Building service contractors who clean and restore commercial carpet for a living know: Life happens, especially to carpeting.

“Pet accidents, people accidents, food spills, bleach drips, grease stains, water damage, fire damage, anything and everything,” says David Fletcher, president of Steamatic of Enid Inc., a hot-water extraction carpet cleaning company based in Enid, Okla. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I think I’ve seen just about everything that can happen to residential and commercial carpet.”

Routine cleaning is indisputably the best way to keep carpeting looking like new. But what’s a BSC to do when the job at hand is anything but routine? When, say, a fish tank has overturned onto the carpeted floor of an office? Or weekend vandals have run a garden hose though a school window…and the subsequently soaked classroom carpet isn’t undiscovered until Monday morning?

When the going gets wet Nearly 18 billion square feet of carpet — from bathmats to wall-to-wall — was shipped by United States carpet mills in 2003, according to The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), a national industry association. Fletcher, a certified water damage and mold remediation specialist, figures he’s probably cleaned some of it by now. Many of his most challenging jobs have dealt with wet carpet.

“In terms of water damage to carpet, there are three kinds of water: clear, gray and black,” he explains, “and each one of those has a level of intensity of damage and threat to health that needs to be addressed.”

Clear water problems are caused when a sink overflows, for example. Extracting the water from the carpet (and making sure the pad underneath is dry) is the main goal in such situations. Truck-mounted extracting machines are best suited for sucking water from carpet, according to CRI’s machine rating system, although portable and self-contained machines may also work well in many instances. Fletcher says water is called “gray” when it contains a source of bacteria (such as from the overturned fish tank).

With gray water, simply extracting the water from the carpet is only the beginning. The carpet also needs to be disengaged and treated with an antimicrobial solution. The pad needs to be removed and replaced, and the carpet needs to be re-cleaned once it’s been put back into place.

However, when the source of bacteria is too strong or too dangerous (such as raw sewage), or when the carpet has remained wet for more than 24 hours or so, the water that has soaked the carpet is considered “black” and the carpet must be disposed of. Very carefully.

“With black water,” says Fletcher, “you go in with protective equipment on. And you cut and dispose of not only the carpet and the pad, but any sheetrock underneath that was affected; that has to be cut out and removed, as well.”

Out, cursed spot! Water can also turn a small carpet problem into a much larger one. For instance, a toner spill in an office environment can wreak havoc on carpeting.

“Toner is very, very bad,” says Bill Swingler, owner of Joy Carpet Dry Cleaning Inc., a carpet-cleaning company in Plano, Texas. “And it’s not something you want to try and steam out. You get toner wet and it will turn into ink and saturate the carpet fibers.”

The best way to deal with spilled toner, Swingler says, is to vacuum the carpet thoroughly and then clean it using a dry extraction method.

“We sprinkle tiny, little organic sponges with cleaning agents in them on the carpet by hand,” he explains. “Our machines brush the sponges back and forth in the carpet and as the dirt comes loose it’s absorbed by the sponges. Then we vacuum them up with a heavy duty vacuum.”

Knowing the nature of the spot is half the battle for cleaning contractors, because not every spot remover will work on every type of spot. Take grease, for example. A stain on a carpet at a car dealership may be motor oil that an employee has tracked into a break room. Or it may be oil from the slice of pizza that same employee dropped during lunch. What works to lift one spot won’t necessarily work on the other.

“Food grease is actually a protein, so you have to use a protein cleaner to get it out,” explains Rich Blankenship, owner of Blankenship Carpet Cleaning in Scott City, Mo. “I spray it with an enzyme cleaner to break up the fats and the enzymes that are in the grease. Then, when I go back over it with a steam cleaner it just comes right up.”

The nature of the carpet is the other half of the battle. Roughly 80 percent of today’s commercial carpet contains nylon and starts out as a liquid which is extruded through fine netting into tiny fibers. Chemicals added to the liquid, such as stain protectants and dyes, can affect the performance of spot removers and require a trial-and-error effort on the part of cleaning contractors charged with lifting spots.

“In the 23 years we’ve been in business, we must have tried out 200 different spotters,” says Swingler. Other options include dying the carpet to hide the stain. Swingler suggests dying with a slightly darker color than the carpet’s original hue.

Seal of approval Because there are so many variables in dealing with the proper maintenance of commercial carpet, CRI Institute urges cleaning contractors to take certification courses offered by the Insitute of Inspection, Cleaning, Restoration and Certification.

“We recommend their courses,” says Carroll Turner, technical services manager for The Carpet and Rug Institute. “They have some very good training.”

In addition, because cleanliness is all-important when it comes to retaining the many benefits of carpeted workplaces — safety, insulation, acoustics and aesthetics are just a few — CRI has created its own Seal of Approval program for machines and cleaning solutions.

“We have initiated a real emphasis on cleaning and maintenance,” Turner says. As part of the program, an independent laboratory uses an x-ray fluorescence technology perfected during the Space Shuttle program to test a variety of carpet cleaning machines and solutions for efficient soil removal. The study’s results are available at CRI’s Web site.

With the proper equipment and training, a BSC or carpet pro will be well prepared to handle any spill, stain or spot that comes their way. After all, life happens.

Mary Erpenbach is a business writer in Rockford, Ill.