Cleaning & Restoration Tools and Gadgets / Carpet/Rug/Upholstery Cleaning

Warning… We Have an Upholstery Emergency

July 2, 2012

So what’s the emergency? Hopefully you don’t have one, but a professional cleaner I recently talked to needed a total makeover on his upholstery cleaning process. As a matter of fact, he didn’t really have an upholstery cleaning process. He had a carpet cleaning process that he used on upholstery and it was proving to be a problem. He used his carpet pre-spray and extraction solution on all the upholstery he cleaned. He sprayed on the pre-spray with an injection sprayer and extracted everything with a 6-inch stair tool. His cleaning was fast and pretty effective on some of the upholstery pieces, but he was ready to quit upholstery cleaning altogether.

This particular “professional” had problems getting pre-spray where it didn’t belong (the end table and lamp suffered). He was seeing occasional bleeding, pile distortion, and even had some shrinkage. As he put it, “I don’t make enough money on the successful cleanings to pay for all the problems.” That was certainly true - he was undercharging because he didn’t have any confidence in his abilities.

 I’m passionate in my belief that upholstery cleaning is a balance between art and science. The professional approaches the piece of upholstery like it is fine but soiled art, ready to be restored to its former glory. He uses the science of chemistry to obtain amazing results. Let me share some of the principles that are now helping this particular professional and might also be able to help you:

Truckmounts Are Not Necessary

How could I say such a thing? Having used both truckmounts and portables to clean upholstery, I am satisfied that I can clean just as well with a good portable as I can with a truckmount.  Let’s consider the attributes:

Heat: In most cases, the hotter the solution, the better.

  • Truckmounts certainly can put out the heat, but consider that you are running that heat through 150 feet of hose before it reaches the upholstery. Upholstery doesn’t require as much flow as carpet so solution cool-down while running through the hoses is an issue.
  • Portables can also produce excellent heat (must have a built-in heater) especially considering it is much easier for the heater to keep up with the lower flow of upholstery cleaning.

Pressure: Is more better?

  • Truckmounts can produce all the pressure you want. How much do you want? Too much uncontrolled pressure will penetrate into the padding and foam of upholstery where you don’t want it.
  • Portables should make it easier to control pressure. Fifty to 100 psi is more than adequate on most pieces.

Extraction/Vacuum: What goes in must come out.

  • Truckmounts win in this category, but again, how much is too much? Many upholstery fabrics are delicate or worn and too much vacuum can actually damage them.
  • Portables – If the solution going on is controlled to a reasonable level, then the normal portable vacuum system is more than sufficient.

So it looks like I am pro-portable and anti-truckmount. Not really. Using a proper hand tool specifically designed for upholstery, we can mitigate the problems listed above and do an excellent job with truckmounts. At the same time, you can clean as fast and effectively with a good portable and you are not running a $60,000 rig and burning gas, but instead are using the customer’s power. In our service company, we promoted upholstery cleaning heavily and ran a separate small truck with a $2,000 portable, often bringing in the same dollars as the big truckmount rigs.

The most important aspect of successful upholstery cleaning is the technician. There is no substitute for experience and training. Take every opportunity to improve your skills by attending training and then practice on your own upholstery and your mother-in-laws’. She won’t mind a bit if you goof it up…

Let’s take a look at how to maximize the concepts in the ever famous cleaning pie. Note: Pre-testing upholstery for cleaning safety is imperative on all jobs before applying the procedures suggested. Other steps such as pre-vacuuming are also necessary.


I love this part because I love to work with new technology to make your professional life easier and cleaning more effective. As an industry we offer some exciting chemistry and combinations of different chemicals to tackle any upholstery cleaning job. Allow me to concentrate on just one aspect today. I call it “positive pre-conditioning.”

First consider your tools. Whether you’re a brain surgeon or an upholstery cleaner, you need the proper tools. If someone is operating on my brain I want them to have the absolute best scalpel and clamps money can buy. If I hire a professional to clean my favorite chair, I expect them to use the best tools for the job.

When it comes to applying pre-spray, I first want to make sure I am using the proper pre-spray designed for upholstery cleaning. I promise there is a substantial difference in upholstery pre-spray versus carpet pre-spray.

Next, make sure the pre-spray is applied properly and consistently. The pre-spray does most of the cleaning so it should go on reasonably heavy (but consider that we deal with mostly thin, flat weaves so keep the pre-spray in the fabric, not the padding) and evenly. Don’t use trigger sprayers - it is too much work and you don’t ever get the pre-spray on evenly. If you want to go on the cheap, then get one of the small 1-2 quart pump sprayers and fit it with a fan pattern t-jet.

If you really want to do it right consider the 1-2 gallon pump sprayer fitted with a long (about 10 foot) hose and a hand gun. The best unit is stainless steel fitted with Viton and the metal spraying systems gun. With this sprayer you can set it down in one place and reach the whole couch. Pump it up once and get a very even application of pre-spray with no dripping. Dedicate this sprayer to upholstery cleaning. That way there is no guessing what is in it. You will enjoy your cleaning so much more, do a better job and actually look forward to getting more of this type of work.

Just a quick side note – if you are not selling protector on every upholstery job you are missing a great income opportunity. I highly recommend you dedicate the same type of sprayer to upholstery protector. Whether you use solvent or water base, having the sprayer full and ready to go on every job will encourage you to offer it. One or two jobs will pay for the sprayer and then you can use the profits to buy your boat or just put more food on the table.


This is simple. After applying the pre-spray, you need to agitate. Your first choice for agitation should be a horse hair brush. You can find a quality horse hair brush for around $12 or you can get the truly professional horse hair brush with three times the amount of bristles for around $30. Please remember - you’re a professional and you should use the best tools. With the larger brush and the tighter bristle pack you get much more agitation (but still gentle) with less effort as compared to the cheaper brush. Horse hair will give you just the right amount of agitation without being too aggressive, even when wet.


As mentioned earlier, heat is the key to great cleaning. Most of your heat will be developed on the fiber with the extraction step. Make sure your pre-spray has not dried. Your extraction solution should be 190- 200 degrees. If your solution line has been sitting, then the solution has cooled. Run the solution into a bucket or your vacuum hose to bring hot water back to the tool.

It has been suggested that overly hot water can create problems such as shrinkage or color bleeding. This is possible and thus your pre-testing is important, but in most every case I have found very hot water to increase my success and safety. With a good vacuum and very hot water, the upholstery will dry much quicker. This can help prevent bleeding and shrinkage. By using hot water you are able to reduce your pressure and keep the solution on the fabric rather than penetrating into the padding. The longer a piece stays wet, the higher the probability of problems developing.


Giving proper dwell time for the pre-spray to work will increase your effectiveness. There is a balance however, where too much time may allow the pre-spray to dry, which allows soils to redeposit. 

Another aspect of time, not related to the cleaning pie, is the time it takes to process the job. Using the proper tools, such as the right hand tool, the 1-2 gallon pump sprayer with the hand gun, and the large horsehair brush for agitation, will allow you to process the job quicker with the bonus of better cleaning results.

Please be aware that there are additional techniques and tools used for upholstery cleaning that I have not mentioned. The more you know of these, the more confident you become with the resulting success and profits.

Take a step back and look at your upholstery cleaning statistics. How much are you doing? How often are you selling protector? Set a goal to do more. Start asking your customers about their upholstery. Demonstrate the need for upholstery cleaning by putting a mild spotter on a white towel and lightly rubbing it on a soiled area. Keep in mind that leather upholstery is currently the most popular type sold and you can easily clean and protect the majority of it. Good luck and have fun.

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