The sting of the recession may be waning, but building owners and custodial managers continue to slash spending across the board — and carpet care is no exception. Carpet care essentials such as vacuuming, interim maintenance and deep cleaning extractions are being performed less often, and in some cases skipped altogether to save money.

Reducing the frequency of carpet maintenance and cleaning can have a negative impact on the life of carpeting. But on the flipside, making the right  cutbacks can help preserve carpet life. It all depends on what type of carpet care program custodial managers implement and what areas of the carpet they choose to focus on.

"Cutbacks will have a negative impact on carpet life if all you do is cut back on everything," says John Downey, a representative of IICRC in Vancouver, Wash., and president of Downey's Carpet Care, in Granville, Ohio. "More soil will build up, especially soil that's tracked onto carpets because it tends to be abrasive and cause damage to the fibers."

Downey recommends a strategic cleaning program focused on carpeted areas that receive the bulk of the dirt.

"Too much time is spent cleaning clean carpet and not enough time is spent cleaning dirty carpet," he says. "If you restrict the areas you focus on for deep cleaning and do that more often, you'll stop the dirt progressing further into the building, and your cutbacks won't have to have a negative impact."

Furthermore, distributors warn that frequent use of harsh chemicals can shorten the life of customers' carpets and make carpet care more challenging.

"Sometimes cutbacks in the amount of times you're doing maintenance can actually help extend carpet life," says Keith Schneringer, marketing manager for WAXIE Sanitary Supply in San Diego. "If you're using harsh chemicals and processes on the carpet, you actually wear it out faster than it would normally wear out."

According to Schneringer, chemical residue left behind on the carpet actually attracts more dirt. This can result in a vicious cycle of more frequent cleanings that apply more chemicals to the carpet.

A Gentler Approach To Carpet Care

To reduce the amount of expensive deep cleaning extractions that pump chemicals into the carpet, distributors advocate encapsulation.

"Encapsulation is like a vacuum program on steroids," says Belinda Jefferson, president of Hercules and Hercules Inc., in Detroit. "You have to make certain the carpet is thoroughly vacuumed, then you put the encapsulation product down and it coats the fibers of the carpet. That gives debris less of an opportunity to become embedded in the fibers, so the more you vacuum the cleaner the carpet becomes."

In conjunction with a good vacuuming program, Jefferson says encapsulation can replace more frequent extractions, simplifying carpet care programs.

"Some custodial operations extract every six months," she says. "If you're doing the encapsulations, you could probably get away with once a year."

Because encapsulation doesn't leave behind chemical residue, it can help break the resoiling cycle that often leads to more frequent cleanings, explains Schneringer, thereby saving on labor costs as well.

On every third or fourth deep cleaning, custodial personnel could substitute the hot water extraction process with encapsulation, says Downey. Encapsulation can be performed on areas that don't receive a majority of the dirt, which is typically 80 to 90 percent of carpeting, he adds. However, the 10 to 20 percent that receives the bulk of dirt should still be extracted.

To some extent, the frequency of encapsulation depends on the quality of the vacuuming program, say distributors.

"Essentially, encapsulation does a good job with removing spots and stains," says Downey. "But other than that, it's a good vacuuming system. So if you have a good vacuuming and spotting program, you can go a long time before you have to do anything other than vacuuming and spot removal in 80 to 90 percent of the building."

The Power of a Vacuum

Distributors agree that one area of carpet care where custodial departments can't afford to cut back is vacuuming.

"The first line of defense for longevity of your carpet, and to maintain a clean carpet is a good vacuuming program," says Jefferson. "That's one area where you don't want to reduce frequencies."

Frequent vacuuming can prolong the time between more expensive extractions, says Schneringer.

As a rule of thumb, heavy traffic areas should be vacuumed at least once a day, Jefferson adds, while other areas can be vacuumed every other day.

As important as it is to maintain a consistent vacuuming program, departments must also outfit custodians with the right equipment.

"As a distributor, it is our responsibility to ensure that the tools we are providing departments are as effective and efficient as possible," says Downey.

A vacuum cleaner with good lift and HEPA filtration is essential in carpet care so that cleaners don't reintroduce or transfer dust to another area, says Jefferson. And a good interior and exterior matting program can also help to prevent the spread of debris.

"Custodial departments that have made these changes have reduced their overall costs in terms of carpet care for extractions and hard surface care," says Jefferson. "When you stop debris at the door, you're not diminishing the integrity of the flooring beyond the door."

Spot-on Spotting Improves Carpet Care

In addition to vacuuming, a good spotting program can help custodial departments cut carpet care costs by prolonging intervals between restorative cleanings.

The first rule of a good spotting program is to tend to the area as quickly as possible, says Jefferson.

"If a spot develops on the carpet, get it out immediately, versus letting it get embedded into the fibers and become a massive spot," she says.

When it comes to implementing a successful spotting program, Downey says keep it simple: apply a general-purpose spotter and then use a tamping brush, terry cloth or microfiber towel. Downey is also starting to see the use of encapsulation-based spotting programs.

Schneringer warns customers against "going nuclear" on spots: "Sometimes people pump a bunch of chemicals in there to make the spot go away," he says. "You want to make sure you're getting out as much of the cleaning chemicals as possible, otherwise the spot ends up coming back."

In addition to rinsing the spot thoroughly, cleaners must take care not to overwet the area.

"If you use too much chemical and too much water, it sits in the backing of the carpet, and over time it wicks up in the same spot," says Schneringer.

Targeted Cleaning

By focusing on high-traffic areas and points of entry, custodial departments can prevent the spread of soils to other carpeted areas, thereby reducing carpet care cleaning frequencies.

"You need to look at the soil that's coming into the building from different sources, and then focus on areas adjacent to that," says Downey. "The most obvious example is building entrances. In addition to that, focus on areas immediately adjacent to hard surfaces because they don't hold soil like carpet does."

For example, if a facility has VCT tile running into a carpeted area, Downey recommends paying close attention to the first five to 10 feet of carpeting to remove the bulk of the soil.

Foodservice areas are other places in the building that should receive close attention in terms of carpet care.

"Even if the foodservice area is tile, the carpet around that area will take the brunt of the soil load," says Downey. "Find the areas that are only 10 to 20 percent of the total carpeted space and focus on cleaning those."

And to ensure that carpeting doesn't wear out before its time, distributors agree that cleaners should not wait for the dirt to show before they start cleaning.

"Carpet does a great job of hiding soil, so in your high-use areas you don't want to wait until it looks dirty to start cleaning it," says Downey. "If you wait, you probably already have damage by the time you begin the process of cleaning."

Despite the most effective carpet care programs, carpeting will wear out sooner or later and will need to be replaced. When this happens, building owners should choose the appropriate grade for the amount of foot traffic and soil that carpet will receive.

"I would recommend getting good quality carpeting that can withstand the traffic load," says Schneringer. "As with most things in life, you get what you pay for."  

Kassandra Kania is a freelancer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Housekeeping Solutions.