for perhaps weeks or even months, the solvent will dry into the pores of the brick, becoming more difficult to remove. Most commentators on the subject also agree that prompt action can discourage further vandalism, because graffiti encourages further graffiti.

The favourite method of graffiti removal is a solvent applied by brush and then gently rinsed off with low-pressure water. The problem with substrates such as Perspex (as in bus shelters) is to do this and remove the image without causing any ‘fogging’ or damage to the underlying surface.

There is a product similar to paint-stripper, which will remove graffiti from tarmac and galvanised shuttering without damage. Graffiti from car and van paintwork can be removed without the eed for a complete re-spray – one of the expert companies doing this says that it takes only an hour or so, but requires patience. As with Perspex, the additives in marker pens can sometimes ‘bite’ into the paint and leave ‘ghosting’.

Heritage buildings and monuments present a problem. These require chemicals designed specifically to dissolve the graffiti and not the stone, before using extremely low-pressure washing.

3M has devised three specific graffiti-removal products – they are all available in trigger-spray canisters, but have extremely different characteristics. Helpfully, they are all practical for a buildings manager and his direct workforce to handle. The procedure is essentially to spray, let the formula react with the target area for a bit, and then gently wipe off with a 3M™ Scotch-Brite Pad.

However, it is useful to know the proper techniques. For a plastic or vinyl surface, or a glass, use 3M™ Graffiti Remover (GR1), but do not spray directly on to the graffiti. Use a cloth, wipe until clear, and rinse. For painted surfaces, 3M™ Graffiti Remover (GR2) requires a little more care. Spray directly on to the marking, and let it stand for two minutes – but no longer, or you may affect the base paint. Rinse, and repeat if necessary, but do not forget the final good rinse with water.

The 3M™ Graffiti Remover (GR3) is for concrete, ceramic tiles, aluminium, and metallic surfaces. This formulation requires a first test on a small area, and you only work in well-ventilated situations. Spray the damage, wait five minutes, agitate the spray with a wire brush, and if necessary, repeat the dose. Rinse with water.

These products are perfectly practical for a direct-labour force. However, some operators have come up with their own solution. In the district of Paisley, cleaning staff have been using the notorious high-alcohol Buckfast tonic wine to clean graffiti from the tiles in public walls. They say the drink has all the strong cleaning qualities needed to remove felt-tip pen from polished surfaces!


Chewing gum is ‘a relatively recent blight on society’, according to one of the companies which specializes in its removal. And it is going to get worse – gum manufacturers have identified the UK and Europe as priority markets for increased sales.

In Britain, sales of gum are already rising after a drop in 2009 – they were up 2.7 per cent in November, to £213 million. Part of the appeal is said to be in the marketing, which suggests that gum helps whiten teeth - in Germany the top-selling gum is a whitener. The result can be seen everywhere, from pavements to walls, stuck to public seating and trodden into carpets of shops and restaurants.

It is of course illegal to do so, but the penalty is only £50 in the UK, and rarely imposed. In Westminster, London, it is said that over 90 per cent of people have had it stuck to their shoes, and over 50 per cent have had it stuck to their clothes. In Croydon, south London, a scheme was introduced by which a clean-up team patrolled the streets with two very different instructions - members of the public spotted putting waste gum in specially provided bins could be rewarded by gifts of shopping vouchers, but those who dropped gum on the streets could be hit with an instant £80 fine.

Other countries have been more decisive - Singapore notably banned chewing gum in the 1990s, although allowed a partial lifting of the ban twelve years later to allow certain chewing gums with health benefits. Nevertheless, the fines for dropping it in a public place still began at $500!

Notably, say gum experts, where councils have kept areas free of gum litter, there is very little in surrounding areas – this suggests that when people see gum everywhere they feel that it is all right for them to discard their own.

Several technologies exist for gum removal. A typical one is a high-pressure water pump capable of producing a pressure of 250 bars (3,600psi). A turbo lance of superheated pressurised water produces a fine, rotating, jet of water which cleans gum from most surfaces. The problems with high-pressure power washing alone is the high amount of water used, which can cause damage by dislodging the grout and sand in paving joints. Similarly, power washing tends to merely move the chewing gum to another area where it reforms and sticks to the surface again.

The Gum Clear Company uses superheated dry steam and a detergent chemical, which turns gum into a powder that can be swept up. The Matrix cleaning company uses a similar method - the gum is preheated with steam, detergent applied, and the gum is broken down. This system, says the company, uses around 40 litres of water, and one person is expected to clean up about 300 square metres in one working day

Cleanex, another specialist, uses a ‘gum shield’, which gets rid of the water in the gum leaving behind a dry substance which is not sticky, and can be swept up.

A well-known specialist is GumBusters, which uses its pressurised dry steam vapour technology with an environmentally friendly bio-degradable detergent, and a very low amount of water – as much in a day as a pressure washer uses in a minute, says the company. The steam is injected with the detergent as it is released from the cleaning head and the gum is instantly heated by the steam to 175°C. The combination of heat and bio-degradable detergent removes the stickiness from the gum which is simultaneously dissolved. (This is also suitable for graffiti and fly poster removal – the company says that this system may be slightly slower than pressure washing, but is less messy, uses less water, and there is no need for the working area to be closed off to public use, as is generally the case.


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