Monday, June 6, 2016

Recirculating Systems for Better Pet Bathing

What's a recirculating system?

Essentially, it's a water pump with a hose and a nozzle attached. There are several commercially available models including the Hanvey Bathing Beauty and the Oster Deluxe Pet Power Bathing System, It's also relatively straight-forward to assemble one on your own with parts available online or at your local home improvement store (I'll give instructions on that later).

When you set the pump in your partially filled tub and turn it on, it sucks the soapy water up through its bottom, pushes it through the hose, and spits it out through the sprayer. As the water runs off the pet in your tub, the recirculating system continues to collect and eject that water, giving you a continuous spray with which to clean the coat.

stop washing by hand
get your hands out of that wash tub!
How do I use it?

You stopper up your tub and fill it with just enough water to prime your pump. In a standard tub, an inch or two will do it. If your tub has a well or a "deep end," you'll maximize your water savings by setting your pump there.

The pump recirculates the water over and over, so all you have to add is your preferred products for cleaning and conditioning the coat. Point the sprayer at the dirty pet and wash away. Add product as needed until you're confident that all of the dirt and oil has been collected and the coat is properly conditioned. Then you let the tub drain and rinse the pet with fresh water as usual.

Why makes it better than bathing by hand?

When done correctly, you get exactly the same results you'd get with hand-washing in significantly less time, using significantly less water and product. Imagine your shampoo as a bunch of little magnets. Each shampoo molecule wants to bond with a dirt molecule. When you wash by hand, you pour a bunch of shampoo over a pet and work some, but not all of it into the coat. Quite a bit of shampoo flows right over the coat without grabbing any dirt. All of that unused shampoo literally goes right down the drain.

But when you use a recirculating system, you allow every shampoo molecule multiple opportunities to pick up dirt. If there's more dirt than shampoo, all you have to do is add more shampoo. If the pet's really filthy, you can pre-rinse them and even drain your tub and re-bathe them with the recirculating system. It's hardly ever necessary, but if you did it that way, it would still take you less time, and require less water and effort than washing that same animal by hand.

Water pressure and volume
Recirculating systems are a huge time-saver for anyone dealing with low water pressure. The power of the pump dictates your washing pressure, not the water pressure in your shop. You'll still have to deal with low water pressure when you rinse, but the recirculating system will cut your rinsing time way down, because the bathing process leaves so much less product on the coat.

Even though you initially have to use an inch or two of water in the tub, you'll use less water overall because you don't have to pre-wet the coat to start with and the rinse at the end is takes significantly less time.

No more mixing bottles
Most professional groomers use concentrated products, which means you need to dilute them before you put them on a pet. After about 24 hours (note: the time frame varies by product), diluted shampoo or conditioner fills with bacteria, so any extra left at the end of the day should be thrown away. That means that mixing bottles need to be sanitized between uses. With a recirculating system, you add shampoo directly to the bath, eliminating the need for mixing bottles altogether.

Built-in massage
The warm spray from a recirculating system can get all the way down to the skin, through even the thickest coats. The water pressure helps dislodge dirt, oil, dandruff, and debris without any need for you to lay your hands on the animal. That can be a tremendous help when working with nervous or aggressive pets. It can also reduce skin irritation for sensitive pets.

That doesn't mean you can't do some hand scrubbing or massaging if you want to. You can spray with one hand and rub with the other. You can put the sprayer aside mid-bath to give the pet a full-body massage. You can use your favorite scrubbing brush as usual if you insist. The sprayer doesn't limit you. It gives you more options.

Built-in deshedding and detangling
A good jet of water works as well as an HV at kicking out loose undercoat and untying knotted spots. It works doubly well when you're spraying conditioner through the coat at the same time. And wouldn't it be fantastic if you can actually see the condition of the coat and skin while you're washing rather than having your view obscured by suds? A recirculating system allows you that view.

Superior conditioner application
It's tricky to get the right amount of conditioner into a longer coat without loading it all up on the ends, where you want it less, and missing it down at the root, where you want it more. A recirculating system takes the conditioner, dilutes it, and applies it exactly where you spray it, from root to tip.

