What's Underfoot: Carpet Care

by Marie S. Hammer, University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service

Note:  This article is a very complete study of carpet care starting with basic cleaning chores, professional cleaning methods and finally stain removal techniques.  Anyone with a carpet in their life can benefit from reading this piece!  Our thanks for the University of Florida for allowing reproduction of this informative article.               NH

Regular Carpet Care

Regular care is essential for maintaining the appearance and wear life of your carpet. The amount of cleaning required depends on how much traffic the area receives, where the carpet is located, and environmental conditions. Routine vacuuming, responding quickly to spills and stains, shampooing and professional cleaning periodically are necessary for maintaining your carpet. Even a poorly constructed carpet will last longer if it is properly maintained.

Vacuuming Schedule

Carpet in most homes should be vacuumed once a week to remove surface litter. Areas where children or pets live and play may need to be vacuumed daily. The carpet in seldom-used rooms may need vacuuming every other week.

Dirt and Debris

Four types of dirt and debris soil carpeting:

Surface litter is fairly easy to remove by hand and with a vacuum cleaner. Light dirt particles can be removed best with a vacuum cleaner that agitates the pile.

Since much of Florida is sandy, carpets need to be vacuumed often to prevent sand from settling at the bottom of the carpet. After sand settles at the bottom, it is difficult to remove and causes wear and pile loss. Dirt can dull or change carpeting colors. The gritty dirt settles at the bottom of the carpet, and once it is embedded, it is difficult to remove. The sharp edges of these particles press against the pile fibers when people or pets walk on the carpet. This causes the fibers to break. Vacuum thoroughly to remove hidden sand. Use an effective vacuum cleaner that features a powerful airflow, a high-efficiency filtration and internally-housed vacuum bag and correct brush height adjustment.

Carpet grease, which results from the buildup of litter and gritty dirt over time, holds the dirt particles together and causes them to cling tightly to the pile. These dirt particles are difficult to remove, and dull the color of the carpet. Vacuuming and shampooing will help to restore the color of the carpet.

Vacuum Cleaner Types

For large, heavy rugs or wall-to-wall carpet, use an upright vacuum cleaner. The revolving agitator brush and beater vibrate the carpet and bring the heavy grit to the surface and deposit it, along with the surface litter, into a bag. When vacuuming with an upright, use slow even strokes. Use good quality bags for the best results.

The canister, or tank, straight-suction vacuum cleaner has an attachment with a revolving agitator brush and beater, which provides for a deep, thorough cleaning. A straight-suction cleaner will remove surface dust, but will not completely remove embedded dirt. It works more effectively if pressure is applied to the nozzle when pushed and pulled over carpet.

A lightweight cleaner, such as an electric broom or stick cleaner, provides for surface cleaning and is satisfactory for in-between vacuuming and quick surface cleanup. A non-electric carpet sweeper picks up lint, crumbs, dust and other surface litter. It is useful for cleaning outdoor carpeting, since electric household vacuum cleaners are not made for outdoor use.

Battery-operated hand vacuums are useful for removing surface litter and for emergency pick-ups.

Hints for Cleaning

Clean carpet often, and keep the vacuum cleaner in good repair. It is almost impossible to remove embedded dirt. Use the crevice tool of the vacuum cleaner around the edges of wall-to-wall carpeting. Deeply-carved carpet and shag carpet require extra care.

Special Care Problems

Major Cleanings

Do-It-Yourself Methods

The choice between home cleaning or professional cleaning depends upon the requirements of the particular situation, such as the removal of stubborn carpet stains, and the amount of money, time, skills and equipment available for the homeowner.

When you do-it-yourself, it is important to be aware that not all cleaning agents can be used safely on all fibers and dyes. This does not mean the product or the item to be cleaned is bad or defective; it just means that they are not compatible. The face yarns of a carpet can be dyed by using many different processes and a wide range of dyes to produce multiple colors. A cleaner can be safe on one color and not on another.

Always read the label carefully. Mix the solution according to directions, and test it in an inconspicuous area, such as in a corner, behind a chair, or in the back of drapery.

You can use several approaches, depending on whether you want to use a wet method or a dry method.

Wet Methods

An aerosol spray foam is convenient, dries quickly and is suitable for quick spot cleaning for light soil. It is more expensive than liquid shampoo and may leave a residue. To clean carpeting, spray on a thin layer of foam and then work it in with a wet sponge mop. Let the carpet dry completely. Then vacuum to remove loosened dirt.

The shampoo method involves applying a water-detergent solution to a freshly-vacuumed rug with an electrical rug shampooer, a manual applicator, a sponge mop or a hand brush. An electrical shampooer agitates the carpet fibers and works the shampoo into the pile, removing soil. It should not be used on shag carpeting because the long pile can become tangled in the brushes.

