ICS Magazine

A History of Carpet Cleaning Chemicals

February 4, 2013
chemicals on store shelf

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Chemistry as a whole is a unique science and when it comes to carpet cleaning chemistry, it’s a totally different ballgame. I’ve been working in this field for about 40 years attempting to help meet the needs of the dedicated carpet cleaner. It’s amazing to hear their requests to accomplish that one goal of getting carpet clean. To hear from customers the words “I never thought it could be cleaned” is the crowning glory for the carpet cleaner. To achieve this goal, there have been a lot of ups and downs to balance the chemical formulas for this high degree of acceptance.

If you find that chemistry is out of your reach, you are sadly mistaken - you use chemistry every day but don’t realize it. It may not be the chemical used in carpet cleaning, but from measuring two teaspoonfuls of sugar for your coffee to mixing a baby’s formula, you are involved in chemistry. Measurement of compounds (materials) is necessary for obtaining the right conditions to get the right results, and this is a large part of the chemistry process.

I will start to give you a brief idea of how chemistry plays its role in carpet cleaning products. To begin, do you realize that you can clean practically anything with straight water? The only negative is that you don’t want to spend the time involved in doing it. That’s where chemistry comes in – to facilitate an easier task in a shorter time. 

Information Infobox:
  1. There have been a lot of ups and downs to balance the chemical formulas
  2. Further evaluation in formulation research has been to either eliminate or tone down the incorporation of solvents
  3. There will be a continued effort to develop a chemical cleaner that does a superb job in cleaning and meets all environmental conditions


Now the queen of clean has recommended household items to clean spots, stains and anything else that needs removing. Some of the suggestions are quite good, but still never duplicate the work that the professional carpet cleaner can do. 

Formulated products created by chemists supply this amazing ability to remove soils in a short time, making the carpet cleaner a star in his or her own right. I would like to comment on an episode of mine some 30 years ago when carpet cleaners were entering into a field based on carry-over cleaners from other cleaning industries:

Fatty acid soap (e.g. Fels Naptha) was used with a buffing machine and a pad. All that was accomplished was to spread the soil evenly throughout the carpet, giving the appearance of being clean. It was quite apparent that a marriage between a correctly formulated cleaner and equipment needed to be made. I was approached by Mr. Jim Roden of Prochem to evaluate various cleaning chemicals to clean carpets faster and more efficiently without the problems that chemicals can produce. This required products that were stable and improved over products currently being used.

At that time, there was an array of chemicals that had to be tested and determined to be applicable for carpet cleaning use. This was quite an undertaking in that one chemical compound used in a carpet cleaner formula could run into a thousand alternate formulas. They all had to be tested as to their performance ability. This was an ongoing effort, and this process-to-be provided good job security! There also was much research made by other chemists who were able to narrow down compounds for their capacity to clean carpets.

Back in the 80’s, there was a big movement to make carpets stain-proof. DuPont introduced the “Stain Master” carpet with the distinction of being able to prevent stains from locking in on their carpets. This so-called remarkable stain-proof carpet was so popular that it produced a $40-million market gain for DuPont.

By the way, it was by accident that a chemist had taken an anti-stain chemical that had been on the shelf for a long time and used it on nylon fiber. This compound had the capability of sealing up the open dye spots in the fibers which prevented the dyes from the spilled product from penetrating the smaller dye spots. Keep in mind that these smaller open dye spots are there even after the carpet has been dyed in its regular dying operation.

At this time, gossip had it that stain-proof carpets did not require any cleaning whatsoever. Fortune has it that eventually those stain-proof carpets did require cleaning. As we all know, the gossip columns did not erode the cleaning industry after all. The Prochem lab was able to duplicate their method of anti-staining and wanted to introduce it as an add-on feature for carpet cleaners not only to clean carpets with, but to enhance the anti-stain protection as well. Unfortunately, this capability was cancelled due to higher management and outside requests to not introduce this operation. Cancellation of ads and flyers were made, which were all ready to go into print. 

A sad day indeed! But the 80’s were a great decade for the carpet cleaning industry. A new approach was developed in cleaning operations. It was recognized that instead of cleaning directly with a high pressure system, why not apply a pre-spray solution and let it stand for 10-20 minutes and then extract it? This was the approach used, especially for traffic lanes where there was excessive soil build up. This process was good, however. Working closely with Lee Pemberton it was noted that pre-spraying not only traffic lanes but throughout the carpet, and then extracting, gave the best results. The extraction process would also utilize a neutralizer that would leave the carpet clean and soft – basically a two-in-one operation. This method of approach became the standard of the industry for which you can thank Lee Pemberton.

As time went on, the carpet cleaner was faced with a new approach to cleaning based on environmental concerns. Green chemistry came into play. Initial attempts in this area were somewhat futile. The use of plain water seemed comparable to the proposed green cleaning chemicals that were being offered. They were either jumping the gun or trying to cash in on a market that was without competition. In a way, this was good in that it opened the eyes of the consumer as to regulations in this area.

The EPA initiated acceptable chemicals for use in formulation studies which required further R&D effort to develop products that would do the job. One company, Sapphire Scientific, has made great strides to produce products that meet this environmental challenge. Other companies such as Prochem, Bridgepoint Systems and Chemspec all have developed products to meet the criteria of green products that work. They have become an answer to public requests.

Further evaluation in formulation research has been to either eliminate or tone down the incorporation of solvents. Newly developed surfactants have played a strong role in minimizing the use of solvents in general. This will be an ongoing developing process with less use of fewer phosphates, no fragrance and a neutral pH. It appears that we are going full circle, coming back to what we initially commented on water.

Research will continue in this area to reach the golden challis of a chemical cleaner that does a superb job in cleaning and meets all environmental conditions. On a fortuitous note – here in “cowboy country” carpet cleaners know not to squat when looking closely at carpet with their spurs on.