When customers call on Amalia Coelho requesting information about purchasing or using carpet extractors, they are seeking knowledgeable, friendly service tailored to their unique cleaning needs. And Coelho, president of Janitor’s Warehouse Inc., an Orange, California-based sanitary supply company, does her best to respond to their inquiries.

“I try to provide good customer service and answer their questions,” she says. “But mainly I listen to them, because they are the ones in the field actually doing the cleaning.”

Customers depend on distributors to help them choose the carpet extractor that fits their needs. However, beyond the initial purchase, it is also important to help customers learn the correct cleaning techniques. They need to use the machines properly and perform the preventive maintenance required to keep their machines operating over the long term.

How to Choose
Helping customers pick the kind of carpet extractor that fits their needs is the first task. This requires that customers first choose between two cleaning methods — wet extraction or dry extraction. The traditional method of wet carpet extraction involves spraying a cleaning chemical mixed to the proper dilution (or just clean water) from a built-in tank in a straight-across spray pattern on the carpet. The machine’s brush scrubs the carpet and agitates the dirt, and a vacuum motor sucks the water back up into a second, separate tank.

Dry extraction machines do not spray any water onto the carpet at all. Instead, the machines typically employ two round, pile-lifting brushes that deep-clean by agitating the dirt directly, while a heavy-duty vacuum system removes the dirt. For heavily soiled areas, sponges soaked in special cleaning solvent are placed on the carpet. The solvent breaks the soil loose from the carpet fibers, and the sponge soaks it up. Then the machine is used to vacuum the remaining dirt from the carpet.

Although dry extraction requires more labor time, Jim Balthrop, president of PR Cleaning Supply, a sanitary supply company based in Pensacola, Fla., prefers it to wet carpet extraction. “I prefer cleaning my carpets with dry extraction rather than wet, because I don’t like putting a lot of water down on the carpet,” he says.

Wet carpet extractors typically range in price from $1,500 to $7,000 for the largest machines. Dry carpet extractors are usually more expensive — they can cost about $1,000 more than a wet carpet extractor of the same size.

Type Size
If customers decide on wet carpet extraction, they must also choose a machine that fits the area to be cleaned. “The size of the machine is determined by the size of the area you have to clean,” Coelho says.

A small, compact machine, called a box unit, features a wand attached to the machine by hoses. Box units are very portable, and their compact size allows them to navigate easily around obstructions and clean in small spaces like hotel rooms, hallways, or stairwells.

A walk-behind machine is generally bigger, with a larger motor and increased width (up to 30 inches wide). The increased width allows for faster cleaning of large, wide-open spaces, like banquet halls or meeting rooms. The term “walk-behind” is actually somewhat misleading because most of these machines require the user to pull it along from behind rather than push it, whereas a true “walk-behind” requires the user to walk on the wet carpet that has just been cleaned.

Finally, a truck-mounted extractor employs a powerful motor, with hoses that can reach up to several hundred feet. Truck-mounted units are typically purchased by contract cleaning companies for cleaning large facilities and office buildings.

Mobility is always a consideration for those buying an extractor. Box units and walk-behinds can either be battery-operated or plug-in units. Battery-operated machines allow greater cleaning efficiency and mobility because they do not require the operator to maneuver with a power cord. Some machines come with specialized attachments, such as spray guns, hoses, or wands that can be used for cleaning stairwells, furniture, and upholstery. If the machine is required to clean stairwells and landings, it must be navigated up the stairs. Some machines have big rear wheels which make it easier to pull the machine up steps.

Finally, the type of carpet to be cleaned must be considered. A carpet with a high pile absorbs more water, and an extractor with a stronger motor may be required to vacuum up the additional water. In addition, some units come with a brush that can be adjusted higher or lower based on the carpet’s height.

First Things First
After customers have purchased a carpet extractor, they must now learn to use it properly with a cleaning solution that has been correctly mixed and diluted to the manufacturer’s specifications. The first thing Glen Martin, president of Glen Martin Limited, a sanitary supply company in Barrie, Ontario, tells his customers to do is read the instructions. This simple step is often overlooked — but it is very important.

“I always tell people the first thing they need to do is sit down with a cup of coffee and read the label on the cleaning product,” Martin says. “If you don’t mix it properly, you can cause two problems for yourself: you either won’t use enough, and you won’t have enough cleaning effectiveness, or you’ll use too much, and you’ll have too much soap.”

