Nasty, Grungy, Spotted: Dealing with Traffic Lanes

When you walk through the front entrance of your commercial carpet-cleaning account, it is often easy to locate the busiest areas: just follow the trail of tracked-in asphalt from the parking lot to the matted, heavily soil-impacted carpet.

On a residential job, the living rooms and family rooms are the equivalent. You can tell where the sofa was located, and easily trace the path from dad’s recliner to the kitchen even after the furniture has been moved out.

These heavily soiled traffic lanes could be the reason that prompted this client to call you. Their appearance when the cleaning is done may also be the way your client judges your work. For those owner/operators who tend to be perfectionists, they may also be one way we judge ourselves.

A key question to be answered then is, “How do we successfully deal with traffic lanes?”

Reasonable Expectations

Cleaning carpet is the same as any other cleaning: there is only so much that is humanly possible. Driving your old clunker through the car wash won’t clean away dings in the paint or undo the effects of years of sunlight and road film on the paint job.

Along the same line, cleaning a carpet can remove soil, but not years of wear and traffic. We use cleaning wands, not magic wands.

If the fiber is not resilient, cleaning can’t make it stand up. If fiber has worn away, cleaning does not replace it. Your expectations and your customer’s expectations must be reasonable.

With that out of the way, what can we do to assure that our cleaning removes the maximum amount of soil and provides the best possible appearance?

Prevention with Walk-Off Mats

Where you have an on-going relationship with the client, share some advice on preventing soil load from tracking into the carpet in the first place.

Most soil comes from outside. It is not being manufactured inside. Exterior and interior walk-off mats can do wonders.

Since most people don’t stop to wipe their feet, be sure the mats are long enough that people are forced to take three or more steps with each foot before reaching the end of the mats.

Have the mats cleaned or exchanged regularly. Traffic lanes will be greatly reduced.

Thorough Vacuuming

Dense carpet fibers can trap tracked-in soil. Glued-down installations drastically reduce airflow through carpet, so vacuuming doesn’t remove all of the soil located below the surface of many commercial carpets. This allows dirt to wick to the surface during drying, resulting in unsightly traffic lanes.

A pile-lifter or counter-rotating brush machine helps open up the pile and allow a greater percentage of soil to be removed.

Extra vacuuming passes from multiple directions also help. 

Proper Pre-spray

You may believe that the strongest, highest pH, most-aggressive pre-spray is the one that will get the most soil from the carpet.

That ain’t necessarily so. The pre-spray best matched to the soil and the fiber will give the best results.

Some soils are oily. These soils will respond well to a cleaning agent with high solvent content. Other soil – red clay and copier toner, to name two examples – consists of very small particulates.

A pre-spray containing a charged hydrotope can counteract the attraction between surfaces at extremely short distances (sometimes referred to as van der Waals forces). Traffic lanes may also benefit from the anti-resoiling properties of encapsulating polymers included in some carpet-cleaning products.

Increased Concentration

When I say “concentrate,” I am not talking about focusing your mental powers on the traffic lane. I mean apply a more-concentrated solution of your pre-spray.

This is one of the advantages of an adjustable in-line sprayer. As the term ‘traffic lane’ implies, not all of the carpet receives the same heavy soil load. It is wasteful to mix your cleaning agent extra strength for the entire carpet. With an adjustable in-line sprayer you can set the dial for the normal dilution rate, maybe 32:1, and dial it up to 16:1 specifically for the traffic lane.

Increased Agitation

We’ve considered increasing the chemical section of the cleaning pie. What about increasing the agitation slice of the pie?

Depending on the level of soiling, the density of the carpet fiber and the resources you have available, agitation may be as simple as a brush or groomer.

Mechanical agitation can be helpful and a real back-saver, especially on larger accounts. A counter-rotating brush machine featuring a splash guard allows you to work in your cleaner without concerns that liquid will splash into the electrical area of the machine. A triple-head machine or a rotary machine along with a cotton or micro-fiber bonnet can also be used.

For maximum agitation on commercial grade dense loop pile, some have even used beige floor-polishing pads under their machine. But be careful! This is not suitable for all types of carpet.


Much troublesome tracked-in soil is non-soluble particles. Your pre-sprays won’t dissolve or emulsify this soil. Whatever remains after dry vacuuming must be flushed out.

Increased water flow provided by larger openings in your spray jets assists with the flushing action. However, additional water flow has to be balanced with your unit’s ability to extract the added water volume. Wetting wood subfloors or over-wetting carpet can create other problems.


One or two wet-cleaning strokes and you have rinsed away the pre-spray you applied. If a traffic lane requires a chop stroke or additional wand strokes, your only cleaning power comes from whatever is flowing through your solution line.

Although some technicians favor cleaning with water only, water simply won’t clean as well as when a quality emulsifier has been added to your rinse solution.

Anti-wicking Spray

Despite your best efforts, you will leave some soil behind. No method, no technician will remove 100 percent of all soil from dirty traffic lanes. But there is something you can do to assure that whatever soil does remain, does not easily work its way to the surface leaving a brown dingy appearance the next day.

Anti-wicking encapsulation polymers can be sprayed on the traffic lanes after cleaning. These present a non-stick surface to any water that wants to wick soil to the surface. The water simply can’t wick uphill against gravity on this surface.

During subsequent vacuuming, the remaining soil that has been encapsulated meets with little resistance and is easily pulled into the vacuum.  

What Worked for Us

A combination of these methods worked wonders when our company moved into new quarters and encountered heavily soiled traffic lanes from the previous building occupants.

The first attempt with normal pre-spray and then truckmount extraction resulted in wicking and streaking. Even though a large load of soil was removed, the carpet looked lousy.

To improve the look and soil removal on our next cleaning, we used a system which had worked well for us back in the day when we cleaned carpet for a living. Following vacuuming, we pre-sprayed concentrated product in the pathways, and pre-conditioned by agitating using a bonnet with green polyester strips.

This was followed by hot truckmount rinsing with a neutral extraction formula. An encapsulating anti-wicking product was then sprayed evenly over the carpet. In order to work this in – as well as remove any excess moisture – we then buffed over the carpet using a microfiber bonnet. This also aids in removing any remaining soil and evening out the overall look of the carpet.

The effort was well worth it, as the carpet stayed cleaner twice as long compared to having just done a regular extraction cleaning.

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