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Getting down to the “nitty gritty”

Understanding the science that goes behind proper and thorough carpet cleaning.

August 01, 2014
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In one of the many trade magazines that I read monthly, there was an interesting article on the topic of commercial carpet cleaning authored by M. Dixon, president of Dixon & Associates. Much of what Mr. Dixon stated in his article was quite relevant to automotive carpet cleaning, and for that reason I have borrowed from it for the purpose of this discussion.

Unfortunately, too many detailers treat carpet cleaning like a stepchild compared to the attention they give to paint finishes and paint finishing procedures. But to the motorist and especially the auto dealer, carpet cleaning is just as important.

Carpet compositions

Commercially there are two types of carpet material: Natural fibers, such as wool and cotton, or synthetic fibers, usually nylon, but also olefin, polyester and acrylic.

There are also many types of carpet construction, but most is either looped or tufted nylon.

The height and weight of carpet pile will affect appearance and color. Normally, a shorter looped pile using a tweed design rather than a solid color will reduce pile crushing and hide soil better.

Three Kinds of Carpet Cleaning

As Dixon pointed out, there are three types of carpet cleaning that detailers should be aware of:

  1. “KEEP UP” Cleaning
  2. “CATCH UP” Cleaning
  3. “DISASTER” Cleaning

There are two types of soil in a carpet: loose and sticky. Loose soil (85 percent) can usually be removed with a good vacuuming, but sticky soil (15 percent) is more complicated. Most often, sticky soil requires the use of a carpet shampoo and one of several removal methods.

“Which chemical(s),” and “which method” of removal, are critical to how clean the carpet will come, as well as how long it will take.

A carpet has three separate dimensions, and the dirt you see is not always all there is to clean.

The first dimension is the top of the pile, which can usually be cleaned easily with a vacuum. Second, is the pile itself, and the third dimension is the backing, where all the dirt, sand, and general, carpet wearing “nitty gritty” ends up.

As a professional, you must be aware of these three dimensions and should have the chemicals, equipment, procedures and knowledge to clean them efficiently (fast) and effectively (clean).

Carpets that look clean, as you can now imagine, are not always as clean as they appear. In the commercial and residential carpet cleaning business there is a growing concern over what is called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS refers to human illnesses caused by bacteria trapped in carpets.

While the detail business has, in the past, only concerned itself with the appearance of cleaning carpets, it is evident that, as professionals, we need to be aware of all aspects of carpet cleaning to provide our customers with maximum service.

“Keep Up” cleaning

“KEEP UP” cleaning, as Dixon suggests, is done to cosmetically clean the top of the pile as well as a small part of the pile itself.

As mentioned, a vacuum will suffice for this type of cleaning. When completed the carpet appears to be clean. But, a more thorough job must be done on the pile, and certainly where the “real dirt” has settled.

“KEEP UP” cleaning is usually dry, but removing sticky soil requires moisture.

Limited moisture procedures can be accomplished with a small orbital tool and a terry bonnet – that’s right, the same orbital used to apply and remove wax or sealant can be used to clean lightly soiled carpets.

First, thoroughly vacuum the carpet. Next, spray lightly with chemical and buff until the soil is removed. As the bonnet becomes dirty just turn it over.

Another method is to spray the bonnet with chemical and buff as described above. Again, as the bonnet becomes soiled, simply turn it over, or you can rinse it out and reapply chemical before continuing.

Using this process, some of the soil is absorbed into the bonnet and some stays trapped in the carpet. The top of the pile is cleaned, and some of the pile as well. But the "nitty-gritty” soil remains in the backing.

Other "KEEP-UP cleaning methods using limited moisture are dry foam and the use of dry granular procedures.

"Catch-Up" cleaning

This is the process of cleaning that most detailers are familiar with and involves several methods:

  • Hand Brush
  • Rotary Brush Shampoo
  • Soil Extraction
  • True Steam Cleaning

1. Hand Brush: This method has been around since motor vehicles started using carpeted interiors. All it requires is carpet shampoo and a nylon scrub brush, a high foaming chemical either slopped, or sprayed on the carpet coupled with a great deal of the detailer's own elbow grease. The foam in the chemical encapsulates the dirt, bringing it to the surface.

Once scrubbed, carpets are vacuumed and fluffed up, but as you will see, a tremendous amount of chemical residue and oily soil are left behind.

2. Rotary shampooer: A relatively new innovation in the auto detail business, this method has been around in the commercial carpet cleaning sector since the early 1930s.

Rotary shampooing utilizes a small pneumatic (air) tool. Electric tools are usually too large - equipped with a nylon circular scrub brush, about three to five inches in diameter. High foaming shampoo is sprayed on the carpet, and then scrubbed in with the tool until clean. What is at the surface is then vacuumed up, but again residual chemical and dirt remains left behind in the carpet. That is why a soil extractor is required.

