Maintaining good indoor air quality (IAQ) is a significant issue in buildings across the United States. Though flooring, ceilings and walls are the three major surfaces that most affect IAQ, flooring is the most crucial.

Many people spend much of their day in a carpeted workplace. In fact, according to Facility Planning and Management, a publication put out by Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., more than one billion square yards of carpet are sold annually in the United States, much of which winds up in the offices, schools and facilities that distributors service.

“One of the five main causes of air quality problems is inadequate cleaning,” says Dr. Michael Berry, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The other four include poor ventilation, pollutants from inside sources, pollutants from outside sources and contamination due to inadequate moisture control.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that in the United States about 30 percent of non-industrial buildings — 1.4 million buildings — have indoor air quality problems.

Reactions to indoor air contaminants most frequently include illness or eye, nose, throat or skin irritation; allergic reactions such as sinus and respiratory congestion; difficulty breathing; hives or rashes; and respiratory infections. Children and the elderly are especially susceptible.

Correct vacuuming and cleaning methods can properly extract trapped contaminants from carpets and greatly improve indoor air quality.

The Role of Carpet
Researchers have discovered that dust and particles do not remain airborne for long — they quickly fall to a horizontal surface. When airborne particles settle on hard or smooth floors, they are more easily disturbed and allergens can be redistributed throughout the air over and over.

Carpets, however, act as dirttraps until someone vacuums over it. Carpets also require fewer chemicals to clean than other flooring coverings, which helps reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in the air. VOCs are an outdoor pollutant emitted from cleaning agents that can accumulate indoors without proper ventilation.

When scientifically tested, the air above carpet contains fewer allergens and dust mites than the air above hard surfaces, says Kathryn O. Sellers, director of public relations for the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), Dalton, Ga. She feels carpet is an asset rather than a detriment to air quality because it tends to hold allergens out of the air until they are vacuumed away. But, here’s the catch: the carpet must be vacuumed and cleaned often enough.

Truly Clean
Because approximately 90 percent of our time is spent indoors, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the best strategy for improving IAQ is to control pollutants at their source with proper maintenance, including vacuuming on a weekly or daily basis, spot removal on a daily basis and periodic extraction.

The use of a detergent helps loosen dirt allergens that cling to carpet fibers, and extraction flushes the dirt out, says Ed Crawford, president of Core Products Co., Inc., Canton, Texas.

“Vacuuming helps maintain carpet appearance, but the only way to ensure good IAQ is through extraction,” he says.

As with any cleaning method, ensure that all moisture and cleaning agents are removed with each cleaning. This means opening windows and running fans for proper ventilation and moisture removal.

Carpets should not be the only concern. “Keeping humidity levels below 51 percent not only helps the environment, but reduces the chances of dust mites thriving,” says Ken McIntosh, director of technical services for CRI.

“Keeping everything as clean as possible to remove as much dust and dirt as possible is the key,” he says. Most consumers overlook the value of cleaning and vacuuming on a routine basis before dirt is visible, notes McIntosh.

Check Dirt at the Door
Cleaners should focus their energy on areas in buildings that get the most use: entrances, hallways, walkways between desks, stairways or elevators, eating areas/water coolers. Walk-off mats by entryways and regular cleaning of surrounding surfaces is most effective at preventing dirt from entering the building, according to the EPA.

An excellent carpet-cleaning program includes, first and foremost, entryway mats, says Stephen Ashkin, director of product development and environmental affairs, Seventh Generation, Burlington, Vt. This keeps the dirt out of the building to begin with.

Entrance mats are most effective when they cover an area about two to five footsteps from the entrance, says Sellers.

Vacuuming for Health
Vacuuming with the correct machine is crucial to the removal of indoor contaminants. EPA recommends a vacuum with strong suction and a highly efficient air filter bag. Distributors should make customers aware of the different quality of certain vacuums and recommend a selection of reliable cleaners. Otherwise, vacuuming carpet may actually dispense dust particles if the filtration system is not adequate, according to the CRI.

The CRI has developed the Indoor Air Quality Vacuum Testing Program, an easy way to ensure that a vacuum cleaner performs to the industry’s standards. The program identifies vacuums that have been evaluated by an independent testing laboratory and meet standards for amount of soil removal, for the amount of dust filtered through the bag and whether the vacuum damages the carpet. Certified vacuums are given a green label.

“Green-labeled” vacuums also receive the stamp of approval from experts like Berry. He advocates the use of such vacuums because they have been tested and evaluated for pulling dirt out of the building, and out of the air.

Although Core Products does not sell vacuums, Crawford says that at their seminars the first thing they recommend is a good vacuum with a hypo-filtering system.

Not only will these procedures help maintain carpet appearance, it will maximize the removal of contaminants.

