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Carpet Cleaners (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2013/Winter 2014)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 67 Bay Area Carpet Cleaners

Checklist

Carpet Cleaners

Having carpets and rugs periodically cleaned makes them last longer and look better, and improves your home’s air quality. 

The company you choose to do the job impacts how well the job gets done: how good your carpets and rugs look afterward, and how long they stay looking good, whether difficult stains are removed, and whether the cleaning methods and products they used attract dirt rather than remove it. With the least competent companies you risk permanent damage from overwetting, improper or poorly mixed chemicals, improper brushing, and other shoddy practices. 

Ask for a written workmanship guarantee that the company will at least redo the job if you find it unsatisfactory. Discuss in advance whether there are some stains or other problems that it can’t guarantee it can eliminate. 

Compare prices. Rug cleaners will quote prices for most jobs over the phone, but if your carpets or rugs are especially dirty or unusual in some other way, that may not be possible. If you can’t get over-the-phone quotes, ask companies to come to your home to provide estimates. Our In-Home Cleaning Prices table and our In-Plant Cleaning Prices tables include information to help you make at least a rough calculation of how each company stacks up for most types of jobs. 

For in-home carpet cleaning, be wary of prices quoted by room or “area,” as opposed to by square foot. Companies may envision more rooms in your house than you do—two separate rooms in what you consider one L-shaped room, for example. 

Don’t overpay for add-ons such as soil retardants and deodorizers. With some companies they can dramatically increase the price but cost little or nothing with others. What is actually done and how effective it is also varies from company to company. 

Results will also be affected by how you deal with a company—including preparing the rooms in advance for in-home cleaning, communicating exactly what you want done, pointing out stains and problems with past cleanings, checking the work carefully before paying, and promptly reporting to the company any problems you find. 

Martha Stewart recommends a “no-shoes” policy to help keep carpets and rugs looking new. For those who can manage that, congratulations. For the rest of us, kids, pets, parties, and everyday accidents still take an inevitable toll on our carpets and rugs. Even if you’ve managed to keep your carpet and rugs relatively stain-free, you’ll need to have them cleaned periodically. The most stringent neat-freak policies can’t prevent airborne dirt and dust, oily cooking residue, and all manner of outdoor grunge from penetrating your carpet and rugs. 

There are reasons other than for the sake of cleanliness alone to keep your carpets and rugs clean. Clean carpets and rugs last longer and look better, and cleaning them improves your home’s air quality. 

Manufacturers have made progress in reducing the need for cleaning. Advanced-generation nylon fibers, for example, are “soil-hiding”— the dirt is still there, but you don’t see it as much because the fibers are shaped to diffuse light differently. Also, most manufacturers now treat carpeting with soil and stain protectants. But there’s no such thing as magic wall-to-wall carpets or rugs, and you’ll still need to have yours professionally cleaned from time to time. 

Our Ratings Tables reveal how area consumers have rated local carpet and rug cleaners. For some of these, the use of the word “professional” is something of a stretch. But for others, it is a perfect fit: They consistently perform top-quality work. 

This article will tell you—for both in-home cleaning of wall-to-wall carpet and in-plant cleaning of rugs—about the different cleaning processes, the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a professional rather than doing it yourself, how to choose a competent company, how to work with the company to make your job more successful, what work you can do yourself (and how to do it), and what problems just can’t be fixed. 

Cleaning Wall-to-Wall Carpeting 

Trouble Spots 

Much can go wrong during a carpet-cleaning job: 

  • Overwetting. The biggest danger is that the carpet will get too wet. Overwetting occurs in various ways: use of poorly adjusted hot-water-extraction equipment, which pulls water out at too low a pressure (see description of cleaning methods and equipment below); passing over areas too many times with hot-water-extraction equipment or shampoo; applying excessive shampoo; and spilling. 

If moisture reaches a carpet’s backing, any of a number of problems can result. There may be a separation of the secondary backing. If the backing is jute—common in older carpets—the moisture may cause fibers in the backing to shrink and tear seams, dissolving the cellulose in the backing and wicking it to the surface to produce brown stains. The dye in an overwet carpet may bleed. Mildew may develop if a carpet remains wet for several days. And wood floors beneath carpet may suffer warpage or other damage. 

  • Brushing improperly. The brushing that occurs during some cleaning processes—especially the shampoo and bonnet methods—may sometimes distort carpet yarns so that different sections of pile lie in different directions. This can create the appearance of shadows, or even of soiling, that may be impossible to correct. The trick is to avoid over-brushing or to use a soft brush if a stiff one appears to be causing excessive pile distortion. 
  • Using too alkaline a solution. While carpets are cleaned most easily with highly alkaline detergent solutions, these solutions can cause the colors in some carpets to bleed and can cause browning. One professional carpet cleaner art is mixing or selecting cleaning solutions to fit the carpet—sometimes even using an acidic solution where there is a substantial danger of bleeding or a strong alkaline residue from previous cleanings. Many of the newer stain-resistant carpets specify that the warranty will be voided if the carpet is cleaned using a solution that is too alkaline or that contains brightening agents. 
  • Other dangers: 
  • Using the wrong dilution ratio or chemicals that leave sticky residues. 
  • Using chemicals that contain substances that may cause allergic reactions or may be toxic. 
  • Causing dyes to run by using inappropriate cleaning agents or solvents. 
  • Allowing rust or wood stains to get on wet carpet by replacing furniture without putting down leg covers or other protection. 

