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Carpet Care In Depth

Carpet adds comfort and warmth to almost any room in the house, and with modern stain-resistant finishes, carpeting is even showing up in more and more dining rooms and kitchens.

As a floor covering, carpeting is subject to quite a beating day in and day out. Most carpets have to be replaced prematurely because of inadequate care. Without proper care the carpet begins to look dirty and faded and the fibers start to lose their fullness. High traffic areas become limp or flat.

What can we do ourselves? What else is necessary? Each week, we’re exposed to dozens of ads for carpet cleaning that seem to vary enormously in price. Would we be better off renting one of those machines at the grocery store and doing it ourselves?

Basic Maintenance

Vacuuming carpets frequently and thoroughly is probably the most important factor in carpet care. Dirt works its way down into the fibers of the carpet where it acts like sandpaper, grinding away at each tuft, leaving it limp and dull. Dirt also combines with oil residues carried through the air and eventually glues itself to the carpet.

Regular vacuuming prevents both problems. Most experts agree that carpets should be thoroughly vacuumed about once a week, with heavy traffic areas being vacuumed more often. Frequent and thorough vacuuming is probably the most important factor in carpet care.

A thorough cleaning means to pass the vacuum cleaner over each area of the carpet six to nine times. The actual number of strokes it takes to clean the carpet depends on the type of vacuum cleaner used. The best vacuum cleaners combine powerful suction with agitation. The agitation provided by vibrating beater-bars and whirling brushes dislodges the dirt and raises it to the surface, where the suction can reach it. Vacuum cleaners that rely on suction alone can’t clean out dirt that has settled into the carpet.

As the soil bag in the vacuum cleaner fills, the suction generated is reduced, so follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when to change bags.

Also make sure the belt that drives the brushes hasn’t stretched to the point where it no longer overcomes the friction of the carpet. Information about belt replacement should be in the owner’s manual.

If physical limitations or time limitations prevent you from being able to vacuum as often or thoroughly as required, consider hiring someone for this task. It doesn’t require much skill and can be accomplished by a neighborhood youth at little cost. Over time, the cost of the help may be offset in reduced professional cleanings and longer carpet life.

Spot Cleaning

Whenever spills occur on carpet, time is of the essence. The sooner it is cleaned up, the easier it will be to do so. Don’t be fooled by spills that are clear or are the same color as the carpet: these can change color over time and become visible stains. Some spills will act like dyes and others contain dyes that can penetrate the carpet fibers. Modern carpets are treated to make it harder for these dyes to penetrate, but your best bet is to act quickly in cleaning up the spill. The other advantage to working quickly is that you usually know what has spilled.

The first step in spot cleaning is to blot up the liquid using white paper towels or tissues. Do not add any liquids at this point, as they will only make the spot larger and help it sink deeper into the carpet. When the first towels have soaked up all they can, replace them with fresh towels and press them gently into the carpet, absorbing as much additional liquid as possible. If there are any solids or thick liquids in the spill, use a dull table knife or spatula to scrape them up. Be sure not to damage the fibers themselves.

If a special cleaning solution is involved, test it on an inconspicuous part of the carpet first (carpeted closets are great for this purpose). Place a few drops of the cleaning solution on each color that appears in the carpet and then place a white paper towel or tissue on top. Wait 10 to 15 seconds and check whether any of the carpet dyes have wicked through to your towel. If this happens, you’re best off calling a professional.

Assuming nothing went wrong with your test, keep in mind these additional tips:

—Use the least amount of solution possible.

—Work from the outside of the stain toward the center to avoid spreading the stain.

—Don’t rub the carpet too hard or you may damage fibers.

—Make sure the carpet can dry quickly, using a fan if necessary.

If your efforts are unsuccessful, call a pro right away. Failure to act quickly will increase the odds of a permanent stain.