Quicker rinsing
I've mentioned it already, but it's worth repeating. It's much easier to rinse a pet after bathing with a recirculating system. And why is that? It's because after you use a recirculating system, most of the shampoo+dirt molecules are floating around in the water, waiting to flow obediently down your drain. What's left in the pet's coat is so diluted, it's halfway to being rinsed already.

I'm sure you've seen how clean, undiluted shampoo behaves when you pour it on a coat and then wet it -- it foams and sticks and suds and resists. Pre-diluted hand washing solution is slightly better behaved, but a recirculating system gives you the highest possible dilution for the fastest rinsing.

Wait, I still don't get how over-diluted shampoo in dirty water get pets just as clean as hand washing.

A recirculating system works on the same principle that hand washing does. It's only the application that's different. Think about it. When you pour diluted shampoo from a bottle over a dog and start scrubbing, what happens? You end up with a dog covered in dirty soap and water. If you need more shampoo to get the dog clean, you might mix another bottle and repeat the process. Maybe you're a two bath groomer, so you lather, rinse and repeat.

But how is a dog covered in dirty, soapy water getting a finger scrubbing going to end up cleaner than a dog standing in dirty soapy water, getting a sprayer massage? It isn't. In both cases, you're putting shampoo together with dirt so they'll bond together and and then rinsing them both away. The recirculating system continuously re-applies the shampoo in the fastest, most efficient manner possible, so it's like bathing and re-bathing the coat a dozen times in a matter of minutes.

If you've tried bathing systems and didn't get good results, there was either a technical problem with the system or an issue with your technique. Think back to when you were first learning how to bathe -- you had to figure out how much product to use, develop a system for applying it over 100% of the coat, learn where the trouble spots are, and then make sure you got the product completely out of the coat before starting the drying process.

The recirculating system is a new way of bathing and requires you to learn how it works. But once you've got the technique down, you'll never want to go back to hand washing again.

 OK, tell me the benefits again.

1. No more throwing unused product down the drain. Shampoo gets pulled back through the pump and pointed at the dog again and again until it gets to bond with some dirt. If you need more shampoo, just add more to the water. Ditto with conditioner, silicone conditioners, vinegar rinses, medicated products, you name it. It can all be used with a recirculating system.

2. You can apply shampoo and conditioner evenly through the thickest, most water resistant coats with minimal elbow grease. You can press the sprayer right up against the skin and apply product from root to tip and there's no pre-wetting or mixing bottles required.

3. Rinsing is faster and easier. When you're washing by hand, you've got all that sudsy dirt to rinse away. When you're washing with a recirculating system, most of that sudsy dirt suspends itself in the water in your tub instead of sticking to the pet's coat.

The number one indicator of a poor bath isn't dirt left in the coat. It's product left in the coat. A pet sent home slightly dirty is still better off than he was before his bath. But un-rinsed shampoo can cause skin reactions, itching, and odor. Excess conditioner left in a coat attracts dirt, leaving pets dirtier on day three than they were before they came to get groomed. Super-diluting shampoo and conditioner and applying allows a bather to get the right amount of product in and then get it all back out easily, in a fraction of the time it takes to rinse away bottle-mixed solutions.

Why would you spend an hour bathing a filthy, hairy, giant dog by hand when you can get it done in less than half the time with a recirculating system?

4. You have the option of hands-off bathing. With a recirculating system, you can give an aggressive pet an excellent bath through a wire cage. You'll have good control of where your shampoo goes and a jet of soapy water to scrub where your fingers can't safely go. And because your bathing products are well-diluted by the system, it's less problematic when pets accidentally ingest it or get it in their eyes. Hands-off bathing is great for groomers with product sensitivities, too. No more tub rash on your forearms.

Cool. So why doesn't every groomer already have one?

 Recirculating systems have been around for over a decade, long enough for most groomers to at least have heard of them. I think the number one reason we don't all use them is because a lot of groomers aren't yet sold on the benefits. If you don't understand the science behind shampooing, it's easy to stick with the old techniques you know rather than trying a new-fangled trick so often referred to as "washing with dirty water."