In addition to staying alert for mishaps, pay close attention to cost. Some carpet cleaners will push services you don’t need, and prices for the same service can vary from company to company by more than 100 percent. Comparison shopping can be difficult because companies that charge low prices for one service or type of carpet may charge high prices for others, and add-ons (such as carpet protectors and deodorizer) can inflate a seemingly low price into a high one. Also, services that go by the same name at different companies—for example, “deodorizing” or “sanitizing”—may actually be different services. And be wary of companies that use fliers and other advertising techniques that use extremely low per-room prices as bait and then switch customers to higher priced treatments. 

Signs of Quality 

Checking What Their Customers Say 

Start by looking at the customer ratings reported on our Ratings Tables. To collect them, we asked area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) to rate carpet and rug cleaning companies they had used. Our survey asked respondents to rate companies “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” for “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “neatness,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance.” Our Ratings Tables show, for companies that received at least 10 ratings on our survey, the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”) on each question. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.) 

The highest rated companies were more than twice as likely as the lowest rated companies to get “superior” ratings on our survey questions on “doing work properly,” “neatness,” and “overall performance.” 

Checking Complaint Records 

In addition to ratings from customers, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) for a recent three-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

Checking the Guarantee You Get 

Most carpet-cleaning services guarantee workmanship in writing, but what they promise varies. Even without a written guarantee, most will redo a job at least once if the customer complains that it is unsatisfactory. 

Some companies require you to report a problem within a few days, since they feel any problem that does not show up in that time is probably new. But others will let you wait a month or more—which lets you make sure the problem will not just go away. 

Give companies credit if they talk candidly about the limitations of what they can do before they begin work. Some types of stains—for example, urine, coffee, tea, mustard, and mildew—are extremely difficult or even impossible to remove once they have set, and companies may not know whether they can remove them until they try. 

Some companies may have you sign forms in advance explicitly excluding a wide range of trouble spots from their responsibility. This practice enables you to turn to another outfit that does promise to take care of the problems that concern you. 

In addition to any guarantee from the cleaning company, if your carpet is still under its manufacturer’s warranty ask the company whether its services will keep the warranty in effect. Carpet manufacturers’ warranties are notably murky about their coverage for “wear” and “appearance,” and many include a clause declaring that, for these sections of the warranty to remain in effect, the buyer must prove the carpet was “professionally maintained.” This typically means that you must have your carpet professionally cleaned once every 12 to 18 months using a hot-water-extraction method. So if you care about warranty coverage, show the warranty information to the cleaning service and have it assure you that its services will meet any professional maintenance requirements. 

Methods They Use 

Select a company that offers cleaning methods appropriate to your carpet. (See “Cleaning Methods” below.) If your carpet is lightly soiled, any method, if performed properly, will be acceptable. But, in most cases, you’re best off with a company that offers hot water extraction with truck-mounted equipment or a combination of shampoo and hot water extraction. 

Saving on Service Fees 

Along with high-quality work, you want a good price. If you describe your carpet and calculate the square footage, most cleaners will quote prices by phone. Others usually come to your home to give free estimates on in-home cleaning. We have included pricing details for the companies we evaluated on our In-Home Cleaning Prices table. For many homeowners, this table provides enough information to calculate what each company would charge. But if your carpet is in bad condition or not of a type shown on the table, or if you want a combination of add-on services, you’ll need to talk with the companies. And, of course, prices can be expected to change as time passes. So use the table as a starting point. 

Several factors determine what you’ll pay: 

  • Type of carpet—Some companies charge extra to clean very light-colored carpet, while some charge less for commercial-grade carpet. Cleaning services almost always charge more for wool carpeting; it is much more subject to shrinkage, browning, and warping than carpets made of other fibers, and therefore requires more time to clean properly. 
  • Extent of soiling—Many companies charge more for badly soiled carpets than for carpets in better condition. 
  • Cleaning method—Companies that offer more than one method may charge different amounts for the different methods—with prices for in-home cleaning of several rooms sometimes varying by 50 percent or more. 
  • Add-ons—A company may recommend, in addition to carpet cleaning, one or more add-on treatments (described further below). Since add-ons can double the cost of a basic cleaning, think carefully about what you really need and find out exactly what it costs. Order add-ons only for the portions of carpet that need them. 
  • Steps—Some companies that charge generally low prices for most work charge high prices for steps. 
  • Furniture moving—The prices on our In-Home Cleaning Prices table assume that a typical amount of furniture will have to be moved. Many companies offer five to 10 percent discounts to customers who move their furniture themselves before cleaning. 
  • By room or by square foot—Some companies charge per square foot. Others quote for a combination of two or three rooms and for additional rooms. Some quote both ways, so you might save by taking the per-room price if your rooms are large and the square-foot price if your rooms are small. 

Our In-Home Cleaning Prices table shows the price for several specific rooms—a combination of living room, dining room, and hall totaling 330 square feet, and the price for these areas plus an additional room measuring 130 square feet (460 square feet total). For the sample areas measuring 460 square feet, per-square-foot prices for hot water extraction cleaning of medium-color domestic pile ranged from $.22 to $.67. 

