When Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital needed to disinfect its patient isolation rooms, it turned to a cleaner that only works alone and doesn't need a mask or any other protection.
The cleaner isn't antisocial or reckless. It's a towering machine on wheels that resembles an anorexic robot wielding four "Star Wars" light sabers.
Optimum-UV, as the device is called, bathes a room for up to 10 minutes in powerful ultraviolet light to kill even the hardiest bacteria.
The machine, which stands just over 6 feet tall and weighs 90 pounds, is a collaboration between one of California's biggest manufacturers and one of its smallest.
Half of the partnership involves Clorox Co., an $11.7-billion company based in Oakland that started making bleach in 1913 and employs 8,400 people.
The other half is UltraViolet Devices Inc., a Valencia company that reaches back through three generations of the Veloz family. With just 50 employees, UltraViolet Devices operates more of an assembly station than an assembly line.
"We evaluated all of the UV players that are out there," said Matt Laszlo, vice president and general manager for the professional products division of Clorox. Despite its small size, he said, UltraViolet Devices "really understands this technology and puts us in a position to evolve as hospital needs evolve."
Clorox acts as the sales and marketing half of the partnership, announced in February, while UltraViolet Devices handles product development and manufacturing.
Driving the collaboration: One in 20 patients picks up an infection when visiting the U.S. healthcare system, including hospitals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One problem, the CDC said in a recent report, is the creation of highly resistant super bugs or bacteria resulting from the overuse of antibiotics.
The CDC has estimated that as many as 23,000 people die each year from illnesses caused by drug-resistant infections, and the costs are high even when the patient survives.
Such infections could add $20 billion to the nation's medical bills and reduce worker productivity by $35 billion every year, the CDC says.
Although use of ultraviolet light is a fairly recent development in hospitals, the technology has been employed for several decades by others, said Peter Veloz, chief executive of UltraViolet Devices.
Veloz's grandfather, Louis, was an engineer at Westinghouse and was "part of the development team establishing the use of ultraviolet lights in the 1930s and 1940s," Veloz said. "He saw the opportunity for marketing and commercializing UV devices."
Louis Veloz moved his family from New York to Los Angeles and started his own business in 1949. The company, called Aquafine, still exists although the family is no longer involved.
"His early customers included meat packers," Peter Veloz said. "Veterinarians were also early adopters of the UV disinfection."
Louis Veloz decided to focus on the water industry, disinfecting agricultural systems and later expanding to fish hatcheries. By the 1970s, the electronics industry was using UV lights to purify water used in semiconductor manufacturing.
Veloz's father, Tom, formed UltraViolet Devices in 1992 to work on a home-based water treatment system. In 2000, the company expanded into UV systems to disinfect heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Six years ago, the company made a portable UV system to kill mold. Veloz said the company then found that it was also being used for another purpose by medical facilities.
"Hospitals began buying them to use in the operating rooms at night to disinfect them," he said. "When we realized that the customer base was growing, we redesigned it directly for hospital use" in 2011.
Better safety features were built in. Data collection was added, and the machine's operation was simplified "so that anyone could use it," Veloz said. Although its machines had already been sold to hospitals around the country, he said, UltraViolet Devices was drawn to the new partnership by Clorox's marketing muscle as a way to "expand our reach."
Clorox long ago branched out beyond bleach into brands such as Formula 409, Liquid Plumr and, more recently, an environmentally friendly Green Works line of cleaning products.
But Clorox wanted to figure out how it could get to "the 50% of the hospital room that isn't disinfected by manual surface cleaners like wipes and sprays," Laszlo said. "We're always trying to figure what is coming next. UV is where things are going now."
Most of the Optimum-UV machine's brains are in the small, wheeled base. Motion sensors automatically turn off the lights if someone enters the room undergoing UV disinfection.
A tall aluminum mast holds UV lights that, research shows, kill 99.992% of two types of bacteria that the CDC has categorized as an urgent threat to patient safety.
Unlike competitors, whose machines contain up to 20 smaller lamps and cost as much as $100,000, UltraViolet Devices uses just four 62-inch-long lamps to provide 360-degree room coverage. That is partly why, UltraViolet Devices says, its machines cost less than one-third of competitors' devices.
For veteran nurse Judy Hagerty, who specializes in infection prevention at the Henry Mayo hospital in Valencia, the UV machine has proved its worth.
"Housekeeping always does a good job at cleaning our patient rooms," Hagerty said, "but there's always that question, 'Did they get everything?' But with this UV device, you know that every germ that might be in that room is going to get killed."
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