By Tom Forsythe
Every carpet cleaner goes through testing of cleaning products, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Unfortunately, conclusions are generally based on perceptions, not facts. However, there, indeed, are differences in performances between chemicals.
These differences are the results of diverse ingredients and concentration levels; unique uses or raw materials (which impact a product’s performance); varying heat thresholds of the equipment used; dissimilar soils from one geographic region to another region; quality of water used (soft or hard); distinct fiber and construction differences of carpet; unique levels of fluorochemical protection from one carpet to another; different testing methods; and hidden motivations from proponents of different products.
Performance is the most important variable in products, but there are other variables to consider as well. Some others include:
- Foam levels,
- Re-soiling tendencies,
- Personal safety of ready-to-use dilutions (many come with Safety Data Sheets),
- “Green” status of the product,
- Quality of the fragrance,
- Product consistency from batch to batch,
- Ease of dissolving in powders,
- Local accessibility,
- Product pH,
- Cloud point (determines ideal temperature for usage),
- Regulatory compliance including SDS,
- Quality of label instructions,
- Technical support for product,
- Available training,
- Presence of corrosion inhibitors,
- Presence of stabilizers,
- Evidence of innovation,
- Product concentration.
When evaluating cleaning products, there are some important questions to ask: Would you use the best cleaner if a bad odor permeated the room for several hours after leaving the house? Would you use the best cleaner if it started showing re-soiling within a few weeks? Would you use the best cleaner if you had to adjust dilutions for each batch due to product inconsistencies? Would you use the best cleaner if you knew that it was illegal to sell in your state (generally not illegal to use)? In short, there are many reasons to use a product, which are not solely related to cleaning performance.
What affects the abilities of cleaning products?
Diverse ingredients reflect the menu of raw materials available to the formulator. Basically, a formulator chooses from an array of solvents, surfactants, and builders, which form the bulk of any cleaning formulation. Better ingredients will always result in better results. A formulator, then, tweaks formulas with minor selections of any necessary chelating agents, buffering agents, polymers, unique proprietary additives, and choice of fragrances.
It is similar to a chef working with meat, vegetable, and fruit choices for meals. The quality of the meat and freshness of the vegetables and fruit will impact the taste of the food. The formulator’s tweaking reflects the use of marinating, choice of spices, means of cooking, and other tricks of the trade.
More concentrated products will weigh more than less concentrated products unless a lot of solvents are used in the formula. Solvents weigh less than water, and builders are absorbed into the water without significantly changing the volume of the water. More concentrated products cost more. For example, one particular prespray makes nine ready-to-use gallons, while another prespray makes 33 ready-to-use gallons. Routinely, we hear that one is more expensive than the other. In fact, one product makes almost four times as much ready-to-use gallons of prespray but is only twice the cost.
Every formulator, like every chef, has its own unique combination that makes the product work well or the food taste better. Here is where the skill of the formulator can make a difference in a product’s performance. The amount of difference cannot always be seen in a few cleanings. There are many presprays because there are many diverse situations. Usually, one product will work better than another, even from the same formulator, based on specific situations.
Sometimes formulators are surprised. The company I work for produces a product with the ability to reactivate soap left in carpet from previous cleanings. We recently received a call about how good this product worked on a carpet in a Mexican restaurant. This chemical would not have even been recommended to be used in this situation. However, previous cleanings had left a significant amount of soap residue. In this situation, the carpet cleaned up beautifully because the chemical activated and cleaned the carpet with the soap that was already in the carpet. However, even though this chemical worked well in this situation, it would have diminishing returns in cleaning the normal soil load for a Mexican restaurant once the soap residue had been removed.
Diverse equipment from sprayers to wands to the type of extraction equipment also will vary the performance of any chemistry. Heat works. If you have great equipment with high heat, performance differences between chemistry will be less obvious.
Interestingly, the characteristics of regional soils make some chemistry better in some regions than others. For example, soil in Florida is sandy, while soil in Georgia has a high red clay component. We developed a new chemical and used another chemical as the benchmark. We worked for months to make them perform equally in soils from Utah. We had the formula tested in North Carolina, and our formula blew away the benchmark in performance when red clay soils were introduced in the mix.
Sometimes distinct fibers and/or construction cause cleaning differences. Oil is more readily removed from nylon than it is from olefin. Knowing the fiber helps you evaluate the cleaning solution. Probably the most important factor that impacts cleaning is the level and type of fluorochemical protection from one carpet to another.
We tested red stain removers and organic stain removers hundreds of times over the course of three years. We found that on normal fluorochemical and acid-dye resistor treatments, most red stain and organic stain removers worked. Once we compared results on white, undyed and unprotected nylon, then the best products easily stood out. In most cases, two out of three of the red or organic stains can be removed by most products. The best products, however, can approach 90 percent success in stain removal.
Testing abilities of cleaning products
Different testing methods also can lead to wrong conclusions. I have found that a lot of cleaners will use one product on one job and another product on the next job. Side by side tests are the only cleaning tests that have any validity. Even with these tests, several tests should be performed before any conclusion is reached.
Once a conclusion is reached it should be shared in context: “Product A worked better than Product B in over 20 side-by-side cleaning tests. The cleaner lives on the east coast in Florida and cleans with an X truckmount. The tests were done mostly on nylon carpet in residential settings. Product A worked better for this cleaner in recognition of his region, his equipment, and the residential setting for this type of carpet.”
This is all you can conclude. I have seen a lot of certainty and hyperbole in product evaluations on social media, which I know from my own thorough testing, is a result of incomplete or inadequate testing.
Product testing is both a science and an art, which takes time when done properly. We do a lot of testing in the lab and in the field. We make adjustments on what we find and try to make it as good as we can. We do not introduce the product if it is not better than the preexisting formula. We make all new products comparable or better than the existing products that we test it against. Be assured that we do detailed testing and are satisfied before we put our name on a product. We trust that, as a cleaner who endorses another product, you test carefully, as well, before you put your name on it.
Tom Forsythe has worked as a chemist for Bridgepoint Systems for 16 years and has developed more than 200 products for the cleaning and restoration industries.