…And the Myths You’ve Been Told to Hide the Truth
As a small business owner, I spend a significant amount of time doing competitive research. I’m interested in what is the best way to clean carpets and I like to know what my competitors are up to. As I visit my competitor’s websites, I’m shocked at the amount of unsupported misinformation I see being thrown around. I’ve written this article to address it. Carpet cleaning, as an industry, is filled with “alternative” methods contrived by individuals and companies to sell inferior services based on scare tactics and dubious claims, instead of selling the best carpet cleaning methods not on fact. As with any service, there is always a gradient of quality, from low to high, but it’s helpful to look first at the whole picture.
Various Carpet Cleaning Methods and Their Effectiveness:
Hot water extraction:
Hot water extraction is the best way to clean carpets. It’s the best carpet cleaning method available. This isn’t opinion, it’s fact and it’s supported by evidence.
Hot water extraction (carpet steam cleaning) is approved by, and recommended by many major carpet manufacturers, including Shaw, the industry’s largest. Specifically, Shaw actually requires homeowners to show they have maintained their carpets using hot water extraction (AKA steam cleaning) in order to maintain their carpet’s warranty.
The Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Association (ICRA) and Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) also recommends hot water extraction.
Carpet Cleaning Methods – Why Hot Water Extraction is the Best Carpet Cleaning Method:
There is a general lack of evidence to support some of the wild claims being thrown around the carpet cleaning industry. Typically this by some of the more dubious and sneaky companies. Below are three meaningful citations from major industry voices:
We recommend that you follow the carpet manufacturers recommendations of hot water extracting your carpet every 12 to 18 months to maintain your warranty.Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Association
Shaws choice: Hot water extraction
Research indicates that the hot water extraction system provides the best capability for cleaning. This system is commonly referred to as “steam cleaning,” although no steam is actually generated. The process consists of applying a cleaning agent into the carpet pile and using water in the extractor to recover the used solution and soil. This can be done from a truck-mounted unit outside the home with only the hose and wand brought inside or by a portable system brought into the home.
Shaw warranties require that the homeowner be able to show proof of periodic cleaning by hot water extraction (commonly called “steam” cleaning) by a professional cleaning service or do-it-yourself system, using equipment that is certified under the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Seal of Approval program. We strongly recommend cleaning systems that have achieved the Gold Level Performance in the CRI Seal of Approval Program…Shaw Floors
While there are numerous techniques to utilize when removing dirt and allergens, they don’t always leave the same results. There are many benefits to the flooring and the occupants when hot water and steam are employed… The usual vacuuming and spot cleaning is a necessary step in prolonging the life of the carpet, but such methods can only remove debris at the surface. Performing a deeper treatment approach will remove the dirt, pet hair, dust mites, and other debris that commonly work their way down further or are dug into the fibers themselves.Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification
So, Enough With the Research – How Does Hot Water Extraction (Carpet Steam Cleaning) Actually Work?
A truck mounted carpet cleaning machine (or a less powerful portable machine, typically used for high rises or areas where a truck mount can’t reach) performs a variety of functions. It’s a self contained, powerful engine driven system. It heats water, creates high pressure, and has a huge vacuum system all in one. In short, it’s the best way to clean carpets.
Typical Hot Water Extraction (Steam Carpet Cleaning) Basic Process
- A technician uses the machine’s water pressure to pre-spray carpeted areas to be cleaned. Usually this is with a high pH cleaner designed for the specific type of carpet cleaning to be cleaned. This breaks down dirt, grime and filth. Different solutions require different “dwell” times to be fully effective, so a pause here is likely.
- Technician agitates the pre-sprayed areas, as needed, to loosen dirt and grime. Agitation occurs either manually or with a machine.
- A complete rinse with a very mild acidic rinse (less acidic than orange juice…) is applied. This application is at high pressure with very hot water. The water temperature is adjustable to well above 250 degrees, though typically it’s kept below 200 degrees because blasting steam everywhere isn’t actually productive. The cleaning is done with a carpet cleaning wand or other accessory. During this step, the initial prespray is neutralized, and very nearly all of the water is sucked back out of the carpets with a very powerful vacuum. The high pressure further safely removes dirt, filth, and grime. Afterwards, there is very little, if any solution left in the carpet. This means the carpet doesn’t re-soil, which was, and is, a common complaint of older (now obsolete, in my opinion) carpet shampoo systems.