When shopping for per-room prices, find out what constitutes a room: Some companies count L-shaped rooms as two rooms. 

Misunderstandings often arise when companies advertise charges by the “area.” If the meaning of the word “room” can be murky, what constitutes an “area” is even less clear. 

Carpet Protectors 

Carpet protectors coat carpet fibers to repel oil and dirt particles resulting in much more effective vacuuming and longer intervals between cleanings. Carpet protectors also give you a chance to clean up spills before they are absorbed into carpet fibers. 

While almost all carpets are now treated with a carpet protector at the mill, reapplication may be needed in time. Typically, carpet in heavy-traffic areas such as hallways, steps, entranceways, and family rooms loses its protective coating two to four years after purchase; in low-traffic areas, the coating may never be lost. After a carpet loses its coating, it is likely to need retreatment once every 18 months to three years. 

When your carpet is dry, and before cleaning, test whether it has effective soil or stain protection. Part the yarn and put a drop of water on the side of the yarn tufts. If the water beads, the protection is still effective. Do this in the heavily used areas of each room and out-of-the-way places; you may be able to confine treatment to limited portions of only a few rooms. 

If you decide you need retreatment, make sure that it is applied after cleaning and not as part of the cleaning process; and make sure the job is done with a fluorochemical-based protector. Other types of protectors may actually attract soil and void carpet manufacturers’ warranties. 

Sanitizing or Deodorant 

If your carpet smells of urine, mildew, smoke, or other substances, a professional carpet cleaner may be able to help you. But success is far from certain and depends heavily on the technician’s skill and the extent of the contamination. 

For smells that arise from mildew (fungus), bacteria, yeast, and other microbes, a sanitizing agent, applied after cleaning, may reduce or eliminate the odor. The cleaning itself will remove most of the microbes, but the sanitizing agent may prevent remaining microbes from multiplying. 

To be effective, these products must reach the source of the problem. If urine is deep in a carpet pad, reaching it with a sanitizing agent may require overwetting the carpet so severely that the potential harm to the carpet outweighs the possible benefits of odor reduction. Also, the carpet pad may need to be replaced. 

For odors such as those from smoke or incense that don’t arise from microbial sources, deodorants designed to cover up smells might help. But deodorants often cause more problems than they prevent: To succeed, deodorants have to remain behind after the cleaning process, which means their presence could attract more dirt later. 

Dealing with a Cleaner 

Whatever cleaning outfit you choose, the quality of service you receive will depend in part on you. Here are a few tips: 

  • Preparation 
  • Remove or raise hanging objects that might be bumped by cleaning personnel, who generally walk backwards as they work. 
  • Move prized valuables—antiques, bric-a-brac, bookcases. Cleaning personnel will generally move such items for you, but not necessarily with the care you desire. 
  • Lift draperies that touch, or nearly touch, the floor. Throw the bottoms of the drapes over hangers suspended from curtain rods. 
  • Some companies require customers to vacuum first; some do it for free. But it can’t hurt to do it yourself. 
  • Communication 
  • If you want a particular kind of service—such as truck-mounted hot-water-extraction cleaning—inform the company before the day of your scheduled appointment. 
  • When company personnel arrive, treat them like professionals. Ask the serviceperson to explain what they will do and what choices you have to make. 
  • Specify which add-on features you want, and which you don’t want—carpet protector, deodorizer, etc. 
  • Describe past cleanings. If shampoo had been used, your serviceperson may have to alter the cleaning solution for the current job to compensate for residues. If an absorbent powder had been used, the serviceperson may have to do a more thorough vacuuming or use extra liquid to compensate for absorption by the powder remaining in the carpet. 
  • Point out stains and explain what caused them, when they got there, whether they are likely to go all the way to the backing. Reach an agreement with the serviceperson on each stain—will it be removed in the normal process of cleaning, removed at additional cost, or not necessarily removed at all? 
  • Alert the serviceperson to furniture with weak legs, seams in the carpet (if you know where they are), and any other potential problem areas. 
  • Get the total cost of the job in writing before service begins. 
  • Afterwards 
  • Don’t pay until you have walked around and inspected the carpet. Check for spots. Don’t listen if the serviceperson tells you not to walk on it; you can, if you’re careful. If you are not satisfied with the finished job, explain that you will not pay until the work is done properly. 
  • Make sure plastic or foil shields have been placed beneath the legs of all furniture. 
  • Before the serviceperson leaves, ask him or her to estimate carpet drying time and to provide any special instructions. 
  • If the weather is not too cold, open windows and doors wide to speed drying. 
  • Don’t put anything on top of the carpet to walk on; this will slow drying. If you must walk on the carpet, wear socks. 
  • Leave moisture shields under furniture legs until you are sure the carpet is dry. Mahogany, teak, redwood, and freshly stained wood pieces will bleed color into carpet. 
  • Vacuum immediately after carpet is dry and then vacuum regularly. 
  • If you discover spots or other problems after the serviceperson has left, call the company immediately. The longer you wait, the more likely they will suspect that the spot is new. If the carpet still feels damp after 24 hours, call the company to see what can be done to speed drying (unfortunately, not much in most cases). 
  • If you cannot resolve a dispute, complain to the California Department of Consumer Affairs (800-952-5210, www.dca.ca.gov) or the Better Business Bureau. There are independent inspectors who will, for a fee, come to your home and offer a third-party judgment. They will also help arbitrate complaints. You can get referrals for inspectors from the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) by visiting www.certifiedcleaners.org

Understanding the Limits 

Even the most capable carpet cleaning professionals will find certain problems difficult or impossible to solve. 

