Top critical review
461 people found this helpful
Finally proven not to work
on April 26, 2010
This device has generated controversy here on Amazon, bringing mostly either glowing five star or scathing one star reviews, and the technical discussion has been uninformed. Many of the most positive reviews are from dubious sources. Until such time as the product is evaluated by a neutral expert such as Consumer Reports, I would like to clear up a bit of the engineering side simply by taking a close look at the information put out by Activeion, a marketing operation in Minneapolis. I have not tested the device myself - nor do I see how anyone could properly test it at home, since that requires a specialized laboratory. But I studied a laboratory test of alleged bacteriocidal properties which the company sponsored and frequently refers to, I analyzed some of the company's patent applications, and I applied my own scientific background in physics and chemistry. I found plenty of reasons for skepticism. And I was not able to find any tests of the device which are not sponsored by or connected to the company.
The Activeion product claims to convert ordinary tap water into a powerful cleaning agent and disinfectant by means of an electrochemical process implemented in a handheld spray bottle. The bottle incorporates a battery to pass a current through the water, together with a type of ion exchange (electrolytic) membrane. The basic chemistry is far from new; in fact the phenomenon of electrolysis and its use in producing bleach or chlorine were discovered in the late 1700's, around the time of Benjamin Franklin! It is important to know that the process relies not on water but on SALT water. The method used by the Tennant Company, a manufacturer of commercial cleaning equipment and the corporate parent of Activeion, yields what is usually called "Electrolyzed Water" or "Electrolyzed Oxidizing Water" (EOW). There are several places to read about the relevant chemistry, which can be found by Googling terms such as "electrochemistry" or "electrolysis," or on Wikipedia. Tennant is not the only company which offers this type of technology; there are others such as Electrolyzer Corp., Ecopep Electrocide, and EcaFlo Anolyte, the latter of which has been certified by the EPA as a broad spectrum disinfectant.
Without going into too much detail, the electrolysis process converts salt water into two streams, of which one side generates sodium hypochlorite (otherwise known as ordinary laundry bleach) solution, which of course is a widely used cleaning agent and disinfectant. (I note that Tennant claims in other patent applications, such as 2007/0187261 - which can be searched from the USPTO website - that a nanobubble mechanism also comes into play. More recently their website switched to talking about a third mechanism, "electroporation" as the antibacterial action. But let's keep this discussion to what seems the primary process.) In the version used by Activeion the two streams are recombined which means the two liquids cancel each other out, and revert to plain salt water. But by and large, the end effect is a short-acting solution which is not very different from adding a few drops of inexpensive bleach to one's water bottle, spraying and then quickly wiping it off.
There are some key factors to appreciate about the process. The first is that it is dependent on the incoming water containing a sufficient amount of salt (sodium chloride), without which the water will have no conductivity for electric current and also generate no hypochlorite. Thus pure distilled water or deionized water will not work at all, and in general the efficiency of the process is highly dependent on the exact analysis of the available water, how much salt, how much other minerals. In fact the Tennant patent referenced above says that the water needs to have a certain minimum of salt content to work properly, about 6 grams per liter. But everyone knows that tap water supplies around the U.S. vary tremendously in hardness and salinity.
Second, the process is energy intensive. A significant amount of electric power is required to convert part of the input salt water to bleach in any useful quantity. Third, the cleaning effect of the electrolyzed water is rather mild. Another of Tennant's patent applications, 2009/0120460, reports some measurements they made for carpet cleaning. In that case, by Tennant's own tests, it was only about 20% more effective than plain water, and not nearly as effective as a standard detergent solution. And this was for the large industrial version of the machine, not the handheld, and the solution was also allowed to soak into the carpet for several MINUTES before it was sucked up. So even under these idealized conditions, it had only a mild cleaning effect, and the required soak time makes it impractical for many tasks.
Even if the item being sold here works exactly as claimed, all it appears to do is convert salty water into a sort of temporary weak bleach solution, which is chemically the same as you would buy at the supermarket. The same. It is misleading to say that you will be using 'only pure water to clean, in place of harmful chemicals.' Activeion describes the cleaning as using an 'activated' form of water, which is inaccurate; it is more correct to say that the indispensable ingredient is sodium chloride. Salt may be benign, but once you break it up chemically into sodium and chlorine ions, it becomes potentially harsh. The chloride ion is highly reactive chemically and a well known bacteriocide (swimming pools, water treatment). In its pure form, chlorine gas is not only a 'harmful chemical' but highly toxic - it was used as a poison gas in World War I. The liquid produced by the Activeion is a temporary form of the identical chemical found in Chlorox; except for being short acting, it is not more green or less toxic. As Tennant themselves write in the first referenced patent filing, "the anolyte .. is acidic in nature and contains very strong oxidants in the form of active chlorine" .. and .. "care should be taken on surfaces having a potential for corrosion." In other words, Tennant says that the liquid sprayed out by this bottle could pit and scar a metal surface! It produces chlorine; only a quite expensive form of chlorine. Indeed, way more expensive, since $180 will buy you enough Chlorox to last an ordinary household hundreds of years. The only undeniably green thing about chlorine is its color - yellowish green.
