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RV carpet and upholstery cleaning

November 05, 2008
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This article is an online exclusive for Professional Detailing e-News. If you have a topic idea or article that you’d like to see in Professional Detailing e-News, e-mail Editor Kate Carr.

A simple way to increase your customer base and profitability is to consider offering interior services for recreational vehicles [RVs]. The most requested service is carpet cleaning.

In fact, if you have an established detail operation you probably have most of the equipment, chemicals and knowledge necessary to provide this service for RVs. With minimal adjustments, you can be ready to take advantage of the profit potential of this market.

What is so different about RV carpeting?

RV carpeting is the same carpeting you'll find in your home today. RV carpets are in the same colors and pile heights, and it's the same type of carpet used in over 70 percent of the residences in the United States today.

When it comes to cleaning your residential carpet most of you would call a professional carpet cleaner, but there are differences between the types of dirt found in a residence and the dirt found in a car or RV. You won’t typically find oil drippings or melting tar on the carpet at home – but that’s exactly what you’ll find, along with gravel or mud from the shoulder of the road – in an RV.

Not only are RV owners dealing with different types of dirt, they also are cleaning their carpets less frequently than a home owner. Residential carpet cleaners are not accustomed to dealing with this type of heavy soiling and may not get the best results cleaning an RV carpet. This is where you have an advantage being a professional auto detailer those are the types of soiling we see every day on automotive carpeting.

What is residential carpet made from?

Over 90 percent of all carpet made today is made up of synthetic fiber. The rest is natural fiber, most commonly wool.

Let's look at the most common synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers are usually made up of one of three materials:

  • Nylon;
  • Polypropylene; or
  • Polyester.

All three are created by similar chemical processes using oil and natural gas.

Seventy percent of carpet today is made of nylon and, compared to other fibers, it performs the best overall. Nylon is the leader in appearance retention, fade in heat resistance, soil and stain resistance, and color and styling. The highest performance nylon is type 6.6, which has a tighter molecular construction that makes the carpet more resistant to stain.

The next most common material used in carpet manufacturing is polypropylene, also referred to as olefin. Introduced in the late 1950s in Italy, polypropylene BCF has seen fast growth over the last 20 years and today represents more than 30 percent of all the total fibers used in the carpet industry.

The third type of material commonly used in carpet manufacturing is polyester. Polyester first appeared in the carpet industry in the mid-1960s and has been well accepted for its bulkiness, color clarity, and good stain and fade resistance. While not as resistant as nylon, polyester fiber carpet constructed with today's new techniques can be a good performer.

The above three materials make up the majority of synthetic fibers. The other type of fiber used in carpet construction is staple fiber. While some synthetics are used in the creation of staple fibers, the original staple fiber used in making carpet is wool. Although wool doesn't stand up to abrasion and moisture as well as synthetics, it cleans well and is known to age gracefully. Wool is the most expensive carpet fiber and represents less than one percent of all carpet made in the U.S.

A successful cleaning job

Getting as much information about the carpet cleaning job as you can before you start will add to the success of a fresh and clean carpet.

For example, if the carpet has been shampooed several times before, it is reasonable to expect the presence of some detergent residue. With this information you may change the cleaning solution to compensate for this.

As for stains, find out how long the stains have been there, and what may have caused them. Some spots and stains, such as those from bleaches, urine, mildew, etc., may be impossible to remove even by the most proficient professional; knowing about them will prevent disappointing that customer with unrealistic expectations.

Equipment and chemicals

You most likely already have the equipment you will need to clean the carpets of an RV. Here are some of the “must haves”:

1. Hot water extractor

2. Upright vacuum with beater bar

3. Powerful shop type vacuum

4. Compressed air

5. Dry vapor steamer

Your auto detailing chemical supplier is a good place to start. A good supplier will have the necessary chemicals you'll need for RV carpet cleaning. Another excellent resource is a janitorial supply company.

You'll find janitorial supply companies not only provide a vast selection of quality carpet cleaning chemicals, supplies, and equipment, but they are also an excellent source of knowledge.

Carpet cleaning basics

We'll start with the most basic service: vacuuming. Vacuuming removes not only particulate soil and surface dirt but maintains the surface appearance of the carpet and keeps the level of soil in the pile at an acceptable level.

It is important to use a well-maintained, good-quality vacuum. On heavily soiled carpets, I like to use a two vacuum method. First go in with a shop vacuum, vigorously vacuum the carpet and under all of the furniture, etc.

Once completed, follow up with an upright tight vacuum with a beater bar. You may be surprised that once you've thoroughly vacuumed the carpet, only spotting may be necessary to restore the appearance and give it a fresh cleaned look. If not other methods of cleaning are required to remove oils grease and other forms of matter that cause soiling a carpets these methods are commonly referred to as wet cleaning methods.

Hot water extraction

In this method, hot water cleaning solution is sprayed on the carpet and immediately extracted along with the dissolved soil by a wet vacuum. A good-quality portable extractor is very important, as well as a machine with large capacity. A 36’ fifth wheel trailer will have enough carpeted area that a 12-gallon extractor is needed.

Water temperature is another factor; temperatures between 180 and 195 degrees Fahrenheit are necessary to achieve good results. In recent years there have been two schools of thought on which is the best way to apply carpet cleaning solution, we prefer the method of applying it directly to the carpet, agitating it with a scrubber, and then extracting the solution with clean hot water through the extractor.

