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For some time, building service contractors have been sounding the alarm about their mounting concerns related to reducing cleaning frequencies, sometimes known as skip cleaning. During the recession many companies and schools, in an effort to cut costs, skimped on cleaning, especially vacuuming. As the economy shows signs of rebounding, now is the time to increase vacuuming frequencies back to pre-recession levels, before irreversible damage is done.

Science explains why those who are responsible for the indoor environment — contractors, building managers and occupants — do have something to worry about. As skip-cleaning schedules become more prevalent, especially as proper and consistent vacuuming frequencies are reduced, the indoor environment suffers. Reducing the vacuum frequencies from five days to every other day or less may, on the surface, seem like an easy way to save a dollar and trim a budget. However, the unintended consequence of such a decision lays hidden in the carpet pile. As the frequencies are reduced so are the carpet’s appearance and its life.

“Uglying out”

Commercial carpet is a textile, similar to pantyhose. The most popular commercial carpet is made of synthetic fibers such as nylon, olefin or polyester. In fact, nylon is most often specified by architects and designers for commercial installations. It is frequently referred to as the durable fiber. Synthetic fibers don’t usually wear out (except on stairs); instead, they “ugly out.”

Uglying out is when a carpet shows visible signs of graying in traffic areas, heavily walked-on areas, and pivot points (points where turns are made, grinding dirt, soil and grit into the carpet). Graying occurs when the fibers are crushed, matted down or flattened out. The carpet fibers also may be abraded or scratched.

Fiber has come a long way since nylon was invented in the 1930s. According to the Carpet & Rug Institute, “Today’s carpets are designed to hide dirt and resist soiling and staining. But that’s no excuse to skip regular vacuuming. Soil can damage fibers if it remains in the pile.”
Carpet may be more stain-resistant and resilient than in the past, but it is still susceptible to matting, crushing or flattening. And as carpet flattens out, it can also become more porous, abraded or damaged. All are factors of uglying out brought on by improper maintenance.

Wear and abrasion ruins carpet

Just like other textiles — for instance, a favorite pair of broken in blue jeans faded with washings and worn knees — carpet will show wear over time and without proper maintenance. A combination of factors will cause premature wear, including embedded soil in the carpet. Infrequent vacuuming and poor matting are the main reasons carpets show signs of premature wear. Major traffic lanes need to be vacuumed daily.

Shoes track in most of the dirt, grit and soil that end up in carpets. Other factors also contributing to soiling include dust, airborne pollutants and food or drink spills.

When vacuuming is skipped, dirt, grit and soil become embedded in the carpet. It will be harder to remove them later. Embedded soil particles are abrasive like sandpaper. Dirt and grit damage the carpet fiber by rubbing, or abrading, the carpet fiber. Imagine repeatedly rubbing sandpaper over glass. Quickly the glass becomes scratched, dull and faded. With repeated abrasion, the scratched glass is weakened. Abrasive soil does the same thing to carpet fiber. The fiber becomes pitted and scratched creating a dull, faded appearance; the carpet looks worn. Regular vacuuming prevents the deep abrasion that ruins carpets.

Dulling is caused by all types of soils and will actually change the original carpet color’s appearance. A light blue carpet can take on a gray-green tint, and rose carpet can appear more taupe. The original color isn’t lost; it’s hidden under a layer of soil. It’s important to note some carpet may actually absorb the soil causing the carpet color to permanently change. Frequently this happens with oily soils. Oily soils can be absorbed and the carpet will take on a yellow cast. Entry mats can trap soil, and combined with routine vacuuming, this problem can be avoided.

The pile underneath the carpet fibers will break down if the dirt is left in. It also creates a breeding ground for dust mites and bacteria.
Frequent vacuuming not only keeps the carpet cleaner, it significantly reduces wear and tear especially in traffic areas.

Reducing frequencies will ultimately cost facilities more money in the future. Janitors will have to make additional passes to remove soil in heavily embedded areas and eventually the carpet will require an expensive deep or restorative cleaning. Or worse, ultimately the carpet pre-maturely wears out and requires replacement.

Reduced frequencies may have met the short-term budget needs of the present, but they shouldn’t compromise the future. It’s easier to skip some tasks over others, but reduced vacuuming isn’t one of them. To ensure longer life and maintain appearance, carpet requires regular vacuuming. Facility managers and building owners should never underestimate the effect frequent vacuuming has on carpet.

BJ Mandelstam is the founder and president of Cleaning Matters, a Denver-based custodial consulting practice. Previously, she was the owner of an award-winning contract cleaning company. For more information, visit www.onlycleaningmatters.com.