Spots and Stains in Fabric, Upholstery and Carpet

October 23, 2002
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When determining how to best address spots and stains in carpet, fabric and upholstery, one of the first steps is to take the type of facility into account, according to Neeraj Gupta, director of product research and development for Memphis, Tenn.-based ServiceMaster.

"Hospitals, office buildings, schools, retail establishments, and restaurants and hotels will all usually tend to have different types of stains," Gupta said. "One thing that would be common across all of them, though, would be food stains, such as coffee and sodas."

Timing
Today, most carpet found in commercial facilities is synthetic, composed of materials such as nylon, polyester and polypropylene (see “Natural-Fiber Carpets Require Special Care” on page XX). With stain removal, the quicker you can get to it, the more you can remove and the easier it is to do so. For example, Gupta said, if sugar has time to mix with carpet fibers, chemical reactions can take place over time that lead to permanent discoloration.

"If you can get to a spill on this type of carpet right after it happens, the best approach is to use an extractor to flush out the stain with water," said Gupta. "This allows you to get a lot of it out."

Area Testing
It is important to know what type of stain you are dealing with, because using the wrong process may unintentionally rub the stain into the fiber, making it more difficult or even impossible to remove. In addition, incorrect procedures can cause permanent discoloration.

"Begin by pre-testing a small area to make sure that the product or process you plan to use will not cause color loss or color bleeding," states Gupta. "Then, once you are ready to clean, work from the outside inward toward the middle."

That said, be sure to follow some basic guidelines during the pre-test stage. "During experimentation, if one product doesn't work, rinse the area as well as possible before using the next product in order to reduce the potential for interaction," suggests Gerald Mitchell, quality assurance manager for Maumee, Ohio-based Spartan Chemical Co., a cleaning products manufacturer.

Special Issues
"Most of our products are detergents, which penetrate the soils well," Mitchell said. "You can also use enzymes, which do a good job of breaking up food stains. In other cases, a solvent will work best, such as a glycol ether. Natural citrus solvents can also be used for greasy soils."

When dealing with water-based stains, ServiceMaster’s Gupta recommends using a water-based product. Conversely, if you are going after other types of stains, such as paint, crayon, lipstick or nail polish, he recommends a solvent-based cleaner.

Removing spots and stains from upholstery and other fabric is more difficult than removing them from carpet. "One reason is that carpet tends to be built with rugged synthetic products," explains Gupta. "However, upholstery and fabrics may have a lot of blends, including cotton, wool and silk. Even using water on silk can cause a problem. As such, while pre-testing is important when removing stains from carpet, it is even more important in upholstery and fabric applications."

“Fizz it” Out
Some of the most common approaches for cleaning spots and stains on carpets, fabrics and upholstery involve using water, steam, or different types of soaps or surfactants. But there are other options available

"We don't use these products," said Bill Kirsch, owner of a 5-Star ChemDry franchise in Ashley, Ill. According to Kirsch, the company found that soda water tends to do a good job removing spots because the bubbles gently lift the dirt to the surface, where it can be extracted.

"However, to maintain carbonation, you have to keep the soda water cold," explains Kirsch. "If you heat it up, the carbonation goes flat." As such, it is difficult to have heat and carbonation at the same time. The company developed a hot carbonating process that involves keeping the two products being used to create the carbonation separate until just before application. They are heated separately near the tool head, then mixed together, where they carbonate at an accelerated rate on the stain.

"This allows the spot to dry faster,” Kirsch said. “because we only need to use about 20 percent of the moisture that other systems use."

Another advantage, according to Kirsch, is that the solution’s pH is only 7.2 to 7.4 (with water being 7.0), so the process is safe for cleaning stubborn spots and stains on wools and silks, which can't tolerate a high pH.

"Finally, since there is no soapy residue or film remaining on the surface, there is nothing left to attract new dirt," Kirsch said.

The hot carbonation system works well for stains that remain on the outside of carpet or fabric fibers, Kirsch said. However, spills that contain food dyes, such as wines, grape juice, certain sodas, and Kool-Aid can actually dye the carpet or fabric. In situations where the stain cannot be cleaned, he says the best approach is to chemically change the color of the dye.

"It is possible to remove a red wine stain from a red carpet, for example, by changing the red dye to a clear color without affecting the red carpet dye," Kirsch said. "I was nervous when I did this for the first time, but it really worked."

Environmental Issues
Regardless of what products you use to remove spots and stains, remember that options may continue to be limited in the future as environmental concerns grow.

"As more and more EPA and indoor air quality regulations are introduced related to things like VOCs, the types of solvents and other chemicals you can use to clean is becoming a more important issue," cautions ServiceMaster’s Gupta. "We have an environmental rating system, where we rate our products on seven different criteria to make sure they meet all laws and regulations but, at the same time, still perform."

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