ICS Magazine

Cats and Dogs: The Textile Cleaner's Best Friends

January 7, 2008


A huge market exists for professional textile cleaners who are acutely aware that household pets can cause difficult odor problems requiring remediation. To handle urine decontamination of textiles, the professional cleaner needs to learn the principles of odor control.

I highly suggest attending an IICRC Odor Control class to learn scientific principles in addition to techniques necessary to handle urine-contaminated textiles. Education is the foundation for business success.

A crucial question to consider with urine-contaminated carpet is, “Can the carpet be returned to a healthy state?” It is not healthy to have urine-contaminated carpet in an indoor environment. Consider the presence of small children who will come in direct contact with the carpet. Are there other occupants in the environment that may have health issue, such as asthma or allergies, that may be aggravated by urine-contaminated carpet or the products used for remediation? This question should be examined carefully when first evaluating any urine-contaminated carpet.

Many good cleaning technicians clean a urine-contaminated carpet and apply a deodorizer, and many times the odor returns and is worse than ever. A principle to consider when attempting to restore a urine-contaminated carpet is the “20/60 Rule.”

Urine penetrates carpet much like a filter; the stain on the back of the carpet will be much larger than on the surface. If 20 percent of the top is contaminated, then 60 percent of the back is contaminated. In this case, the best option would be to replace the carpet along with padding and then clean and seal the subfloor. It may not be scientifically possible to restore every urine-contaminated carpet you come across.

Another important factor to consider is the customer’s “level of tolerance” towards the odor; what degree of odor removal will satisfy the client? Is the homeowner a pet lover whose cherished pet thinks the living room carpet is the bathroom? This client may be happy with any improvement in the situation. Maybe the neighbor came to visit and brought along their cute little poodle that had a little accident on the carpet, and nothing short of complete remediation will satisfy the client. Complete satisfaction for the client in many instances will not be cheap; pets can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to homes as a result of excessive urine contamination to the structure.

Let’s take a look at general techniques used in the process of urine decontamination of carpet. Locate the source of the urine in the carpet using the right instruments. The human nose is a good indicator of odor; however, the professional can be thankful to not have to get down on the floor to smell the carpet to locate contaminated areas. There are more scientific ways. A quality moisture detector with an alarm alerts you when moisture is encountered. This instrument has metal probes that penetrate the carpet and padding to the floor to reveal moisture. Unfortunately, you may miss an area with this technique because testing every inch of the carpet is difficult and time consuming.

A black light or ultraviolet high-intensity light can be used to detect urine. This method is preferred and is much easier because it can be successful without pulling up the carpet to look for urine stains on the backing of the carpet. High-intensity UV lights are very good because you can use them during the day. Certain fluorescent lights do not work well in the daytime and must be used at night or when the room is dark. Your local distributor can help determine which light is best for you.

Another way to detect urine is disengage the carpet and inspect the backing for stains. It will take time and effort and, in many instances, you will be cleaning the backing anyway during a complete surface and subsurface treatment.

The professional technician must also consider that contaminated padding, tack strip, baseboards and even walls could be an issue. Areas outside the source should also be evaluated and treated. The carpet padding and the subfloor will create your greatest challenge. When dealing with heavy pet odors, many times it will be necessary to disengage the carpet to remove and replace padding, then sand and seal the subfloor in addition to cleaning the front and back of the carpet. Along with taking an IICRC Odor Control class, you will need to attend an IICRC Repair and Reinstallation class to educate yourself on the skills necessary to remove padding and reinstall carpet.

I would caution the professional textile cleaner that it is difficult to guarantee odor removal. This is especially true when the pet that created the problem still resides in the home. If you did the job and took the pet with you (just kidding), you would have a fighting chance. Even after that scenario, odors can be psychological and, even with the best technologies and products, the client may advise they still smell the urine odor. Be aware of the clients’ level of tolerance to the problem; do they truly need or want new carpet. Now you know why carpet sales and installation and odor problems go hand in hand.

Remember animals are territorial and mark their territory with urine. In my experience, isolated “accidents” are rare. It is amazing at just how much urine can potentially exist in a contaminated carpet. A 50-pound dog can urinate 6 ounces at a time twice daily, totaling 12 ounces per day; multiply that by 30 days and the carpet ends up with 360 ounces per month. Wow! To complicate matters, carpet conceals urine and, with the right environmental conditions, microbial action may develop. Pet urine odors can amplify during the summer months with high humidity and hot temperatures. Dark and damp conditions, as well as little airflow under the carpet with organic soil present, will also give urine odor a boost.

Components of Urine

Urine is mostly comprised of water, proteins, hormones, inorganic salts, urea, uric acid, urochrome (a yellow natural pigment), etc. Urine starts out as an acid and dries to an alkaline state. The acid content will begin to work on carpet fiber that, in most stain-resistant carpet, is dyed with acid dye. The chemical rule in this situation is “like products attract.” The yellow pigment in the urine will attract to the acid dye in the carpet. If urine stains are not handled quickly and properly, the pigment can permanently stain even the best stain-resistant carpet. Urine undergoes chemical changes during the drying stage and ammonia develops. Ammonia can discolor carpet and can be perceived as just an ordinary stain, but it is actually color loss and yellow pigment from the urine.

Treatment

There are different schools of thought when it comes to the chemistry necessary to improve and remove pet-urine odors from carpet. A common technique is the application of an acid pretreatment followed by extraction with a neutral detergent, which leaves the carpet in the proper pH range for optimum results when applying enzymes. Prior to cleaning the carpet an appropriate acid pre-spray is necessary to break down the alkaline salts. If you cannot disengage the carpet and treat the front and back, try using a Water Claw which, when attached to a truckmount or high-power portable, will do surface-to-subsurface extraction without lifting the carpet. When using the Water Claw, the odor-control product application must reach all areas, including the top and back of carpet and padding. Proper extraction should effectively remove urine from the affected surface and subsurface of the carpet along with the pad. Remember, the padding and floor will be your biggest problems. All odor-control jobs are unique and require proper pre-inspection to determine methods and systems that would be used; you may have to deviate from the suggested procedures suggested here. Proper education and IICRC certification in odor control will help to ensure success and limit liability for your company.

After your acid pretreatment followed by neutral extraction, many professional textile cleaners apply an enzyme to digest the odor. Enzymes play a big role in our lives and without them we would be in big trouble. How could we digest our food without enzymes? Many of our favorite foods could not be made without enzymes. It would take 50 pages to explain about enzymes and how they work, but don’t worry, here’s the short version: Enzymes are protein-based and can break up waste molecules into very small sizes, which can then be consumed or digested by the bacteria. Bacteria eat the waste and enzymes break it down so the bacteria can be more effective consuming the waste.

Enzymes and bacteria are on the same team and need one another to be effective at eating organic waste. During my research on enzymes I learned even scientists cannot explain or answer every question about enzymes and their characteristics. Your local distributor will have specialized enzyme-based formulations proven in the field to help you solve your customers’ pet odor problems.

Remember, there is no stopping the professional when we unleash the power of education. This article just touches the surface of the science of urine decontamination of textiles. The general principles discussed here are not meant to be the answer to all pet urine contaminated textiles. Many thanks to my odor-control mentor Cliff Zlotnik, whose training and guidance taught me how to handle odor problems in a logical and scientific fashion.