As you prepare for the holiday season, you might be looking around and thinking that your carpet could use a good cleaning before guests arrive. Or you might think that your carpet looks pretty good but that you want to have a contingency plan should someone accidentally spill a glass of red wine. Either way, there are a few things you can do every day to maintain your carpet's appearance and a few things you should know before hiring a professional cleaner.
The best way to protect your carpet day to day is to remove your shoes when you get home. But don't go barefoot; your feet have natural oils that rub off on the carpet. Those oils act like a dirt magnet, so it's a good idea to always wear slippers or socks.
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If possible, vacuum your carpets every day to remove surface dirt and dust. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and change the filter every six months so you don't blow pollutants back into the air. And for maximum effectiveness, change your vacuum bag when it is anywhere from one-half to two-thirds full or when the outside of the bag feels firm.
As far as deep-cleaning your carpets, of course you want to clean them if there are visible stains, but the Environmental Protection Agency recommends a professional cleaning one to four times a year, depending on how heavily trafficked the area is. A professional cleaning removes not only the dirt and stains you can see but also what you can't see. Carpets are like indoor sponges, trapping all types of pollutants, including dust, mold, bacteria and mildew, that can be bad for your health.
When hiring a professional cleaner, choose a company that uses hot-water deep extraction — it's the most effective way to clean your carpet. Professionals spray the carpet with a cleaning solution and then use high-powered machines that emit hot water at high pressure onto your carpet to loosen dirt. At the same time, a high-powered vacuum pulls the hot water out of the carpet, along with the dirt and soap.
There is a huge power difference between professional carpet-cleaning machines and those you can rent at home and hardware stores: Professional machines have a pressure measurement of 250 to 1,200 pounds per square inch (PSI), as compared with the machines you can rent, which have a 35 to 70 PSI. A lack of powerful pressure could leave a soapy residue, which will then dry and attract dirt.
Professional cleaners have hundreds of cleaning solutions to choose from, each formulated for different types of carpet fibers. Make sure the person you hire knows which formula is best suited for your carpet. The wrong formula could lead to shrinkage and discoloration.
Confirm that the cleaning company is certified by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), a nonprofit organization that sets industry standards and provides education and training for cleaning and restoration. Also, when you call to book your appointment, give them a test: Ask what the maximum pH level is for the cleaning solution they'd use on a wool or nylon carpet. If they don't know or if the number is higher than 8.2 pH for wool or 10 pH for nylon, find another company.
Reputable companies typically give you a price per square foot in a written proposal; usually it's anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per square foot. If you talk to a company that gives you a vague quote or a lowball price, beware that there may be extensive overcharges once they are in your home.
When it comes to emergency spills, Andrew Ross from Triangle Legacy, a carpet-cleaning and flood restoration service in the Washington area, says to act quickly. Use a white cloth or towel (the dye from a colored cloth could rub off on your carpet) to blot the affected area. Do not rub, or you will just push the stain in deeper. "You can use a little water on the stain but not too much — you don't want to douse the stain, or the water will seep into the carpet pad and will take longer to dry and also possibly mildew," Ross says. And, most important, "don't wait to call a professional," Ross says. "The longer you do, the more the stain sets in."
Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."