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Ball-Filled Play Pits for Children Present Opportunity to Clean Up : Technology: O.C. franchise operator uses Scrub-O-Sphere to sanitize facilities at playgrounds and fast-food restaurants.

June 22, 1995|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kids love to crawl through those ball-filled play pits that keep popping up at fast-food restaurants and playgrounds, but their parents often are more concerned about how thousands of multicolored balls are kept clean.

Most ball pit operators simply gather balls in mesh bags and hose them down with a germ-killing sanitizer. But playground owners increasingly are turning to higher-tech solutions, such as a mobile unit developed by Scrub-O-Sphere in Long Beach.

"Those play pits can get pretty nasty," said Huntington Beach resident Randy Schultz, who, after careers in restaurant management and banking, bought the Scrub-O-Sphere franchise covering Orange County.

Schultz, who worked for Bank of Newport before federal regulators closed it last August, now cleans 65 local ball pits each month, including the large Camp Snoopy play area at Knott's Berry Farm. He is negotiating for the franchise rights to San Diego County.

Schultz's crew uses the same Scrub-O-Sphere proprietary system that is used by cleaning crews in Los Angeles County, Phoenix and three other large metropolitan areas. The mobile cleaning machine that fits inside a van sucks balls out of the pit, runs them through a cleaning and sanitizing process and blows them back into the play area.

"Normally, playground operators would physically take all the balls out of the pits in mesh bags and soak 'em down, which took a long time," said Dick Reenen, Scrub-O-Sphere's general manager. "This system can handle 300 balls a minute and clean a normal-sized play pit in about 45 minutes."

Scrub-O-Sphere owner Jay Buckbinder, who also builds tables, chairs and booths for fast-food restaurants, realized as the pits started to appear that there was no good way to clean them, Reenen said.

"That's why Jay came along and invented the technology," Reenen said. "There's been a lot of bad publicity about how dirty these pits can get if they're not cleaned regularly."

For many parents, cleanliness is as important as safety when it comes to the ball pits, said Schultz, whose three-man crew can clean a small pit at a fast-food restaurant in about 30 minutes. It takes a crew more than five hours, Schultz said, to clean the 90,000 balls in the Camp Snoopy pit.

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Some restaurant chains direct Schultz to post a record of when ball pits are cleaned, so anxious parents will feel at ease. But other operators fear that posting the record will needlessly remind parents that the ball pits can be a source of germs.

Schultz expects demand for cleaning services to soar.

"Pits are an increasingly popular feature at fast-food restaurants," Schultz said. "I understand that McDonald's wants to put a playground at every one of its restaurants."

While many parents have their own standards of cleanliness, the indoor playground industry is working with the American Society for Testing and Materials to develop national standards, said Debby Robinson, spokeswoman for Discovery Zones Inc. in Chicago, which operates 335 indoor playgrounds in 44 states.

"Parents are looking for things for their children to do that are safe and positive," Robinson said. "And we work really hard to make sure that our facilities are clean."

Discovery Zone cleans its ball pits at least once a week--more often if young patrons have accidents, she said. That means bagging thousands of balls and spraying them with a sanitizing agent to kill bacteria.

"We have a ball wash room where we put them in mesh bags," Robinson said. "There used to be funny stories in our early days, when crews would load the balls in the back of a pickup truck and drive them through the car wash."

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