Avoid upholstery protection pitfalls

man is cleaning the upholstery on the sofa

Based on the tendency of many upholstery fabrics to stain easily and clean poorly, it’s arguable that it is more important to apply protector to upholstery than it is to carpet.

One only needs to observe how readily fabric protection application is added when new furniture is purchased to see both the need and opportunity that exists in regard to protector application after cleaning.

However, unlike carpeting, upholstery has several variables that make the decisions of what type of protector to apply, if any, more difficult than with carpet.

How upholstery is different
Unlike carpet, which is primarily made from synthetic fibers, upholstery fabrics may contain a wide variety of synthetic or natural fibers, or both in blends.

Synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, olefin and acrylic) respond well to the application of water-based fluorochemical treatments.

Natural fibers and regenerated cellulose fibers (rayon and acetate) do not respond as well to the application of water-based protectors, and may also be prone to several post-application problems from the additional moisture that is introduced with the protector.

These problems include:

  • Cellulose browning
  • Water stains
  • Shrinkage
  • Change of hand (natural velvets stiffen)
  • Dye bleeding

If you choose to protect such materials after cleaning, you are left with only two choices:

1. Under-apply the protector. This obviously bad choice is the most common way that cleaners stay out of trouble with water-based protector applications on delicate natural fibers. Applying only a few ounces of product over an entire sofa will probably not result in any of the above-listed damage issues, but neither will the protector provide any benefit to your customer at all. Application rates for protector may vary with the thickness of the material, yarn construction, etc., but there is no excuse for under-applying the product to the extent that it is ineffective. Under-applying protector, regardless of your motivation, is unethical. Period.

2. Apply a solvent-based protector. Solvent-based protectors are effective on all fiber types. It is far less likely that solvent-based protectors will cause any of the above-listed post-application problems, though you should be aware that there are cases of dye migration after application of solvent-based protector. Always test your product first.

So… solvent all the time?
It would seem that the simplest and best way to protect furniture fabric would be to apply solvent-based protector all the time.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. There are serious issues that you must address before you apply solvent-based protector:

1. Client and operator health and safety. The mist and vapor from solvent-based protector should not be inhaled by the technician or the customer. Your technician must wear an approved, fitted respirator that has cartridges designed for the solvent’s vapors. In addition, he or she will need to wear solvent-resistant gloves, and use ventilation fans to remove vapors from the surrounding environment during and after application. Your customer must not be in the room where the application is taking place, or in any adjoining rooms. Also, keep in mind that these protectors are combustible, and must not be used near any sources of ignition.

2. Effectiveness on wet fabrics. Performance tests of solvent-based protector on relatively damp fabric show less total protection than when the product is applied to dry, or nearly dry fabric. Be certain to extract and air dry upholstery fabrics as much as possible before applying solvent-based protector.

The best way — according to the facts
Based on this information, the best practice would be to apply water-based protector to all synthetic fiber fabrics, and durable blends that are not subject to color or texture problems.

Solvent-based protectors may then be reserved for hyper-sensitive fabrics, such as raw cotton, natural fiber velvet, non-colorfast Jacquard weaves, etc.

Perhaps these practices and alternatives seem to be challenging, difficult or inconvenient.

They are, as are many of the procedures we find the need to follow today.

However, as a true professional, it is imperative that you offer your customer the best possible service by applying the best possible product, in the safest and most effective way.

Doing so leaves you with the least liability at all levels, keeps your customer happy with your service, and assures that your business future will be bright.


An industry trainer and consultant, Jim Pemberton is president of Pemberton”s Cleaning & Restoration Supplies and West Penn Cleaning Company. He has more than 30 years of experience in the cleaning and restoration industry. You are invited to visit the Pemberton website at www.ecleanadvisor.com, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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