Improper spot removal can rub customers the wrong way
While the basic duties of contract cleaners involve daily upkeep cleaning such as vacuuming traffic areas and emptying trash, there always is an occasional call about a spot or stain that needs attention. For contractors who may not have day porters available to address the problem when it first happens, cleaning an unknown spot or stain can be a headache, especially when one can make matters worse if using the wrong cleaning technique.

“Carpet cleaning has evolved into a highly technical industry,” says John Dailey, president of Midwest Restoration Services, Wheaton, Ill. “Most people have no concept of what real carpet cleaning entails.”

To start, the first basic distinction carpet cleaners make is between spills, spots and stains. In general, a spill is anything that has been dropped on the carpet that didn’t belong there. A spot is a spill that can be removed from the carpet through cleaning. A stain is generally permanent because the spill has actually changed the color of the carpet fiber.

The most common carpet-spotting culprits include soda, coffee, candy, greasy food, ink or printer toner, and dirt tracked into high-traffic areas. Carpet-cleaning professionals can choose from an arsenal of cleaning products that are specifically designed for use with the kind of spot and the kind of carpet in question.

Cleaning techniques
“When we try to remove a spot, we typically start with a mild detergent,” explains Jim Pearson, president and CEO of Americlean Corp., Billings, Mont. “If the spot does not come out, we will try a more specific cleaning solution or a more aggressive strategy.”

A basic spot-removal strategy involves scraping away any solid matter, such as coffee grounds, powdered toner or candle wax, that might be present. Next, carefully blot the area with cleaning solution — never pour cleaner directly onto the spot, because this causes the dirt to sink to the bottom of the carpet fiber. Work the spot from the outer edge towards the center. Never brush carpet, which causes wear; instead, it is blotted with a damp cloth.

Sometimes the spot will appear to be removed after cleaning, only to reappear again a short while later. Three different scenarios may cause this. “The carpet cleaner might have used the ‘glub-glub’ method of mixing the cleaning solution, and failed to use the proper specifications,” Dailey says.

A second cause of stain reappearance is overwetting during the cleaning process. “A spill typically sits on the surface of the carpet, and, after it has broken the surface tension, it will get under the carpet pad and then spread out under the backing, where it dries,” Pearson explains. “The spot looks like it is 6 inches in diameter on top of the carpet, when actually it may be 12 inches in diameter under the backing.”

If the area is flooded with carpet cleaner or water, the carpet becomes saturated right down to the backing. The moisture mixes with the spot and tends to climb up the carpet fibers back to the surface of the carpet during the drying process, causing the stain to reappear. “The key is to use only enough solution to clean the faced fibers — the fibers on the surface,” Pearson says. “Otherwise, the spot will wick up as the moisture evaporates and cause the spot to come back.”

Stain reappearance also may appear when the cleaning agent is not rinsed from the carpet well enough, leaving behind a ring of residue. Sticky residue attracts soil that is tracked in from outside, and makes the area quickly appear dirty again.

Stain, stain, go away
A different set of strategies is required for stains that have discolored the carpet. “A stain indicates that the carpet fibers have actually taken on a different dye,” Dailey explains. “But, unfortunately, dye-strippers (products that have been formulated to remove the dye) don’t know the difference between the carpet dye and the stain.”

However, a heat-transfer process can be used to remove the stain. “The assumption is that the spill isn’t set as strongly as the carpet color is,” Dailey explains. Using a steam iron to apply heat over a towel, the dye-stripper draws the less-fixed discoloration into the towel. This process requires careful timing and should stop before all the discoloring stain has been removed. That is because the stripper continues to work for a while after it has been applied and will remove the carpet dye if left on too long.

Cleaning innovations
Innovations in carpet manufacturing and cleaning solution specificity, along with new safety regulations, have changed the carpet cleaning industry enormously.

Carpeting manufacturers have introduced new types of stain-resistant carpet fibers, which repel soil rather than attracting it. Stain-resistant carpets also release stains more readily, making the cleaning process easier.

Ironically enough, however, as carpeting is becoming more stain resistant, cleaning solutions are becoming weaker and weaker, Pearson reports. For example, environmental and safety regulations have mandated the removal of petroleum-based solvents from cleaning solutions. Unfortunately, solutions with the solvents removed may not clean oil-based stains as effectively.

Despite this, cleaning solutions are becoming more specialized. “More specific solutions are being generated to target specific types of dirt, which has made it easier for us to clean,” Pearson says. “But today carpet cleaners require a higher level of training and knowledge to keep up with this specificity.”

Lynne Knobloch is a business writer based in Mishawaka, Ind.