Don’t Believe Your Eyes
With hard floors, the presence of dirt is obvious, but carpet can hide pollutants from view. A common problem occurs when, because occupants don’t see the dirt, cleaners don’t vacuum it or they only vacuum high-traffic areas.

Distributors can help by explaining to customers the importance of a diligent cleaning regimen. They can help them design a personal cleaning calendar, then sell them products and equipment that allow them to maintain that schedule.

“Carpeting hides particle matter,” says Ashkin. And as people walk over a dirty carpet, they are lifting the dirt into the air, which is then inhaled by the buildings’ occupants.

“The carpet looks clean, so people don’t clean it,” he says. “Unfortunately, dust and dirt don’t just land in high traffic areas, so we need to be thorough about cleaning.”

McIntosh agrees. “A lot of dirt allergens come into the house and settle. The more we keep out, the better; it’s very important to keep the building clean,” he says, “and vacuum even though we don’t see dirt.”

“People don’t understand the need to thoroughly clean a carpet many times a year,” explains Crawford. One set program does not fit all buildings. A thorough cleaning may be required twice a month or twice a year, it all depends on the occupants, he says.

Many end users are aware of dirt build-up and its effect on indoor air, but aren’t exactly sure how to solve the problem. A savvy salesperson will use this to his advantage to sell products, but more importantly to educate the customer on the products and methods.

The problem end users have is that they measure cleanliness visually, Ashkin says, and what we can’t see can harm us.

Maintaining IAQ
Proper training is vitally important for improving and maintaining good IAQ in any building.

“Distributors know the importance of good IAQ,” says Berry. “Or at least that’s the direction they are headed in.”

Distributors, manufacturers and end users are becoming more educated. All of the distributors SM interviewed say they wouldn’t let a customer leave their store without offering to train them. However, customers are also proactive in educating themselves by reading, attending seminars or by taking the initiative to ask questions.

“We think in terms of educating our customers on the merits of good maintenance of their carpeting,” says Steve Weisberg, president of Crest Wholesale Carpet Distributors, Allentown, Pa.

Crest Wholesale stresses cleaning awareness to its customers by explaining specific procedures and recommending particular products for keeping carpeting clean.

Too many people do not clean their carpet at all and that causes the industry as a whole to look bad, he adds.

“I see tremendous insight on the part of modern consumers as a result of the educational process,” Berry says. “This is reflected in market surveys, in the redesign of products, and at ISSA conventions that are reformatted with the environment in mind,” says Berry.

The jan/san industry is reacting to more knowledgeable consumers by adapting to what they want in products and services.

“Manufacturers need to educate the distributors, then the retailer can educate the buyers,” Crawford says.

Crest Wholesale tries to use easy terms to explain the importance of carpet care to its customers. “Consider that normally, 80 percent of the traffic on carpet goes on just 20 percent of the area in use, “ he says. “If [carpet care is neglected], the entire carpet will look shoddy in short order.”

Chemical Warfare
Chemicals are a vital part of an effective carpet-cleaning regimen. Distributors need to teach end users to focus their attention on how the chemical dissolves and breaks pollutants down so dirt can be extracted, he says. Chemicals also act as a sanitizer against bio-pollutants that live in the carpet fibers. They fight against mold growth and mites. However, not all cleaning products are equally safe for the environment.

All cleaning products emit some level of VOCs, but with some it’s much less. Thus selecting environmentally friendly products is essential to improving IAQ. Products with a strong fragrance that leave chemicals in the air should be replaced with water-based alternatives, says Ashkin.

Most products in the marketplace are safe and don’t leave much of a residue, says Crawford.

Crest Wholesale thoroughly explains to its customers the importance of using dependable products that they can count on to clean their carpets. They recommend using a dry cleaning product. “This process is easy and leaves no harmful residues,” says Weisberg.

“Shampooing is wonderful. However, when it dries it can leave a residue that is going to result in poor IAQ,” says Crawford. He suggests that shampooing should always be followed with an extraction process to get the chemicals out of the carpet and out of the air.

The good thing is that carpets require less harmful chemicals to keep them clean. Unlike hard flooring, carpets don’t need strippers and finishes that can emit VOCs for several weeks.

Paying close attention to proper ventilation when working with cleaning agents can help improve IAQ. The rule is as follows: open as many windows as possible, run ceiling and stationary fans, and keep HVAC systems on.

This will keep the moisture level down, and eliminate the potential for mold and spore growth and also allow for chemical VOCs to escape.

Carpet continues to become a more popular floor-surface covering. In turn, the awareness of how to keep it clean also grows.

Carpet can look clean when it’s actually housing millions of fungal spore and dust mites. Carpets should be cleaned, even if it already looks clean with the right vacuum and chemicals. Cleaning is necessary to maintain or improve indoor air quality, as long as it is done properly and done often.