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Contents Restoration: Restoring Upholstered Furniture

September 11, 2000
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Virtually anything that can be brought into a home or business falls within the contents restoration category; thus, restoration specialists must adapt and be willing to experiment with a variety of restoration techniques and procedures when new objects are encountered...

Contents restoration covers a lot of territory. Virtually anything that can be brought into a home or business falls within this category; thus, restoration specialists must adapt and be willing to experiment with a variety of restoration techniques and procedures when new objects are encountered.

Let’s assume that restorers have a basic working knowledge of fabric cleaning techniques. The “soft furnishings” category covers a variety of fabric furnishings found throughout a home or business, including upholstered furniture, lampshades, mattresses, box springs, pillows, tapestries, etc. We must assume that the specialists within your company already have the in-depth knowledge of how these items are normally cleaned. In the next few articles, our discussions will be confined to variations on standard procedures that relate specifically to soot contaminated soft furnishings.

This category includes sofas, lounges, love seats, armchairs, ottomans, etc. Fabrics may range from almost indestructible olefin and polypropylene to the most delicate imported silks. It also encompasses anything from durable plain weaves to the most delicate satins, velvets and Jacquard brocades, even tufted or flocked fabric. Procedures should comply with the IICRC S300, Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Cleaning of Upholstery Fabrics.

Dry Soot Removal

The first step in cleaning almost any soot-contaminated fabric is to remove as much dry soil as possible. Using a power blower, a vacuum or even a dry cleaning sponge, remove as much soot as possible in a dry state before applying any liquid cleaning agent. Perform this procedure as quickly as possible, before anyone sits on or handles the upholstery.

Dry Side Cleaning

Once dry soot has been removed, you must decide how to clean fabrics chemically; that is, should it be wet- or dry-cleaned? Obviously, the fabric’s construction, fiber content, dye stability and degree of soiling dictates the cleaning method to be used. Most of the upholstery we dry clean comes from fire claims. When delicate fabrics are encountered, dry cleaning virtually eliminates the probability of cellulosic browning, shrinkage, dye bleeding, or fabric distortion. Further, the method is safe and effective, even when performed by minimally experienced personnel.

Dry cleaning light to moderate soot damage from upholstery involves spraying a dry solvent, typically with 1-2 ounces of dry cleaning detergent per gallon (1/2 oz. or 14 gm. per liter) onto heavily soiled areas of the fabric and agitating for even distribution and maximum soil suspension. Following 3-5 minutes of dwell time, mix a blended dry solvent rinse solution, combined with 1-2 ounces per gallon of dry solvent deodorant. Place it in the solution tank of an upholstery and drapery extraction unit. Using an appropriate hand tool, rinse the fabric of suspended soil. Fast, safe and simple!

Wet Side Cleaning

In moderate to heavy soot damage situations, wet cleaning is the preferred method, just as it is in non-fire related cleaning. Wet cleaning is more aggressive and yields better results than more gentle dry-side processes. But again, if soiling is minimal, why take a chance? Remember, our first responsibility in any restoration situation is to preserve the fabric or surface on which we’re working. Secondary to that responsibility is to remove all the soot contamination that can be removed with safety. This implies that we first consider dry cleaning if feasible, before applying more aggressive, less safe wet cleaning techniques.

If substantial pre-existing soil or moderate to heavy soot damage is present, restorers must resort to normal wet-side upholstery pre-conditioning and “rinse” agents. Use agents that are only as strong (in terms of pH) as the upholstery’s fiber and colorfastness allow. A possible variation on standard operating procedures would be boosting the pre-conditioner’s efficiency by adding a dry solvent additive (glycol solvent) to emulsify baked-on, oily soot residues. Also, allowing your pre-conditioner more dwell time to emulsify oily residues improves cleaning results. Remember, preserving the fabric’s colorfastness is your first responsibility.

Salvage Cleaning

In some heavy soot residue situations, no amount of cleaning produces adequate results. It’s always advisable to pre-test a piece of upholstery by cleaning a cushion if you anticipate that final results may not be acceptable. It’s much better (assuming you want to do another job for this insurance company) to clean one cushion for a few dollars, rather than charging ten times that amount to clean an entire sofa and have unsatisfactory results.

With some fabric furniture (specifically that made predominantly of polyester, olefin, acrylic or some cotton), it’s possible that a salvage cleaning procedure may make an unsatisfactory cleaning job acceptable to insureds. I’m referring to a heavily contaminated fabric that looks 200% better after your first cleaning attempt, but still has a grayish or yellowish cast (primarily evident on lighter colored yarns) that makes cleaning results unacceptable—especially since an insurance company pays for replacement or reupholstering if cleaning is not acceptable.

