DIY Cleaning & Organizing

Going Green and Keeping Clean: Outdoor Edition

If you think environmentally-friendly products aren't strong enough to clean the grime off your house then think again—green cleaning is tough on dirt and soft on Mother Earth.

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A walk down any big-box store’s cleaning products aisle will tell the story: It’s evident by the noticeable increase in “green” cleaning products available that people are becoming more conscious of what they use to clean their home’s interior. And while any movement toward greener cleaning is a great step, many people still use caustic chemicals to scour the outside areas of their homes.

While using traditional toxic cleaners may seem less harmful because the chemicals aren’t inside your home, the truth is your outdoor chemical cleaning can negatively affect both human and environmental health. “You wouldn’t want to dump toxic chemicals down the sink or the toilet,” says Dean Dowd, chief technical officer for CalFinder, a green-certified construction service. “Runoff from outdoor cleaning can end up in the sewer system and back into your water supply. Also, because some of these chemicals don’t break down, they can eventually affect marine life when discharged into waterways.”

Besides protecting your health and your environment, greening your cleaning is easy on your wallet. Many of these green cleaning solutions can be made out of inexpensive ingredients you probably already have at home, like baking soda, borax, vinegar, and water. Here are a few ways you can green your outdoor clean and still keep everything as fresh as you like it.

Cleaning House Siding

You can easily clean your home non-toxically using just water and a pressure washer. But before you pull out the heavy-duty spray, first find out what method is best for your particular exterior.

“Wood shingled siding doesn’t need to be washed,” says Dowd. “During a pressure wash, avoid full pressure on masonry or vinyl because water can reach behind the vinyl and blast mortar from between the bricks.”

Another tried-and-true method Dowd recommends is rinsing. All you need is a hose, bucket, and mild soap. But he cautions that if you have particularly hard-to-reach areas you need to clean, it may be best to hire a contractor to do the dirty work for you.

Don’t Drench Your Driveway

One area where you should be particularly cautious when cleaning is the driveway. Because most are designed to allow any storm water to flow to public drains, any toxic chemicals you use may end up in the local water supply.

This is particularly relevant if you like to wash your own car in the driveway, says Kelly Stettner of the Black River Action Team, a Springfield, VT-based group dedicated to keeping local waterways clean and healthy. “Not only can the extra water push any dirt and junk already in the gutters down the storm drains and into the local lake or river, but think of the soap, oil and other automotive fluids that rinse off the car itself. These storm drains empty into water bodies, usually without any sort of treatment.”

She recommends looking for organic, biodegradable soaps and washing cars on grass or gravel, if possible, to allow some filtering before the runoff reaches waterways. Above all, avoiding chemicals is key. “Chemicals can break down the asphalt while landing in the water supply,” he says. “Simply using a street-sweeper broom on a regular basis and hosing down dirt and dust should do the trick.”

For pesky oil stains, Down recommends spreading an absorbent material like car litter, sand. or sawdust over the stain and letting it sit for a few days to soak up the spot. “Afterward, simply sweep the absorbent material off the driveway,” he says.

Washing Your Windows

Keeping exterior windows clean is important for both your equipment maintenance and the view from inside your home. But you don’t have to resort to toxic glass cleaning chemicals for a clear window. Les Stephens, JELD-WEN product marketing manager, says while your need to clean will depend on your climate, there are some basic tips you can follow to green your window cleaning.

Instead of paper towels, Stephens suggests using a clean, lint-free soft cloth or sponge when you’re wiping down your windows. As for the cleaning solution, he suggests baby shampoo or vinegar mixed with water. If you have grease or oil problems, this mixture should do the trick.

Beyond just keeping your glass clear, however, you need to be concerned with the effect chemicals can have on the window casing and mechanisms. “Mild soap, water and a soft sponge or cloth is the simplest and safest way to clean exterior finishes like wood, metal-clad surfaces, vinyl, plastic and brass,” Stephens says. “Just [make sure to] always rinse and wipe dry immediately after cleaning.”

To clean window screens, remove them from windows and place them into a tub or shower stall or on an outdoor hard surface. Gently spray the screen with water and brush lightly with a soft bristle tool until clean. “If you have stubborn dirt, use a mild soap and water solution,” says Stephens. “Then just rinse clean and replace the screen when dry.”

Patio and Deck Maintenance

The patio or deck is an important spot for most household’s outdoor fun. But it can also easily become gritty and grimy after a few dusty days or rough showers. Gary Walker, CEO of the Lee’s Summit, MO-based eco-conscious cleaning companies Return to Green and Magic Touch Cleaning, says a few at-home concoctions can help you cut through the dirt without resorting to harsher methods.

To clean metal lawn chairs, start with a gallon of warm water. Add 1/4 cup hydrogen peroxide, a squirt of natural dish soap and a scoop of borax. Pump or spray the solution onto the metal chairs and let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes. After that, scrub with a soft nylon brush and rinse off with a hose.

And if you have mold on your cushions, don’t despair, says Walker. “This is easy to clean, and it’s safe,” he says. Make a mix of tea tree oil and water—one teaspoon of oil for every cup of water—and put it in a spray bottle. “Test it on the back side of the cushion first to make sure it doesn’t harm the fabric,” Walker says. “Once you know it’s safe, spray it on and don’t worry about rinsing it off. The oil will kill the mold, and both the smell of winter and of the tea tree oil will soon be gone.”

Worried about the state of your grill? Try baking soda. A natural cleaner and absorbent, it’s completely non-toxic (you use it in cooking, after all) and the fine granules make a gentle abrasive that works great on tough-to-clean spots like the grill. Dampen a grill brush, then sprinkle baking soda on it. Scrub your grill, then rinse it clean. For tougher stains, try a baking soda paste—three parts baking soda to one part water—and scrub with a wire brush. Walker also recommends trying all-natural citrus-based cleansers for greasy spots. “Citrus is the best degreaser,” he says.

Smarter Cleaning Works

Keeping your personal property neat and clean using eco-friendly methods is easy, and because most of the ingredients are readily available, it’s also convenient. “When I talk to people about green cleaning, the main reservations they have are effectiveness and convenience,” Dowd says. “Neither reservation should apply.” He says these methods are both easy to manage and extremely effective.

Plus, there are other advantages to doing the outdoor cleaning yourself. “Along with knowing you’re using great, effective alternatives, there’s always the pride of fixing up your home and enjoying some fresh air at the same time,” Dowd says.

Buying Green Cleaning Products

When purchasing green cleaning products, be wary of “greenwashing,” the practice of falsely advertising one’s product, company or practice as green, or sustainable, for purposes of increased revenue or clientele. Because labels like “all-natural” and “green” aren’t regulated by any government agency, anyone can advertise their products as healthier than they actually are.

Fortunately, some third-party designations are looking to fill the green gap. One prominent one is Green Seal. If you buy a product that is “Green Seal Certified,” you can be sure it’s met certain standards which vary by product and service.

Find information on Green Cleaning Indoors.