Keep in mind that not all stains can be removed. Bleached areas, whether caused by sunlight or liquid bleach, cannot really be addressed. In theory, a professional can re-dye those sections, but don’t count on a perfect color match. Urine, if allowed to dry, also leaves a permanent stain. Stains from foods that have a lot of food coloring, such as Kool Aid, mustard or grape soda, are often impossible to remove. The only chance you have of avoiding a permanent stain with these colored food items is to act very quickly when the spill occurs.

Ironically, many stains are caused by the act of carpet cleaning itself. Many do-if-yourselfers fail to separate furniture from wet carpets properly. This causes stains to bleed out of wood furniture and rust to form under metal furniture legs and feet. Both stains are very difficult to remove.

Some people are haunted by phantom stains that seem to come and go. One type of phantom stain isn’t a stain at all: it is a worn area of the carpet that reflects light differently because its texture and pile thickness is different from surrounding areas. It may appear to be a different color during certain times of the day. Not much can be done about his, but raking or brushing the pile in a certain way may hide the problem.

Other phantom stains are quite real. Some chemicals will affect carpet color only at certain temperatures or at certain levels of humidity. Some pesticides, floor waxes, plant foods, cosmetics, and deodorants have this effect.

Many stains containing sugar attract dirt so effectively that if the attracted dirt is similar in color to the carpet, the underlying stain is completely hidden until cleaning. Then, with all the camouflaging dirt removed, the underlying stain becomes obvious and appears to be “new.”

Carpet Cleaning

Even if you vacuum regularly and spot clean as needed, you will eventually need to have your carpet cleaned. Ideally, your carpet should be professionally cleaned every year to 18 months. However, to save money, many people alternate between the do-it-yourself cleaning and professional cleaning. While the do-it-yourself approaches are far less expensive, they are almost never as effective as professional cleaning and involve a considerable amount of time and hard work. Depending on the method used, it is also easy for the novice to damage the carpet.

The three most common ways do-it-yourselfers (and inexperienced pros) damage carpets are over-shampooing, over-wetting, and failing to protect the wet carpet from furniture.

Over-shampooing occurs when either too much shampoo is used or the carpet is not adequately rinsed. Both are practically inevitable with some wet do-it-yourself approaches. They simply don’t include enough water with enough suction to effectively rinse the carpet and result in a thin layer of soapy residue that actually attracts dirt faster than a bare carpet would.

This is the biggest reason why even hard-core do-it-yourselfers should occasionally use a professional. If they don’t, the build-up of soapy residue can be impossible to clean out, leaving a carpet that is a virtual dirt magnet.

Over-wetting occurs when too much water soaks into the bottom of the carpet. Some backing materials cause the carpet to discolor if they get too wet. Some carpets will shrink, literally tearing themselves up from the floor. If the backing and pad get wet, it is very difficult to dry them, and you run the additional risk of mold and mildew problems.

The final hazard is stains caused by furniture coming into contact with wet carpeting. Many kinds of wood furniture will release some of the dyes in their stain if left in contact with a wet surface. Many pieces of furniture have feet that are at least partially metal. The metal can rust, leaving a stain in the carpet.

Do-it-yourselfers are more likely to encounter these problems because they often don’t remove all the furniture from the room when cleaning, and they often don’t have ready access to the foam blocks and foil-backed cardboard squares that the pros use to keep the furniture off the carpet until it is dry.

Do-it-yourself approaches: One of the safest and easiest do-it-yourself carpet-cleaning methods is dry extraction, often called dry “powder.” Granules impregnated with cleaning chemicals are spread over the carpet and worked into the pile with a brush or machine. The chemicals break down the oil that binds dirt to the carpet fibers and frees the dirt up for the last step of a very thorough vacuuming. The dry extraction method is easy to do and difficult to mess up.

One of the most popular do-it-yourself approaches is to apply aerosol foams. The foam, which is really a shampoo, is sprayed in a thin layer over the entire carpet. As a rule, this method effectively cleans only the top surface of the carpet. Brushing or sponging the foam into the pile helps with the cleaning but aggravates the problem of leaving a soapy residue.

