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Cleaning Carpet Fibers

Consider this: Carpet is a fabric. Can you imagine subjecting an expensive bedspread or your favorite draperies to foot traffic. How about wiping muddy or snow covered boots on your favorite quilt. If you can't imagine these scenarios how can you expect the third most expensive household item you will ever purchase to perform without proper cleaning. Carpet is a wonderfully engineered product, but it isn't bullet-proof. My household carpet is 10 years old, and my wife is afraid it will last until the next millennium, because carpet cleaning is performed twice yearly.

Carpet should be given the same tender, loving care as other less expensive household items. My two-year old is now seven and he has been taught to use our spot removal extractor to hide his mishaps before dad comes home. Even he understands that the more quickly he reacts the easier a spill is too remove.

For most synthetic carpet fibers, a seven-year-old could produce a satisfactory cleaning result provided he has the proper tools and enthusiasm. But even synthetic fibers have their limitations. Over-wetting remains a primary concern for all carpet fibers and care must be given to ensure proper drying within 6-8 hours to limit microbial growth. Most of these concerns are addressed in our DIY carpet cleaning section.

Our carpet fibers section addresses many of the most common questions related to carpet pile fibers, but carpet cleaners everywhere have asked that we add a special section related to the cleaning of the various types of carpet fibers. While these carpet cleaners understand the differences, they have requested that this section be written for the consumer. This description is not intended to be a comprehensive "everything you always wanted to know about cleaning carpet fibers", but it should be a basic primer.

Cleaning Olefin Carpet Fibers

According to carpet cleaners everywhere, this is the place to start. You may have noticed, that I make mention in numerous sections within The Carpet Buyers Handbook, about my 10 year-old olefin Berber carpet and how great it looks. Olefin is not "bullet-proof" and most carpet cleaners would prefer crucifixion over cleaning large areas of this fiber, but once you understand its properties, it is actually easy to clean.

Olefin or more accurately "polypropylene" (polyethylene is the other type of olefin and is rarely, if ever, used in carpet fibers) is the second most popular fiber used in carpet manufacturing. It has no dye sites, so stains have a more difficult time penetrating the fiber. This does not mean it will not stain!

Olefin has an affinity for oily stains and these stains are easily absorbed into the fiber. A few years ago, a gentleman came to Dalton, GA looking for scrap olefin fiber. I worked for the industry-at-large at that time. We assisted him by contacting every carpet manufacturer and collecting all their spool ends and scrap olefin fiber. The industry thought they had pulled a coup. The manufacturers ended up losing a whole lot less on the scrap fiber, than they would have previously. There were plenty of "high-fives" and "back-slapping" to go around. A few weeks later, the Exxon Valdez went down off the coast of Alaska and there on the evening news was this same guy who had purchased all of our scrap fiber. He had ingeniously, woven these scrap olefin fibers into blankets that could be tossed into the ocean to absorb the oil spill. "ain't America Great!"

The above description is part of the reason carpet cleaners dislike this fiber. Little do they know that the carpet cleaning chemicals they use contain oily solvents such as d'limonene (group carpet cleaner gasp about right now). A carpet cleaner should use special chemistry on olefin fiber. In the good ol' days before StainMaster, we used a different cleaning technology using cationic surfactants. These positively-charged cleaners, clean quite well, but they destroy stain treatments (like StainMaster). If a carpet cleaner will revisit 1980's cleaning technology and use a chemistry that does not contain oily solvents, their cleaning results would improve dramatically. Their labor dollars would begin to shrink, their profits would grow, and their customers would be happier.

Another of the characteristics of olefin fiber is molecular weight and porosity. Olefin fiber will float on water (Exxon Valdez) and does not absorb moisture. Olefin fibers have a very low moisture regain (2-4%) potential. This characteristic offers positive and negative attributes. Positive from the point of quick drying capabilities (lower potential for delayed drying and viability for mold growth), but negative from the point of wicking or resoil. Olefin fibers have a higher potential for wicking complaints.