Important Elements of What a Truck Mounted Hot Water Extraction Machine Does:
- It consistently heats water to very high temperatures – thus the original name of this service “carpet steam cleaning”. The industry has now mostly moved to “hot water extraction” as the common nomenclature. Having a machine that can keep water consistently hot for the task at hand is absolutely vital. As we all know, hot water cleans better than cold water.
- It pressurizes this water to be sprayed onto the carpet – different machines produce different amounts of pressure. Some residential units produce a maximum pressure of around 800 PSI. Other massive commercial/industrial machines produce upwards or beyond 3,000 PSI. Typically 700 PSI is about as high as you want to go for just about any carpet cleaning job (often lower). But, it’s useful to have the higher PSI since it’s needed for proper residential or commercial tile cleaning, hard surface cleaning, or other high pressure requiring tasks. This is another reason why larger, commercial grade truck mount carpet cleaning machines are superior. Smaller residential sized truck mounts just don’t have enough power.
- It produces a whole lot of vacuum to suck up the sprayed water – The bigger the truck mount machines, typically, the bigger the vacuum. Again, here we have a variety of vacuum strengths, ranging from low vacuum like would be found on a portable machine, to vacuums many times stronger than the strongest shop vac hose you’ve ever stuck your hand against. The value of strong vacuum is three-fold. More vacuum means less water left in your carpets. It is also more useful for high PSI tasks like commercial or residential tile cleaning to suck up the excess water. Finally bigger machines are better for flood and restoration work to get more water out of the carpet and pad.
Low Moisture Carpet Cleaning / Encapsulation Carpet Cleaning
Using a Buffer with a Bonnet / Brush / Low Encapsulation Cleaning
Here’s the sales pitch for “low moisture cleaning”. “We provide dry cleaning, which is the best carpet cleaning method around. It’s safe, and your carpets are nearly dry instantly”
Sounds great, right? Most things with a heavy marketing spin typically do.
The Typical “Low Moisture Carpet Cleaning” Process:
- A technician vacuums the floor.
- Technician sprays an encapsulation (usually) solution, maybe with an added oxidizer. “Oxi” anything has become quite the marketing buzz word, so has “Citrus” on the carpet.
- The technician then uses an agitation tool of some kind. Usually this is either a rotating brush or a bonnet on a buffer, or something similar to agitate the encapsulation (and whatever else) into the carpet fibers. The fibers are stood up by the tool, and the encapsulation provides an initial nice “clean” look.
- After the encapsulation dries, the whole thing is supposed to be vacuumed up. This is normally left to the homeowner, in a residential setting, to remove the crystallized dirt with your vacuum in the coming days.
This process is an OK solution. Encapsulation is a process that we actually use ourselves as a cost-saving carpet maintenance solution for our commercial customers. It’s especially useful in office carpet cleaning, for example. We can do this between hot water extractions or in certain other applications where it’s called for. It isn’t, however, the best way to clean carpets. This is exactly the point. These systems were designed as a carpet maintenance method. Instead, though, it is being marketed and sold to consumers as a deep, restorative carpet cleaning, which it is not.
Where Does the Dirt Go?
Take a moment to think through this low moisture carpet cleaning process. Here is the most important missing part (ignoring for a moment the inferior solutions used). There is not any rinsing or removal of the applied and agitated carpet cleaning solutions. There is also not any removal of soil. This is, therefore, not the best way to clean carpets.
When we clean carpets with hot water extraction, we run our truck mounted carpet cleaning machines. When done, we then responsibly drain the water into an approved sewer. The water that comes out almost black. It’s gross. If we can pull 50-100 gallons of nearly black filthy water out of a carpet. Meanwhile, they rub a brush or a buffer over the tops of your carpet fibers, where does the dirt go?
Here’s where a bit of the dirt goes:
A counter rotating brush machine typically has small trays to catch a small amount of flung-up dry soil. Think of the spinning brushes on the street sweeper as it goes by… it’s like that. Except those machines actually use water and a vacuum, too, so maybe it’s a bad example. Bonnet cleaning picks up some dirt from the fibers onto a towel like material. As it’s doing this, the twisting motion can also grind and untwists carpet fibers, wearing them in the process. In reality, though, if you tried to absorb lots of dirt and water with your bath towel, there isn’t exactly a lot of holding capacity, right?
