Carpet/Rug/Upholstery Cleaning / Web Exclusive Features

Know the Code: Fact vs. Fiction on Upholstery Cleaning Codes

Do you know your upholstery cleaning codes?

upholstery cleaning man chair hotel roomUpholstery cleaning codes actually originated as colorfastness codes. They were designed to give consumers and cleaners some idea about which fabrics and dye systems would withstand exposure to water and which ones could not.

The basic letter designations developed by fabric manufacturers include: “W” for wet cleaning; “S” for solvent cleaning; “W/S” for either and “X” for vacuum only - or loosely interpreted, “We’ve produced a fabric that never should have been sold and this is our way of shifting blame if something goes wrong!”

The problem is that, as an experienced professional, I am trained to do what is necessary to clean and sanitize a fabric for families that may have immune-compromised adults or children who may be using that fabric. But, if I ignored cleaning codes that are arbitrarily placed on the furniture, I get blamed if something a manufacturer did to produce an uncleanable fabric goes wrong. And that’s despite the fact there was no testing or even a consideration as to whether or not the suggested cleaning code was even legal. 

OK, considering my bias as a cleaning professional, let’s take a look at the so-called “cleaning codes.” 

“W” is the designation for wet cleaning. Water is the by far the most efficient, effective and economical medium for cleaning. Dishwashers, clothes washers, car washes – you name it – they all use water. But water by itself doesn’t clean - at best, it can only erode away some soils. Water must have detergent added for effective cleaning. But the critical question is, what should that detergent consist of and how is it to be applied for both safe and effective cleaning? 

“S” stands for solvent. As every professional cleaner knows, a solvent is a substance that dissolves another substance. Therefore, the most common solvent on the face of the earth – indeed, two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered with it – is water. Apparently, the furniture manufacturers who originated cleaning codes didn’t understand the definition of “solvent.” And they didn’t bother to consult with anyone from the professional upholstery cleaning industry about these terms. Probably a more accurate designation would be “DS” for dry-solvent cleaning and “WS” for wet-solvent cleaning - or perhaps “AS” for aqueous-solvent cleaning, since “W/S” has already been defined incorrectly as “wet or solvent” clean, since the terms might mean the same thing, depending on the context. 

Moreover, dry solvents are illegal to use in many municipalities because of flammability, toxicity and pollution (air, water, soil) issues. Even in the dry cleaning industry, dry solvents have to be used in closed systems subject to inspection by OSHA compliance officers. 

And don’t even think about thoroughly dry cleaning a fabric that has a latex back coat. 

“W/S” means either, or both, wet or dry-solvent cleaning, depending on your understanding of English . . . or lack thereof. Perhaps a better designation would be “WS/DS” for either wet solvent or dry solvent cleaning. 

Now, what about the “X” designation - vacuum only - which implies to consumers, “learn to live with your dirt.” Whoa! Sorry, but I really have a hard time understanding how consumers would ever purchase something designed for intimate personal contact, but which can’t be cleaned. Ridiculous! 

OK, let’s summarize what cleaning codes should be, but only after competent laboratory testing is accomplished. WS (wet solvent), DS (dry solvent, with strong qualifications regarding flammability, toxicity, legality), and WS/DS for either one. And let’s drop the ridiculous X designation that implies that consumers must learn to live with soiled, poorly manufactured (albeit, expensive) fabrics at the risk of the health of their families and visitors.

“But the upholstered furniture industry introduces thousands of new fabrics annually and testing costs money”says the cost-conscious manufacturer. Right. And so does voluntary testing of cleaning chemicals, equipment and systems in our industry. But it’s the right thing to do for consumers and their families, if for no one else.

But as a conscientious government bureaucrat (oxymoron?) once told me, “If you don’t set standards for your industry, the government will; and believe me, you don’t want some bureaucrat setting standards for your industry!”

In all fairness, I must say that furniture manufacturers today are using more synthetic, colorfast and durable fabrics than ever before in history. But still, they persist in arbitrarily placing S or even X codes on labels – even on fabrics that can be cleaned with fairly aggressive water-based solutions. That’s a cop-out. 

Finally, we need to get over the idea that consumers can clean all fabrics and that professional cleaning technicians are an optional luxury. After all, furniture can always be replaced if a consumer ruins it (and more furniture sales will be generated). 

Upholstery cleaning is one of the most complex subjects I teach, thanks to the diverse fibers, manufacturing techniques and dye application processes. But virtually all can be wet cleaned safely and effectively when accomplished by a trained, experienced professional.  

No, I don’t plan to get into fabric or furniture manufacturing – not ever. I’ll leave that to the professional manufacturers for whom I have great respect – both for their management and design artistry, and for the skill of their workers. I’d never recommend that a consumer weave their own fabrics or build their own furniture – although a very few attempt to do so. 

Similarly, except in very rare circumstances, I would not recommend that consumers do their own upholstery cleaning without warnings about potential disasters that they may create. Moreover, I wouldn’t recommend that professional furniture manufacturers create cleaning codes without consulting professionals in the cleaning industry first. 

“But,”a manufacturer may argue, “there are too many so-called cleaning professionals who have hung out their shingles, without any training or experience. How is a consumer to be protected from them?”

Well, that’s certainly a legitimate concern, just as is the concern about shoddy furniture manufacturing. But there is a way to determine and select a professional, and it’s through Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC)-approved education and certification.

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