Taking all this into account, the remaining question is really whether the scaled down, handheld device being sold here is actually effective in producing a strong enough solution to do anything useful. So next let's move from the theory to exactly what Activeion claims to be the laboratory proof that their handheld device is "99.99% effective in killing E. coli bacteria." The relevant document is posted on Activeion's website in the form of a report they sponsored from ATS Labs in Eagan, Minnesota, a company which carries out bacteriological tests for a fee. The key word here is "sponsored" - the company paid ATS to do this. Amazon won't allow posting of a link, but you'll find it if you look, or see Comment #1 below. I read this report carefully.
Now think back to junior high school. Suppose someone asked you to test a spray bottle which converts tap water into an antibacterial, how would you go about doing that? Well, if you had the expertise gained from taking ninth grade General Science, you would probably prepare three glass slides with a standard bacterial load on each (such as letting your dog lick each one). One you would keep aside as a control. The second you would dip in your local tap water - which of course you would obtain from your very own tap. Even better, you might use a range of tap waters from different sources. The third slide would be treated with the same water squirted through the magic spray bottle you were trying to test. This would make a great science project, and you might get to represent your school at the state fair!
Pretty logical, right? But - amazingly - this is not what ATS Labs did at all. Instead, they signed a contract with Activeion which required (this is all written down in the report) that ATS would use only the `tap water' provided to them by Activeion, and furthermore they had to promise NOT TO ANALYZE IT in any way. No suspense here by the way - it did end up killing the bacteria. Annihilated them. Are you surprised?
In fact, it is not quite accurate to say that Activeion insisted on providing the testing lab with their own preferred `tap water.' To be more precise, they supplied an UNKNOWN LIQUID. There is absolutely no way to know what was in that liquid - and significantly, ATS was also required to GIVE IT ALL BACK at the end of the tests, and not retain a sample - which I found a bit suspicious. It could have been some kind of tap water, or highly concentrated salt water, or distilled water, or it could have been not water at all but commercial bleach, or another disinfectant, or battery acid, or Chanel Number 5, or the kind of cheap tequila used at frat parties to make large volumes of bad margaritas. Activeion made sure there was no way to ever know.
Furthermore, it is considered a procedural error for a consumer product testing lab to accept the handheld spray/processing unit direct from the company; instead it should have been purchased from a regular retail channel. Normally I would not be concerned but in this case - given Activeion's unusually intense and fervent campaign to market this - the company might not be above providing a souped-up unit to fake the test, which they could do for example by replacing a cheap ion exchange filter with a more expensive, high performance version, or installing more powerful batteries. This is why, to eliminate any such doubts, Consumer Reports buys all their products at retail and accepts nothing direct from the manufacturer.
In other words, the ATS Labs antibacterial test pointed to by Activeion as a pillar of their credibility really proves nothing at all, except that some completely unknown liquid, processed through a bottle which may or may not be the same one sold to consumers, killed bacteria. Well, yes, especially if it was loaded with that cheap tequila - which has almost killed me on one or two occasions.
Why is the company doing this exactly? Why do they misrepresent the chemistry in their ads, acknowledging the role of chlorine in their patents but suppressing this information when they speak to the public? We have already said that electroyzed oxidizing water is not in itself controversial or even new. It's just a way to produce a sort of temporary mild bleach solution, starting from concentrated salt water. Sixty million tons of bleach are produced by electrolytic factories each year. And Tennant, a large company with 3,000 employees, uses the process in its industrial cleaning equipment, which it sells to clean the floors of the New Orleans Superdome or the Pentagon or various Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities or whatever. So why doesn't Activeion, charged by their hedge-fund investors from Los Angeles with marketing a consumer version to the public, simply open up the objective data? Why should they scheme so hard to pervert and manipulate some pathetic contract lab in Minnesota into generating a bogus report? Why do they rely on recruiting Hollywood celebrities like Laura Dern to give testimonials for it? I mean, I adore Laura Dern. I find her very lovely. Remember her in Rambling Rose? What a beauty. But seriously, does she really have a PhD in chemical engineering? Did she even take Home Economics in high school? I bet she was pretty in high school. We had a girl in my high school who looked like Laura Dern ..
Sorry, my mind wandered. What was I saying? Oh yes, and why is it that all the five-star, over the top Amazon reviews seem to be by first-time reviewers who write as if they were professional copywriters for an Activeion ad agency? (Because they are; see Comment #3 below this review.)
Why all this hard work to so fiercely hype something if it actually works? Why corrupt poor Bill Nye The Science Guy into Bill Nye The Sellout Guy?