So, you’re now wondering where does the rest of dirt go?
Correct. It stays in your carpet. It’s buried at the bottom of the fibers and in the pad (which coincidentally would otherwise have been cleaned with hot water extraction). Will you vacuum up some of that encapsulated dirt yourself? Sure, but when you sweep out your garage floor, does the sweeping get the concrete floor cleaner than the hose does? Nope. So, you have to play a role in your purchased carpet cleaning by vacuuming? You’re thinking to yourself, “How does this qualify as the best way to clean carpets, again?”.
Another example: When you do your laundry, do you rub a bunch of dry or wet compound/solution (low moisture cleaning) on it, scrub it with something, then let it dry? Not usually. Normally you put it in the washing machine where it receives detergent (a high pH cleaner), which is later rinsed out. Same concept with hot water extraction. Not the best way to clean you laundry – just like it’s not the best way to clean carpets.
If a Truck Mounted Hot Water Extraction System is the Best Method for Carpet Cleaning, Why isn’t Everyone Using One?
Anyone can go out and buy a buffer with a bonnet, or an encapsulation brush system for anywhere from $1,000 on the low end (maybe less if bought used) to around $3,000 on the high side. Someone can also throw this in the back of their station wagon, SUV, or mini van. No van or specialty vehicle needed.
Typically utilized truck mounted carpet cleaning systems, by comparison, run anywhere from $15,000 – $30,000 (or even more). This doesn’t include the cost of the van, or the equipment that goes with it. All told, easily a $50,000 investment on the low side when you want to “do it right”.
There’s a big business behind it
Low moisture carpet cleaning began as a “carpet maintenance” solution used in commercial spaces. Somewhere along the line, someone with a good marketing mind decided to market this to the masses in the the home/residential market as “professional carpet cleaning”. Further, large franchises began seeing how to make a business out of utilizing low cost equipment and instead investing heavily in large marketing. These companies are not interested in what the best way to clean carpets is, instead they are interested in whatever makes the most money while requiring the least amount of cost and training.
This low cost barrier to entry makes it affordable for anyone to become a “professional carpet cleaner”. Professional, yes, when you compare it to your vacuum cleaner. But not when compared to hot water extraction (carpet steam cleaning).
It requires someone to know what they are doing
It’s not hard to train an employee to spray a solution on the ground and run over it with a buffer or counter rotating brush machine. If you’ve ever vacuumed, you could probably do this yourself. A truck mount, however, is a much more complicated machine that requires an understanding of how it works, what settings (there are many) are appropriate, how much solution to apply, what solution is appropriate for what carpet type, etc.
Knowledge of the machine is just the beginning. Knowing the most effective ways to actually clean with a wand or other accessory, ideally route houses, protect walls and corners from rubbing or wear, treat stains, wet vs. dry strokes with a wand, proper coverage of each stroke, protecting furniture and more all takes a lot more training and know-how.
I hear about all these problems with hot water extraction and how it’s not the best way to clean carpets. What can you say about that!? Here are some common myths about hot water extraction (steam cleaning):
Moisture as a big problem
Many companies not using hot water extraction (I like to think they are jealous) like to over dramatize the amount of water used, the amount of water left in carpets after cleaning, and the also like to make a big deal about dry time.
When we clean a 5 bedroom home, without the use of high velocity fans, by the time we leave (usually about 2 hours later), the first room we carpet cleaned is often dry or very nearly so. If you perform carpet hot water extraction (carpet steam cleaning) the professional way (we do) and put high velocity fans in rooms, rotating them as we clean each room (we do), this expedites drying even more so. In the dry Denver are climate, the moisture is even less of an issue.
Even if the carpet is a little bit damp still for a bit – who cares? Unless you insist on walking around your home only in socks, always, and you’ve never worn anything but socks in your home under any circumstances, ever, I promise this is a non-issue. Just walk around in clean shoes. Or walk around in bare feet. Walk around in slippers. If it suits your fancy, feel free to even walk around in damp socks for an hour or two. Then it’ll be dry, and it’ll actually look, and actually be clean!
