By Jeff Cross

Successful, dedicated carpet and furniture cleaning technicians know what they are doing, and can effectively handle a wide variety of cleaning challenges — including some tough spot and stain ID issues.

But that doesn’t mean each and every job is a complete success.

After all, even if most soil is removed during the cleaning process, all it takes is one small spot or stain remaining on the carpet or furniture to end up with an unhappy customer.

It may not be technician error that causes this problem — after all, there are some stains that can’t be removed despite determined, skilled efforts — but it might be a situation that can be avoided with proper pre-inspection and communication.

Identification procedures

While there are many steps a cleaning technician can utilize for maximum soil removal, identifying spot and stain substances before cleaning commences should always be a high priority.

By taking a few minutes to discuss with the customer any spot and stain concerns and to analyze areas to be cleaned, a cleaning technician can properly set expectations and avoid callbacks and unhappy customers after the job is completed.

A simple question posed to the customer, such as, “Do you know what caused this spot?” might give you the information you need to choose the appropriate steps and chemistry needed to remove it. It can also help you set reasonable expectations. Of course, the customer may have no idea what caused the spot or stain, or they may have forgotten in the interim between the spill and the cleaning appointment. Months, or even years, could have passed.

Analyzing the location of the substance can help. Spots or stains in a dining area are most likely food related, as are those in living or family rooms. Pet stains can be virtually anywhere in a home, but as pets may follow a habit those stains should be localized — in most cases.

Spots or stains in bedrooms can be a variety of substances, including cosmetics, shoe polish and others.

Next, analyze the appearance, and use your own experience in identifying the substance. An earth-toned substance, especially sticky to the touch (such as many foods), should be organic-based, and a shiny substance should be synthetic-based, or man-made. Of course, these are guidelines and not rules. Some substances are very easy to identify visually, such as food condiments and tannins.

The texture of the spot or stain will also aid in identification. A spot should have a texture you can feel, while a stain will be inside the fiber and usually not one you can feel. Remember, though, that some substances, such as mustard, will be both a spot and a stain. Removing the spot (the part of the mustard that can be physically removed) only unearths the stain that remains inside the fiber.

Testing the pH of a substance also aids in identification, but since most customers will have attempted removal themselves with a variety of household products they collect under the kitchen sink, this procedure could be problematic as the pH will be altered. In addition, consumer removal attempts may drive the substance deep into the fiber.

Wetting the substance and transferring some of it to a towel and then smelling it helps with identification, but you may need a skilled nose for this.

Practical information

After identification, you can now match up cleaning methods and chemicals best suited for the job.

In general terms, use the following guidelines:

  • If the substance is petroleum-based or solvent-soluble — inks, oils, greases, adhesives, paints, etc. — use a dry solvent spotter. This would include liquid spotters and also gel solvents, which usually remain in the pile of the carpet and won’t penetrate deeply, which can cause delamination.
  • If the substance is from foods or beverages, an appropriate water-based product can be used. Knowing the pH here helps; that way, you can use the opposite product on the pH scale, such as an alkaline spotter for protein spots. If a traditional spotting agent doesn’t work, and you are dealing with a stain, and the substance is organic-based, you should use an oxidizing agent, typically a peroxide product. Carefully follow manufacturer directions.
  • If the substance is determined to be man-made, or synthetic, such as Kool-Aid, popular soft drinks with colors added, some medicines, etc., you should use a reducing agent. Carefully follow manufacturer directions.
  • Lastly, some substances, such as stubborn protein stains, which include vomit, blood, feces and more, may be removed with an enzyme digester.

Remember that these are guidelines, and that use of the appropriate product on a specific spot or stain should provide acceptable results.

Always be sure to test the fiber being cleaned so fiber and/or color damage does not occur.

Steps for removal

After determining the identity of the spot or stain and the proper chemistry needed for removal, follow these steps:

  • Remove as much of the substance by blotting or vacuuming.
  • Apply small amounts of chemistry. Flip-top bottles work well in controlling the amount of solution you use.
  • Be careful when working cleaning solution into the fiber, as you do not want to add moisture to the base of the carpet or the cushion where it can wick back and cause a recurring spot.
  • Use a tamping brush and towel; be careful of aggressive agitation as it can damage the fibers.
  • Work from the outside in to keep spots or stains from spreading.
  • Depending on the product you are applying, use appropriate neutralizing chemistry after removal, according to manufacturer directions.

Adding heat to the spot or stain can aid in removal. Heat activates the chemical and makes it work faster and more effectively. Carefully control the amount of heat you are using as excessive heat can damage the surface of the fabric and also increase the risk of color loss.

Some substances, such as from an overwatered house plant or from a beverage spill, can end up in the backing material and even in the padding (carpet cushion). Applying a post-treatment encapsulant product, in addition to speed drying, may limit wicking. Leaving a towel with a weight on the spot is another option, as the wicking substances transfer into the towel instead of ending up on the tips of the carpet.

Remember the cleaning technician rule: Remove the spot or stain without damaging the color or texture of the surface being cleaned.

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