Chemist’s Corner: Examining Our Arsenal Of Cleaning Agents

Chemist’s Corner: Examining Our Arsenal Of Cleaning Agents

My first thoughts are: “Mark Stanley, this site is OUTSTANDING!” Great job by you, and I know it must have taken a lot of time, effort, and imagination. It will set the standard for others to follow and we thank you for developing it. My second thought is: “I’m not sure whether to thank you or kick your butt for asking me to do an article ochemicals!” 🙂

Here is my background, for those who don’t know: I’ve been a “dry foamer” since 1972, introduced a small line of custom pro products in 1990, introduced retail products on the Internet in 1997, founded the Independent Foam Cleaners Association, (IFCA) with my good buddy George Hagele in 1993.

My cleaning method had been primarily “dry foam” extraction through the years, and for this article I will stay within the boundaries of that method. Right up front, I am not a chemist! This will be layman, experience type information, and if I get blasted by some chemical guru later, he’d better live far away.

I have been intrigued these last six or seven months, occasionally visiting some of the Internet carpet cleaning forums.

Actually, “intrigued” is not the right word. AMAZED would be more correct. I must say, I am really impressed by all the intelligent guys, and gal’s on the forums, and ours is no exception. We have some VERY sharp, (and humorous) people in our group, and the industry as a whole, and many of them put me to shame with their knowledge of cleaning chemicals and techniques.

There are a lot of cleaning chemicals on the market, and everyone has their favorites. What amazes me is the sheer number, and varieties of mixes and concoctions many operators utilize. The arsenals of some of these operators are huge and complex! But actually, I think most foamers are like me… they can’t understand all this! Our method is SIMPLE! We use four or five base products and several spotters, and “bada-bing-bada-boom”, we’re good to go! All of these products, I know very well!

Basically, we can categorize our method’s arsenal of cleaning agents this way:

1) Pre-spray.
2) High foam detergent.
3) Defoamer.
4) Spot removal/additives.
5) Rinse. (optional)
6) After spray. (optional)

Let’s take them one at a time.

#1) Pre-spray: If you are a dry foamer you have to use the right type of pre-spray. Most pre-sprays contain solvents to cut (emulsify) grease and oil. Solvents also cut foam production significantly, and without good foam production, you are going to have a very long day. The best pre-spray for our method should contain the proper balance of safe glycol’s, citrus, and a high foam anionic surfactant. This way you will get the benefit of the grease cutting ability, along with an enhancement of foam production, rather than a reduction. The pH should be no higher than 10.0 for warranty protection.

#2) Detergent: The best type would contain a pure anionic surfactant, with premium chelators, (softeners) and a state of the art brittle drying polymer. Detergents that use pure surfactants are something of a rarity in the industry. They are expensive, and they require heated storage by the chemical company in their raw form. The advantage is that almost all the inert fillers and “junk” is filtered out, and there is more active surfactant at work during the cleaning process. This is why fibers appear cleaner, and brighter with their use. Ideally the pH should be around 9.0, for synthetic carpet, and they should not contain optical brighteners. Most wool carpet, (always check your dyes) should be cleaned at a PH of 6.0 to 7.0. 1 ½ oz. white vinegar per diluted gal. will lower pH from 9.0 to 7.0.

Heat: Heat helps. No question about that. Heat produces better foam with better chemical action. But, how much heat is good?

I keep reading about these huge temperatures that some of the Hot Water Extraction (HWE) equipment manufacturers say their equipment is capable of producing. Some of them even claim that their machines can produce temperatures of 240 to 250 degrees, and more. These numbers may be true “in the can”, but if water were to hit the air at those temperatures, you would have “live steam” (at about 212 degrees) and according to my buddy George Hagele, (he minored in nuclear physics) live steam is great for dissolving grease and oil, but it is not a good medium to use for extraction. For good VACUUM extraction, you need water flow, or in our case: foam.