You do not have to remove the furniture from the room. To prevent rust or furniture stains, place a thick plastic film or aluminum foil under and around the legs and bases of furniture until the carpet is completely dry.

After cleaning each section of the carpet, brush the wet pile in one direction with the applicator. When the foam has dried thoroughly, vacuum the rug or carpet to remove dry shampoo and loose dirt.

Steam cleaning, or hot water extraction, is the newest method for home cleaning. Equipment can be rented or purchased for do-it-yourself carpet cleaning. A mixture of hot tap water and special non-foaming detergent is forced into the carpet pile under pressure. The ground-in dirt is loosened or dissolved by the detergent, and the moisture and soil are extracted. Residues from other cleaning methods are also removed. A pre-spotter is available to penetrate stubborn stains, and a defoaming agent can be added to the receiving tank to hold down any foaming action from previous cleaning residues. This method is ideal for shags, as well as other carpets.

Caution: Do not soak the carpet since the backing can become wet and cause brown spots. Shrinkage can occur if the carpet gets too wet. Also, do not go over an area too many times with the shampooing equipment since the agitation can damage the carpet.

Dry Powder Method

This method uses absorbent granules containing a dry-cleaning fluid and other cleaning agents. Sprinkle the powder over the carpet surface and work it into the pile with a brush. The powder absorbs oils and some dirt, but is less effective on non-greasy stains. Vacuum up when dry. It may be difficult to completely vacuum up the powder, especially on dark carpeting. This method is safe for non-colorfast carpeting.

Professional Methods

Professional cleaning can be done at home or in a plant. Wall-to-wall carpeting must be cleaned in place. Professional cleaners may be able to replace missing tufts, repair holes or tears, remove spots and re-dye the fibers. The choice of a cleaning method depends on the fiber, texture, amount of soil and amount of furniture that has to be moved. Professional cleaners can use these cleaning methods in the home.

No method of cleaning is better than the operator. Check with carpet retailers and friends and neighbors. The Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce may also have information about a particular firm.

Common Spots and Stains

Success in removing a stain depends on the fiber, the spilled substance, proper identification of the substance, the time lapse before removal is attempted, and the agent used to remove the stain.

Certain materials have proven to be more effective on certain stains. These supplies are important to have on hand:

To remove common spots and stains, follow the general steps outlined below, and refer to Table 1 for selecting the appropriate cleaner.
  1. Act quickly.
  2. Absorb as much of the staining substance as possible using a blotting material. Blot lightly to keep from driving the stain into the fibers and spreading it.
  3. Select the right cleaner for the stain.
  4. Pretest the cleaner in an inconspicuous place.
  5. Use dry-cleaning solvents in a well-ventilated area and use sparingly to avoid further damage to the carpet.
  6. Apply a small amount of cleaner and work gently from the edges of the soiled area to the center to avoid spreading the spot or stain. Blot up moisture as you proceed. Never rub or scrub the stain.
  7. Avoid soaking or over-wetting the carpet.
  8. Dry rug or carpet quickly by placing about a half-inch layer of paper towels or other blotting material over the damp area and weighing it down. In some cases, a fan or a hair dryer will help speed drying time, especially in humid weather.
  9. When the area is completely dry, brush the pile gently to restore the nap. Vacuum thoroughly.
  10. When in doubt about removal of a particular stain, consult a professional carpet cleaner for advice.

Chemical Spots and Stains

According to the Carpet and Rug Institute, chemical stains are becoming more and more prevalent due to higher usage of these substances in home and business environments. With common stains, the carpet is stained or discolored by foreign materials; with chemical stains the dye is either destroyed or changed.

Many of the chemical spots require moisture to trigger the reaction, for this reason the discoloration may show up shortly after the carpet is cleaned with the carpet cleaner being blamed. What can be done about these chemical spots? Unfortunately, little can be done to correct the spot since the dye is either destroyed or changed chemically and cannot be restored by cleaning or treating. Generally speaking, spots resulting from chemical spills are not covered under warranties since they are not defects in the carpet.

Identifying a chemical spot is sometimes difficult, but should be attempted to prevent future mishaps. Ask yourself these questions:

In general, the following guides can be useful in determining the cause for discoloration:

Dye spots from the manufacturing process are always darker than the background, never lighter.

Yellow indicates an oxidation reaction by strong oxidizers or bleaches.

Green or blue indicates sunlight along with a catalyst.

Red spots on a tan or beige carpet may suggest strong acids.

Refer to the Carpet Stain Tables to find the cause of the more common chemical problems. Prevention is always a good solution.