ICS Magazine

Gadgets Over The Ages

February 4, 2013
mr steam vintage carpet cleaning

Find more ICS 50th Anniversary content at www.icsmag.com/50.

Raise your hand if you’re 38 years old. If not, then the sad truth is you weren’t even born when I started cleaning carpet professionally - and I use “professionally” with some reluctance. My first exposure to carpet cleaning came through my Mom who had just bought a new Kirby vacuum cleaner in the mid 60’s. She went for the deluxe package that included the shampooer with an abundance of rich foam shampoo. She was excited to clean the carpet and I wanted to help, so we created the beautiful white foam, spread it around and scrubbed the carpet with the Kirby. As you might imagine, our white wool shag (yes this is true) did not turn out as well as Mom had hoped. Going forward, she put clear plastic runners all over the house to make sure the carpet didn’t get any dirtier (and in case you think that is odd, try living with plastic wrapped upholstery full-time).  

Information Infobox:
  1. Necessity was the mother of invention, so we early carpet cleaning professionals adapted quickly as did some of the suppliers in the industry
  2. There’s portables and then there are some great tools and adjustments that have been made to truckmounts that make them valuable upholstery cleaning machines
  3. From the RX-20 to electric battery-operated sprayers, such innovations have made life easier for the carpet cleaning professional.

We all have different reasons for getting into this business. At the time I jumped in, I wasn’t really looking for a change. I was 23 years old, newly married, working construction for a whopping $3.25 an hour and finishing up my last year of college. My brother Rob came along and told me he just got into the carpet cleaning business and that he was willing to lease me his super sucker if I wanted to jump in. “You can make $10 and hour while cleaning and pick your own hours,” he said. I was in! Ten dollars an hour and work when I wanted - life doesn’t get any better than that. 

Rob’s “super sucker” had just a little more power compared to me spitting and a little more vacuum then I could suck through a straw. But since I didn’t know better, I jumped in and started cleaning – mother-in-law, friends and neighbors. Soon I found out that I would prefer cleaning for just about anybody compared to my mother-in-law, friends and neighbors.

As it turns out, the portable machine, a Windsor “Mr. Steam” (See Image 1) was a pretty good starter machine. While it didn’t have the pressure or vacuum we work with nowadays, with a little finesse and hard work, I was pulling in a few $100 days and found I could soon afford my own “steam” cleaner. 

We found that steam (hot water extraction) cleaning on its own did not quite have the cleaning oomph we needed, so we then invested in a 15-inch rotary single-disc scrubber with a shampoo tank. Those heavily soiled, nasty commercial carpets (and a few residential) got the dual system deluxe treatment. Over-wetting and thus slow drying, accompanied by cellulosic browning, were common problems. Lacking a professional solution, we resorted to vinegar on many jobs and left our customers’ home smelling like a big tossed salad.

It was a fateful day in the summer of 1975. We got a call from a representative of Steam Genie, a company from California that claimed to have a truckmounted carpet cleaning machine that could make our lives worth living again. He was coming through our town and wanted to give us a demo. We scheduled a dirty apartment for the next day. The rep (I wish I could remember his name) showed up with a fancy contraption – a big truckmount and my first really big gadget that did just what he said. We were amazed and delighted. Whatever this thing cost, we had to have it. He gave us the price and we swallowed hard and told him we would go to work on getting the money. We were almost in carpet cleaning heaven.

The next day – yes, the next day – we got a call from HydraMaster, a company from Washington state that also had a truckmount to show us. We went and saw that machine, and for reasons I can’t really remember, decided that would be the machine for us. We had to make that hard call to Steam Genie, but within two weeks we were working with a hard-squirting, strong-sucking, semi-high heat monster!

Over the next several years we built a pretty decent little carpet cleaning company. We did a small share of restoration work when our customers had a flood or fire, but mainly concentrated on carpet upholstery and draperies. (See Image 2)

We had very little access to training in the 70’s and there were almost no accessories to help us. We didn’t have an upholstery tool so we used a spray gun to squirt on the solution and then a vacuum nozzle used for car vacuuming to suck it up. We turned a few nice velvet pieces into terry cloth towels – it wasn’t pretty. As you can imagine, necessity was the mother of invention so we adapted quickly as did some of the suppliers in the industry.

