Next time you need a high-value word in Scrabble, take a look at the back of any household cleaner bottle. Such complicated lists of chemicals are more than a mouthful — they also pose a potentially toxic threat to small children and animals, can irritate the eyes and skin of users, and create varying degrees of environmental and health risks.
A local company is aiming to uproot our dependence on conventional cleaning products. The Burlington-based startup Force of Nature has built a tabletop appliance that creates a powerful cleaning solution with the push of a button. The contraption, which looks slightly like a SodaStream, works with tap water. The user fills the bottle with water, inserts a vial containing a mix of vinegar, water, and salt into the top, then places it on a charging element. The bottle is charged for six minutes to electrolyze it, creating a solution that looks like water but is a mix of hypochlorous acid (a powerful disinfectant) and sodium hydroxide (which works as a detergent and cuts through grease).
Though the charged product smells slightly like bleach, it can be sprayed on the skin without causing harm, meaning gloves aren’t required. It is registered by the Environmental Protection Agency as a disinfectant and sanitizer that can kill 99.9 percent of salmonella, norovirus, influenza A, staph, and other germs. Patrick Lucci, Force of Nature’s cofounder and science officer, touts its versatility. “If it’s under your kitchen or bathroom sink, you can replace it [with our product],” he says, including odor eliminators. Research by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a lab that measures the efficacy of cleaning products, suggests he’s not far off. It found that Force of Nature’s electrolyzed water outperformed Windex on glass and Clorox Clean-Up on greasy messes.
Lucci, 68, had been building industrial machines to electrolyze water, but then partnered with several former executives from Gillette to develop a household product. He says Force of Nature has sold more than 40,000 of its devices through its website and online channels like The Grommet and Amazon. A starter kit sells for $89.99; a version for retailers debuts in July. The company has also been running pilots in child-care centers and municipalities looking to stop using chemical cleaners.
Lucci says his company hasn’t taken venture capital yet, and he isn’t deterred by the big brands he’s taking on. He thinks consumer interest in safer products will mean huge growth for his firm — at least two other companies with local ties, Cleancult and ThreeMain, also are pursuing this market. Plus, he thinks Force of Nature’s business model will be appealing . Consumers buy replacement vinegar and salt capsules at $19.99 for a pack of 25, pennies on the dollar compared with any cleaner on the market, he says. The ratio of vinegar, water, and salt matters, so you shouldn’t attempt to make your own.
His model is like Gillette giving away the razor and selling the razor blades. “Chemical companies are worth billions, but no one has ever come up with a business plan to produce recurring revenue” on household cleaners, Lucci says.
If the public buys into his approach, he could clean up.
FORCE OF NATURE
PRICE: $89.99 for a starter kit with charger, spray bottle, and five refill capsules. A pack of 25 refill capsules costs $19.99.
DETAILS: Costs about 7 cents per ounce. Households use on average 12 ounces per week. A batch expires 14 days after being electrolyzed.
Janelle Nanos is a Globe staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.