With in-line heat, we can get foam to have a temperature of about 150 degrees at the fiber, and that is certainly adequate in my mind. Yes, we do need a well-built, durable, heated foam machine. I have been saying that for years!

NOTE: Dilution ratio is important. Most detergents contain 10% solids, or less. The rest is water. Some of the best contain 20% or more. If these are active beneficial solids, your dilution ratio can be dramatically increased, and the actual cost of the product reflects upon this. If you pay $12 .00 a gallon for a product with a 16 to1 ratio, as opposed to $15.00 a gallon for a product with a 32 to1 ratio, you are not only losing money on the product, but also on the increased shipping costs.

Degreasing detergent: High foam, oil stable, degreasing type detergent is also available. This type of detergent uses an oil stable, high foam surfactant, to enable you to do Restaurant (nightmare) conditions, where normal detergents would fail miserably. This type of detergent can have a solid content of over 30%, and the dilution ratio can be anywhere from 32 to 1, to 128 to 1, depending on the conditions. It woud literally devour grease and oil (a real MONSTER), and be a real TIME and MONEY SAVER!

I did a Massage Parlor once many years ago with regular detergent, and I thought my machine broke down. I almost croaked before I got out of that place. The carpet was loaded with oil, and I’m sure the lady owner could hear me swearing under my breath. If I had used the detergent mentioned above, I would have smoked it!

Yes, it was a legitimate parlor! No, I didn’t mention it to my wife! 🙂

#3) Defoamer: Although most liquid defoamers are silicone based, there is a huge difference in the quality, performance, dilution, and price. Newly developed types are light years better than the ones we had years ago. It is best to compare notes with fellow cleaners, or simply test one against another and choose.

#4) Spot Removal: This is a subject in itself, and I’m just going to cover the basics. I must admit, in 29 years of carpet cleaning, I have only attended 4 or 5 carpet cleaning classes, and two of them were for spot removal. Also, I do a lot of “tech stuff” reading, (not just my Conan the Barbarian books, George Hagele!). Actually, they ARE the only books that can hold my interest for more than five minutes (a great escape medium for a guy with my mentality). I wish Robert E. Howard would have lived longer, and done a hundred of them. Sorry… I digress. Basic spot removal principal (by the book).

VDS: Volatile dry solvent, such as OMS (odorless mineral spirits).

NVDS: Non volatile dry solvent, such as POG (paint, oil, grease remover). Follow with VDS.

NDS: Neutral detergent solution.

Acid: Tannin spotter, (acetic acid for yellows and browns, pH of 2.5 – 4.5).

Reduction: Strippers/Reducing agents such as sodium bisulfite, (weak – 6.0 pH) and sodium bisulfate, (strong – 3.0 pH) for browning/yellowing conditions.

Oxidation: Hydrogen peroxide, 3% -30%, and bleach.

Enzyme: Chemical agents that break down non-soluble proteins, and make them soluble in water.

Well that’s all very nice, but to be honest, I’m a KISS kinda guy. “Keep It Simple Stupid!” I did some spot removal tests for 3M years ago with some very basic spotters and the results were excellent. Fourteen different types of spots “stains” were treated and all responded well. The only really stubborn ones were mustard, and black (liquid) shoe polish, as I recall. I carry with me: OMS, POG, an alkaline all-purpose spotter, a tannin spotter, isopropyl alcohol 70% and 90%, ammonia, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide 3% and 30%, browning treatment, Whink rust remover, and red stain remover for heat transfer, (use a very thin, DRIPPING wet towel, iron on low steam heat setting, light pressure 15 to 20 seconds for best results. That looks like a lot, but I rarely have to use more than two or three a job.

Wood stains: that’s a tough one. I’ve had mixed results. I noticed a couple of recent posts in the ICS forum regarding them, and a couple of the procedures looked interesting. I just haven’t had time to experiment. Let’s get some input on this one. Ok?

