The CRI SOA Program

In September 2005, the Carpet and Rug Institute gathered alongside NASA officials at Cape Canaveral and the John F. Kennedy Space Center to officially launch the Seal of Approval Testing Program. It was introduced with much pomp and circumstance inside a venue that has hosted some of this country’s most anticipated launches, pun intended.

As one might expect, it was one of the CRI’s proudest moments.

Please understand, however, that venue and distinguished guests aside, the real source of pride that day came from the down-to-earth ramifications this new SOA program would hold for the cleaning industry. After much hard work and seemingly countless hours, members of the carpet manufacturing and cleaning industries had put together a testing program that could truly distinguish good carpet cleaning products from the bad ones.

Over the last week or so, we’ve seen the CRI SOA Program placed back into the industry spotlight, as much has been said and written about it. From message board fodder to heart-felt letters and faxes, the CRI has heard both the critical and informative comments, as well as those in support of what the SOA Program was and is meant to be.

As I’ve gone through the volumes of comments, there appear to be five major points for the comments, so I put them to paper and took them before the CRI’s Cleaning and Maintenance Issues Management Team for review. They include:
  1. The issue of “orphaned” equipment, or rather, equipment that is no longer being manufactured, but is still being used effectively in the marketplace.
  2. The issue of equipment that, for whatever reasons, has not been submitted for testing leaving the owner basically “orphaned.”
  3. Rug Doctor’s submission for testing and ensuing certification.
  4. The relationship between CRI, its members’ warranties and IICRC.
  5. Test cost.

As with any program worth its salt, when we launched the SOA Program we knew that it was far from a finished product. All of our other successful signature programs have undergone an evolution and we certainly expected as much with the SOA. The CRI Green Label Program, for instance, has been tweaked and improved on four separate occasions, and each time we have done so for the betterment of the consumer.

That said, we have started to move in a direction that will best accommodate those machines that currently don’t have a home in our program. We have looked at the data and it shows (as many of you have pointed out) there is no reason to believe a truckmount in good working condition would not pass our SOA test at some level.

From the beginning, the program has had a provision to cover private labeled equipment for a very small listing fee, if the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM’s) unit has passed CRI SOA. Some manufacturers or private label vendors have chosen to embrace this, others apparently not – this is an issue with the manufacturer of some cleaners’ equipment.

As I write this, we have put together a committee to come up with a plan to provide an avenue for these “orphaned” machines to be included in the program. It’s not set in stone, but it’s likely this new “grandfathering program” will entail the owner or manufacturer having to use SOA-approved chemicals along with an SOA-certified wand. A criterion is also being established to define “good working condition” for the truckmount, and it could also be tagged to the program. All of this will be announced as soon as it is ironed out, but rest assured, CRI wants to do nothing more than lift the cleaning industry, not hamper it.

Orphans receiving bronze status can still be individually tested if the owner wants to be rated at a higher level for marketing purposes. We’re also exploring options where a group of owners of orphaned equipment might get together and create a pool, and also share in the cost of the testing.

For the equipment that currently has an active OEM, but has not been submitted for testing, CRI will embark on a campaign to meet with these manufacturers to identify the questions they might have, and encourage them to step up to the plate and have their equipment tested. One of the lessons we have learned from the manufacturers who have participated in SOA equipment testing is that they have discovered ways to significantly improve their present equipment, Again, if cleaners have equipment in this category, they should be asking the manufacturer for some really good reasons why, rather than settling for empty rhetoric. This program is a win-win for everyone.

Normally, I try to shy away from talking about an individual brand, but based on the number of inquiries about Rug Doctor I feel it necessary to address this issue. First off, let me explain that the CRI SOA testing protocol for equipment is elegant in the fact that, while it can precisely measure the amount of soil removed from the carpet, it has absolutely no idea how to read the logo on the side of the machine being tested.

Every piece of equipment is tested exactly the same way: four passes using water only as the solution. If it removes 55-69% of the soil, it is awarded a bronze seal; 70-79% a silver seal; and 80% or more earns the gold seal. Rug Doctor tested its portable equipment and passed, earning the equipment a bronze-level SOA. The numbers are what they are. The bigger question here is, is 55% soil removal too low an entry-level threshold? Again, we will continue to look at what is best for the consumer and as I said before, we have raised the standard in the Green Label Program four different times.

When the Rug Doctor equipment was tested as a system, it earned the gold-level SOA. The point is, there is more than one testing program for formulators or manufacturers to elect to have products tested under. I must admit that I do not fully appreciate the issue being raised about Rug Doctor. I was under the impression most professional cleaners are focused on the mid-to-upper-end market. Customers in those markets are far less likely to use a rental machine than those in the market for builder-grade carpet.