Soil wicking actually works in the same manner as a kerosene lamp. Soil (soluble and insoluble) that is attached to the fibers uses water as a carrier and gravity takes these dissolved or soil suspended particles to the base of the carpet pile. During the drying process of evaporation (evaporative drying), these particles wick up the carpet tuft to the surface of the carpet pile. The water evaporates, leaving the solid soil particles on the surface of the carpet pile. In essence, the carpet appears clean when wet and dirty when dry. This is a carpet cleaners biggest complaint with olefin fiber. There are a few "fixes" for this phenomena, but most add up to increased labor dollars.

Vacuum Cleaner Rating

he first fix is to use a vacuum cleaner with a good vacuum cleaner rating to remove as much dry soil as possible before cleaning. Few carpet cleaners actually pre-vacuum, even though it is a necessary part of the carpet cleaning standard. A carpet cleaner can save an enormous amount on labor (on the back end) and chemistry costs by performing this simple procedure. The consumer also should vacuum thoroughly before the carpet cleaner arrives. This removes as much dry soil as possible and limits the amount of soil wicking that will inevitably occur with olefin fiber.

Other fixes are on the back-end (after carpet cleaning) and typically result in call-backs, which is the biggest "hole in the floor" for carpet cleaners, in terms of profit drain.

The use of a rotary bonnet pad before drying can reduce call-backs, but this process adds additional labor dollars. Some cleaners lightly buff the carpet surface with a rotary bonnet pad to remove as much residual moisture and surface soil as possible. This is typically a good deterrent for wicking, but few cleaners utilize this procedure. While it can add to the cost of cleaning carpet, these costs are far less than the cost of a callback.

Another procedure is to use a dry absorbent compound (Host or Capture), which is spread on the carpet surface, agitated, and vacuumed for removal. This procedure works best on call-backs, after the carpet has dried. The dry compound attaches to soil particles on the fiber surface and is extracted during vacuuming. However, the wet/dry (cleaning) wars have been raging for years. Most carpet cleaners use one method or the other. Without embracing all carpet cleaning methods, the carpet cleaner is much like the golfer that plays an entire round with a seven-iron. Sometimes you win, sometimes you come up short. Dry foam extraction also can be quite effective.

Carpet cleaners have traditionally been very territorial when it comes to carpet cleaning methods. There are many who feel that steam cleaning is the best carpet cleaning method to use. The Carpet Buyers Handbook has always tried to remove ourselves from this debate. The above description explains why there are 5 carpet cleaning methods and why each method has its place. Carpet cleaners with foresight may carry all 5 carpet cleaning methods in their truck. Being unprepared for all eventualities is much like the proverbial "bringing a knife to a gunfight".

Cleaning Nylon Carpet Fibers

Nylon is the preferred fiber for most carpet cleaners, because it is a very forgiving fiber. It cleans very well, has a very high tolerance to moisture absorbency, and is fairly versatile when it comes to the use of a wide variety of cleaning chemicals.

Prior to the introduction of StainMaster in 1986, cleaners were almost unrestricted in chemistry selection and while nylon fiber was highly resistance to the various polarity's of chemicals, these new topical treatments limited the selection of chemistry for cleaning nylon. I remember a great deal of confusion among carpet cleaners during the latter part of 1986 through early 1988, because their world was thrown into a tail-spin. The chemistry that they had used for so many years with success, now destroyed these new stain treatments. Chemical formulators rushed products to the marketplace to replace those older products that cleaned very well, but had a deleterious effect on these treatments.

