Carpet cleaning should be viewed as a four-legged stool, says Werner Braun, president of the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), Dalton, Ga.

"You need good equipment, the right chemicals, an operator who knows what they're doing, and finally, the right cleaning regime," he says. "You need all four elements to maintain a good-looking carpet that realizes its design life."

And, according to Braun, these four requirements do not change — they actually increase in importance — as building service contractors strive to green their carpet care programs.

A green carpet program is one that prolongs a carpet's life and keeps it out of landfills, says Braun. BSCs need to identify products that are not only environmentally friendly, but also effective.

Allen Rathey, president of Boise, Idaho-based InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc., says that as contractors begin choosing which chemicals, vacuums and extractors to purchase, they should continually ask themselves: "It may be green, but does it clean? It isn't green, if it doesn't clean."

Starting with Certified Products

For many BSCs, green cleaning starts with switching to environmentally friendly products. There are several third-party testing programs that certify green chemicals, including Green Seal, EcoLogo and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Certified chemicals are non-corrosive, don't contain carcinogens and meet stringent standards for toxicity.

In addition, CRI tests chemicals for efficacy, including rate of resoiling, pH and other criteria. The organization has partnered with the EPA's Design for the Environment program to list Seal of Approval (SOA) products that are also considered green.

When selecting green equipment, BSCs can turn to CRI. Vacuums are also tested to meet SOA.

"In the vacuum cleaner category, we test for three things," says Braun. "Does it get the soil out of the carpet? Does it do that without destroying the carpet? Does the vacuum have low emissions?"

Approved vacuums are then rated Bronze, Silver and Gold — the higher the rating, the more soil the vacuum captures and the less dust it releases back into the air.

CRI recently added an energy efficiency test that vacuums must pass to receive certification. This test looks at whether vacuums remove soil from carpet in an energy-efficient way.

"A very low-power vacuum that uses very little energy but doesn't get the soil out isn't really green," Werner says. "Our new program will judge a vacuum on its ability to remove soil in an energy-efficient way."

CRI also tests extractors based on soil removal, carpet texture retention and moisture removal. Similar to vacuums, products earning SOA are then rated Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. The newer Platinum rating is for machines that remove at least 90 percent of soil from carpets.

Green carpet equipment should also operate quietly. While not a component of CRI testing, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance program requires that vacuums operate at 70 decibels or less and extractors should be designed to minimize noise.

Energy and Water Waste

Besides using environmentally friendly products, the criteria for green carpet care can be expanded to include reducing energy use and water consumption.

For instance, truck-mounted carpet cleaning operations pack a huge energy footprint. BSCs using these systems should take a close look at how these trucks are maintained and operated, says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group LLC, Bloomington, Ind.

Heating the water used to clean carpeting consumes enormous amounts of energy.

"While we understand that heating the water improves cleaning efficacy, some manufacturers have developed new surfactants that work well in cold water," says Ashkin. He adds there's even a carpet extractor that reduces water use by capturing and filtering wastewater produced by the cleaning process, so that it can be used again.

Incorporating a combination of interim cleaning using dry carpet methods such as "dry cleaning" or "bonnet cleaning," which uses little to no water, can also help prolong the time between extractions.

In dry cleaning, dry absorbent compound (containing small amounts of water, detergent and solvent) is sprinkled over carpet and worked into the carpet with a machine. The cleaning compound attracts and absorbs soil as mechanical agitation works it through the carpet. Later workers can vacuum up the soil-containing powder.

"There is very little downtime and very little moisture in some of the powder-based or dry methods," says Rathey. "It is relatively quick and you have cleaner carpets, but you're still going to have to extract that carpet at some point in the future."

Bonnet cleaning, an adaptation of hard floor spray buffing, uses a rotary or oscillating brush adapted with a stiff brush or drive block to drive wet, damp or dry pads across the carpet. Workers can spray cleaning solution directly onto the carpet or soak the pads used by the machine in the cleaning solution before attaching them under the driving brush.

Using a combination of interim carpet cleaning methods, such as the dry or nearly dry methods explained above, helps reduce the frequency of hot water extraction thereby reducing water consumption, but there are also a number of other ways to prolong time between extractions.

First of all, carpets should be vacuumed regularly. CRI's "Carpet Cleaning Tips for Dummies" recommends vacuuming at least once a week.

"If you do not vacuum and clean your carpet on an appropriate frequency, that carpet can wear out from the soil in it," says Braun. "The soil can act like sandpaper and will damage the carpet up and down the fiber and at the base of the fibers where it attaches to the backing."

Carpets should also be spot-cleaned immediately after a spill.

"If someone spills red juice, get on top of that quickly, your chances of getting all of it out are a lot better than if it sits for awhile," says Braun.

Finally, there are things that can be done outside the building and at its entrances to reduce the amount of dirt tracked inside. Flowering and fruit-bearing plantings and shrubs can be replaced or moved away from sidewalks and entrances.

"This way people are not walking on them and tracking soil onto the carpet," says Ashkin.

In addition, walk-off mats outside the doors and inside the entrances help trap dirt before it lands on the carpet.

"The more dry soil that you remove or keep out of the carpets on a daily basis, the less you have to remove through extraction later," says Rathey.

Greening the Message

Once the decision has been made to green carpet care, BSCs also need to teach their employees exactly what this means. A new IICRC S100 Standard Reference Guide for Professional Carpet Cleaning will be approved soon. This standard looks at what the workers need in terms of training to get a better outcome (cleaner carpets) in a potentially greener way.

"Training is so important," says Ashkin, noting that when workers are knowledgeable about green issues such as energy and water consumption and chemical use, they are better equipped to make informed decisions about a procedure's impact to the environment.

"If we don't train our people to think about energy use, they don't think about it," he says. "But if we teach them and give them the tools to green these processes, that's how a contractor can really set themselves apart."

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.