Need carpet cleaning tips
December 4, 2012 2:37 PM   Subscribe

We have white carpets. They suck. Please help me use a borrowed Bissell carpet-cleaning machine to best effect.

We have cream colored carpets in our house that are about four years old. They pretty much look like crap by this point even though we remove our shoes. A friend loaned us a carpet cleaning machine. It's a Bissell Lift-off Deep Cleaner, the kind that sprays hot soapy water onto the carpet and then sucks it back up. I went over our trouble spots once already and saw a big improvement, but there are some stubborn stains. I've got the machine for a while longer, so I was hoping to get some tips on how I can get the best results on my next go round.

I've read previous AskMes about spot cleaning carpets but I couldn't find anything about using machines to clean large areas.

Spots: some tea and coffee, mostly spilled milk or formula, several yellow drip spots underneath skylights from condensation.

Dark wear marks: mostly on and around stair treads and in the one place we stand the most, right next to the changing table.

Used so far: various commercial spot cleaning products over the past couple of years as the spots were created. None of them seemed to do much. With the carpet cleaner I used the recommended amount of carpet cleaning soap with hot water.

I vacuumed the floor thoroughly before running the cleaner, but it still spat out an unsettling amount of soapy lint. It also dripped some dirty water onto two places when I let it stand for a few minutes. I expect these marks will come up pretty easily when I run it again.

Is there anything I can do to clean out the machine itself?

Is there any kind of fail-safe pre-spot treatment I can do on these spots? I am particularly annoyed by the large dark wear spots.

Is there another home-brew cleaning solution I should try? I have seen recommendations for vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and just plain hot water. But since this is a borrowed machine I can't risk damaging it.
posted by bq to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You may need spot treatment, the foaming kind. Put down a layer and then use a brush to work it into the area. Let it set 10-15 minutes per the directions, only instead of vacuuming, run the steam cleaner over it. Use water as hot as you can get, and tackle the worst spots first before the water can cool.

You might also use a carpet rake to make the fibers stand up after, if some are matted down. Don't be too vigorous with the rake; you can actually seriously damage your carpet this way.

The wear spots will probably always be there, sorry. This is where the fibers on the carpet have actually been physically worn down by abrasion. Worn carpet is just going to look different from carpet that isn't worn down. This will happen faster where the carpet is dirty, because the dirt acts like sandpaper when you walk across the carpet. This is why you should vacuum your carpet at least once a week or, better yet, twice. Keeping it clean reduces wear.

A possible way to use the Bissell to permanently solve the problem is to disassemble it, and use the sharp bits of the machine to help you take up the carpet. Then simply replace the carpet, perhaps with a nice Berber the exact color of dirt. Reassemble the steam cleaner before returning it to its owner.
posted by kindall at 3:06 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Everything kindall said is, uh, spot on. The most important thing you can do going forward is to keep it clean. Vacuum as regularly as possible, but also borrow this steam cleaner or just buy your own and use it every month or so. After years of renting from the hardware store (I'm a landlord) I finally invested in one of these, and except for breaking one of the pails early (the handle slips right off if you don't remember how it works), I've been pretty pleased.

If your standard pretreatment spray and heavy-duty settings on the device aren't working, you may want to hand clean with an oxi-type cleaning solution, which is effectively a variation on a mild bleach solution. In other words, apply to a low-visibility area first, and don't let it sit, before you deploy it widely. You'll also need to do hand-scrubbing, using a rubber-tipped brush you can get specifically for this purpose. (The Bissell I linked to above has attachments for this.) You can also try strategies like using a mild soap solution that you let sit for 2h, 4h, or overnight.

Given you let dirt grind into this carpet for four years, you're not going to get back to like new in any case. The main thing is to realize that dirt sitting in there is like filling your carpet with little tiny sharp wheeled knives that grind into action every time you step on them. Over time, this just degrades the fibers and you end up with a flat, lifeless rug if you're lucky not to see the pad or jute backing just yet.

