Cleaning & Restoration Association News

Cleaning Up the Memories

August 11, 2003
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When I was younger, steam extraction was the term used to describe hot-water extraction, a term that may still exist in some promotional materials circulating through a neighborhood near you.

When you think of it, the hot-water extraction industry, or HWE, can still be looked at as being in its infancy, for it was an unknown process fewer than 50 years ago. The word truckmount might have referred to an engine stabilizer, or how to ride a steer in Texas, but carpet cleaning? Forget it.

When it first appeared, HWE required muscles as much as anything. In this it was not much different than in the days when an area rug was cleaned with a sinister-looking, rose-petal shaped iron racket known as a rug beater. The rug was dragged outside, hung on a clothesline and beat with deadly intent and purpose. My mother regularly performed such a task, all 5-foot-5-inches of her. The dust and dirt coming off that rug would have sent the EPA running for a filtration mask. But in those days, that’s what cleaning was all about.

Everyone knows that rugs and carpets are catchalls for all types of surface soils, whether from shoes, spilled items or pets. In the 1930s, getting your carpet cleaned meant rolling it up and taking it to an in-plant cleaning factory. For example, in Chicago there was a company whose logo was the imprint of a kiss. To me, those juicy red lips plastered all over the paper roll the freshly cleaned carpet came wrapped in represented the kiss of cleanliness. The carpet was laid in the front room or living room. There was a standing radio from which emanated mystery stories or the adventures of the Green Hornet, all heard while laying on that fresh, clean carpet.

What a pleasure it is to have carpet cleaning performed as it is today. The approach, as well as the chemistry, has changed immeasurably. The overwhelming success of wall-to-wall carpeting some decades ago opened the door to opportunity, confirmed by some 40,000-plus professional carpet cleaners tuned into the nation today, watching as population growth and an unprecedented explosion of new home building continues to enhance the prospects of this fantastic industry.

Carpet cleaning professionals know that they have to have a plan in place in order to maximize their time and effort. Truckmounts and portables have revolutionized the carpet-cleaning industry, to be sure. But to me, the selection of cleaning chemicals is where the magic resides. Chemicals are the real muscle of the system. It has been said that it takes approximately one-fortieth of a second for a pressurized spray to hit the carpet and be extracted. It could literally take days to clean a carpet with plain water, and the end result would still be in question; chemistry allows the cleaning professional to perform the task in the blink of an eye.

Truckmounts and portables use similar cleaning chemicals based on surfactants. In the simplest terms, imagine a surfactant represented as a pick. This imaginary pick pries the dirt particles off the carpet and suspends them for easy removal. That’s all there is to it.

While the chemistry is similar, it is important to remember that portables, due to lower pressures, flows and design differences, are better served using liquid chemicals. The extra water necessary to keep the chemicals in the solution results in the cleaner paying a premium for the chemicals. In the case of truckmounts, the powders are solubilized and can withstand the rigorous exposure to pressure and heat. Because water is not used as a carrier, on dilution, powders can be obtained at a lower cost than liquids when compared at an ounce-to-ounce application.

But lower costs do not mean you should go out to a “Big Box” warehouse and purchase a so-called multi-use powder. Unfortunately, no matter how often this piece of advice is dispensed, there will still be carpet cleaners who purchase said powder, saying it “works OK for them.”

A carpet cleaner using an unspecified chemical is a carpet cleaner asking for trouble. Many of those formulas are intended to clean anything but carpet. You have probably heard the stories, or told one yourself, where a cleaner substituted a properly formulated chemical with common laundry detergent, leaving a carpet full of soap residue for the next unsuspecting cleaner. If you have cleaned a soap-loaded carpet, you know the result: excessive foaming. This might prompt you to use plain hot water, and even then the results might only be fair. With disasters like this, what better reason to keep a gallon of powdered or liquid anti-foam in the van?

Professional carpet cleaners, be they engaged in HWE or low-moisture cleaning, must recognize the importance of cleaning chemistry. Poor knowledge and bad information will easily cancel out the best intentions. The professional cleaner must line up his or her sights and target the right chemicals for both the equipment and the job at hand.

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