The start-up costs for a professional system is also a bit steep for a lot of shops. The Bathing Beauty retails for $599 on Hanvey's website. You could buy two wonderful pairs of shears for that price. And recirculating systems are as different from hand-washing as cell phones are from rotary phones, which means there's a learning curve. Even with Hanvey's money-back guarantee, unfamiliarity is a significant enough barrier for a hordes of groomers to stick with bathing by hand.

I've also spoken with a number of groomers who've tried various bathing systems and didn't like their results. As I've said before, if you're not getting pets as clean (if not cleaner) with a recirculating system as a mixing bottle bath, the flaw is in the technique, not the system. In spite of how much bathing we do, shampoo chemistry is not intuitive to most people -- it requires an adjustment in the way we think about cleaning.

Consider the washing machine. When they were first introduced, they were met with equal parts awe and skepticism. "They're expensive contraptions that do what I can already do with a bucket of hot water and a washboard. How do I even use this thing? How much soap and where does it go?" You've probably seen a movie, TV show, or comic strip about a washing machine overflowing with suds. That's user error. Like recirculating systems, when used properly, washing machines are fabulous time-savers.

I want a recirculating system! How do I make the transition easy on myself?

First of all, congratulations. Your life is about to get so much easier. The best way to learn how to use a recirculating system is to try it out. But don't start out on a Newfoundland and expect to get a great result right out of the gate. It will take some time to get used to the system. You'll have to figure out how much product to use, and develop a new bathing routine that works.

To start out with, feel free to combine elements of hand-washing with your recirculating system as needed. Practice on the little dogs who are easy to re-bathe until you get the hang of it. When your shih tzu baths are fast and perfect, move up to golden retriever baths.

1. You may need to switch your shampoo if it's too sudsy. Bubbles are your enemy. They don't actually help clean and when you're using a recirculating system, they will slow down the bathing process. You want a low-sudsing shampoo that will clear the drain quickly.

2. Never ever run your pump when it's dry. It has to be sucking up water or you can burn out the motor. The professional models have safeguards against overheating, but play it safe and read the manual for a list of do's and don'ts.

3. Here's my personal bathing routine:
  • start filling the tub (your recirculating pump should be in the tub at the deep end)
  • wet face and wash with facial shampoo (I skip this step for cats and biters)
  • turn on the pump and stop filling the tub
  • add shampoo to the water
  • spray the animal with the recirculator to clean it
  • add more shampoo as needed
  • when the coat's clean, add conditioner to the water (skip as desired)
  • spray to condition the coat
  • turn off the pump and let the tub start to drain
  • rinse the coat with fresh water from the tub sprayer
Personally, I don't like to do multiple baths, so on really dirty dogs, I sometimes dump an overabundance of shampoo into the mix. The great thing about shampoo is that it will stick to conditioner as readily as it will stick to dirt. That means that if I don't want to get stuck rinsing for too long, I can add a little extra conditioner to neutralize that extra shampoo. It does waste product, but it saves me a lot of time.

After the shampoo is all bound up with dirt, the coat is free to bond conditioner, which is why I don't bother to rinse in between shampooing and conditioning. I won't get any deeper into the science of bathing here, but check out Barbara Bird's Beyond Suds and Scents book for a comprehensive look at how shampoos and conditioners do what they do.

Remember bathing is an art as much as a science. For most baths, I can tell by the color of the water if I need to add more shampoo for a squeaky clean. But every product is different, so it's impossible to give you a simple recipe for success. Ask for suggestions from co-workers and groomers online, but in the end, you'll have to find your own way. Experiment when you have the time to do so -- there's always more you can do to speed up the process and improve the end result.

4. Lastly, you will have to keep your system clean and sanitized. Luckily, running shampoo through it all day long will do a lot of the work. Just keep in mind that any time water sits around, it invites bacteria to grow. You don't want your pump to introduce a flux of unnecessary microorganisms to your bathing clients, so run vinegar through it at the end of the day to sterilize the excess. Make sure you turn the pump and hose upside down to let the water drain out.