Before we go further, it’s important to point out that the procedure we’re about to discuss is strictly a salvage cleaning technique, which means you must obtain the insurance company representative’s permission “to destroy the fabric” in your attempt to employ this risky process. Just point out that the furniture is unacceptable as it is now, and that the only alternative is either to replace, recover, or try a much more aggressive salvage cleaning procedure. Considering the expense associated with these alternatives, salvage cleaning is usually acceptable, however, some insureds, when faced with choices, may accept your less-than-perfect cleaning efforts because of some sentimental attachment to the furniture under consideration.

You’ll notice that we emphasize that the fabrics subjected to salvage cleaning are all colorfast and made of durable fibers. That’s why the procedure usually works on these fabrics and not on others. Your first step is to determine fiber content and colorfastness, which you should have done prior to the initial cleaning. Even then, additional testing with the chemical solutions we’re recommending for salvage cleaning is always mandatory. Accomplish pre-testing in an inconspicuous spot near a zipper or on a rear skirt pleat.

To prepare the salvage cleaning solution, first mix your standard mild, alkaline preconditioning solution. Make sure it’s non-ammoniated, since mixing chlorine bleach and ammonia produces a toxic gas (chlorine). Now, mix one part of standard 5.25% household chlorine bleach with four parts (1:4) of your diluted upholstery pre-conditioning solution (6% chlorine, or Javex® in Canada, is mixed 1:5). This yields a 1% solution that has the aggressiveness required to remove the last trace of soot staining.

After determining fiber content and testing each color in the fabric with a 1:1 chlorine bleach solution, and waiting 10 minutes for a reaction, you’re ready to proceed. Apply the solution to the fabric, working it in with a white towel or nylon bristled brush. Allow a few minutes for the solution to remove the gray or yellow discoloration and then rinse thoroughly. Since chlorine bleach is not self-neutralizing, mix a solution of one-half ounce of sodium hydrosulfite (reducer, stripper) to 32 ounces of water (one quart; 0.95 liter). When applied to the fabric, this solution neutralizes the chlorine bleach on contact. Meticulous final hot water extraction should follow.

Final results are nothing short of amazing; but a word of caution—sometimes cotton prints change color when subjected to the sodium hydrosulfite neutralizer. After a few seconds of panic, continue to follow the procedures carefully, and the colors will gradually return to normal. If they don’t…well, that’s the nice thing about salvage cleaning. Now, you can go on to reupholstering or replacement.

Deodorizing Upholstery

Deodorization of smoke-contaminated upholstery involves repeated applications of multiple procedures until all malodor is eliminated. Contrary to speculation, smoke odor doesn’t penetrate into upholstery to a major degree for several reasons. First, smoke follows the path of least resistance. Multiple face fabric components (pile, backing), or the tightness of the fabric weave prevents smoke from penetrating into cushion materials. Second, most upholstery face fabrics are latex backed, a condition that also resists smoke penetration. Third, a layer of batting material (cotton fabric or polyester fiber fill) may further impede smoke penetration. Of course, injected cleaning solutions enable professionals to more than penetrate the areas on upholstery where smoke might have gone with effective smoke odor counteractants.

Whether cleaning on the wet or dry side, begin deodorization with the addition of a compatible deodorant to the cleaning solution itself. Use a water-based general-purpose deodorant if cleaning on the wet side; or use a dry solvent-based deodorant when cleaning on the dry side. We emphasize “compatible” because many deodorants and most disinfectants are not compatible with cleaning detergents, and, when mixed, form a gummy residue that results in rapid resoiling of the fabric.

The most effective and frequently used method of deodorization for upholstered furniture is electronic deodorization, or ozone gas. After cleaning and drying, place the furniture in an ozone vault (confined space) for 24-48 hours, or until smoke odor is completely eliminated. If your company doesn’t have an ozone room, individual items may be tented in plastic sheeting with an ozone generator placed inside this tent. Though somewhat slower than deodorizing in an ozone room, this procedure confines the ozone gas concentration for the time required to accomplish deodorization.

Occasionally, turn the ozone unit off and thermal fog the upholstery while it’s still confined in the ozone room or tent. This is especially recommended just prior to delivery, since most insureds have a heightened awareness of smoke odor, and will smell smoke unless you give them something pleasant to react to.

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