The Smell of Money

When you enter the home you are about to clean and are knocked over by the smell of money – otherwise known as animal urine – you have an obligation to detect the source and offer your customer a solution. Doing anything less would be like a doctor suspecting cancer in a patient and not offering diagnosis and treatment.

Your customers may be aware that their dog or cat has done its duty on the carpet, but may not know the full extent to which the duty has been done. I’ve had customers who said, “Oh, I caught my naughty little girl (they believe their pet is their child) going over in the corner once. I gave her a spank and she hasn’t done it again.”

Hello – of course she hasn’t done it again in front of you! The “naughty little girl” only goes on the carpet while you’re at work. Our responsibility at this point is to prove to the customer that she has a problem and how extensive it is. Armed with the facts, she can now make a decision on treatment options.

Before talking about the tools and methods for urine detection, let’s review a few of the other aspects concerning urine contamination in our customers’ homes.

If you think of urine as your enemy, you might consider changing your thought process. The removal of urine and its odors sustains a multi-million dollar industry every year. With the proper understanding of your little yellow friend, you, the professional fabric care specialist, can share in the millions spent to correct the bad effects of urine while helping your customers in a very necessary way.

The problems your customer may experience can range from a one-time accident of an animal, over-spray around the toilet (if you have children of the male persuasion, you understand) or a Great Dane who believes the living room carpet is his own special sandbox. A dog or cat that weighs less than 5 pounds will produce more than 10 gallons of urine a year. If the animal concentrates most of that into an area of less than 100 square feet – which many of them do – then the problem can be quite extensive.

Urine leaves the body (human or pet) in an acid state, with a pH of about 5 to 6. It is rather pure and generally contains no harmful bacteria, pathogens, or microorganisms. However, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for such as soon as it leaves the body.

The main ingredient in urine is uric acid. Urine also contains yellow pigment, urea, cholesterol, enzymes, and small amounts of other chemicals. The uric acid begins to change immediately upon leaving the body. The warm acid state of the urine offers a perfect breeding ground for bacteria which begins to flourish almost immediately. In this original acid state the urine begins to oxidize and react with the carpet to create a color change which may become permanent if the urine is not removed from the carpet.

As urine begins to dry it changes its hydrogen content and forms crystalline salts, which take on an alkaline pH. When dried urine is re-moistened it gives off an ammonia gas. This is one way to identify a problem area, by odor. If smelled once, it is seldom forgotten.

The source of odors associated with urine comes from two sources. The first is the bacteria that grow abundantly in dark warm places with a never-ending food source. The dog feeds the bacteria daily! This bacteria growth and breakdown of the urine creates amino acids. These complex organic compounds will often work deep into the fibers to a point of nearly becoming part of the fiber. This can present a challenging situation. The waste materials and gases from the decomposing urine create an unpleasant odor.

The second source of odor is the chemical odor that is present even when the bacteria has been killed. This explains the reason that more than simple disinfection is necessary to neutralize odors from urine. Urine also presents additional odor problems when the relative humidity is high. The salts and crystals that are formed are hydrophilic, and draw water to them. As the salts are reactivated by moisture, they give off a greater proportion of odorous gases.

Our customers are very interested in having the stains and smell removed. Before urine can be treated, the urine must be found. The main tools for detecting urine include:


Whether the nose is yours or your customer’s, it is usually the first tool that is used to indicate that there is an odor problem. Getting on your hands and knees and sticking your nose in the carpet is a fairly effective way of locating the area of urine. This method does, however, have some definite drawbacks.

Moisture Detector

Urine salts attract and hold moisture. A better-quality moisture detector is a very effective way of finding urine deposits from the surface of the carpet. The moisture detector, sometimes referred to as a moisture meter or hydrosensor, will have two sharp prongs that are forced into the carpet. When urine, and thus moisture, is present in the carpet and electrical connection takes places between the probes and a beeping or visible signal will indicate an affected area.

The disadvantage with this method is the possibility you may miss an affected area. If you do not test in a particular area, you cannot know if urine is there. It may also be difficult to find the margins of the affected area. If you are only planning on treating the exact affected area, then you must be thorough in probing and mapping the entire area so all margins are considered.

Ultraviolet Light

This method is very successful and can also be used without pulling the carpet up. Recently, a customer of ours had a job to clean a home where the dog was a small, nervous type. A quick inspection with a professional UV light showed that there was more carpet marked with urine than unmarked, and that it was in every carpeted room in the house.

This quick inspection alerted his customer to the fact that the restoration job went beyond the bedroom in question, which the client had originally asked him to work on. In this situation the ultraviolet light alerted everybody to the extent of the problem in a graphic manner.

Ultraviolet lights come in different shapes and sizes. When choosing your UV light, go with the better models that are designed with the proper wave length for identification of urine and one powerful enough that you do not need to go at night. A wavelength of 385nm is probably the best. This, used with the proper power behind it, will show the urine stain rather then overpowering the viewing area with blue light.

UV flashlights using LED lights may be enhanced by the use of yellow glasses to provide clarity. Remember that UV lights also illuminate things beside urine like optical brighteners, vitamin B-12, tonic water and concentrations of detergent, so not everything seen in a house is urine. Also remember that a thorough cleaning of urine decontamination does not mean that the UV light will not detect any urine stains afterwards even when the stains are invisible to the naked eye. It will diminish in intensity, but may still be visible.

Backing Stains

Another method for detecting urine is to pull the carpet back and inspect the back for stains. The stains will be most apparent on jute backings, which are seldom used anymore, but can be detected on the synthetic backs as well. The disadvantage of the method is the time and effort to pull the carpet up. If the damage is extensive and you are going to be removing pad or sealing the subfloor, then an inspection of the backing makes sense.

Without the proper tools for detection, your treatment of urine contamination may very well be incomplete. Your customer appreciates the best professional care you can give. Using the proper tools when detecting the problem areas will impress them and go a long way toward verifying that you are indeed the professional they were hoping for when they called you.

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