  • Urine. Urine stains can’t be removed unless they are treated before they dry. Urine odor can sometimes be controlled or masked by a deodorant, but generally it cannot be completely eradicated. 
  • Shading, or “pile reversal.” The apparent shadows that result when carpet yarns are distorted under heavy traffic or improper shampooing can never be eliminated. 
  • Dyes. Dyes can’t always be removed. This includes stains left by some soft drinks, Kool-Aid, coffee, tea, and mustard. 
  • Mildew. Can’t always be removed. 
  • Wood stains. Can rarely be removed. 
  • Latent stains. Some chemicals cause stains that appear only under certain conditions of heat or humidity. This is true of some household pesticides, floor waxes, plant foods, cosmetics, and deodorants. Benzoyl peroxide, the active ingredient in some acne medications, can rub off face or hands unnoticed until humidity—or moisture from carpet cleaning—accelerates its bleaching action. By the time hidden stains are discovered, damage may be irreversible.  
  • Bleach spots and areas where sunlight has caused fading. Although carpet can be dyed, you can never fully compensate for a faded area; it is usually difficult to blend the dyed area to match the surrounding area. 

Do Your Part 

The life of your carpet will depend more on what you do regularly than on what is done occasionally by a hired professional. 

Selection 

Purchase the right kind of carpet for the area you will be covering. See our article on area carpet stores and installers

No matter how diligently you maintain it, a thick white pile will not hold up in a busy entranceway. When you are shopping for carpet or rugs, call a good carpet-cleaning outfit for advice. A reliable carpet cleaner knows which kinds of rugs hold up best in various situations, and won’t share the biases of some carpet and rug salespeople. 

Spot Removal 

To prevent permanent stains, clean up spills immediately. Below, we provide tips on spot removal. 

Vacuuming 

Vacuuming is the biggest factor determining how long carpet wears and looks clean. Frequent vacuuming prevents traffic from working soil particles down into your carpet and embedding particles among the twisted fibers of the yarn. While no hard data exists on how different frequencies of vacuuming affect carpet life, the best advice experts offer is to vacuum whenever dust, litter, and matting appear. 

Do-It-Yourself Cleanings 

While you may want to save money by cleaning your carpets yourself, there are good reasons to turn to a professional. Obvious ones are that a professional will save you time and trouble. But good professionals also use heavier, more efficient equipment than homeowners ordinarily can buy or rent; they can recognize fiber types and the risks of bleeding; they know from experience how much water a carpet can stand; and they work relatively quickly. Furthermore, the cost of hiring some professionals may not be much more than the cost of homeowner-done jobs. 

On the other hand, if you clean your own carpet, you can avoid the task of shopping for a professional; you can work until you satisfy your own standards, which may be higher than those of some professionals; you can be as careful as you want with your carpets, furniture, and walls; and you will almost certainly save at least some money. 

For thorough cleanings, you can rent hot-water-extraction or shampoo machines from hardware stores or tool rental outlets, although these machines are usually much less powerful than the ones most professionals use. You can also buy the chemicals to use with your rented equipment at various outlets. When applying chemicals, read all warning labels first, and carefully measure out the correct amounts. 

In recent years, vacuum cleaner models that also function as carpet cleaners have become popular. These machines—for example, Hoover’s SteamVac line, Bissell’s Deep Cleaner models, and Dirt Devil’s Easy Steam—scrub a solution of water and detergent into the carpet and then vacuum up the dirt and water. Their cost has come down in recent years, with basic models going for under $100. But these machines won’t completely replace professional cleaning because they have only a small fraction of the power found in the machines used by professionals, and they don’t perform the deep cleaning that carpets regularly need. But they can be effective for topical light cleanings and for regularly cleaning carpet in entranceways, stairs, and other areas that get dirty quickly. 

Keep in mind that no carpet-cleaning machine removes stains; you’ll still need to clean up spills immediately and try and remove stains with specific cleansers. 

If you decide to obtain professional equipment to do your own cleaning— 

  • First, vacuum the carpet to remove as much dry soil as possible. 
  • Avoid getting the carpet too wet. 
  • Avoid using too much detergent. Doubling the amount of detergent won’t make it easier to clean extra-dirty carpet; instead, it will leave residue that may attract soil and cause excess foam the next time the carpet is cleaned. If a first pass doesn’t remove all of the dirt, wait for the carpet to dry and try again. 
  • Avoid applying carpet protector or deodorant. 
  • Avoid using powder deodorant since its effectiveness is limited and it can form into a hard cake during later cleanings if not completely removed by vacuuming. Also, if you fail to completely vacuum out powder detergents, the residue can become a lung irritant. 

In-Plant Rug Cleaning 

Cleaning area rugs runs many of the same risks as cleaning carpet: Rugs can be permanently damaged by improper or poorly mixed chemicals, or improper brushing. But for some rugs—particularly expensive handmade wool rugs and many antique or semi-antique rugs—there are additional dangers: Dyes can run; fringes, backing, and the rug itself can tear; the rug can shrink or warp; and colors can become distorted. 