When doing a large area, the aerosol foams can be costly. Care must be taken to avoid over-wetting the carpet, and a certain amount of soapy residue is unavoidable. Care must also be taken to protect the carpet from furniture that may get wet during the cleaning process.

Homeowners can also shampoo their carpets using a water-detergent solution and power brushes. While usually less expensive than the aerosol foam method (at least if you own a power brush) and more effective in cleaning, it is far riskier in terms of both over-wetting and leaving soapy residues. In addition, too much scrubbing (or uneven scrubbing) can thin out parts of the carpet and leave what looks like a stain.

Many local drug stores and grocery stores rent “steam cleaning” machines for carpet cleaning. (The process is more accurately called the “hot water extraction” method.) The machines spray a pressurized mix of hot water and a non-foaming detergent into the carpet pile, and a vacuum sucks most of it back out again, all in one pass. It is probably the most effective of the do-it-yourself systems. There is usually no problem with soapy residue, but over-wetting can be a problem.

Professional Cleaning Methods

One carpet cleaning method, dry extraction, isn’t technically a “dry” procedure; it’s more a “moisture-controlled” process. That is, it applies a controlled amount of moisture to clean the carpet and still leave it dry. This process is similar to the do-it-yourself “dry” method, but the equipment is larger and more thorough.

Though it uses the same cleaning chemicals, the process alters the amount of chemicals used and how they’re applied. A machine with two counter-revolving brushes moves the cleaning agents through the carpet’s material. The cleaner supplies enough liquid to dissolve the dirt, then re-absorbs the soil and liquid, which leaves the carpet dry for vacuuming and immediate use.

Some professionals spray a carbonated cleaning solution onto the carpet. The carbonation allows the cleaning agents to get to the carpet fibers with minimal wetting. The solution doesn’t contain the oil or detergents that typically leave a dirt-attracting residue. Dissolved dirt is removed with a machine that rubs soft cotton pads over the carpet.

When compared to wet systems, this method may not get as much of the deeper dirt out, but is very effective at cleaning the visible portion of the carpet. It does this without the risks of residue or over-wetting. Many businesses use this system because the carpet is usually dry and ready for traffic within an hour.

Otherwise, professionals use methods just like those described under do-it-yourself approaches, with two important differences. First, pros do this all day every day, and that experience helps them realize the maximum cleaning potential of each system and avoid the hazards of each. Second, pros usually use much more powerful and sophisticated equipment and cleaning agents. Because they know what they’re doing, they can use all that extra power without succumbing to the risks that power entails.

For example, on heavily soiled carpet a professional might first use a power shampoo system and then follow it with hot water extraction. There is equipment that does both in one pass. Often, the vacuums used in hot water extraction systems are extremely powerful and are mounted on a truck that is parked in front of the home.

Professionals have two other advantages as well. First, they’re accustomed to moving the heavy furniture. Second, they usually know a lot more about how to handle specific challenges like heavily soiled areas and stains.

Professional cleaning of portable rugs is generally done in a plant. At the plant, your rugs are run through a powerful machine (called a duster) that removes dirt and grit that can’t be removed by vacuuming.

Another advantage of in-plant cleaning is that the plants usually dry rugs in a controlled environment, which prevents mold and mildew. For Oriental, Persian, and other high-value rugs, cleaning is best done in a plant. Be aware that some companies use in-home cleaning methods in their “plant.” If so, you’d be better off having the cleaning done at home, where it usually costs less. If you are going to have rugs cleaned in a plant, you can sometimes save money by rolling up your carpets and delivering and retrieving them yourself.

Professional Cleaning Pricing Systems

There is a great deal of confusion among homeowners about how much carpet cleaning actually costs. Part of this is due to the variety of methods available. Some firms advertise or distribute coupons quoting very low prices, often for three rooms at a time.

Typically, these firms are quoting a price for a very minimal effort with the least expensive system. By the time they’ve pointed out all the limitations of this bargain-basement approach, they can usually get their customers to go along with a much more expensive and thorough approach. Very few of the consumers who respond to those offers end up spending the tiny amounts listed in the promotions.

