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Low-Moisture Cleaning Systems: An Integral Part of Comprehensive Maintenance Systems for Carpet

April 9, 2008
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While traveling the country and speaking with thousands of professional textile cleaners, the question I hear most often is, “Which cleaning method and system is best to use to clean carpet?”

My reply goes something like this:

“What is the age of the carpet?”
“How many previous cleanings?”
“What is the construction?”
“What are the manufacturer specs?”
“What are the environmental conditions at the time of cleaning?”

In many textile-cleaning situations you will need to employ a combination of cleaning systems to get optimum results. There is no one answer.

Systems of cleaning are extremely important. However, I would say the technician’s knowledge and education, combined with experience and technical expertise, will ultimately control the outcome of the job. Any cleaning system is only as effective as the trained professional using it. When I hear comments made by textile cleaners in general regarding which cleaning system is better than another, the low-moisture system tends to get a negative rap. From my personal cleaning experience, I have employed several systems on a particular job to obtain optimum results. For example, performing hot-water extraction of commercial olefin carpet followed by bonnet cleaning with cotton pads or oscillating pad cleaning. Pads used in bonnet cleaning or OP cleaning help remove more soil and leave the carpet fairly dry. Faster drying action helps prevent the reappearance of spots as well as soil wicking back to the surface of the carpet.

The successful textile professional knows there are different levels of cleaning:
  1. Maintenance
  2. Interim
  3. Restorative
The emphasis of maintenance cleaning is to minimize the impact of soiling and how that relates to carpet appearance. Examples of maintenance strategies include efficient placement of walk-off mats for soil prevention, regular vacuuming and fast removal of spots.

Interim cleaning employs systems that require little moisture, quick drying time and generally is used between restorative cleanings. There will come a time, depending on traffic in a building or residence, when interim cleaning will no longer be effective in removing the heavy soil load exhibited in the carpet.

This leads us to the third level, restorative cleaning. Cleaning systems employed for restorative cleaning use more water than interim cleaning systems and are designed to extract and rinse deep embedded soils from the carpet. When used properly by a trained and certified technician, restorative systems can also provide quick dry times.

Restorative cleaning, however, uses higher levels of moisture, and this can wreak havoc if employed by an improperly trained technician. Over-wetting carpet can lead to numerous problems, the most serious being that, given certain environmental conditions, if carpet is left wet for more than 24 hours, microbial action may occur, jeopardizing indoor air quality and becoming a health concern for the occupants.

Now don’t rip me to pieces; low-moisture systems used by an untrained operator can also wreak havoc and create the same problems as wet extraction, only it is much less likely to happen when drier systems are used. Bottom line, textile-cleaning professionals, no matter what system is used, must first get the carpet clean and, second, keep drying time to a minimum.

Now let’s take a closer look at low-moisture cleaning systems. This is not an all-inclusive article on every low-moisture system available; however, I will examine several commonly used in today’s marketplace. Low-moisture cleaning systems give great results on many different carpet types, with very fast drying. Remember, it’s the operator more than the system that has the ability to achieve above average results. The equipment and systems are nothing without a certified, trained professional running it.

Absorbent Compound

This minimum-moisture method is used both in residential and commercial situations. Schools and large institutions employ this method for its fast drying and little chance of excessive moisture or over wetting. The system uses a granular carrier distributed through the carpet, usually with brush agitation. Use the brush recommended by the carpet manufacturer; the difference is rotary or cylindrical or counter rotating. Once distributed by brush agitation it dries quickly and is removed by HEPA filtration vacuum equipment. If the carpet is pile lifted with a pile-lifter vacuum, you will obtain greater results. Even though this system uses minimum moisture, chemical action is accomplished through the use of the granular product, with or without preconditioning. Depending on if the carpet was preconditioned before vacuuming, dry times are generally thirty to sixty minutes.

Dry Foam

Dry foam is also a low-moisture method. The dry-foam machine produces mechanical aeration and can be applied to the carpet usually by a brush system; soil and spent solution is then drawn back into the machine by wet vacuum. The wet vacuum approach for soil extraction is most common. Some machines absorb the moisture and soil into certain pads or bonnets.

Bonnet Cleaning Methods

There are several variations of this method. What I will term general bonnet cleaning is also called absorbent pad cleaning. This is a minimum-moisture method used on many different types of carpets and fibers. Bonnet cleaning is most often used in a commercial environment on direct glue-down applications for fast, effective cleaning in addition to ultra-fast drying capabilities. Having carpet cleaned and dry quickly is of major concern not only to homeowners. Wet carpet in buildings or schools quickly becomes a safety issue where slip-and-falls are concerned not to mention issues that relate to re-soiling of the carpet in addition to area that cannot be accessible during the drying period.

A detergent solution is applied to the carpet and extracted using an absorbent pad/bonnet attached to a drive block usually on a low-speed, 175-rpm floor machine. Many professionals use a 300-rpm machine to achieve greater results in addition to faster production. You must have experience and understand where to use and not use higher-rpm bonnet cleaning. Lubrication will be key in addition to bonnet selection to avoid creating texture changes or fiber damage during the cleaning process. (Note: An untrained operator can damage carpet or improperly clean carpet with any system, not just bonnet cleaning. Training, certification and experience are crucial. There’s no substitute for these three factors.)

Oscillating pad or OP is a version of bonnet cleaning where the carpet is also sprayed with detergent and extraction is with a pad usually cotton terry cloth towels on an oscillating floor machine. The machine will not only rotate slowly, it will also oscillate. Many use the OP system as a standalone system for cleaning carpets, especially in commercial work, while many who clean with extraction systems also use OP in conjunction with extraction to help eliminate slow drying, wicking problems and also to remove more soil. In addition, on trashed carpet, many pre-agitate with an OP machine before extraction of the carpet and achieve great results.

Encapsulation Cleaning

A system continuing to gain ground and popularity in the commercial marketplace is encapsulation. There are many variations in equipment; most machines use either cylindrical or rotary type brushes. The key principle here is agitating the solution into the carpet using polymer technology with the ability to surround and crystallize soils. The polymer technology coats the fiber so soil will not be attracted by any sticky residues. After drying the crystallized soil is HEPA vacuumed from the carpet. Encapsulation gives carpet a good appearance quickly, which is critical in a commercial environment. This system saves time, material and labor. Fans of encapsulation systems will tell you the carpet will stay cleaner longer from the polymer coating. There are also encapsulation products that contain carpet protector.

The professional cleaner interested further in low-moisture cleaning can get in touch with the Low Moisture Carpet Cleaner’s Association (www.lmcca.org), a group of professionals dedicated to educating people to the science of low-moisture cleaning systems.

Textile cleaning and maintenance is a science. The professional must be armed and ready to employ different systems. Low-moisture cleaning will open new avenues of business. Today’s professional textile cleaner must have the ability to clean to IICRC standards and manufacturer specifications, and possess the knowledge to offer valued clients different cleaning systems that add extreme value and credibility.

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