Cleaning area rugs is also more challenging because the yarns of many rugs are much more densely concentrated than the yarns in carpet. The most common method of manufacturing wall-to-wall carpet is by tufting, wherein a machine with hundreds of yarn-threaded needles pushes yarn through a backing fabric, forming loops as the needles push in and pull out. This process leaves a small amount of space between the carpet yarns and, during cleaning, this space facilitates the loosening and extraction of dirt. Area rugs, on the other hand, are usually made using processes such as weaving or knotting that create a much more dense pile. Because of this density, rugs won’t get dirty as quickly as carpet (since dirt tends to stay on the surface, rather than settling into the rug), but once dirt has penetrated the surface, this density makes it especially difficult to remove. Removing dirt from a typical area rug requires subjecting the rug to a washing process that vigorously agitates the pile to loosen dirt and then completely soaks the rug through with water to flush the dirt away. 

Another key difference between carpet and rug cleaning is that, in most cases, rugs have to be cleaned outside of your home, where you can’t supervise the work. If a company improperly cleans wall-to-wall carpet in your home, you can ask it to correct errors on the spot, perhaps even before permanent damage occurs. But if an incompetent company improperly cleans a rug in its plant, you’re not likely to notice until it is too late. 

Because the work is difficult and so much can go wrong—and since even a machine-made Oriental rug can cost well over $3,000—make sure you entrust your rugs to a true expert. 

How They Should Be Cleaned 

The vast majority of rugs can tolerate a rigorous cleaning process where rugs are immersed in and flushed with water, shampooed, rinsed, and then dried. 

Vacuuming/Dusting 

Before cleaning, most companies will try to remove as much dust and dirt as possible by using heavy-duty vacuums, beating the rug, using automatic dusters, and/or spraying the rug with compressed air. 

Inspection and Stain Treatments 

If you can locate specific spots or stains, and know what caused them, point them out to the company and make sure that these problems are listed on the work order—before cleaning, spots and stains should be pretreated with appropriate cleansers. Also notify the company if the rug has been in contact with urine, feces, vomit, or blood, so that the company knows that it needs to be decontaminated. 

As with wall-to-wall carpeting, some stains or problems can be difficult or impossible to correct; the company representative should speak candidly about the limits of its service. Keep in mind that companies often won’t know whether or not they can successfully treat a trouble spot until they try. 

Cleaning 

The rug is spread out in the cleaning area of the plant, which is a large concrete basin with plenty of drainage in a large garage, small warehouse, or, in large operations, a small factory-like setting. The rug is pre-washed and soaked by a high-pressure hose that sprays the rug with tepid water usually containing a mild detergent. 

Usually, the rug is then shampooed. Hand-washing rug cleaners pass a hand-scrubbing machine back and forth over the rug. The scrubbing machine is similar to a carpet shampooer in that it runs a mixture of water and carpet shampoo through a rotating soft nylon brush, which is passed back and forth over the rug, loosening dirt and grime that lie deep in the pile. The rug is then rinsed with the high-pressure hose. The cleaner should rinse out as much of the loosened dirt and shampoo as possible: If loosened dirt particles are not removed, they will work their way deeper into the pile; and if the cleaner does not rinse out all of the shampoo, it may lead to a buildup of a sticky residue, which will accelerate re-soiling. 

Be aware that “hand-washing” is a generic term used by almost all rug-cleaning operations, whether or not they clean rugs using the preferred method described above. So it makes sense to ask companies to describe in detail what they mean by “hand-washing,” and to perhaps drop off a rug yourself so you can see the plant’s cleaning facility and make sure you’ll get what’s advertised. 

For example, some companies—particularly very large rug-cleaning operations—use large machines that pass rugs through an assembly-line process that automatically shampoos and rinses them. Unlike hand-washing cleaners, which employ a relatively labor-intensive procedure, automated cleaners can clean a rug in less than a minute. The machine first moves the rug underneath a spray of water to wet the rug, and then passes it through a series of brushes that move back and forth over the rug, scrubbing it with a shampoo-and-water mixture. After scrubbing, the rug is then rinsed underneath a series of rinsing jets. 

One disadvantage of automated rug washers is that operators have little control over the cleaning process. If a certain area of the rug needs more attention than others, automated machines won’t spend extra time scrubbing the problem area. And a possible risk of automated rug washing machines is that the fringes of the rug, or the rug itself, can be snagged and damaged as it passes through the assembly line—although this risk can be largely avoided if operators carefully monitor the machine. 

Other companies—particularly small rug-cleaning operations—skip the shampooing step altogether. These companies spread the rug out onto the floor of a garage or small warehouse, and then clean the rug using the same hot-water-extraction equipment they use for in-home carpet cleaning, except that they usually run tepid water through the machine. Hot-water-extraction machines can adequately clean a rug made from wall-to-wall carpet remnants, but avoid companies that use this process for other types of rugs because hot-water-extraction equipment is designed for cleaning less dense wall-to-wall carpet and isn’t likely to effectively remove dirt that has become embedded into a rug’s dense pile. 