Another source of pricing confusion is that some firms charge by the room and other firms charge by the square foot. Charging by the room works to your advantage if you have larger-than-average rooms, and the opposite is true if your rooms are relatively small.

Stairs are also a big variable. Stairs are not usually included in either square foot rates or room rates, but are an extra item, priced per step. Because stair cleaning prices vary so much, they can greatly affect the cost of the job.

While significant price differences for the same cleaning methods do sometimes occur, discrepancies are often explained by the different add-on services and treatments that are available and how many (if any) are included in the base price. Unless you know what is included and what isn’t, you cannot make meaningful price comparisons. The different add-on services and treatments that may or may not be included in your pricing are discussed in the next section.

Add-Ons and Extras

Stain removal: Some firms include stain removal in the base price. Other firms charge extra for highly soiled areas or for individual stains. Ask about this up front.

Pretreatment: Most wet-cleaning results can be improved by spraying a cleaning agent on the carpet a few minutes before cleaning. The chemicals help dissolve grease and oils so that the final cleaning extracts even more dirt. For some firms this is standard procedure; others may charge extra by the square foot or room. Ask!

Soil retardants: Most carpets are now factory-treated with a coating that helps the carpet fibers shed water and spills. TV advertisements show people spilling all kinds of things on treated carpets and having no trouble cleaning them up. The key is cleaning up the spills quickly. Once a carpet is five years old or so, you may need to have it retreated, at least in the high traffic areas.

The easiest way to check whether retreatment is necessary is to place a few drops of water on the carpet in the questionable areas and see whether the drops bead up or are absorbed quickly into the fibers. If they are absorbed, it’s time to retreat the carpet.

The best retreatment chemicals (and usually the only ones recommended by the manufacturers) are fluorochemical based. Scotchgard (by 3M) or any treatment containing Dupont’s Teflon are made from this material. The treatment should take place after cleaning and, for best results, should be gently brushed into the carpet while it is still damp.

Deodorizing and pet odor treatments: Most of the possible carpet odor reduction that can be accomplished will be accomplished by the cleaning itself. Many odors come from mold, mildew, or urine that has penetrated the carpet backing and pad. There is no practical way to get at the source without damaging the carpet through over-wetting.

Applying an anti-microbial agent (see below) will help slow the return of mildew and mold. Other than that, “deodorizing” is really nothing more than masking the odor with some stronger and more pleasing scent. Carpet perfumes have only a temporary effect and may be irritating to some people.

Anti-microbial treatment: The cleaning itself will kill most mold, mildew, yeast and other microbes, but it is practically impossible to kill all of them. The anti-microbial treatment creates a hostile environment for these microbes to reproduce and spread and will help control odor problems, extend the carpet’s useful life, and provide considerable relief to allergy sufferers.

Anti-static treatment: Static electricity often becomes annoying in the winter, when heating systems dry out the air in our homes. Carpet manufacturers have responded by developing new finishes, fibers, and backings that prevent the build-up of static electricity. If you are having a problem with your carpet, the easiest, best, and healthiest remedy is to increase humidity with a humidifier.

Once the relative humidity gets above about 40 percent, the static problem disappears. There are several treatments and finishes that can be applied that reduce static electricity, but nearly all act as soil magnets, greatly speeding up the rate at which your carpet gets soiled.

Choosing the Right Firm

Your number one criterion for selecting a carpet cleaning firm is reputation, because there are so many things that can go wrong when an inexperienced worker cranks up one of those powerful machines.

A reputable contractor referral service such as ServiceMagic, Inc. can help you identify a couple of reliable firms that service your area: Ask each firm what approach they recommend for your carpet, including which extras and add-ons they think are appropriate for your situation. Have them explain their reasoning. Do the same for both firms and select the approach that makes sense to you. Then adjust their quotes (or have them do so) for the approach you ultimately select. You can then make a meaningful price comparison.

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