The other method is to apply the carpet cleaning solution through the water sprayed from the extractor, but this method will leave some soap in the carpet, which will attract soil. Hot water extraction has sometimes been referred to as steam cleaning; actually the water temperature never reaches the point to generate steam. When using the wet method be sure you have the ability to try the carpeting thoroughly, such as air movers or carpet dryers.

Bonnet cleaning

This method is also referred to as dry-cleaning and it resembles the shampooing process. A rotary floor machine with an attached absorbent pad is used to clean the carpet. The cleaning solution is sprayed directly on the carpet as the machine operates. The absorbent pad rotates on the carpet. This removes the soil as it absorbs on the pad. The pad can also be a moistened with cleaning solution.

When one side of the pad becomes soiled, the pad is reversed until both sides are soiled, at which time it's replaced. A dry vapor steamer can also be used in the same manner, by diapering the rectangular tool with a microfiber towel. We only suggest this method on carpets that are very lightly soiled, or for spot cleaning.

Carpeted RV Ceiling

The ceiling in most of the newer RVs is made of a material that looks like carpeting and goes by the trade name of Stratus. It is a carpet-like material made out of needle punch polypropylene. I have seen this cleaned using a hot water extractor, but it is rarely soiled so severely that it needs this aggressive method of cleaning. In most instances your dry vapor steamer, one extension and the rectangle or tool wrapped with a microfiber towel will do the job.

While you’re cleaning the ceiling in a RV, point out to the customer that you can clean their fantastic fans as well as air conditioning, heating and other vents. We charge $25 per fantastic fan vent, and $15 for a regular screened vent. Floor heating vents are added into the price of cleaning the carpet. These are quick and easy to up-sell.

Drying

Remember the legs on most RV furniture are a metal, and will rust if placed on wet carpeting, so always put some type protection under the legs. Circulate the air to speed up drying time, if possible open a roof vent to let the moisture out. Never rely on the propane furnace in an RV to provide heat to dry the carpet!

Propane heat by nature is very moist heat and will actually turn your RV with its wet carpets into a greenhouse.

Stains

Every detailer that I know has an arsenal of stain removing potions, and concoctions. And stain removal is a topic all on its own. So we will go through some of the things that are necessary to have, for stain removal and improvement on RV carpeting.

The most common stains you be dealing with on RV carpeting are grease, tar, and oil. For these stains you'll need a citrus solvent, petroleum solvents just aren't acceptable to use on the interior of an RV.

The next group coffee, tea, blood, urine, and pet stains. You'll need an organic stain remover or oxygenized cleaner. Enzyme cleaners work well also.

Red Kool-Aid, red wine, you'll need a red out cleaner. Something else that we've found that works well were getting red stains out, is a 5 percent sodium thiosulfate solution. This can be found at a photography store. And for stains more than a few hours old, this solution should be heated.

Rust can be removed in most cases with a 10 percent solution of oxalic acid or a rust spotter. Stubborn cases require 5 percent solution of hydrofluoric acid, which we all know is dangerous. Use with care. The use of any type of low pH, or acid type product requires you to neutralize the area, with a high pH product then thoroughly rinse with clean water.

Adhesives

Most of the adhesives you find on RV carpet are left over from plastic carpet mask that's been left on too long. The best way to deal with this adhesive is a citrus adhesive remover. In recent years there are several companies that have come up with excellent citrus-based adhesive removers. We believe they actually work better than the petroleum-solvent based adhesive removers.

Dyeing

There are times when the carpet is just too badly stained for the stains to be removed. This is when a carpet recolor professional is needed. Most times the recolor professional will only change the carpet a shade or two, just enough to hide the stain.

Upholstery cleaning

Cleaning the interior upholstery of an RV is not much different than an automobile's interior, and you will find that the fabric upholstery in many cases is much more stain resistant and easier to clean than a car. Many coaches have leather or suede captain’s chairs, barrel chairs and sofas. These can be cleaned with your normal leather cleaning methods and products.

Pricing correctly

Pricing RV detailing services can be tricky! The biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate the time it will take to complete the service. There is nothing worse than to underestimate a project and spend several more hours than intended and find out you haven’t charged the customer enough to cover the cost of your services. Even as long as we've been at it, I still get fooled on interiors.

The main reason you might under price the job is the fear that the customer may say no. Sometimes you just have to decide which scenario is worse: Under price the job and lose $100 -- or losing a customer, but having the freedom to take another job.

RV carpet cleaning should be priced at your shop rate. For example if your shop rate is $65 per hour and you estimate that it will take you an hour and a half to clean the carpet it would be

65 x 1.5 hours = $97.50

Remember in that hour and a half, you vacuum, shampoo or extract, dry and touch-up if needed. With that in mind when doing your estimate, interior carpet and upholstery cleaning can be a niche profit center for your detail business.

Here's hoping that you have had an excellent 2008, and that adding RV's interior services to your service menu will help add to your bottom line.

Randy Lowe is a master detailer who has owned and operated Custom Detail in Salem, OR, since 1992 and has more than 35 years experience in the boat and RV, building, repair and appearance restoration/detailing business. He is the membership chairman of the National Association for Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR) and a member of the Salem area Chamber of Commerce. He is also a member of the Salem Business Builders Inc. networking group.

Lowe has also written and contributed to articles for the detail industry trade magazines, readers digest and most recently AOL auto news. To contact Lowe, visit his website at www.Randyscustomdetail.com

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