Similarly, other small rug-cleaning operations may clean rugs using the same bonnet-cleaning system they use for wall-to-wall carpeting. As with bonnet cleaning wall-to-wall carpet, this method’s limitations are that it provides only a topical cleaning—many of the loosened dirt particles are never removed. Also, since companies that use the bonnet method rarely utilize a rinse process, repeated cleanings can overload the rug with residues that may contribute to accelerated re-soiling. 

Special Treatment of Delicate Rugs 

A common problem with antique or semi-antique rugs is that the warm water used to clean them can cause dyes to run. Companies can prevent this problem by lightly spraying the rug with an acidic conditioner before cleaning. 

The vast majority of rugs can be cleaned using the cleaning processes described in the above section, and, in fact, most rugs—even expensive handmade rugs—are washed using an immersion washing process after they are manufactured. But highly delicate rugs may require a different method, particularly rugs made of silk or imitation silk and very frail rugs. 

If you want to clean a highly delicate rug, hire an expert to do the work. In most cases, cleaning delicate rugs is similar to cleaning other rugs, except that they receive a lighter, lower moisture cleaning. Often the rug can be lightly shampooed by hand. To rinse out remaining dirt and shampoo, the rug is lightly misted and then wiped clean before being spread out to dry. 

Other types of delicate rugs can be cleaned using steam-cleaning equipment, but replacing boiling-hot water with tepid water. In these cases, the cleaner is treating the rug as he or she would clean upholstery. 

Some delicate rugs just can’t stand water at all. In these cases, the cleaner will remove as much dirt from the rug as possible by brushing it, vacuuming it with heavy-duty equipment, beating out as much remaining dirt as possible, and then using a dry-cleaning process. 

Grooming 

After cleaning, a good company will “groom” the rug with a brush so that the lie of the rug’s nap runs in the correct direction to give the rug an even appearance. Companies may also provide special treatments or care to the rug’s fringe or edges, and may repair damaged areas. 

Drying 

It is important for the rug to dry as quickly as possible; a rug—particularly a wool rug—that remains damp for more than a few days can become mildewed, warped, or discolored. 

Drying a rug that has been completely soaked through with water is no simple feat. One option is to use a large wringer system to squeeze out most of the water. A wringer device is usually the last step in the assembly line for large automated operations, and some cleaners that do not have automated systems may still use a wringer after rinsing the rug. Cleaners that have no wringer usually use hot-water-extraction equipment to pull out as much water as possible. After the rug is sent through a wringer or sucked dry using extraction equipment, some companies then use a high-power wet vacuum system to pull out as much remaining moisture as possible. 

Larger operations will then hang the rug in a drying room, usually a climate-controlled area with industrial-size dehumidifiers and a heating system that pumps in dry heat. Using this method, a rug can be completely dried in six to 12 hours, depending on its thickness, how much water the cleaner has pulled out of the rug, the humidity level in the drying room, and the number of rugs hanging in the drying room. 

Smaller operations will spread the rug out flat on a floor and direct large fans onto it—depending on thickness, how much moisture remains after cleaning, and humidity levels, it will take 24 to 72 hours to dry a rug this way. 

Picking the Right Plant 

Some carpet cleaners that take in area rugs don’t actually perform the work themselves, but instead send rugs to specialized cleaners. These companies may contract the work out to a local rug cleaner or to a large-scale out-of-area operation that uses automated equipment. It’s worthwhile asking companies whether they do the work themselves, as you’re likely to retain more control over quality by dealing directly with the company that actually performs the work. 

Also find out whether companies employ a dedicated rug cleaning staff, or if its in-home carpet cleaners spend a certain amount of time each week cleaning area rugs. Having a rug cleaned by someone who normally cleans wall-to-wall carpet is not a concern as long as the cleaner is also an expert at cleaning rugs, but it will be easier for someone who spends all of their time cleaning rugs to gain expertise. Keep in mind, however, that an automated operation might place more emphasis on production than on diligence. 

The results of our customer surveys and a review of complaint records, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find cleaners that do good work. 

If you own an expensive or delicate rug, have several companies come to your home to inspect it and give you a proposal as to how they would clean it. If you’re uncomfortable with their answers, or receive conflicting answers from different companies, ask the representatives to justify their cleaning proposals. 

When the cleaner picks up your rug, or when you drop it off, make sure you receive a receipt including the type, size, and description of the rug. If you own a handmade antique or semi-antique rug, make sure this is noted on the receipt. 

If you know (or suspect) your rug is valuable, have it appraised so that you can be fairly compensated by the company or your homeowners insurance carrier if the rug is ruined or lost. As already noted, a delicate rug can be easily damaged by a less-than-diligent cleaner. And though you might think it would be difficult to lose a rug measuring 80 square feet or more, our reviews of complaint files at consumer agencies around the U.S. reveal that some cleaners just can’t seem to keep track of their customers’ rugs. A few rug cleaners warned us that some disreputable rug cleaners take in expensive rugs for cleaning, sell them to rug dealers, and then tell their customers that their rug has been lost or stolen. 

Getting a Good Price 

Our In-Plant Cleaning Prices table shows prices quoted to CHECKBOOK’s mystery shoppers for in-plant cleaning of an eight-by-10-foot all-wool hand-knotted Oriental rug. As you can see, prices ranged from less than $125 to more than $300. 