The advantage to the rotary brush is speed; it will really clean a soiled carpet quickly, without the corresponding detailer fatigue common with hand brush methods.

3. Soil Extraction: Unquestionably the most popular method in the commercial carpet cleaning business, what is correctly referred to as "Deep Cycle Rinse Extraction" but more commonly known as soil extraction is fast becoming the leading cleaning method in the detail industry, as well.

This method is sometimes confused with steam cleaning, but this is a misnomer. The "steam" that seems to rise from an extractor nozzle is not actually steam, but simply the vapors of a nearly 200°F solution. Genuine steam is generated by no less than 212°F.

In any case, a key to successful extraction is to use as much heated chemical fluid as possible. Fluid is really what does the rinsing. Of course, if you use a maximum amount of fluid, you must be able to recover the majority of it to have a clean carpet. The chemical used in extraction is a very low foaming chemical to help rinse clean the shampoo and oily soil residue.

While the extraction method is considered a one-step process, whereby dirt and cleaning solution are removed simultaneously, however, when using an alkaline extractor chemical they often follow-up with a "sour rinse" that has a pH of four to five, removing the alkaline residue prevents dulling or browning of light colored carpets.

Sour rinse products carry names such as "Non-Brown," "Brown-Out," or "No-Brown."

Before extracting, you must thoroughly vacuum the carpet, hand remove any heavy stains, pre-spray the entire carpet, and let dwellto let the chemical work. Then, scrub with a hand brush or rotary shampoo tool.

Understanding the process, you can see that extraction is a necessary follow-up to either hand or rotary brush shampoo cleaning methods. If extraction leaves a trace shampoo residue in the carpet, imagine the amount left behind by methods that incorporate a high- foaming chemical.

4. True Steam Cleaning: A European innovation, the "mini-steamer" heats water to 250°F and claims to clean with no chemicals or cleaning agents. From what I have seen, this steam is a "KEEP-UP" method utilizing limited moisture, similar to the bonnet-buffing method described earlier. The carpet cleaning attachment is covered with a terry bonnet that is rubbed over the carpet as the steam flows through.

While it will kill germs, bacteria and dust mites, I am not so sure it is the answer for truly dirty carpets. Still, it can be used to clean upholstery, and even windows and wire wheels, according to the unit's manufacturer.

"Disaster" cleaning

In the commercial carpet cleaning sector, this type of cleaning is usually brought on by fire or flood damage, and is considered restoration cleaning that presents special problems, such as disinfecting, deodorizing, and mildew stain removal. It is intended to save the carpet, rather than replace it.

However, in the case of automobile carpeting, it is sometimes less expensive to replace the carpet than utilize such intense cleaning methods.

Still, there are a number of cleaning situations the detailer will encounter that could fall under the "Disaster Cleaning" category including: Car flooding due to water leaks, spilled milk, animal urine, cola spills, spilled paint, or spilled gasoline.

Probably the easiest and most effective way to overcome these cleaning challenges is to remove the seats, and clean the carpet out of the vehicle. Unlike commercial carpeting that is installed with adhesive or tack strips and quite costly, or even impossible to remove, most automobile carpeting can easily be removed, once the seats are out of the way.

Post cleaning

When selling carpet cleaning to the customer, always suggest a fabric protectant application to prevent staining. It is almost the same as selling a guaranteed sealant for the paint. And, it's a money-maker. The chemical cost is minimal, and takes only a few minutes to apply.

In conclusion, you can see that carpet cleaning is highly sophisticated, and no differently than paint finishing, requires proper equipment, chemicals, and procedures.

Remember, when cleaning carpets:

  1. Always try to dry clean first – as long as it does the job
  2. If not, try limited moisture
  3. As a last resort, utilize wet cleaning. And of course, Clean-Looking Carpets Are Not Always CLEAN!

SIDEBAR (can these be checkmarks?)

Spot/Stain Removal Procedure Checklist

Time is of the essence – get to the spot/stain ASAP

Begin by removing excess solids

Blot excess liquids – DO NOT RUB

ALWAYS use a white terry cloth towel

Starting from the outside of the spot, work inward to avoid spreading

Check carpet for color fastness

If spot/stain is of unknown origin, use a solvent spotter first

If soil transfers to towel, continue cleaning until removed

If no soil transfer occurs, spot with all-purpose spotter

REMEMBER, grease, oil, and tar can be removed with solvent-based spotters

Protein and sugar based spots/stains are best removed with water-based, all-purpose cleaner

GUM: use a gum remover

RUST: use a rust remover

When finished, agitate the area, rinse and blot – wet vac or extractor can then be used

Remove spots/stains BEFORE shampooing entire carpet!

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