Concepts in Carpet Chemistry

July 12, 2002
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The future of cleaning chemicals could follow many different paths


I would love to see what cleaning chemicals are in use 50 years from now. There will probably be new carpet fibers that repel soil types more effectively for these cleaners to work with. Perhaps future diets will change those carpet soils for the better in that fibers are exposed to fewer fats, sugars and colorants, the majority of today's carpet stains.

Carpet cleaning has definitely changed for the better compared to 50 years ago, when a carpet was "cleaned" by shampooing with a buffing pad and a floor-buffing machine. All that does is spread the soils out evenly, making the carpet appear clean. That particular process did lasting damage to carpet cleaners by making homeowners believe that cleaning a carpet promoted faster re-soiling, i.e. if it gets dirty again so quickly, then why clean it at all?

The carpet cleaning process is fostered by three basic principles:

  • Heat
  • Mechanical actuation/pressure
  • Extraction

    Basic chemistry plays its role by assisting these processes. However, chemistry has advanced since my college days and is much more efficient in its application, so much so it makes a chemist wonder, "What the heck can come up next?"

    Solvents were once an integral part of a cleaning formula. Their importance was felt mainly in the removal of oil-based soils. Now, with EPA regulations and more-efficient surfactants, solvents are being perceived as a health threat. The chemical companies that manufacture solvents have seen their sales drop. I recently tried to acquire a detailed data catalog on solvents from a highly regarded chemical producer, but found that the catalog was discontinued due to the drop in sales.

    It is not difficult to predict that solvents will eventually be given a less desirable status. California has already initiated this by reducing solvent volatility to very low levels, requiring the development of specially designed formulas to meet the new laws.

    Research is addressing this new cleaning challenge by investigating surfactant technology. Surfactants are the key to any formula inasmuch as they make water "wetter." The water penetrates the soil and allows easier removal, acting, in a way, as a solvent. This leap to an alternate source is somewhat easier to make due to the surfactant's greater ability to unplug the soil from the carpet.

    Another area getting plenty of heat, and not the truckmount kind, is phosphates. The absence of phosphates in laundry detergents is one easy example. At one time, this was a profitable business for phosphate manufacturers, but these companies had their foundations shaken when phosphates in clothes cleaners became as unacceptable as a Diamondbacks booster hugging a Yankees fan. Phosphates received negative press due to their abundant use in the agricultural arena, where runoff has been found to contaminate streams and rivers. Phosphate use in cleaners is minimal compared to agriculture, but the segment has still become persona non grata as far as its association with carpet cleaning formulas goes.

    Where does this lead regarding the future of cleaning formulas? It has been suggested that plain water be used as a basic ingredient. What a convenience. You can use it and, once finished, you can dump it in any sewer system without fear of an EPA backlash. Perhaps the dry residue would be acceptable for sale as a fertilizer, establishing a two-part profit base. However, I don't believe this type of cleaning will occur; the bottom line is that straight water just won't cut it when it comes to maximum dirt removal.

    As we know, carpet cleaning is not all science. It is a combination of factors that work toward the goal of providing both customer- and self-satisfaction. It is great to hear the customer expound on how their carpet never looked cleaner. You are bestowed the title of ultimate wizard, having renovated a carpet which was, to her, a lost cause.

    A carpet cleaner is a health engineer, not a wizard, a professional whose primary concern is to promote a healthy environment in the home. The environmental advantages gleaned from a clean carpet outweigh any disadvantages that may come up from time to time. I wonder how many other types of environment-related health issues would grab the headlines if carpets were not cleaned. The more we learn more about ourselves through bioscience, the more we will understand ways to improve health conditions. Who knows, the health engineer may require a college degree someday.

    Carpet cleaners must realize that research, as well as regulations and environmental concerns, is part of business and, like life, is neither perfect nor predictable. But carpet-cleaning professionals are very adept in handling their business, demonstrating the know-how and ability to turn almost every situation to their advantage.

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