Sanitize after using your recirculating system on any pet with a suspicious, potentially contagious skin condition. Vinegar is a fine sterilizer for most applications. Some groomers use bleach, but rinse well to prevent getting bleach on animals or corroding the equipment. I used the same disinfectant for my daily pump cleaning that I used to clean my cages and floors. I add two pumps of KennelSol from Alpha Pet Tech to a gallon bucket and run it through the system.

I can't wait to try a recirculating system. But I don't have $600 to spend.

home-made dog-washing machine
I had a pair of home-made recirculating systems in my shop for almost ten years and now that I work from home, I have another (pictured).

They're not at all complicated to assemble, and although there are a lot of benefits to buying a professionally manufactured unit (like that money-back guarantee if not completely satisfied), you can build your own for less than $200.

My current set-up ingredients:
1/6 HP Flotec pump
6' Leader hose
- Bon Aire nozzle
- Foot pedal switch

  • 1/6 HP submersible utility pump
I recommend the Flotec pump -- this is the brand I've used for 10+ years.
There are other options, but stick with 1/6 horsepower, make sure it's a submersible type pump, and don't get one with a float on it. You want it to work at a minimum water level.
  • hose
I use a 6' leader hose on my set-up. It's a little stiff, but the length is perfect for me. I've seen others recommend the Legacy Flexzilla garden hose, but I don't like the stiff sleeve on the ends. You can use any hose you like, it just has to be able to connect to the the (3/4") output spout on your pump.
  • sprayer nozzle
I swear by my Bon Aire nozzles. They have the fireman-style spray so you can twist them on and off. There's no trigger to hold and they stay at the setting you put them at, from gentle to full blast. They turn any water pressure into good water pressure. They're too heavy for some groomers' preference but I don't mind the weight. Again, use what you like. As long as it can connect to your hose, you're good to go.
  • on/off switch
Pumps don't have on/off switches, so they turn on as soon as you plug them into the wall. That's not convenient, so you need to add a switch of some kind. You also need to make sure you're plugged into a GFCI outlet, to ensure that if your connections get wet, the circuit breaker will trip rather than let you get shocked. Hopefully you have a GFCI outlet near your tubs. If not, install one or use an adapter. At the shop, my pumps were hard-wired to GFCI light switches, so that's an option if you're a bit handier.

At home, I plug my pump into a power strip with an on/off button, but it's not the most practical solution for a grooming salon. A better solution is to use a foot switch (it doesn't have to be on the floor). Plug your pump into the switch and the switch into the wall. Press the switch to turn on and then press again to turn it off. (I use this: Foot Pedal Switch)
  • hair screen
This is optional but recommended. An extra layer of screening will protect your pump from getting clogged with hair and burning out. I keep my pump in a one gallon paint strainer bag. Just pull the hair off as needed and replace bags when they start to tear. Any kind of mesh will work as long as it's fine enough to keep out the fuzz while still letting water pass through.

Once you have your parts, put them together: attach the nozzle to your hose and your hose to the outlet of the pump. Plug the pump into the switch and the switch into the wall. Put your hair screen on the pump (if you're using paint strainer bags, put the pump in the bag).

When assembly's complete, either try it out or watch one of the many how-to videos on YouTube until you feel comfortable getting started. If you have problems or questions, feel free to contact me through I'm happy to help.

I'm not quite ready to start bathing with recirculating water

If you want most of the benefits of a recirculating system without the "dirty water," there are a number of bathing systems available to accommodate you. These systems don't require you to stopper your tub. Shampoo and fresh water are combined within the system, come out through the sprayer, penetrate the pet's coat, and then run down the drain. You don't have to worry about cross-contamination from the pump or re-using water, but you'll still get the cleaning power and the time-saving features of a recirculating system. It's less efficient than recirculator, but still better than bathing by hand.

Popular non-recirculating systems (I haven't used any of these, but check out the testimonials and reviews others have made available online):
Oster Hydrosurge
Prima Bathing System
Blue Mule Ultimate Wash System

This post is for informational purposes only. If you need more convincing or want to learn more about the ins and outs of recirculating systems, there are lots of additional resources online.

BBird's Using a Pet Recirculating System FAQ
Debi Hilley's The Dirt on Using Recirculating Systems

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