Hot water extraction leads to mold
No, it doesn’t. Stop it with the lies or find some reputable evidence to back up your claim. Maybe if your carpet cleaner’s machine has been in service since 1992 and the blower is shot so it doesn’t make any vacuum, so the “tech” puts down water but never removes it… and then you never make any comment about how you’ve been walking around in a puddle for a few days… and your carpet is still wet 2 days after his “cleaning”… yeah, then you are on your way to getting mold. The generally held thought is the mold can begin to develop after 24-48 hours in a consistently wet environment. It certainly doesn’t happen with a few hours after a carpet has just been professionally cleaned. To those spreading the mold myth, enough already. Denver, and all of Colorado, on the whole, is very dry so mold is less of an issue than other climates.
Rent a rug doctor instead of getting hot water extraction, it’s the same thing
…Or some other variant of DIY self carpet cleaning.
Okay, I’m just going to say it. Obviously I’m biased here, but if you’re looking for the way to best get your carpets clean, these rug doctor things are terrible to use. I didn’t always run a carpet cleaning company. Before I did, I used one of these things along with it’s red bottle of pet spray and it’s primary detergent. After I was all in, it took me a few hours of putting luke-warm, low pressure water and strangely perfumed solution down (a tip to the manufacturer, just make it smell like citrus. Everyone seems to be fine with citrus carpet cleaning scents…).
I dumped a bunch of detergent into my carpet, the pet odor was still present, and my carpet DID stay soggy for a while. It DIDN’T cause mold, though, even though it was infinitely more wet than when we professionally clean carpets via hot water extraction! These little machines have an extremely weak water sprayer, and a weak, under powered vacuum (thus the leftover water in the carpets).
More DIY fun
They also don’t roll well, are a pain to move, and you have to fill/drain the water tanks – dirty and clean over and over. Oh, and the cost… $29.99… then you need to buy the detergent for another $14.99 (or more for the “fancy” stuff), then the pre-spray for $5.99… after taxes you’re walking out of there for $60, maybe $60.99 after you get a candy bar. Okay, $62.48, you needed a Coke too, right?
Then you get home and you get to enjoy 2 hours of sweaty misery, regretting being so cheap all the while getting mediocre results. Plus, now you can’t walk around in your socks at least until the next day!
Carpet cleaners use harsh chemicals, and that the low moisture guys don’t
Ok, at the risk of infuriating some people, we use chemicals. Most in the industry call them “solutions”, but they are chemicals. You know what’s also a chemical? Water. “Chemical” shouldn’t have any association with anything bad. But, we do use some “chemicals”. Are they safe and non-toxic? Yup. Safe for pets and kids? Yup. They sure are. Pets? Abolsutely. Are the “low moisture guys” using the same or similar safety carpet solutions, you bet. Are the scare tactics around carpet cleaning “chemicals” a bunch of hullabaloo (I know, great word, right?), yes.
What about waste water, doesn’t that pollute? Aren’t you wasting water?
The first question I have may get a little personal
How often do you shower? When we clean the typical house, we use about 50 gallons of water. How much is 50 gallons of water? About as much as when your 50 gallon water heater runs out and the shower goes cold. I think it’s about that much – but I’m not a water heater expert. By the estimates I’ve found, most families of four use about 12,000 gallons of water a month, 144,000 gallons a year. If you, therefore, get your carpets cleaned once a year, we have used .03% of your annual water – a proverbial drop in the bucket.
The second question – regarding waste water
We solve this problem by equipping our vans with “automatic pump outs”. These are special pumps designed to pump water from our trucks to a sewer via a toilet, janitors sink, or directly into a sewer connection. We use these, instead of your parking lot or driveway to drain water to where it is supposed to go. The EPA says we can dump our water onto a grassy area (so they don’t exactly see it as a big deal anyway), but we’d still prefer to drain it into a sewer just because we think it’s the right thing to do. If we don’t fill up our tank until we return to our shop, and therefore don’t need to use the automatic pump outs, we drain it directly into a sewer connection at the shop.
Wrapping Up your Education on the Best Carpet Cleaning Techniques
Ok, so the methods have been explained, the myths have been dispelled, and the the bonnet / brush / low moisture cleaners have been overthrown by the best method for carpet cleaning, the king of the carpet cleaning world – truck mounted hot water extraction. So, what’s the next step now that you know everything about the best way to clean carpets in Denver? I guess it’s that you call us to book your next carpet cleaning!