Looking at how green cleaning established itself in the jan/san industry, it's easy to see that much of its evolution began with chemicals. The goal was to encourage chemical manufacturers to develop products that are both effective and compiled from ingredients that have a reduced impact on the environment. Facility managers now also want the ingredients to be more sustainable, which generally means being derived from renewable resources instead of being petroleum based.

Once manufacturing caught up with these end user demands, green cleaning soon expanded beyond chemicals to include equipment and cleaning processes. Vacuum cleaners with advanced air filtration systems, chemical-free cleaning systems, low-moisture floor machines, certain restroom cleaning equipment, and even chemical-dilution systems have all become key components of departmental green cleaning strategies.

Another part of the green cleaning evolution specifically targeted carpet cleaning, which became greener and healthier with the aid of new technologies and cleaning and maintenance strategies. One such strategy is to base carpet cleaning more on need than on specific cleaning frequency.

For example, even though many building managers want carpeting in executive offices cleaned every month, these areas are not heavily soiled. Not only is monthly cleaning unnecessary, it is also costly and can have adverse implications on the environment. These areas would benefit from a deep cleaning only two to three times a year.

Looking at frequency is just one way facility managers are greening their carpet care.

Steps Toward Greening Carpet Cleaning

In-house cleaning professionals are greening their carpet cleaning in a number of ways. Among them are:

Choose the right chemicals. Some conventional carpet cleaning chemicals have the potential to release significant amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air. Once airborne, many VOCs can be harmful to human health and the environment. Selecting chemicals that are green certified ensures that they are not only made with safer and more sustainable ingredients, but that they release far fewer — if any — VOCs into the atmosphere.

Properly apply chemicals. At one time, most cleaning professionals mixed chemical and water right in their extractors' tanks. This technique has now been rejected by most technicians in favor of prespraying carpeting with chemical. Usually, far less chemical is used via this method, and technicians can apply more chemical where it is most needed, such as in heavily trafficked or soiled areas. (Click here to learn how carpet soil greens carpet care.)

Consider interim cleaning methods. View the use of carpet extractors as a restorative carpet cleaning method only. While it is true that using extractors is typically the most effective way to clean carpets, the amount of soiling present does not always necessitate the use of such a heavy-duty technique. Instead, interim methods can be effective when soiling is not extensive.
 For instance, interim methods such as encapsulation, shampooing, and bonnet cleaning typically use less chemical and water, making them more sustainable and environmentally friendly. They also allow carpets to dry relatively quickly, helping to prevent the growth of mold and mildew.

Use cold water. Many of the newer green cleaning chemicals allow carpets to be cleaned effectively using cold water. Because hot-water extractors consume large amounts of energy, choosing cold-water cleaning techniques whenever possible will minimize energy consumption and reduce carpet cleaning's impact on the environment. Using hot-water cleaning methods also means heating cleaning chemicals, and that increases the risk of releasing potentially harmful fumes into the air.

Reduce drying times. As previously referenced, the faster carpets dry, the less likely it is that mold, mildew, or potentially harmful microorganisms will develop. One of the most effective ways to speed up drying times is to place air movers strategically around carpets that have been recently extracted. Air movers should always be located so that they blow over carpets rather than directly onto them. (Click here to learn more about drying times.)

The Green Equipment Factor

When it comes to restorative carpet cleaning, choosing the right type of extractor is critical to keeping a cleaning project green. Fortunately, new technologies make carpet cleaning more environmentally friendly. But there are also relatively simple things that cleaning professionals can do to make carpet cleaning greener.

For instance, extractors must be properly maintained. This keeps machines up and running longer and ensures that machines work more effectively, and use chemical, water and energy more efficiently.

In addition, older or outdated machines should be replaced. Extractors that are more than 5-to-7 years old are unlikely to work as effectively as newer machines, and probably use more energy and water. These machines should be replaced with extractors that have earned the Seal of Approval from the Carpet and Rug Institute. This ensures that the machine has been independently tested to measure soil and moisture removal, and to ensure that the carpet's appearance is maintained.

When selecting a new carpet extractor, some of the technology to consider includes:
Recycling extractors: These systems recycle water and chemical several times before refilling is needed. This has the potential to considerably reduce water and chemical consumption.

Low-flow systems: Some older extractors use as much as two gallons of water per minute. Low-flow or low-moisture systems, on the other hand, use less than a gallon. Further, to be recognized as a low-moisture extractor by the Low Moisture Carpet Cleaning Association, carpets cleaned with these machines must be proved to dry within two hours or less, at 65 percent relative humidity and at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Upright design: Many portable extractors have a box-style design. However, some newer systems now offer an upright dolly design instead. This innovation was originally intended to improve extractor maneuverability, but it also helps to eliminate hose constrictions within the machine, which can hamper airflow and moisture recovery.

Quieter equipment: Extractors can be noisy machines, but manufacturers are developing quieter options. Using a portable system can reduce noise and help minimize worker stress and fatigue.

Additionally, new technologies have made wands far more effective at moisture removal than systems available years ago. The newer options are easier for cleaning professionals to use and reduce the stress and strain often associated with carpet cleaning.

Making carpet cleaning greener, more sustainable and more environmentally friendly goes far beyond choosing green cleaning chemicals. In fact, truly greening carpet cleaning will require a group effort involving chemical and equipment manufacturers, as well as end users. But regardless of who gets involved, the goal is the same: quality carpet care that protects the environment and the health of building occupants.  

STEPHEN ASHKIN is president of The Ashkin Group and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC. He is also coauthor of both "The Business of Green Cleaning" and "Green Cleaning for Dummies."