Because we asked the companies to quote prices for a rug only moderately soiled, of a medium color, and with no stains, use the prices on our In-Plant Cleaning Prices table only as a reference point for your own shopping. Your rug is likely to be different in size, color, and condition. Most companies will quote prices over the phone if you accurately describe your rug and its condition. Before cleaning, ask any company to provide a written, fixed-price contract for the cleaning and any add-on services you request. 

Extra Advice:
Cleaning Methods 

There are many ways to clean a carpet. Some work better than others, depending on the condition of your carpet. 

hot water extraction 

In the hot-water-extraction method (sometimes referred to as “steam cleaning”), hot liquid is sprayed under high pressure into carpet pile and immediately vacuumed back out along with suspended soils. The liquid usually is hot water containing a detergent, but may be just hot water if carpet contains a detergent residue from previous cleanings. Performed properly, this method can clean even heavily soiled carpets. 

This type of cleaning can be performed with portable equipment (some types available at tool rental shops) or truck-mounted equipment. Truck-mounted equipment generally does a better job than is possible with portable equipment on heavily soiled carpets. The truck-mounted equipment allows the technician to heat water (either from the home’s water supply or truck-mounted tanks) to a high temperature and spray and extract the cleaning solution at much higher pressures than possible with most portable equipment. The high pressure allows the process to penetrate relatively deeply into carpet pile. 

Many of what seem to be truck-mounted units are simply portable units bolted to trucks, and they lack power. The most effective machines are powered by an engine in the truck, rather than the home’s electrical system. 

Many companies that use hot-water-extraction machines enhance their effectiveness by spraying the carpet with a conditioner and then lightly agitating the carpet with brushes before cleaning. The conditioner acts as a de-greasing agent, which helps remove dirt and grime, and also lubricates the carpet so that the hot-water-extraction wand doesn’t distort the pile. 

Shampoo 

Shampoos for carpets operate like laundry detergents. Some shampoos also contain chemicals to reduce odor, retard soiling, brighten colors, and speed drying. The shampoo is released onto the carpet through openings in a rotary brush. The rotary action converts the detergent into a foam and works it into the carpet. When the shampoo dries, it leaves dry particles that can be removed by a vacuum cleaner. 

Unfortunately, many of the loosened dirt particles are never removed and simply work their way deeper into the pile. Using low-quality detergent, too much detergent, or overly concentrated detergent may cause a buildup of a sticky residue on carpet fibers. Repeated cleanings without proper extraction will overload the carpet with residues that may accelerate re-soiling. 

Combined Shampoo and Hot Water Extraction 

Because high-powered truck-mounted hot-water-extraction equipment usually cleans even heavily soiled carpet—especially when used after carpet has been treated with a conditioner—but this two-step method is rarely employed in residential work. The shampoo and hot-water-extraction process uses shampoo and rotary brushes to loosen dirt particles, followed by hot water extraction using water rather than a cleaning solution to remove the soil. Although some professional machines combine the shampoo and extraction methods, the two steps are usually separate, and therefore incur extra labor costs. 

Foams 

Foams are really just a form of shampoo. Professionals use machines that generate foam and agitate it on the carpet with brushes. Foams used mostly by homeowners are available in aerosol cans. Foams are applied in a thin layer, then rubbed in with a damp sponge. When dry, the residue is simply vacuumed away. The main advantage to do-it-yourself users is that foam contains very little moisture, making it unlikely to damage carpet by overwetting. But the low moisture content also means that not much soil is removed, so this method mostly results in only surface cleaning. Some foams are difficult to rinse out even with multiple cleanings and may interfere with later attempts to clean the carpet. 

Bonnet 

Originally designed for use on commercial carpeting, bonnet cleaning uses a round absorbent pad, or bonnet, attached to the bottom of a rotary floor machine. Detergent is sprayed onto the carpet; then the pad is rotated over the surface, removing soil that adheres to it. When one side of the pad is soiled, it is reversed; when both sides are soiled, the pad is rinsed.  

The bonnet method shares many of the same limitations as shampooing—many loosened dirt particles are never removed and simply work their way deeper into the carpet pile; using low-quality detergent, too much detergent, or overly concentrated detergent may produce a build-up of sticky residue on carpet fibers. And since companies that use the bonnet method rarely utilize a rinse process, repeated cleanings can overload the carpet with residues that may accelerate re-soiling. 

Absorbent Dry Compounds 

Dry powdery compounds containing detergents or solvents can be sprinkled on carpet, worked into the pile by machine, then removed by a vacuum cleaner. The detergent or solvent dissolves the oily film on carpet fibers, freeing the soil to be vacuumed out along with the powder after about half an hour. Although usually less effective than other methods, dry compound cleaning has special applications.
 

Extra Advice:
Are “Green” Carpet Cleaning Methods for Real? 

The Green Movement has spurred new service industries—and marketing schemes—aimed at capturing eco-aware customers. Some carpet cleaning businesses now claim to have introduced different green cleaning methods and practices, including— 

  • Using smaller trucks and/or equipment that use less fuel; 
  • Treating used water before disposal, or at least disposing of it in a sewer so that it goes to a water treatment plant, rather than simply dumping it into a storm drainage system that takes it directly into local waterways; 
  • Using detergents derived from plants—such as orange peel—rather than conventional chemicals; or, 
  • Abandoning the usual hot-water-extraction method by instead using a smaller amount of hot water containing a peroxide solution or softened water containing natural disinfectants. 

