ICS Magazine

Instruments for Detecting Urine

February 9, 2006


Before talking about the tools and methods used for urine detection, let's review a few other important aspects of urine contamination in our customers' homes.

If you think of urine as your enemy, you might consider a change in your thinking. The removal of urine and its odors create a multi-million dollar industry every year. With proper understanding of your little yellow friend, you, the professional fabric-care specialist, can share in the millions spent to correct the bad effects of urine while helping your customers in a very necessary way.

The problems your customer may experience can range from a one-time accident of an animal, over-spray around the toilet (if you have children of the male persuasion, you understand) or a Great Dane who believes the living room carpet is his own special sandbox. A dog or cat that weighs less than 5 pounds will produce more than 10 gallons of urine a year. If the animal concentrates most of that into an area of less than 100 square feet, which many of them do, the problem can be quite extensive.

Urine leaves the body (man or animal) in an acid state, with a pH of about 5 to 6. It is rather pure and generally contains no harmful bacteria, pathogens, or microorganisms. However, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for those things as soon as it leaves the body.

The main ingredient in urine is uric acid. It also contains yellow pigment, urea, cholesterol, enzymes, and small amounts of other chemicals. The uric acid begins to change immediately upon leaving the body. The warm acid state of the urine offers a friendly environment for bacteria, which begin to flourish almost immediately. In this original acid state, the urine begins to oxidize and react with the carpet to create a color change, which may become permanent if the urine is not removed from the carpet.

As urine begins to dry, it changes its hydrogen content and forms crystalline salts, which take on an alkaline pH. When dried urine is remoistened, it gives off an ammonia gas. This is one way to identify a problem area, by the odor. Odors associated with urine come from two sources. The first source is bacteria that grow abundantly in dark warm places with a never-ending food source (the dog feeds the bacteria daily!). This bacteria growth and breakdown of the urine creates amino acids. These complex organic compounds work deep into carpet fibers until they're nearly part of the fiber. This can present a challenging situation. The waste materials and gases from the decomposing urine create an unpleasant odor.

The second source of odor is chemical odor that remains even when the bacteria have been killed. This explains the reason more than disinfecting is necessary to neutralize odors from urine. Urine also presents additional odor problems when the relative humidity is high. The salts and crystals that are formed are hydrophilic and draw water to them. As the salts are reactivated by moisture, they give off a greater proportion of odorous gases.

Our customers are very anxious to have the stains and smell removed. Before urine can be treated, it must be found. The main tools for detecting urine are:

Nose. Whether the nose is yours or your customer's, it's usually the first indicator that there's an odor problem. Getting on your hands and knees and sticking your nose in the carpet is a fairly effective way of locating the area of urine. This method does, however, have obvious drawbacks.

Moisture detector. As mentioned previously, urine salts attract and hold moisture. A high quality moisture detector is a very effective way of finding urine deposits from the surface of the carpet. The moisture detector, sometimes referred to as a moisture meter or hydrosensor, will have two sharp prongs to probe into the carpet. When urine, and thus moisture, is present in the carpet, an electrical connection takes places between the probes and a beeping or visible signal will indicate it's an affected area.

The disadvantage of this method is the possibility you may miss an affected area. If you do not test in a particular area you cannot know if urine is there. It may also be difficult to find the edges of the affected area. If you are only planning on treating the exact affected area, you must be thorough in probing and mapping the entire area, which means you must find all its edges.

Ultraviolet lights. This method is very successful and can also be used without pulling the carpet up. Recently, a customer of ours had a job to clean a home where the dog was a small nervous type. A quick inspection with a professional UV light showed there was more carpet marked with urine than unmarked and that it was in every carpeted room in the house. This quick inspection alerted his customer to the fact that the restoration job went beyond the bedroom in question, which the client had originally asked him to work on. In this situation, the ultraviolet light alerted everybody to the extent of the problem in a graphic manner.

Ultraviolet lights come in different shapes and sizes. The most illuminating models are the high-intensity bulb lights. They show everything in stark detail in an entire half of a room, and are useful even when the room is not totally dark. Their liability is the length of time it takes for them to warm up. They need this warm-up time every time you turn them on, even if it was only off a short time so be sure to plug into an extension cord so you can see everything in the whole house at once. The long-bulb inspection lights work well in smaller areas, but their liability is the limited space they can illuminate at once. An inspector has to walk a room slightly bent over to see what he needs to see. These work best in a darkened room. The flashlight inspection lights are handy, easy to use, and allow you to find spots but at a slow pace. Usually these lights are made for other industries and the nanometer range is set for finding things other than urine.

Some newer prototype models I've seen are dialed in to specifically locate urine in a much broader spectrum. These newer models work like the high-intensity light, but without the extensive warm-up time. They don't provide the clear detail of the high-intensity light, but you see everything you need to see as a cleaner. These UV flashlights use LED lights and work best if you wear yellow eyeglasses to provide clarity. Remember that UV lights also illuminate things besides urine, like optical brighteners, vitamin B-12, tonic water and concentrations of detergent, so not everything you see is urine. Also remember that a thorough cleaning and urine decontamination does not mean that the UV light will not detect any urine afterwards. It will diminish in intensity, but may still be visible.

Backing stains. Another method for detecting urine is to pull the carpet back and inspect the back for stains. The stains will be most apparent on jute backings, which are seldom used anymore, but can be detected on the synthetic backings as well. The disadvantage of this method is the time and effort necessary to pull the carpet up. If the damage is extensive and you are going to be removing pad or sealing the sub-floor, an inspection of the backing makes sense.

Without the proper tools for detection, your treatment of urine contamination may very well be incomplete. Your customer appreciates the best professional care you can give. Using proper tools to pinpoint the problem areas will impress them and go a long way toward verifying that you are indeed a professional. They'll be glad they called you, and they'll pass the word along to friends and family.