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Cleaning Techniques for Carpets and Rugs

Carpet and run cleaning doesn't have to be a dirty, time-consuming job. Gone are the days where rugs had to be hung on the clothesline or over a fence and the dust beaten out with a rug beater or getting on hands and knees to scrub the carpet clean. With a few simple tips and today's often self-propelled vacuums and shampooers, cleaning is a snap.

First, vacuum high traffic areas at least twice each week, more often in inclement weather if dirt tends to get tracked in by family and pets. Drive the vacuum or "sweeper" in the direction of the carpeting or rug pile in a slow, controlled motion to remove embedded dirt or fiber. Animal hair may take extra time to remove. For stubborn pet hair, it helps to use an old damp washcloth to lift the hair off the pile, then vacuum, especially on stair steps and in hard-to-reach areas.

Shampooing the carpet is a bit more complicated. The type of shampooing depends on the type of carpet, its backing, whether it has been stain-guarded, and if any pretreatment has been applied. It's easiest to call the pros to steam clean, but that gets expensive, especially if the amount of carpet is large. Renting a shampooer or steam cleaner is inexpensive and with a little know-how, gets the carpet cleaned effectively.

Area rugs, dependent on size, color, and type, may need to be professionally cleaned. This means taking the rug in to the cleaning facility or having the company pick it up from your home. This process can be expensive and time-consuming. If the rug is a pricey Oriental rug from the Middle East, it's a no-brainer, have the pros work it. If the rug is an easy on the pocketbook chain store special, then a bit of elbow grease and ingenuity may be all that's needed. Smaller runners and cloth rugs may simply be washed according to manufacturer's specifications in the washer and usually air-dried, although some may be dried in the dryer.

To spot clean stains, don't scrub or blow it dry with a blow-dryer. This will set the stain. Certain types of common stains require special handling and one caveat, always test a small spot before treating and don't let it sit:

  • Wine: for white wine, blot the stain with a light or white colored cloth, then apply plain dishwashing liquid that has no alkali or bleach with warm water, blot again. Neutralize with a vinegar and water solution in a 1:3 ratio, blot and repeat if necessary and let air dry. Strangely enough, white wine cleans the red wine stains! Pour the white wine over the red wine stain and blot up the excess with a cool cloth or sponge. Grab some table salt, pour it over the stain, and let it absorb the remaining liquid. Weight it down and keep the salt on the carpet until morning, then simply vacuum up the salt.
  • Chocolate: scrape the chocolate gently from the carpet, mix a teaspoon of mild detergent with a teaspoon of vinegar to one quart of warm water. Blot, rinse well and vacuum.
  • Sauce: tomato, catsup and barbecue sauces are the most common sauce stains to remove from carpets and rugs. Use the mild detergent/vinegar/water solution over a cloth and lay the cloth over the stain after scraping the excess stain from the carpet. Use a spoon's bowl, rubbing it over the cloth, outside to center of the stain in a circular motion. Lift the cloth and dab the stain with a sponge of warm water and blot with a clean rag, Use another clean towel or rag over the spot and weight it down with a book. Remove the next morning or wait a few hours and voila! Stain should be history.
  • Animal stains: Tough stains here as they fall into one of three categories: chemical, enzyme or bacterial. It used to be that if an animal sprayed onto the carpet repeatedly that it was time to replace the carpet...or the animal. Nowadays, you can keep both with the urine and feces stain removal products on the market. If you decide to try a home method, be prepared that it may take several applications in order to remove the stain and the smell, which depends on how long the stain has been sitting on the carpet. Follow the sauce method above or test a small spot with baking soda and use a toothbrush or rag to gently rub it in and let it dry before loosening and vacuuming. The key here is to find the spot in a timely manner so that it doesn't have time to set into the carpet or rug fibers and matting. Once it gets into the matting, it's tough to extract. A steam cleaner with dedicated products for these types of stains is your best recourse.
  • Oil: Try rubbing alcohol on the stain after blotting up the excess oil, rub from the outside in with a cloth gently and blot. Let dry. Remember that there are several types of oil from motor oil to vegetable oil. Try this method after calling the manufacturer or your local carpet store or cleaner for tips.
  • Ink: Do not let the ink dry, it will be tougher to remove. Blot excess ink and then apply some milk to the spill or stain. Gently massage using a toothbrush working from the outside in to prevent the ink from spreading outward. Apply wet, but not sopping, towels to blot up the milk from the ink and soak up any excess liquid. If that doesn't work, try a tablespoon of isopropyl rubbing alcohol in about a half cup warm water. Chances are that you will have to repeat until ink is gone. Dishwashing liquid may also help using the same procedure to work the stain. Sometimes the bubbling action of peroxide will work, but test it first, as peroxide will take out color. If all else fails, pick up the phone and call the pros.
  • Gum: Freezing the gum with ice is the tried and true method. It takes around ten minutes for the ice to freeze the gum, then simply take a butter knife to extract.
  • Wax: Colored candle wax on light carpet may stain the carpet, especially if it has been there a while and ripping old wax off carpet fibers can tear out the fibers. Use this trick to remove most wax spills: cover in a thinner towel or use paper towels, rub a warm iron over the spot and blot up the liquified wax. If residue lingers, repeat until wax no longer coats the carpet fibers.

A common thread for all stains is to blot, blot, blot and use a round spoon in a circular motion over a clean towel to work the stain so it doesn't smear. Steam cleaning is always a good solution, but the above household methods will do the job quickly if you catch the spill before it stains or catch the stain early. The rule is: the longer the stain sits and embeds itself into the carpet, the harder it will be to extract. And no method will remove every stain, every time. Also, if your carpet is stain-guarded, ask your carpet manufacturer if the stain guard is removed once cleaned and how this will affect any warranty. Some warranties can be negated if certain products are not used, so know this ahead of time.

The best solution is preventative care and maintenance. Keep your carpet or rugs clean and in good condition. Preventing them from being soiled in the first place ensures long lasting wear. Here's some tips/links:

  • Vacuum often to prevent buildup, this is the number one preventative measure
  • Blot up any spills immediately or as soon as they are noticed
  • Careful not to set in spills with heat, unless you are removing wax
  • Always test an inconspicuous or small spot before cleaning a stain.
  • Steam cleaning is highly effective and should be done at least once or twice a year
  • Know your carpet or rug's makeup: is it made of plant fiber, wool, nylon, silk or cotton?
  • Ask the manufacturer, if known, about warranties and recommended cleaning and maintenance procedures and products or ask your local extension office for help.