Upholstery Cleaning

The first official class I attended was in Fresno, CA, presented by Steam Services (some of you will remember Ed York, the owner of Steam Services at the time) and the subject was “upholstery cleaning.” I learned some of the tools that are still in use today. I used my first horse hair brush, where the bristles stay just firm enough when wet to give the upholstery a good scrubbing without tearing it to shreds. We learned how to make dry foam using a natural sponge. To this day I still love the feel of the frothy foam and soft sponge in my hand. We used a submersible heater, the same kind used to keep a cow’s water from freezing in the winter, to heat our water in a bucket. 

Partly because we didn’t have the tools to harness the power of a truckmount, most upholstery was cleaned by portables. Kleenrite, U.S. Products and Prochem all had machines that could run both solvents and water-based solutions through them. I dare say we did quite a bit more dry cleaning with solvents than is done today. I used a Model 20A from Prochem. This was about the size of your carry-on luggage. It drew solution from the outside of the machine, so I would mix my solution in a bucket and put a submersible bucket heater in the solution to bring it to a rolling boil. One fateful day, I was cleaning along and noticed I was getting no solution from the wand. I looked over and all the very hot water that was in the bucket a minute ago had disappeared. It turned out the very hot water had gradually hardened the plastic on the bucket, it had cracked and all the boiling solution drained onto the carpet pulling out all of the color in a 1 square-foot area. That cost me some money, but with what little I had left, I bought a stainless steel bucket.

While I am still perfectly satisfied to use a good portable to clean upholstery, there are some great tools and adjustments that have been made to truckmounts that make them valuable upholstery cleaning machines. Kleenrite and U.S. Products were early adapters with their internal spray jets and multi-slotted heads. Refinements made to this concept have resulted in the modern tools we work with today.

Hydro-Force Injection Sprayer

In the early 80’s I attended a carpet cleaning class taught by Ron Toney. At this stage, my brothers and I had created a small distributorship, where we were selling some of the tools and chemicals of the trade while running our carpet cleaning business. As Ron was teaching about the need for pre-sprays, he said it would be cool to have a holster with a super concentrated pre-spray container that could be hooked to your solution line, similar to a lawn sprayer. I turned to Richard Swan, a fellow carpet cleaner sitting next to me and said, “That’s a great idea, I’m going to try and make that.” So while I developed the first industry injection sprayer, Ron Toney had the original idea and our industry, especially me, owe him a great big “thanks.” Ron also invented the original Hydro-Kinetic upholstery tool that is still in use today and the favorite of many professionals. (See Image 3)


My inclination is to mention all the great men and women who have influenced the industry over the past 50 years. These good people inspired, trained and invented products and systems that are still in place today. The problem is that I would leave someone out who richly deserves to be mentioned. So at the expense of forgetting something important, I want to mention a few more tools that have changed the way we work.

  • The RX-20 (See Image 4), and other rotary extractors, that have followed. These tools have increased cleaning efficiency and effectiveness for thousands.
  • The original Turbo on a stick. Actually this was preceded by the single-jet Viper tool. These tools created a whole new market for us all – tile and grout cleaning.
  • Carpet Groomers: A particular type of nylon teeth evenly distributed on a nylon base created a groomer that functionally “opened up” the carpet fibers for better cleaning and left the carpet with a finished look when done.
  • Counter-rotating brush machines: Used for years as specialty tools, new developments and power now make these tools valuable as pile lifters, encapsulating agitators, pre-extraction agitators and stand-alone interim cleaning machines.
  • Wand glides: Never without controversy, but always effective at smoothing out the wand stroke and taking a little of the work out of cleaning.
  • Electric battery-operated sprayers: Much improved over the years, these sprayers give a consistent even spray without the hassle of a cord

This is a short list of just a few of the major “gadgets” that improve quality and efficiency of cleaning. The hundreds of small gadgets not mentioned are real life-savers on a day-to-day basis.

When I entered this field 38 years ago it was somewhat on a whim. I had no idea that it would become my profession and reward me with hundreds of new friends over the years. I truly believe that we have great people in this industry. People who clean up other people’s messes are just good people. You care about your customers, you care about doing the best you can for them and giving them value for the money they spend with you. I am proud, grateful and very blessed to be associated with such a great group of professionals. Please let me wish you continued success and happiness in your business this coming year and beyond.