Carpet cleaners began to see limitations in the pH of chemistry they could use. No longer could they use products with high pH (10 or less is required) because high pH would eliminate stain resistant properties. No longer could they use cationic (positive electrical charge) cleaners. During this period, DuPont issued a decree that only products that had been approved by DuPont could be used on their DuPont Stainmaster fibers and treatments. DuPont also was concerned about high temperatures used with Steam Cleaning. Initially, DuPont established a maximum temperature limit of 150º F. Later this rule was relaxed when it was discovered that no truck-mounted steam cleaning machine on earth could deliver water to the fiber at temperatures above 140ºF to the fiber. This fact was a real shocker to those cleaners who had invested $20,000 on those big super sucker steam cleaning machines with pressure cooker kettles that could heat water (and possibly even distill moonshine whiskey) to outrageous temperatures. A truck mounted steam cleaner might heat the water to 200 degrees, but when the hot water went through pressurization at the wand, the water loses about 30% of its' temperature (200 degrees time 70% of the heat retained equals 140 degrees). Even boiling water (212 degrees) could only reach 148 degrees after pressurization at the wand.

Eventually, standards were established, so that chemical formulators could build products that met DuPont guidelines, without having to obtain a formal "blessing" from DuPont.

During this period, most carpet cleaning professionals would discourage a homeowner from attempting to clean their own carpet. A DuPont survey revealed that 42% of all carpet cleaning was performed by homeowners. As a result of this astonishing finding, DuPont was "leveraged" into issuing formal guidelines for cleaning chemistry and the marketplace was allowed to police itself.

The positive attributes of these new treatments were overwhelmingly positive for carpet cleaning. Carpet cleaners were rarely confronted with soiling and stains that could not be removed. Their cleaning results were much improved, once chemical formulators were able to match their chemistry to these new topical treatments. Also dry soil, which does not dissolve and is resistant to wet cleaning, was more easily released through water flow (water transport).

Cleaning Polyester Carpet Fibers

Polyester fibers provide a bit of a dichotomy. They clean fairly easily, have good colorfast properties, and can accept a wide variety of cleaning chemistry's. The weakness of polyester resides in the characteristics of this fiber.

Polyester is similar to olefin, in that it is oleophilic. This $2 word means it loves oil. Oil is easily absorbed into this highly stain-resistant fiber. Polyester was the original "stain-proof" fiber. Dye and stains alike do not easily penetrate this fiber (except oil-based stains). Carpetmanufacturers must use pressurized dye becks to heat this fiber to an adequate temperature to achieve a temperature at which the dye sites open to accept dyes. While this fiber is highly stain resistant, there are no "stain-proof" fibers.

Polyester's affinity for oil can be counteracted (to some degree) by the application of topical treatments, such as Teflon®, but these treatments wear away with foot traffic. Polyester should be cleaned yearly. Cleaning may be performed by the homeowner, but it is suggested that Teflon® treatments be reapplied every 2-3 years and this typically requires professional cleaning.

Cleaning Silk Carpet Fibers

Silk - Silk is a natural fiber that is used for many carpet applications. Silk fibers should be cleaned using a dry cleaning process. These fibers may be damaged by high temperatures, high pH (>9), sunlight, and looses strength when wet. The cleaning of silk fibers is best left to the carpet cleaner.

Cleaning Sisal and Hemp Carpet Fibers

Sisal and other plant fibers - Sisal and other plant fibers have characteristics similar to cotton. A number of plant fibers are used in carpet construction including sisal, cotton, jute, coconut (coir), pineapple, ramie, hemp, and many others. These fibers may be cleaned with all cleaning methods but dry extraction and dry foam extraction are most often recommended. These fibers are subject to browning if cleaned with a high pH (>7.5) and may release color during cleaning. If using a wet method, utilize accessories to accelerate drying. The cleaning of plant fibers is best left to the carpet cleaner.

The carpet manufacturer should be consulted to determine the preferred carpet cleaning method.

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Did you know?

Different carpet fibers may require different carpet cleaning methods and different cleaning chemistry. Tough synthetic carpet fibers will withstand a wide variety of carpet cleaning methods and cleaning chemistry, but natural carpet fibers can be damaged by improper cleaning.

In This Section
Cleaning Cotton/Rayon
Cleaning Wool Carpet
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