(written in October, 1994)
by Jim Heaphy
Fabricating and installing solid surface countertops inevitably creates a substantial amount of dust, and the resulting mess can irritate your customers unless it is well controlled. Of course, the conditions at every jobsite are different. If you are installing countertops in a new home under construction, with work crews creating dust and debris in every room, no one is likely to get upset over some solid surface dust. You may decide just to sweep up your mess when you are finished with your installation. However, if you are working in an occupied home, and the entire project consists of removing old countertops and replacing them with new ones, it is important to take special precautions to collect dust as it is created, to prevent it from spreading throughout the house, and to clean up thoroughly once your work is done.
The most important aspect of dust control is to create as little as you can on the jobsite. Ideally, countertops should be fabricated in your shop as completely as possible. Accurate field measuring and templating makes this practical. Finish sand countertop sections in your shop, and prevent scratching with a protective wrapping during delivery. Complete the sink and cooktop cutouts in your shop whenever practical. If a section of countertop would be dangerously fragile to transport with a large cutout in the center of it, protect it during delivery by strapping it securely to a wooden support frame.
Even with the best advance planning, though, some operations that create dust will need to be done on the jobsite in most cases. If this dust is controlled and cleaned up promptly, no problems should result.
Good communication is an essential part of customer relations. Explain to the customer what you plan to do to minimize the dust problem, and promise that you will clean up thoroughly when you are finished.
As soon as you arrive on the jobsite, plan how you can minimize the spread of dust to other parts of the house. In some cases, the most direct route from the driveway to the kitchen is through a nicely carpeted living room. In that case, you might carry the new countertops in that way. Once you start work, though, that route can be sealed off, and you can go back and forth to your truck through the garage or the laundry room, or whatever route is least likely to mess things up in an objectionable way.
I prefer to use disposable plastic drop cloths instead of heavier reusable ones. I buy medium weight 9' x 12' drop cloths for less than $1.00 each. When I'm done with them, I roll them up and throw them away with all the dust inside. That is easier, as far as I'm concerned, than trying to clean up a reusable drop cloth after each use. That process creates its own big mess.
Drop cloths can be used to seal off doorways and upper cabinets, cover dining room tables and chairs, cover ranges and refrigerators, and create barriers between open kitchens and other parts of the house. Fasten them in place with painter's masking tape, which is unlikely to damage wallpaper and painted walls.
A portable but powerful shop vacuum cleaner is essential. I use one that will accept both 1-1/4" and 2-1/2" diameter hoses. Mine has a washable filter, which I replace with a clean one frequently. Fine solid surface dust quickly clogs the vacuum filter, reducing the effectiveness of the vacuum cleaner.
Whenever possible, select power tools that have dust collection fittings available, and use them. Several companies now make excellent random orbit disk sanders with provisions for dust collection. The sanding disks have six or eight holes that are positioned to align with dust inlets in the sander base. My experience is that the little cloth bags that attach to such sanders are ineffective in picking up much solid surface dust. However, when the bag is replaced by a vacuum hose, the results are outstanding. Almost all of the fine sanding dust can be picked up as it is created. Some models of portable saws and routers now have dust collection capabilities, and this factor should always be considered when purchasing new tools.
When you use a tool that doesn't have dust collection built in, you may be able to jury rig dust collection on the spot. For example, I have a large plastic funnel sold for changing a car's oil. I've enlarged the small hole, and modified it to fit on the end of a vacuum hose. If I'm making a router cut, I position this funnel in place with duct tape, aiming toward the router from the direction that the shavings will fly. I turn on my vacuum just before I start routing, and I pick up the majority of the shavings before they fly all over the kitchen. If you're working with another installer, the other person can maneuver a vacuum hose into the stream of shavings while you're routing or sawing.
Static electricity can complicate dust control. When items in the kitchen have a strong static charge, solid surface dust and shavings will cling to vertical surfaces tenaciously, complicating the cleanup process. I use an aerosol spray product called Static Guard, which is sold in the laundry supply section of many grocery stores. I spray this around the area a few minutes before routing, and it very much helps to reduce the static problem. Be aware that this type of product is flammable, so read the directions, avoid spraying it directly into power tools, and give it time to dissipate before switching on power tools.
Some old-fashioned tools are essential - a whisk broom, a full-sized broom and dust pan, and some sort of waste basket. I use paper grocery bags as disposable waste baskets. I fold down an inch or so of the top edge of one, so that it will stand up on its own. From time to time, I quickly sweep the work area, and put the debris into this bag. When it starts to get full, it's quick and easy to wrap it into a bundle, dispose of it, and open up a fresh bag.
When I'm done with my solid surface work, I start a two-stage cleaning process. First, I quickly vacuum or sweep up any large concentrations of scrap or dust. Then, I load all of my tools in my truck, except my vacuum cleaner and other cleaning supplies. Finally, I remove all drop cloths, and do a thorough and complete vacuuming and cleaning of the entire work area. I start high and work my way down each area - removing dust from upper cabinets, splash areas, windows, countertops, base cabinets, toe kick areas, and finally the floor. Sometimes, the vacuum won't dislodge all of the dust from little nooks and crannies. In that case, I attach the hose to the outlet port of the shop vacuum. I can then blow the dust out of these areas, switch the hose again, and complete my dust pickup.
I carry a variety of cleaning supplies with me - a non-abrasive spray cleaner, a mild abrasive cleaner, a basic furniture polish, and lots of paper towels and clean rags. At this point, I carefully check everything in the kitchen, looking for anything I've affected that I can clean up. I also check adjoining rooms, cleaning up any dust that may have spread.
When I'm satisfied with the results, I call in the customers, and invite them to look over the kitchen and let me know if they notice anything wrong. Most customers greatly appreciate such efforts.
If you think of dust control and cleanup as an essential part of the service that you provide, rather than as an afterthought, the result is bound to be greatly improved customer satisfaction.