A good carpet-cleaning program largely depends on the quality and performance of equipment. Specifying the best equipment for your operation helps keep buildings cleaner, promotes healthy environments and makes cleaning easier. High-ticket items like carpet extractors, vacuums and other equipment also account for a significant chunk of the cleaning operation’s budget. For these reasons, equipment decision-making should not be taken lightly.

Consider equipment’s role in the carpet-care program
Before purchasing equipment, consider the role the machine will have in your carpet-care program. Your plan should include the organization’s cleaning standards and frequencies.

“Probably the most crucial component is identifying expectations and cleaning standards,” says Joseph Abballe, general manager, Mainline Services & Consulting, Toronto, Canada. “Then frequencies can be forecasted through a work-order system. And each of those frequencies will have a piece of equipment attached to them.”

First, consider pile lifting. A pile lifter is like an extractor but is designed for picking up dry dirt. Pile lifting is necessary once a week or once every other week on pile carpet.

“Custodians don’t like to use [pile lifters] because they are labor-intensive and slow,” Abballe says. “But they are probably the core of carpet care.”

For deep cleaning carpet, carpet extraction should be scheduled once a month for most buildings. Deep cleaning carpet is one routine job that might not be best suited to in-house staff, says Jeff Bishop, technical advisor, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration (IICRC). He recommends organizations hire a certified professional carpet cleaner or have employees complete certification in carpet extraction. The IICRC offers certification for commercial carpet maintenance technicians and also links to certified technicians in most states.

Vacuums: No. 1 in tools
Vacuuming equipment is the most important tool in the carpet-cleaning arsenal, so spend some time investigating before making a purchase. It is probably wise to have three types of vacuums — a backpack, an industrial version of the domestic upright, and a wide-area upright.

The backpack vacuum works best for quick, light cleaning and is good for picking up large, visible debris. The small upright is good for cleaning in small, tight areas. Most machines include hose and wand attachments for hard-to-reach areas. Use wide-area equipment for large, open areas. Look for a machine equipped with adjustable cylindrical brushes to pull embedded soil to the surface.

Many machines now come with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate) filter that has a particle removal efficiency of at least 99.97 percent for 0.3-micron particles. Investing in such a vacuum cleaner cannot hurt; however, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) does not believe HEPA filters are essential outside the industrial setting.

“We generally see that true HEPA filters, designed to collect extremely small particles in the sub-0.3 micron size range, are basically unnecessary for vacuum cleaners,” says Carroll Turner, technical services manager for the CRI in Dalton, Ga.

“Common allergen particles that make contact with nasal mucus membranes and trigger allergic reactions are significantly larger in micron size. All the common allergen — fungi, dust mites, pollen, animal dander and atmospheric dusts — can be effectively removed and collected in large percentages by machines that pass the CRI Green Label test.” (See the sidebar)

The bells and whistles
Equipment specifiers should start with recognizable and trustworthy brand names. “Certain companies survive because of the quality of product they produce,” says Bishop. “It’s a good beginning place.”

But don’t be swayed by the notion that a higher price tag necessarily means high quality.

“Most carpet-cleaning equipment has a pump and a vacuum that are made by maybe five companies throughout North America,” says Abballe. “And those are the two crucial components.”

Look beyond price and focus instead on such issues as portability (Can one person lift the equipment up stairs?); and ease of dumping (If dirty water accumulates in the machine, can you put a 5-gallon pail below the spouts?). Other questions to consider: Does the manufacturer offer a good warranty? Does the manufacturer or salesperson offer training and materials? Are parts and service readily available?

In addition to asking questions, think twice before shelling out extra money for fancy bells and whistles. Some added options, such as an ergonomic design or better filtration, are beneficial without requiring extra training and may be wise investments. Be careful with add-ons that involve skill, like an external measuring device for chemicals, which could potentially cause more harm than good if workers use it incorrectly.

Get recommendations for vacuums, pile lifters, extractors, or other machines from industry organizations, trade associations, Web forums, and from your peers.

“Don’t buy something just because the salesman took you out to lunch and paid for the tab,” says Bishop. “Buy a machine after you’ve taken it back and tested it out and are sure it will fit your needs.”

CRI’s Green Label: A pass/fail test for vacuums

Once the selection process has narrowed to just a few carpet-cleaning machines, check the final candidates for the Carpet and Rug Institute’s (CRI) Green Label. For several years, CRI has had a voluntary testing program for vacuums to identify those that do a good job of removing soil, containing dust, and retaining carpet appearance. Strict protocols are observed in each area of testing.

For soil removal, a vacuum cleaner must be able to remove 36 percent of the sandy soil being tested within four passes — moving at a computer-controlled rate of 1.8 feet per second — from a 400-square-foot strip of carpet.

To pass the dust containment test, the vacuum cleaner cannot release more than 100 micrograms of fine road-dust particles per cubic meter of air over a 10-minute period — well below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Area particulate counts are taken before and after testing.

Carpet appearance is evaluated after 200 passes of the vacuum cleaner over a sample area. Testers compare before-and-after photos to evaluate change in texture, color and overall appearance.

“I recommend highly that people look for the CRI Green Label on any vacuum that is selected,” says Jeff Bishop, technical advisor, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification. “If the vacuum cleaner passes CRI testing, it gets the Green Label. If not, they send the data results to the manufacturers and tell them they need to do some work. The program started about three years ago and we have better vacuum equipment today than we ever have had in the past.”

Vacuum cleaners are tested on an individual pass/fail basis; they are not tested against one another or rated. For a list of Green Label vacuum cleaners, visit the CRI Web site.

— Becky Mollenkamp

Maintain to Sustain

For the best vacuum-equipment cleaning results, the Carpet and Rug Institute recommends inspecting the vacuum cleaner periodically to be sure it is functioning properly:

  • Keep brushes clean and replace them when worn.

  • Keep vacuum hoses and attachments free of obstructions that restrict airflow.

  • Inspect belts frequently to be sure they are working properly.

  • Always keep a spare belt for replacement, as needed.

  • Change the vacuum bag when it is more than half-full. As the bag becomes full, soil-removal efficiency is reduced.

  • Use original equipment manufacturer replacement bags or bag types recommended by the vacuum cleaner manufacturer.

While the cleaning department should regularly inspect its equipment, don’t expect the crew to do repair work. “Just like most people don’t know how to fix their own cars, the custodian doesn’t know how the equipment works or needs to be fixed,” says Joseph Abballe, general manager, Mainline Services & Consulting, Toronto, Canada. “A good carpet-care plan should have a built-in maintenance program with a budget and timeline for preventative, daily and periodic equipment care.”

— Becky Mollenkamp

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Housekeeping Solutions.