The most popular way to clean a carpet is to douse it with water and then extract the fluids back out with a machine. While hot-water extraction is effective, it has drawbacks, most notably a protracted drying time of as long as 48 hours. In today’s hurried, 24/7 world, shutting down a floor for that long isn’t desirable. That may explain why a growing number of cleaners favor low-moisture carpet care.

The process is so popular that it now accounts for 85 percent of carpet care equipment sales at Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply Co., in Memphis, Tenn.

“It is the wave of the future for carpet care,” says Ralph O. Johnson II, sales executive for Memphis Chemical.

What “it” is, however, isn’t entirely clear. There is no singular definition of low-moisture carpet care, but the Low-Moisture Carpet Care Association defines it as “procedures that allow any fibers to dry to their natural state in two hours or less.”

“Asking, ‘What is low-moisture carpet cleaning,’ is like asking, ‘What is green cleaning,’” says Ken Waddell, sales representative at Sikes Paper Company in Atlanta. “The definitions have become broad and blurred. Low-moisture cleaning can include everything from bonnet cleaning to encapsulates to absorbents.”

Big Benefits

One thing is clear about low-moisture carpet care — it offers many benefits not afforded by other methods. The most compelling argument is that carpet can be walked on in 15 minutes to two hours after cleaning. That means a carpet can be cleaned in the evening and be ready for foot traffic in the morning. It can even be cleaned in sections during the day, perfect for the trend towards daycleaning.

“One thing that a lot of companies are looking for now are to get in and out,” Johnson says. “When you talk about low moisture, you minimize the downtime.”

Used in conjunction with daily vacuuming, spot treating and regular hot-water extraction, low-moisture cleaning can also extend the life of the carpet. Less water means no over-saturation, which reduces the risk of re-soiling, wicking, mold and ruined backings. And because low-moisture systems are typically more portable than extractors, users are more likely to remove spots and spills before they become problems.

“Carpets last longer and stay cleaner longer,” says Ron O’Brien, sales representative for Eagle Maintenance Supply Inc., in Pennsauken, N.J.

Low-moisture machines are also environmentally preferable because they improve indoor air quality by using about one-tenth of the chemicals of conventional deep extraction. There are also labor savings. According to ISSA standards, low-moisture cleaning covers about 12,000 square feet per hour while deep extraction covers only 4,000 to 5,000 square feet per hour.

How It Works

There are several methods of low-moisture carpet care. Perhaps the driest is absorbent powder, which involves sprinkling an absorbent compound (containing solvent, detergent and a small amount of water) over the carpet and then agitating it with a brush. The cleaner attaches to soil particles, which later are removed by vacuuming. This method can be problematic if the powder reappears after extraction. Two possible causes could be that users are applying too much compound to the carpet or that the vacuum is performing inadequately.

A more common method is bonnet cleaning, which uses a pad attached to a low-speed machine to scrub the carpet. The pad is immersed in liquid before being put on the machine so the carpet is not doused with water. Some pads may be too absorbent, so users may be better advised to spray the pad with water instead of immersing it. If the pad is too saturated, the carpet still could get wet, especially during the beginning of the process.

Many people favor bonnet cleaning because it is relatively easy and inexpensive — most facilities already have the necessary equipment and many janitors have already been trained on the technique, which has been around for decades. Detractors, including many carpet manufacturers, say bonnet cleaning is only a surface treatment that can leave soil in the carpet. Also, it can flatten or harm carpet fibers.

“It grinds the surface dirt into the carpet,” O’Brien says. “If people don’t know how to use it right, they will re-soil the carpets.”

One of the newest methods of low-moisture carpet cleaning is encapsulation. Users spray a crystallizing polymer onto the carpet and then agitate it using a mechanical brush. As the solution dries, it forms crystals around the dirt that are removable by vacuuming at a later time. The downside to encapsulation is it requires an investment in new equipment and chemicals.

Another new low-moisture system sprays water onto a machine’s rollers — instead of the carpet — which clean the carpet without saturating it.

Low-moisture machines are typically available in a variety of styles, including pull-along, walk-behind, stand-on and ride-on, and come in coverage widths of 12 to 36 inches. Units are available in electric or battery-powered versions.

Where To Use It

Whatever method is used, low-moisture cleaning is proving its value to large segments of the marketplace, particularly clients with 24/7 operations, such as hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, and some university and office settings. Quick dry time and fewer chemicals mean the carpets can look and smell clean with minimal disruption to occupants.

Low-moisture systems are also ideal for small facilities where they can be used for maintenance cleaning of typical soiling conditions. These customers like that the systems are more portable and easier to use than extraction machines.

However, there are a few settings where a low-moisture system isn’t appropriate, including industrial settings with so much grease that extraction is required every time the carpets are cleaned.

“Low-moisture systems can be more difficult to use successfully in areas such as manufacturing and warehouse spaces where heavy amounts of greasy soil and spills are present,” Waddell says.

One Piece Of The Puzzle

Although they suit most customers’ needs, low-moisture systems are not without faults. First, end users need training to use the equipment correctly, especially if they are accustomed to using wet systems. As a result, labor costs can initially be higher.

A common problem is a “more-is-more” philosophy. Some users decide because it is low moisture, they can use more. But making too many passes can result in over-wetting the carpet. Dry systems won’t result in over-wetting the carpet, but too much powder could cause it to reappear. Chemical costs for low-moisture systems can be higher than other methods, particularly when they are misused.

“If presented correctly to the customer, however, increased chemical costs can be easily offset with the benefits that low-moisture systems offer,” Waddell says.

When selling low-moisture systems, distributors should inform customers that hot-water deep extraction still has its place. While low-moisture cleaning is ideal for routine carpet maintenance, it does not eliminate the need for periodic extraction.

Done correctly, however, regular low-moisture cleaning should reduce how often extraction is needed. If low moisture is started from day one of the carpet’s lifecycle, and used as often as daily on heavy-traffic areas, restoration cleaning can be reduced to as little as once a year.

“You’re still leaving some dirt behind,” O’Brien says. “You’ll never get all the dirt up with low moisture, but when used as a preventative maintenance program on carpets, you can make them last a lot longer and extract less often.”

Selling anything new can be a challenge. When Memphis Chemical started selling low-moisture systems a few years ago, customers were skeptical. They doubted carpets could be cleaned without lots of water and they were scared to invest in unproven machinery.

“Once I bring it in and show them side-by-side with the bonnet and they see how much I bring out of the carpet, they are sold,” Johnson says. “When you start showing people how they can save money, the response is amazing.”

Now, Memphis Chemical uses its low-moisture systems as a selling tool and helps customers see that they can tout the new technology when bidding for work. In fact, low-moisture helped the distributor finally get its foot in the door of a big casino, which bought and loves the system.

“It helped us break in,” Johnson says. “This is how I’m trying to get into the door with all my prospects. I’ve had unbelievable response. I think low-moisture cleaning is something this industry will wake up to soon and really recognize the benefits.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.