Are the “greener” claims just marketing nonsense or do they have merit? If the companies really do what they claim, are the results actually more environmentally friendly than traditional cleaning methods? And, in terms of results, how do these methods compare to conventional cleaning methods? 

Unfortunately, none of these questions is easily answered. 

Among the green strategies, treating wastewater before disposal—or paying to have it treated at a wastewater plant—is a practice any company can employ to minimize the effect of their used water and solutions on local waterways. You could ask any company you’re considering what it does with the wastewater, but you’ll have to accept their answer without verification unless you’re willing to follow their trucks back to the office/plant. 

Using more fuel-efficient equipment is also a way companies can lessen their impact on the environment. But less-powerful equipment is equipment with less cleaning power, which means it will take longer to do the job—and might not do the job as well. 

Other approaches and claims—e.g., using natural detergents and detergent-free solutions instead of the water-plus-detergent method—may be just marketing hyperbole. The owners of the top-rated carpet cleaning outfits we spoke with certainly believe this is the case (we’ll refrain from repeating the colorful language a few used on the subject). Their key point is that the hot-water-extraction process doesn’t use a lot of detergents or other chemicals to begin with; after all, virtually all of the cleaning effect comes from hot water shot into carpet pile and then immediately vacuumed back out along with suspended soils. Detergents are non-toxic and hypoallergenic; it’s not as if carpet cleaners are soaking carpets in a dry-cleaning solution. Properly trained, diligent cleaners may not use detergent at all, and, if they do, use it sparingly so residues don’t attract dirt. 

Another claim made by companies espousing new greener cleaning methods is that these processes allow carpet to dry faster, thus forestalling mold and mildew issues. But, as discussed elsewhere in this article, carpets properly cleaned using the hot-water-extraction method take a day or two to dry, which, in well-ventilated spaces, is not enough time for mold and mildew to develop.
 

Extra Advice:
Solutions for Stains 

Stains can ruin a carpet, but act quickly and you can avoid disaster. 

  • Immediately blot up spills, using a clean white absorbent material. 
  • Pretest spot-removal agents. Put a few drops of solution on each color in the carpet. Then, using white absorbent material, hold it against each color, count to 10, and examine the results. If the dye has bled into the absorbent material, or if there has been a change in the colored area, call a professional. 
  • Don’t overwet. Work with small amounts of solution. 
  • Don’t rub or brush. Excessive agitation may cause distortion. 
  • Work from the outer edge toward the center of the stain. 
  • Have patience—some stains respond slowly. 
  • Remember, haphazard attempts at spot removal may produce indelible stains and/or permanently damage fabrics. If you have doubts, seek professional advice. 

Depending on the stain, try one or more of the following cleaning agents (note: NEVER mix ammonia and bleach): 

1.    Dry-cleaning solvent. 

2.    Mixture of one-half teaspoon white neutral detergent (a mild liquid dishwashing detergent containing no strong alkalis or bleaches) and one cup lukewarm water. 

3.    Mixture of one tablespoon ammonia with one-half cup water. 

4.    Mixture of one-third cup white vinegar with two-thirds cup water. 

5.    Mixture of solution of powdered enzyme laundry detergent made by following the directions on the label or box. Keep solution on the stain for length of time recommended by manufacturer. 

Try these cleaning agents in the order indicated in the following list until the stain disappears. Apply small amounts of cleaning solution with a clean white absorbent towel. Blot frequently and continue to apply and blot until the staining material no longer transfers to the absorbent material. As the final step, blot any remaining moisture or cleaning solutions by pressing or padding the area with an absorbent towel. 

Stain    Agents 

Beer    2, 4 

Blood    2, 3, 5 

Butter    1, 2, 4 

Candle wax    1, 2 

Ketchup    2, 3, 5 

Chewing gum    1, 2 

Chocolate    2, 3, 4, 5 

Coffee or tea    2, 4, 5, 1 

Cosmetics    1, 2, 3 

Crayon    1, 2 

Egg    2, 3, 5 

Food coloring    2, 3 

Fruit and juices    2, 3, 4, 5 

Furniture polish    1, 2, 3 

Furniture stain    1, 2 

Glue, school    2 

Grease    1, 2, 3, 4 

Ice cream    2, 3, 4, 5, 1 

Ink    1, 2, 3 

Iodine, Merthiolate    2, 3, 4 

Milk    2, 3, 4, 5, 1 

Mustard    2, 4, 5 

Nail polish    1, 2, 4, 5 

Oils    1, 2, 3, 4 

Ointment    1, 2, 3, 5 

Paint, oil-based    1, 2, 3 

Paint, water-based    2, 3, 1 

Perfume    2, 4 

Rubber cement    1, 2 

Shoe polish    1, 2, 3 

Soft drinks    2, 3, 4 

Soot    1, 2, 3 

Syrup    2, 3, 4, 5 

Urine    2, 3, 4 

Vomit    2, 3, 4, 5 

Water stains    1, 2, 3, 4 

Wine    2, 4, 3    
 



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