Stair treads are a notoriously vulnerable wear point. Most professional carpet installers will have given you some slack so you can adjust it every few years, pushing the wear point to a spot on the riser or tread where it is less visible. But you may just have to replace it. It's not critical to have a match with the floor carpet, so you can change to something less easily stained if you like.

For cleaning the machine itself, if you have a basement/utility sink with a spray gun, it's pretty easy; otherwise try a garden hose outside. Don't spray everything, just the undercarriage and the inlet/outlet connections that get very messy. It's designed to get wet in those areas, so as long as you're not plugged in and don't immerse the works, you should be OK.
posted by dhartung at 3:21 PM on December 4, 2012

Best answer: I just spent an evening cleaning our one small carpet in preparation for Thanksgiving house guests, so I feel your pain. My best practices:

- vacuum first, as you did.
- Use hot water, as hot as you can get it out of the tap. My "steam" cleaner doesn't actually produce steam, or have any heating element. I have no clue why they call it a steam cleaner, but at least a few Amazon reviewers share my frustration.
- You really have to go slowly and cover only a small area at one go. This means cleaning can take a long time. You also have to move slowly passing over the carpet - slower than when you vacuum.
- There'll be some kind of scrub button - when you get to a stained area, hover over it and hold down on the scrub button.
- Repeat this several times.
- This means you'll be frequently exhausting the clean water reservoir and/or filling up the waste bucket. I have a small carpeted TV/family room and did about four dump/refill cycles.

Overall, I would say you can't expect a home device to return your carpet to showroom state - I think it's also not as good as calling out people with professional-grade equipment, like Stanley Steamer. However, I think if you are patient and go over and over and over it'll get to a passable state.
posted by handful of rain at 3:23 PM on December 4, 2012

I used Spot Out to completely erase MOTOR OIL that had been ground into a light berber for a decade. That stuff haz magic.
posted by cyndigo at 3:42 PM on December 4, 2012

Response by poster: What is Spot Out? I am having google trouble.
posted by bq at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2012

Maybe have the pros out to clean and the dye the carpet.
posted by vespabelle at 4:02 PM on December 4, 2012

Top result for google search ["spot out" carpet cleaner]:
posted by GPF at 4:16 PM on December 4, 2012

Take a look at the Carpet and Rug Institute's Cleaning and Maintenance info.
(I used to refer ALL of my customers to this site)

And consider having a professional carpet cleaner come out. You'll be amazed at what they can do.
posted by nickthetourist at 4:35 PM on December 4, 2012

Nthing professional carpet cleaners. I too have cream colored carpet. Aside from using throw rugs to cover the heavy-wear areas (a small hallway I have to traverse to get anywhere in the house, the strip in front of the couch) I call my trusty carpet cleaner once or twice a year. For spills and cat horks in between, I have a Dirt Devil Purpose for Pets.

This is after years of renting carpet cleaners and doing it myself. Truly, nothing you can rent, borrow or buy compares to the job the pros can do.

As a side benefit, when the pipe broke last year and flooded my living room (as was happening all over town after the freeze and thaw) my carpet guy was there within hours with his industrial fans, getting everything dried out. You can't even tell it ever happened.
posted by caryatid at 4:56 PM on December 4, 2012

Best answer: I used to work at a dry cleaner that did carpets. My mom has always had cream coloured carpets. I have a couple of things to add:

Different chemicals for different fibres, and for different stains: One cleaner does not rule them all. And stain removal is a process - sometimes, depending on if it's a greasy stain or something complex, you need to kind of peel it off in layers. Tea and coffee are tannins, plus protein stains if you have milk or cream - and if they were hot, that opened up the fibre more to take them in. Condensation will have rust and minerals. I like this Wisegeek article for some basics, but really, call the pros in. Also, fibres open and close. If you're using hot water or warm water in a machine, you need to do things within a certain period of time. Just like you should not pre-soak laundry for more than a short amount of time, because the fibres will re-absorb the dirty water, you need to work at stains while the fibres are open, then let them close. And you don't treat stains with the machine - you treat the stains on the carpet, and use the machine to gently clean after.