Balthrop agrees. “Not mixing the chemical properly is one of the most common problems with extraction,” he says. “The chemical manufacturer will design the chemical to mix with water at a certain rate, although the instructions may vary somewhat based on light, medium, or heavy soil. If people see a 1:4 ratio of chemical to water, they assume a 1:1 ratio will be better. But the chemical does not mix properly at that rate, and some chemical will be left at the bottom of your cleaning tank.”

Coelho recommends that her customers use hard water instead of soft water for carpet extraction. “Sometimes if you use hard water, it will work better,” she says. “It seems to remove dirt a bit better, and the carpet dries faster.”

Most experts advise using hot water for extraction. “Hot water is definitely a benefit because it cleans better, just like when you wash your clothes,” Balthrop says. “But follow the temperature guidelines recommended by the carpet manufacturer, because you could invalidate the warranty that comes with new carpeting if you don’t follow its temperature specifications.”

Although some extractors come with built-in heaters to keep the water temperature as hot as possible, Sue Jones, owner and operator of Shelbyville, Indiana-based Phoenix Janitorial Maintenance and Supply Co., recommends caution. Often, warm water works as well as water heated by an on-board heater, she says. “I’m fearful when customers use extremely hot water, because hot water could accidentally burn an employee, or it could bleed the carpet’s dye.” For this reason, have customers test a small, out-of-the-way section of the carpet for color fastness before beginning extraction, advises Martin.

Because carpet cleaning chemicals are extremely alkaline, if they are not rinsed properly a residue remains that will quickly attract dirt, making the carpet look dull. “The most common mistake made is oversudsing,” Jones says. “When the carpet looks stiff and abrasive, it often has a residue left in it from the cleaning chemical.”

“A common remedy for carpet residue is to extract with just plain water to get as much soap out of the carpet as you can,” Balthrop suggests. “If you make several passes over the carpet, you might see foam in the tank from the water you’ve extracted, which means your carpet had residue in it. You need to extract with clean water until you don’t get any more foam.”

“Our philosophy is to leave the least amount of residue in the carpet as we can,” says Brad Schreiner, president of Facility Supply Systems Inc., a sanitary supply company based in Chicago. He recommends using a technique called prespraying, which involves spraying a chemical onto traffic lanes and extracting with plain water. “By using clean water we’re rinsing the carpet and removing any residue that has been left behind by the cleaner.”

Other chemical innovations have been developed to prevent residue problems. The residue left behind by one type of chemical dries to a crystal form that is easily picked up by a vacuum. Other shampoos have been developed that do not require rinsing when a neutralizing chemical is applied after their use.

Because no machine will vacuum up 100 percent of what is sprayed down, the carpet remains wet after traditional carpet extraction and may remain damp for several hours afterward. This additional moisture can promote bacteria growth in the carpet. Special carpet sanitizers have been developed to reduce that growth.

The carpet must also be fully dry before use, so facilities typically close off the area until it’s dry. Large fans are often employed to blow cold air across the carpet to shorten drying time.

Carpet Maintenance
Carpet extraction is only one of several necessary components of effective carpet cleaning, and Jones makes sure her customers don’t neglect the others. “Carpet extraction is important, but maintaining the carpet — vacuuming often, spotting immediately, performing plain water extraction once a month, and doing carpet extraction quarterly or so — can extend the life of the carpet,” she says.

Schreiner agrees. “Extraction is one key piece in a whole program of keeping carpets looking nice. It all starts with proper vacuuming and daily carpet spotting. We also promote the use of good quality matting, which prevent the carpets from becoming soiled so quickly,” he says.

Preventive maintenance is essential in order to keep carpet extractors performing well, and Martin recommends several routine tasks that should not be neglected. “The carpet extractor will last many years as long as you keep the spray jets clean and the machine in good repair,” he explains. “It is also important to make sure that the tanks are rinsed out after each use — if they aren’t, a bad odor will form.”

If the carpet extractor leaves streaks on the carpet, the machine’s spray jets may be clogged. The jets usually unscrew from the machine, and can be cleaned by soaking them in a vinegar-water solution.

Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a freelance business writer who resides in Glenview, Ill.
E-mail questions or comments about this article.

Additional Resources:
Audition for the Role of Extractor Expert
Cleaning Up On Carpet Care