I suspect the answer is that it doesn't work, or weakly if at all, and I am certain it cannot possibly work the same for everyone. Here's my reasoning. To an engineer, there are three weak links in the story. The first is the transition from a large piece of industrial equipment such as that produced by Tennant to a small battery operated handheld spray bottle. Consider the difference in electrical power to drive the electrolytic process. Whereas the industrial machine uses kilowatts of electricity to run its pumps and currents (whoa, how green is that?), the handheld unit relies on a small rechargeable battery pack. A quick calculation shows that the small bit of electrical energy available from a battery during the second or two it takes to get a good squirt going (perhaps 100 mJ) would not produce enough sodium hypochlorite to bleach the handkerchief of a bug. Tennant's own patents say that their big industrial unit is only slightly more effective than plain water, so what can we expect from a wimpy little spray bottle? The second weak link is that the recombination of the fluids in the Ionator means that the solution starts to revert to plain water very quickly after being sprayed; Activeion says 45 seconds but I suspect it may be more like 45 milliseconds. And the third reason for skepticism is that the efficiency of this technology is dependent on the properties of the available water, which obviously is going to vary widely. Combine these three and it seems likely one will get a weak, fleeting, and inconsistent effect.
That's my theory. Of course it all comes down to testing, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt and see what Consumer Reports might someday conclude. At least CR will be able to choose their own water. Hey, I'm not saying it absolutely does not work, only that I am dubious and would like to see real data from some lab that has not just cashed an Activeion check. What is undeniable, unfortunately, is that Activeion's promotional campaign is extremely hyped, including statements which contradict their own patent filings, and a cynical attempt to twist the reviews here on Amazon. I checked into some of the many endorsements and 'green industry memberships' on Activeion's web site and it turns out that most of them are obtained simply by paying a fee. This is what is called a marketing based enterprise as opposed to a technology based enterprise. In simpler terms, American business is becoming more and more corrupt.
So, until all the facts are in, here are my suggestions:
For disinfecting, adding a few drops of bleach to your ordinary water spray bottle will work just great. As for green-ness, keep your green American Express card and your greenback American dollars in your pocket. And, whether you use short-acting bleach from the Ionator or the regular stuff from a Chlorox bottle, please remember you are dealing with a harsh, toxic chemical. Never spray in anyone's face or eyes, or on a baby or pet. Also, over time, heed Tennant's warming that it may be corrosive on some surfaces. If you use bleach all day, it is recommended that you wear rubber gloves. Amazon sells some very nice ones - and they come in a lovely GREEN color!
Update added August 15:
I appreciate that John Walden, Activeion CEO, has responded to this discussion with his recent post. I won't comment on his technical explanations, except to say that I am now thoroughly confused what exactly Activeion is claiming the Ionator principle to be (electrolytic? nanobubbles? electroporation?). The company's website now contains the statement that the liquid 'carries an electric field' to the bacteria, which is scientifically preposterous.
But the main point that distresses me is Mr. Walden's acknowledgement that executives of Activeion encouraged individuals with connections to the company to post reviews here on Amazon, as I had evidenced in Comment #3. Unfortunately I don't find his explanation of the innocence of this entirely satisfying. According to Federal Trade Commission rules, these individuals are supposed to have disclosed their relationships with the company, whether compensated or not. Moreover, it's not one or two reviews; of the 25 five-star reviews, all sound professionally written, none appear to have purchased the product from Amazon - and none have responded to my questions where they did obtain it. Why would legitimate reviewers not answer this harmless question? Of the four individuals who have been verified from public internet sources to be personal friends of the Chairman of Activeion (I suspect there are more), none responded to my questions. Were you aware that there are 'placement' companies who will write fake reviews to improve a product's standing on Amazon or Google? Folks, it's obvious that most of the glowing reviews here were written by an agency. It's dishonest and it's offensive. If you eliminate the suspect 'customer reviews,' the remainder average to a low score.
Finally, I note that a flurry of "not helpful" votes have been applied to my review here just in the last few days, after months when there were no new votes at all. I have no way of knowing if the company is behind this also. But of course 'unhelpful' votes make a review less visible by suppressing it in the listings.
Update added Oct, 2011: Product is no longer sold on Amazon. Also poor John Walden has been fired after less than a year as CEO, and in fact company no longer has a CEO, just a committee. And no new fake reviews since June!
Update added April, 2012: Quote from Activeion website:
"Since 2008, Activeion Cleaning Solutions LLC has been proud to heighten awareness of the benefits of chemical-free cleaning. Regrettably, while many customers continue to be satisfied with Activeion solutions, the business has been unable to achieve commercial viability during this time, and has exhausted its funding. As a result, Activeion will discontinue commercial operations effective April 18, 2012."
Final Update: After Activeion went out of business, the first and to my knowledge only objective scientific evaluation not paid for or commissioned by the company was published: Andersen et al, "Failure of Ionised Water Produced by Activeion Ionator to Kill Potential Harmful Bacteria," Microbial and Biochemical Technology, Vol. 2, p. 82, 2012. This was a study carried out by the Oslo University Hospital. They found not only that the Ionator did not work to sterilize bacteria but in fact spread them - it was worse than nothing!
I believe this entire marketing effort was a cynical scam from the get-go, and the investors always knew it didn't work. Sad.