Queen of clean: Lee Latham, owner of the eco-friendly cleaning company We Clean Green, steam-cleans a client's stove top. | Chandler West/Staff Photographer

Lee Latham has been an active member of the business community her entire career. Whether she was working in travel, finance or telecommunications, she played an entrepreneurial role in her endeavors. 

She always dreamed of owning her own business and when personal and business interests collided, We Clean Green was born. 

“I’ve tried to live green as well as I can for years,” Latham said. “I always thought there was a need for a green house cleaning business, but at first I was looking at it from mostly an environmental [angle]. When health concerns led me to think about the side effects of cleaning, I realized green cleaning addressed both environmental and health concerns about standard cleaning practices and materials.”

The steam system

Latham, long a part of the Oak Park-River Forest business scene, began researching green cleaning. While the environmental movement has produced many lines of green cleaning products, she found there was a completely different approach that did not involve cleaning products at all: steam. Regularly used in Europe, Latham found the steam-cleaning movement had yet to be adopted in most of the United States. 

“Rumor has it,” she said, “that a barista in Italy using a steamer for coffee created the system when he thought about different applications for steam. I have no idea if that story is true, but the steam-cleaning system did originate in Europe, and many of the best steam products are manufactured there.”

According to Latham, the vapor steam cleaners use high heat and low moisture to clean hard surfaces in the home. The steamers can clean kitchen and bath surfaces, hardwood floors, tiles, walls, windows, cabinets and blinds. The system generates zero waste, as there are none of the environmental costs associated with product manufacture such as transportation, packaging, merchandising, or warehousing. Because water is the only cleaner used, there are no chemical or chemical substitutes that enter the house or the municipal water system.

Lee notes that her typical equipment is a 24 x 24 x 18-inch stainless steel steamer. 

“It’s basically a super boiler with a hose and a trigger that fits various attachments. It reaches between 280 and 347 degrees, which is hot enough to get rid of dust mites, germs and even bed bugs.”

 The steamers have a continuous feed, meaning Latham and her employees don’t have to let the machines cool to add more water. In addition to making traditional surface cleaners unnecessary, the steamers have the added benefit of saving water. The machines run for two hours on one liter of water. Typically, Latham can clean an entire house with one gallon of water, much less than would be needed to rinse away or aid the use of standard cleaning products.

Because steam is not appropriate for fine fabrics, and soft surfaces, Latham uses HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtered vacuums and micro-fiber cloths to round out her cleaning practices. 

Personal environment

Latham said that steam cleaning is the perfect alternative to standard housekeeping services. The system works for all homes, but she finds that the people who seek her out are often first drawn in by the green aspect of the steam clean. 

“When there are health considerations in the home, whether it’s respiratory issues, compromised immune systems or cancer, this kind of chemical-free, residue-free cleaning can be very attractive. Many clients are also interested in living as greenly as possible and reducing their impact on the environment.”

Once clients see the results, they typically are impressed with how clean their house gets. Latham recommends that her first visit to a home be a longer, deep-cleaning session, during which her team gets dirt out of a home’s nooks and crannies. After that, a typical home cleaning takes about two hours, with larger houses requiring a bit more time. 

After the deep clean, Latham said, clients often find that they need routine cleanings less frequently than they did when they used standard cleaning services. 

“I think my clean stays clean longer,” she said. “There’s no residue left on any surface. There is nothing left to attract dirt. The bulk of my repeat clients find that we can go every three weeks when they were used to having their house cleaned every two weeks by a regular cleaner.”

Business practices

Latham has been using steam cleaning in her own home for eight years, and takes the time to personally train every employee to make sure they work up to her standards. 

“I use my own home as a training ground for employees,” she said. “Then I shadow them as they work. The equipment is incredibly well-designed and easy to assemble, so the most important thing I look for is someone who has the attention to detail necessary to do a good job cleaning. I pay my staff a good, living wage, and I often work alongside them.”

Latham’s business is not a franchise. With two full-time employees and four part-time employees, she is intimately involved in every aspect of the business. She finds that word-of-mouth marketing from satisfied customers has helped her business grow, and she also reaches out to local real estate agents since people selling or buying a home are often interested in a deep house cleaning.

Being part of the Oak Park-River Forest community is also a big focus for We Clean Green. Latham has been active with the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and various other local boards, and she prides herself on keeping her business local. While her aim is to grow, she also makes sure she is giving back. 

“I may not have the means to donate large sums of money, but I can donate my services. I like to work with local not-for-profits like Hephzibah or the Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery and I donate our time to deep-clean some part of their space.”

Latham thinks the future is bright for her steam-cleaning business. 

“People have been concerned about the greater environment for a long time,” she noted. “Much more recently, they’ve become concerned about their homes and personal environment.”

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