Pet stains and odors: Tannin spotter, inject industrial enz/bac culture, mist odor neutralizer, cover with wet towel. (That’s a very short explanation!)

Additives and softeners: We have been using non-chlorine oxy bleach additives the last few years. Mainly to help with “grayed out” light Berbers. For hard water conditions, Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda is superb, and inexpensive. It is available at the grocery store. A little goes a long way, and foam production is dramatically improved when you are dealing with hard water. 1 tbsp. per 5 gallons of diluted detergent solution will raise the pH approximately one point, soften the water, help cut grease and oil, and
is a natural odor counteractant.

#5) Acid Rinse: Contrary to what many believe foamers also use rinses. We can spray and vac, or spray and towel. There is a debate among many in the industry as to, which is better for rinsing fibers, water or acid rinses.

From my own personal experience, I prefer the acid rinse. Our group of foamers, (IFCA) agreed. Most of us use the prepared fiber rinse, particularly around bare floor areas. They not only neutralize and remove a certain amount of residue, but they also take a little of the “slick” out of wet carpet, and make it a (little) safer for the homeowner. It’s very hazardous sometimes stepping off a wet carpet onto bare floor; especially ceramic tile.

I have “gone down” myself, a couple of times. I was running late one day a few years ago, and I was just finishing up. I was quickly stepping down a hallway while carrying my recovery tank (filled to the brim with “really black” recovery water) and when I hit the ceramic tile in the bathroom; I did a “back half gainer”! I landed flat on my back, and was covered with black water from neck to crotch! This was the same condo I had
done several times, and had cautioned the elderly couple that lived there to be careful of that Darn ceramic tile! I’ll never forget that little old lady’s voice coming from the TV room down the hall: “Homer, I think Bill took a tumble.”

So, if we, as professionals, can forget to be extra careful, so can our clients. I’ve got a
tough hide, and a hard head, but the 70-year-old homeowner can break a leg rather easily. Always lay towels in doorways, as reminders to them that the carpet is wet while you’re working, and always rinse, and dry step-off areas especially well before you leave. (Don’t forget stairs leading to bare floors.) Caution your clients again on your way out! The rest is usually pure luck. Did I mention good liability insurance?

#6) After sprays: Yes, I think they have merit when used properly. I would recommend the top two or three name brands simply because of their track record, but I notice a lot of you are using other lesser known brands, and achieving excellent results. This is another item we should compare notes on. Do they work well with brittle drying detergents? Yes, because you normally apply them while the carpet is still wet.

And, even if the carpet is dry, I doubt that the “adhesion” would be adversely affected, but I must admit to having not tested this concept. When we tested for 3M using a brittle drying detergent, the fluorochemical was applied while the carpet was still wet.

Brittle dry tests: Everyone has their own slant on this one. Have you ever seen a detergent advertised as a “sticky” drier? I’ve seen so many false claims on this subject by suppliers, it makes me sick! Have you ever noticed how some suppliers “work” their tests? I’ve seen about a dozen different ways that they perform the tests to try to “achieve” a brittle drier.

Here is the method that I recommend: Pour some undiluted detergent in a flat dish, and fan it completely dry. Scrape it up with a razor blade. Is it brittle or not?

This translates in relative terms to all the other factors that will follow, i.e. dilution ratio, number of passes, vacuum efficiency, rinse or not, bonnet or not, remaining residue, and any other variable you can think of that comes afterward. If it is brittle in its pure state, at the onset, it will surely wind up better than one that is not, in the end.

Remember the guy who used to do all the “independent” tests for various manufacturers? They all came out on top! Give him enough time, and he could convince you that the ingredients in a pencil could power you to the moon!

That’s it folks!

Thanks again to Mark Stanley, John Merritt, Rick Larsen, Rick Gelinas, and Lonnie McDonald, for starting the LMCCA up! Stay focused, and don’t argue! Leave that to me and George… we’re good at it! 🙂

Bill Barnes