Finally, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news to the Internet conspiracy theorists, but CRI does not have a relationship with IICRC and/or the member mills when it comes to SOA or recommended service providers. Certain carpet mills have provided CRI with “their” recommended cleaning service providers and we publish them on our website for the consumer to find easily. One of our members have taken the additional step to start tying their warranties to periodic cleaning performed by IICRC Certified Firms starting in January 2008. This seems to be a huge benefit for committed cleaning professionals.

Several CRI member mills started the New Year by tying warranties to the use of SOA-certified chemicals and equipment. This is an individual mill-by-mill decision, and CRI has intentionally stayed clear of it. It is, however, not all that surprising when you look at the history of how the SOA program came to be in the first place.

Over the last 10 years or so, the carpet industry witnessed a steady erosion of its percentage of the floor covering market. As the industry came to grips with the reasons behind this loss of market share, the CRI started working diligently to identify the reasons, so as to avoid or remedy them in the future. Market surveys were commissioned and the number one issue we identified about why people were de-selecting carpet was cleaning and maintenance. Previous surveys by some trade magazines solicited input from retailers, who for years have listed installation as their top problem.

Obviously, consumers – our customers and yours – have a very different viewpoint: “You can’t clean and maintain carpet” was the overwhelming sentiment.

Of course, we, like you, know that carpet can easily be cleaned and maintained, but something is out there supporting the idea that it cannot. Laboratory testing revealed that bad cleaning products are a major contributor to this consumer perception. Initial tests of products purchased off supermarket and distributor shelves showed less than a handful of the two dozen products tested cleaned better than water. The CRI testing protocol identified problem products, and it has literally moved that segment of the industry ahead by leaps and bounds. Products were reformulated by conscientious formulators, and today we know of over 100 that have been tested and can proudly claim they are actually cleaning carpet and keeping it clean longer.

Of course, the real beneficiaries of the CRI Chemical SOA Program are professional cleaners, who now have better products, and consumers whose carpet stays clean longer. Win-win.

Shortly thereafter, NASA entered our lives with a nifty little device known as an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner, which allowed us to measure exact amounts of soil literally to the thousandth of a particle. XRF testing provided a way to help differentiate good cleaning equipment from the bad, or at least to quantify equipment manufacturer advertising claims. I was quoted in an article recently as saying I didn’t understand why cleaning service providers hadn’t wholeheartedly embraced the SOA Program, and I stand by that statement.

Responsible products manufacturers have listened to the CRI explain why consumers are deselecting carpet as their floor covering of choice, and they have voluntarily submitted to testing to prove their claims, not only to carpet manufacturers but also to their professional-cleaner customers. Some, however, are trying to incite cleaners into complaining about issues that only affect manufacturers so they won’t have to prove their claims through independent testing.

The CRI SOA Program was instituted to lift the industry and to provide a way for those of you who are doing the right thing for your customers to benefit. We realize that the equipment is just one part of the equation, just as the right chemicals are. As far as the human element, there are good people out there providing training leading to certification, and the need for CRI to enter that arena doesn’t exist.

Some of our member mills have independently decided which cleaning service providers they want to recommend. But, I repeat, CRI has absolutely nothing to do with individual manufacturer warranty decisions about cleaning service providers, nor does our SOA Program attempt to make that designation.

The same thing is true with carpet warranties. Some of our member mills felt strongly enough that the SOA Program was providing such a significant benefit that they independently chose to tie portions of their carpet warranties to the use of these testing programs. CRI has been out there beating the bushes for months now to let retailers know about the SOA Program just as our member mills have. We don’t claim that our program is perfect, but it will continue to get better.

Certainly, recent activities on the Internet have had some impact:
  1. CRI is aggressively dealing with the “orphan” extractor issue. And by the way, it has created an opportunity for some new folks to get involved in the process of improving the SOA Program.
  2. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. Clearly, many more people are now aware of the CRI SOA Program than before.

One final thing worth addressing is the outcry over the cost of the SOA Program. The fee structure is set up to cover the cost of the tests, all of which goes to the independent lab doing the test, with only a small administration fee going to CRI. The nominal renewal fee for the extractor equipment is an administration fee, while the larger renewal fee in the chemical program covers annual random testing of 25% of all SOA-approved chemicals.

A few smaller chemical formulators have complained that testing favors larger formulators with deeper pockets. However, viewed from a marketing perspective, their investment in testing, when used in combination with the CRI SOA logo, is not only a way to generate more than enough revenue to cover the cost of testing, it’s also a way for smaller formulators to become much bigger ones.

Through all of this, though, there is one thing that every carpet cleaner should realize: if people are not buying carpet because they don’t think it can be cleaned, then ultimately the professional cleaner’s business will diminish. If carpet is not being sold and installed, the need for you to clean it no longer exists.

Bottom line, professional cleaners and the consumers they serve, are the primary beneficiaries of the CRI SOA chemical and equipment testing programs.

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