Cleaning & Restoration Association News

The difference Between a Spot and a Stain

September 9, 2001
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It's simple logic, the difference between a 'spot' and a 'stain.' If you're unsure, read on.



When I am called upon to educate a customer about spots and stains, I usually share a bit of wisdom I learned from a cleaner named Ray Beck in a CCT class in Cincinnati about 10 years ago. When I asked the class if they knew the difference between a spot and a stain, Ray replied, "A blind man can find a spot but he can't find a stain."

Ray's logic puzzled both class members and myself, so I asked for enlightenment. He explained that a spot is a discoloring material attached to the outside of a fiber, which can usually be removed using chemical or mechanical means. A stain, Ray explained, has penetrated into the fiber, causing a visible discoloration. Since a spot is foreign matter on the outside of the fiber, a blind man can feel it. By the same token, since a stain has penetrated into the fiber, the blind man cannot feel it.

Based upon this bit of logic, I now recommend that when you inspect a carpet for cleaning, reach down and touch any spot that your customer wants addressed . If you can feel it, you may be able to remove it; if not, it may be permanent. Remember, it is during this initial pre-inspection that you are adjusting your customer's expectations. If you can't fix it, this is the time to tell them. If you tell them beforehand , it is an explanation; tell them later, it is an excuse. For removal/correction, spots will generally be categorized as solvent soluble, water soluble, non-soluble or special treatment.

Solvent Soluble spots are generally oily or greasy in nature. They do not dissolve easily in water based cleaning agents, although they may respond well if a solvent spotter is used. Solvent spotters may be volatile, evaporating quickly and leaving little to no residues. Or, they may be nonvolatile and evaporate more slowly, leaving some soil-attracting residue.

When using a solvent for removing something ,such as adhesive tape residue, do not apply the solvent directly to the carpet since delamination may occur in the treated area. Rather, apply the solvent spotter to a towel and then apply to the spot with a blotting motion to remove the offending material. Most solvents are water thin, although there are several gelled solvents in the market that do not penetrate readily down the shaft of the fiber to cause delamination. Use of gelled solvents may prevent problems. This is the voice of experience speaking.

Water Soluble spots encompass a range of materials, including things such as proteins from food spills and/or body fluids or waste materials. Spotting agents for water-soluble spots are usually detergent-based, although some types that are formulated for proteinaceous spots are enhanced by the addition of enzyme/bacterial digesters. Because digester type spotting agents may require extended time to accomplish their digestive process, it is necessary to read and follow the label directions and to use the appropriate protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles, etc.

Non-Soluble spots may be composed of sand, metal shavings, crushed shells or grit. These spots cannot be dissolved in any material, whether water-based or solvent-based. While they cannot be dissolved , they generally adhere to the fiber by a sticky film of some sort. This film often can be dissolved, thereby releasing the spot causing material.

This type spot is best addressed by thorough prevacuuming followed by the application of a spot removal agent. After allowing several minutes for the detergents or other ingredients to do their job of releasing the soils, they can be removed with through a wet or dry extraction process.

Special Treatment spots are often actually stains. Special treatment spot removal agents may include materials such as bleaches or oxidizers. They are used to correct discoloring situations, which cannot be corrected using standard spot removal products.

One of the things I recall from my first carpet cleaning class - presented almost 30 years ago by Ed York, the grand master himself - is that when you have decided it is time to use a special treatment process it is also time to get a release from your customer so you don't end up buying too many replacement carpets for those customers. Some of theses color corrector/bleach/oxidizer treatments will be enhanced by the introduction of heat; in some cases, they will be of no value unless heat is added. Some situations will require dry heat while some will require wet heat, such as steam. Carpet fibers will usually be more tolerant of wet heat. In some cases, dry heat will actually melt the carpet fibers.

Pretest regardless of the process or product you decide to try on a spot. It is important that you pretest to determine if your chosen process/product will work or if it will harm the carpet in any way. Always keep in mind the old adage from the garment cleaning trade: The spot belongs to the customer. The hole belongs to the cleaner.

My experience over 30 years of cleaning is that the customer will grade the carpet cleaner by his/her success with spot removal. Always take the time to qualify job conditions and expectations with your customer before you agree to attempt the job. Until next month: Seeya!

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