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The hygienic side of carpet cleaning

October 11, 2010
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For years, the only concern anyone had about cleaning automotive carpeting was appearance. Even with buildings and homes, a carpet wasn’t cleaned until it became dirty, meaning there was no concern in regard to air quality — only appearance.

Fortunately, during the past ten years, both janitorial and carpet cleaning upholstery professionals have become aware of the vital importance of indoor air quality, and that carpet cleaning plays a major role in this problem.

Progressing slowly
There is a very small group of professional detailers who are aware of, and focusing on, the health advantages of clean carpets. There is an increased awareness of the dangers of mold, for example, but there still hasn’t been much movement in detailing for health’s sake. As an industry, we have a long way to go.

There are many types of cultures in the soil and various particles in carpets with all kinds of bacteria, germs and pollutants. The combination of moisture or food particles, wood or paper particles, human or pet hairs combine in carpeting, resulting in a breeding ground for bacteria.

This causes a wide variety of allergic reactions, with symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, “head cold” symptoms to difficulty in breathing. Resulting sickness may lead to absenteeism from work and/or decreased productivity. In buildings, the problem can be so severe that the carpeting is completely removed.

Dust can be both inorganic and organic, with much of the organic dust composed of secretions and eliminations from dust mites and other insects that live both in the air conditioning system as well as the carpets. The particles are so small they literally float through the air. Dust mites, for example, are microscopic, so you can imagine how tiny the eliminations would be.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s, are not considered as serious a problem as the other two categories of air pollutants because they’re easily cleared out by the ventilation from the air conditioning system.

VOC’s are in the news a great deal these days, but should more accurately be called gas-phase organic compounds, which include fumes, and gases such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. The attention paid to VOC’s specifically reflects a general public concern, if not fear, about exposure to chemicals.

Methods that work
Most professional carpet-cleaning authorities agree that the backbone of “cleaning-for-health” programs must be frequent vacuuming and regular extraction cleaning.

Any system to clean the carpet more often would improve things. A stronger focus on “cleaning systems” that can take the dirt out and keep it out, specifically about high-filtration vacuum systems, and water extraction systems is important.

Soil extraction is the needed method for major carpet cleaning, because it is the only way to kill germs and bacteria in the cleaning process.

Educate the customer that the key to healthy carpets is to clean carpets regularly. If they wait for it to look dirty, they’ve waited too long. Vehicle owners have to start treating automotive carpet more like a hard surface floor, and clean it regularly. The problem with carpet always has been that you can’t see the dirt.

Today's products
Most manufacturers are eager to tell you product development for proper carpet care stresses the importance of good vacuuming for proper carpet cleaning. This is an issue for the driver who is in the car, but also an issue for the professional detailer who does the cleaning. They're the ones who have to breathe in all that harmful material when an improper vacuum disperses some of the dirt into the air.

If you have never thought about it, you should use a high-filtration upright vacuum.

Carpet is cleanable, and there are systems that can maintain carpet properly and protect the indoor environment.

Germ-free carpets
How do you keep carpeting germ-free? In the past three or four years, the EPA has approved carpet-cleaning chemicals that will kill up to 90 percent of bacteria.

Today, anyone who takes the time to clean and shampoo carpets ought to be killing the bacteria at the same time. There are no EPA-registered germicidal carpet cleaners (those that kill all the germs and bacteria) because varying carpet pile depths make it impossible to guarantee a 100-percent kill. The registration that applies to carpet cleaners is that of a 'sanitizer,' which means that it kills up to 90 percent of the bacteria.

Another aspect of the problem is dust mites and other insects. Today, many EPA- registered products kill insects in carpeting, but they have to be applied in a separate operation, after the cleaning has been completed. They can't be incorporated into carpet-cleaning chemicals.

For example, you cannot combine insect-killing chemicals with a cleaner however, it can be placed in quaternary ammonia, which will kill the germs because it can be in the presence of synthetic detergents and still be effective.

If you put the cleaner in quats, it can't have any kind of solvents, since they would nullify each other. There are limits to combining chemicals and still remaining effective. There is more to cleaning carpets than you thought, huh?

What next?
With a growing variety of products to clean carpets hygienically, where does the industry go from here? Most experts agree that the biggest job is education; education about the necessity of cleaning carpets more than anything else.

The detail chemical companies and the distributors have a vital role to play in this process. What I’d like to see is more of them focus on this issue, and go with it, both as an opportunity and a challenge. They too must learn about these subjects so they can be part of the education process, giving them a chance to provide an additional service to their customers.

As the detailer and the motorist become aware of the hygienic cleaning, they will be easier to sell.

Carpet, more than any other single factor, is coming under attack as a contributer to sickness in every area. Carpet has to be maintained. As detailers, you should do whatever you can to provide education to your customers.

Today, the main need is to increase motorist awareness of the need for hygienic cleaning.

Additional serious research needs to be done about what goes on in the vehicle interior. Detailers need to understand what they’re up against, and improve current cleaning methods.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the
car-care industry. He is also a member of the International Carwash Association and Western Carwash Association Board of Directors and can be contacted at: