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The risks of DIY carpet cleaning and how save a buck or two.... Answered

I am writing this partly because of bed experiences with rental angents/landlords and as a general help.

Here in Australia as well as other parts of the world it is common pratise that a real estate agent goes through your rented home multiple times a year to check if you keep it clean and undamaged.
In most cases these visits go without any hickup until you move out.
At this point agents often try to make your life a misery.
Some expect you get the house back to the state it was 10 years ago when you moved - an impossible task.

Carpet cleaning is usually done with a rented machine.
This mean you pay a deposit for the machine and "rent" is made by the highly overpriced cleaning fluid you have to use with the machine.
But more and more people see that a $100 machine from the discounter is a "money saver".
So lets start with the main differences between a rented, commercial grade machine and those you find at the discounter to buy.
The later comes quite small and in plastic, the commercial one is usually all metal and has huge water and waste tank.
And lets be honest here, if a good vacuum cleaner sets you back more than twice what your new floor cleaning machine costs.....
For me the real difference is in the sucktion.
If you start with 10 liters in a commercail machine then you should expect to get over 8 liters back in the waste tank.
The added waste often makes it seem much more though ;)
The cheap discounter vesion however often struggles to get half of the water back out of your carpet that it drained into it!
This is not only due to the weaker vacuum created but also due to the general design and lack of sealing the area that is sucked up.
But during a hot summer week this makes no vital difference as it dries off anyway, or does it?

Dryness and contamination....
If you wash your clothes than you let them fully dry before you wear them.
With a freshly cleaned carpet we often don't have that luxury and if the weather won't play nice you might end with a moist carpet for weeks.
A proper wash of the carpet would require that water is actually flowing through the fabric.
This is achieved by designing water outlets and sucktion areas to be in close proximity.
However, most carpets these days are thin and flimsy, the underlay brings the comfort and often the required insulation from the cold floor.
Fun fact: Most quality carpets in the EU come with a rubber or foam like backing which prevents that little spills go through and also leave the carpet basically dry after a cleaning.
If the amount of water your machine collects does not get very close to what you filled into the tank then you end with a quite wet carpet and underlay.
Cold from underneath and with basically no airflow through it.
And if you ever removed an old carpet that was cleaned every few years you do know why you wear a protective suit, gloves and a filter mask on your face....
It is simply impossible with a handheld machine to prevent water and contaminants from getting into the foam underlay of US and AU style carpet assemblies.
Once fully dry there is little chance for anything to grow, but every time you clean the carpet you add the water required...
I had it in two rentals that when I cleaned the carpets with a really good machine that stains from within the underlay came back up into the carpet.
A job planned for a day then turned into three days of using heater fans and living in a sauna while washing carpets :(
The same is true if you end up with fresh dirt or such on the carpet while it is still moist underneat - it gets worked ino the carpet and becomes even harder to clean.

Is a commercial cleaning the better option?
Sadly I have to say this highly depends on your agent/landlord and how much time and money you have.
In some areas agents simply ignore the law and demand from you that the carpet looks at least as good as when you moved in.
And if old stains you did not know about come from the filthy underlay a rented machine can come close to the cost of getting a commercail team in to do the job once you vacated.
Either way you get an invoice for the service and a statement about the condition of the carpets before and after the cleaning.
These guys come with a big van and before it fires up with water only the vacuum is used.
Imagine a monster sized vacuum cleaner head on steroids that connects to an industrial sized evacuation fan in the van.
It literally lifts your carpet from the underlay and leaves nothing loose behind.
The actual cleaning and sanitation works the same way only with the big difference that the water is sprayed with pressure through the carpet and into the underlay.
Final round is done dry and with vacuum only, means the carpets are dry enough to walk on them without getting wet feet.
A complete dry state is usually reached within 2 days during the summer unlike rented machines that keep the humidity in your house up and high for about 2 weeks until back to normal.
Main benefit of a commercail cleaning is that you won't get any issues with your agent/landlord unless you damaged the carpets or made them impossible to clean - ever dropped an ink jet printer refill kit? ;)

If I do it myself with a reasonably good machine or a rented one : Do I have options for the cleaning solution used?
Trust me, I had to figure that one out quickly when I moved into my first rental down here.
4 bedrooms, entire house with carpet except for the kitchen and wet areas.
They appeared reasonably clean at a first look but when I used a UV flashlight at night the story was shocking....
In what must have a room for a baby the carpet looked like a psychedlic art impression under the UV light.
The living room was not much better.
As a result the rented machine ran out of cleaning fluid quickly.
Bought 2 bottles that were supposed to be suffient for the house size but if you need several rounds per room.
I "finnished" the former baby room and was one bottle down already.
Called it a day and in the dark the UV light showed a slithly fades art impression but nowhere clean :(
The shop had a heavy duty cleaning solution but I did not consider it with a price twice as high.
Instead I wondered what would make my carpet different from my clothes in my washing machine....
So I got a canister of Oxy-cleaner - sometimes called nappy soaking powder, or similar.
Just make sure you get one that does not foam up too much.
I used a bucket to dissolve a good amount of the powder before filling it into the machine - at about 40°C.
What ended in the waste tank when using this cheap alternative looked digusting to say the least!
With that encouragement I decided to make a new bucket with some added washing powder, just a tablespoon worth or just over.
Washing powder for front loader does not foam up much, unlike the stuff for top loader, so choose wisely.
That was, all counted, the forth cleaning round for the former baby room but after this the UV light showed a clean carpet that also had nice spring fresh smell thanks to the washing powder.
Using the same appraoch of lots of oxy cleaner and a bit of washing machine powder in semi hot water made cleaning the rest of the house a breeze!
When going slow with the machine it was like mowing the lawn, it left a clean path behind.
Not all carpets might tolerate oxy cleaners though, especially if they are quite colorful, so do a spot check first if you never used the stuff to clean up a little spill of red wine before.
And please keep some of the commercial cleaning fluid at hand to give the machine a quick wash through with it, otherwise the shop might ask you if you used non approved cleaning stuff with it ;)

Tips for adjustable cleaning machines....
Some of the rented machines come with several possible adjustments you can make.
In the most basic form you can adjust the amount water used and how strong the machine sucks.
Keep the sucktion as high as possible unless you actually want to pre soak the carpet.
The amount of water should be adjusted to the type of carpet not to how dirty it is!
You want just enough water to soak the carpet without going into the underlay too much.
A clear sign of using too much water is if you waste tank is only half full when the water tank is empty.
A few of the really good machines let you adjust the distance between the water outlet and sucktion area.
In most cases there pre-set to what, from experience is the most commonly type of carpet in the area.
Your might be different though...
A greater distance means more time for the cleaning solution to do its job.
This works especially well for thicker carpets with amount of water turned down to below 50%.
For thin carpets a short distance is better as the water does not have to go deep into the fabric.
Here you can even increase the water flow for very dirty areas without risking to soak the underlay too much.
In either case you should check the machine before taking it home and if adjustable have the options explained to you in the store.

Anything for really bad areas?
The entrance area is often subject to whatever our shoes collected outside, especially if you have kids or playful dogs.
A bit of oil from the road, some sticky residue of something, dust, small gravel and sand....
Vacuum out what comes out first, then use a suitable, not too stiff brush if your vacuum cleaner does not have a rotating brush in the head.
Use a spray bottle and prepare a solution of warm water with a bit of washing machine powder and a shot glass worth of methylated spirit.
Slightly wet the soiled area with the spray bottle without saturating it.
Use the brush to agitate the carpet fibres - preferably directional and with even strokes.
If they are not wet in the deeper areas spray a bit more.
Again: you don't want to soak it you want to wet it.
Give it about 20 minutes on a warm day a bit longer if the insede temps are below 25°C.
Check with your hand if the area is still wet, the alcohol should speed up the evaporation here.
Before it dries up repeat the process and check with a paper towel if it picks up the stains already.
If so then run over the area with cleaning machine.
Best results are achieved if you manage to get the fibres wet all the way down with the brush and won't let the area fully dry off again after the spraying.

How can I speed up the drying time?
The only way to speed things up is heat and airflow.
If outside humidty is quite high then you will struggle.
Even in the summer times the humidity levels over night can get well into or even over the 80% region.
Opening doors and windows then to get the carpet dry won't really help you.
Best time to clean your carpets is actually at night because by the time you are done the sun is out and the humity levels much lower.
On a good day below 30%.
This is true even for the winter times.
Put a few fans up and make sure the temperatures are well above the 20°C mark.
If in doubt you have to turn the heater on.
Once the humidity inside is sky high you open up all windows and doors to have an exchange of air.
A few minutes suffice here unless there is wind at all.
If it is a hot summer day you can of course just let it all open until the sun goes down again.
During colder times pay special attention to cold areas, like your toilet, bathroom or in general areas that won't warm up properly.
Even if the room was not cleaned the moisture can accumulate here and cause mold and mildew.
If in doubt make sure the ENTIRE house is warm enough until your carpets are fully dry again.
A humidity sensor or gauge certainly helps, two are better so you can check inside and outside at the same time.


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