It’s a big decision… one you must make and then hope helps you do the absolute best cleaning possible.

What is it? Choosing the best preconditioner for both carpet and furniture cleaning.

All preconditioners are designed to loosen and dissolve soils for easy removal, yet not all work exactly the same. Some are better than others. It’s up to you to decide which is best for you.

Here is a list of the types of preconditioners available to you today, not all encompassing, but including what most cleaners regularly use:

  • Moderately alkaline detergents,
  • Neutral or moderately acidic detergents,
  • Enzyme detergents,
  • Encapsulation detergents,
  • Specialized preconditioners, such as high pH for olefin, special solutions for wool, etc.

Why precondition?

Some cleaners don’t precondition adequately, and some don’t precondition at all. Yet, preconditioning is the workhorse of the cleaning operation.

Think about it this way: Have you ever patronized a self-serve carwash and skipped the “pre-soak” option and went straight to high-pressure washing? It might have removed some soil, but once dried you could see you missed quite a bit.

Or, what about washing dishes? Would you ever consider just starting to rinse and scrub without allowing them to soak in a sink of hot water and detergent? No. If you didn’t allow them to soak, you wouldn’t get them clean.

That’s what happens when you clean carpet and furniture and skip the preconditioning phase of the cleaning process. You remove some soil, but leave more behind than you should have.

Yes, you have high pressure and high heat from your truckmount. You have a powerful vacuum system. You spend plenty of time cleaning the carpet or furniture. But without preconditioning, you leave more soil behind.

Adding agitation

Simple applying preconditioner is good… but working it into the carpet pile or the furniture fabric is even better.

Compare this to washing your hair. After applying shampoo, do you just let it sit in your hair and then rinse after a few seconds? No… you work it in with your fingers, making sure the shampoo contacts all your hair, and then you rinse.

When cleaning carpet or furniture, allow your preconditioner to do its job by spending some time and effort working it into the textile being cleaned, and you will get better cleaning because of it.

Testing your preconditioners

If reading this far has convinced you that using a preconditioner for your cleaning process is a smart decision, that’s great. But if you need more evidence, or if you need some help choosing a preconditioner that performs adequately, keep reading.

There’s a simple test you can perform to see if your preconditioners have adequate surfactant action. Surfactant action is the ability of water to penetrate surfaces, which is what you want your hot water under pressure to do with carpet or furniture.

Water doesn’t easily separate; it has a fairly high surface tension. You can see the effect of this when you drip water on a countertop. Normally, you see drops of water on the surface, with limited spreading. Or when you wax your car… when it gets wet, the water “sticks together” and doesn’t spread out. That’s surface tension; you might compare it to elasticity of a substance.

Yes, heating your water for cleaning does reduce surface tension and allow better cleaning, but you make it even better with a preconditioner. A one-two punch, so to speak.

If you want to prove to yourself you should use a preconditioner or need help testing the ones you have or are considering purchasing, do this simple test.

Fill a clear cup halfway with room-temperature water for each preconditioner you wish to test. Open one regular tea bag per cup. Put a tea bag into each cup. Just insert the tea bag into the water; it’s not going to sink… it will float.

Then, taking an eyedropper or pipette, put exactly five drops of concentrated preconditioner into each one except the last one. Make sure you leave that one cup with just plain water and a tea bag — no detergent.

Then take a spoon and quickly stir each cup, even the one without detergent.

In a matter of moments, you will see the water in the cups begin to enter the tea bags and start “making tea” — but don’t drink this tea. Look at the cup without detergent. It is probably still floating and clear. No tea is being made there.

As a few minutes pass, you will see the cups with preconditioner continue to darken. The one that gets darkest (stronger tea) is your most powerful preconditioner, in regards to surfactant action.

What that means is that cup of solution was able to penetrate the cellulosic tea bag and remove the tannins and oils from the tea leaves. That action is what cleaning is all about.

Of course, there are other components in preconditioners and detergents, yet surfactant action is the most important.

So do what’s right. Prove it to yourself, and then believe in preconditioning carpet and furniture when cleaning. You will enjoy better cleaning results.

Jeff Cross is the executive editor of Cleanfax and is an industry trainer and consultant. He can be reached via e-mail at