Wicking: A lot of stains reappear because the stain wasn't removed thoroughly the first time. Red wine in particular. And dog stains. Every cleaning step takes longer than you think when you don't have professional, powerful machines - so when you first notice the stain, take the time then to deal with it and that's not using going to be as simple as "spray it with something and blot."

Damage: Many stains can't be removed because they're now damage and discolouration to the fibres, but you can't tell until you get right down there and look. Get right down there and look. I know, it's gross and scary. Nobody's carpet is pristine.

Reality: I was told when renting a big carpet cleaner at Home Depot after a flood that while theirs are good, really, it's all about the big motor and suction power for getting water out. Call the pros.

Prevention and Maintenance: My mom has stupid runners that buckle and ugly mats that we trip over everywhere, and has her rugs professionally cleaned every three months whether they need it or not. Yet we only see the cream carpet in its full glory once a year, at Christmas. And she only offers white wine then. White carpets suck, you're right.
posted by peagood at 5:47 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Spot SHOT not Spot Out, sorry! It is easy to find.
posted by cyndigo at 10:31 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel your pain bq, I have about 3000sqft of cream carpets, 3 little kids, and 2 cats. I've tried EVERYTHING. I own a cleaner, it'll take care of the dirty foot prints and cat poop that is on top, not all ground in. Spot SHOT has worked REALLY well on some things, but not at all on others, it seems really random. Sometimes all the random OXY things work. I've tried hair spray, alcohol, water, HOT water... you name it, I've tried it. The big problem is the damn kids get everything you can imagine on the carpet. Lipstick, crayon, popsicles, every kind of food, marker, pen...

There's only so much you can do. Professionals will get more things than you can, but they can't even get everything, I've found.

I should start a "clean your white carpets" blog. The best I can say is go buy every damn thing you can and when one thing doesn't work, try something else.

I've not found a magic bullet, I doubt there are many people in the world who have spent more time effort and money on cleaning white carpets than me. God, that's the saddest thing I've ever written.
posted by Blake at 5:48 AM on December 5, 2012

Best answer: I had white, olafin, berber carpets the got dirty and stayed dirty. I was told not to walk on them barefooted because the oils on my feet would deposit on the carpet and attract dirt.

I used a steam cleaner on them with hot water and bleach weekly.

Don't use soap, it will leave a sitcky residue, which will attract dirt.

I love Stanley Steamer. They did the cream carpets in our basement and they did an amazing job. Left us with a thingy of spot remover that works like a champ. Told us not to use Resolve or Woolite or any of that stuff.

The visit was $99 and they did a GREAT job.

This is one mistake you'll only ever make once.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 AM on December 5, 2012

Unfortunately, once white or light-color carpets begin to show wear or dirt, the best you can hope for is to retard the advance of obvious wear.

Seconding getting a professional like Stanley Steemer in there. You really can't get things as clean as they can, with a rental cleaner.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:35 AM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - this has been by helpful. I'm glad I planned to do this over a few weeks because 2 days after my first cleaning, some spot have indeed reappeared. I'll try Spot Shot and I'll make sure that I run a final pass of clean water with no soap to avoid sticky residue. I hate spot cleaning, it is so annoying. And I haven't even thought about the area rugs yet.... Ugh.
posted by bq at 9:50 AM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: I am returning the carpet cleaner to its owner tonight. The carpets look a LOT better, and we will be able to keep them around for a few more years. I experimented with using vinegar instead of bissell soap and it did NOT work as well as soap. I cleaned the machine as thoroughly as I could but it still spat out foamy lint blobs a lot - I just had to manage that by running the machine backwards over its tracks. Spot Shot seemed to work pretty well as a spot cleaner and I used a whole can up over the long weekend.

I also sent the following email:

Please cancel my order. I needed to order this part because I knocked the piece down a hole in the wall and my husband fished it out. Thank you.

It was quite the carpet cleaning adventure.
posted by bq at 9:29 AM on January 2, 2013

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