- Market Focus: ‘The Other Carpet’
- By Stephen Hanig — posted 03/29/2011
Carpet-cleaning technicians, building-service contractors (BSC), and their distributors take note: You may be missing a very lucrative opportunity by not offering upholstery cleaning.
It’s surprising how often offering this service is overlooked. For instance, recently a homeowner in Chicago, IL, had his carpets cleaned. As the technicians completed their job, they offered the customer a number of add-on services and products from applying stain repellant and deodorizers to the carpet to spot-cleaning kits. However, after the technicians left, the homeowner saw spots on his chair and realized he would have taken advantage of another service had it been offered: upholstery cleaning.
It was a missed opportunity for all and a potentially costly one for the technicians because carpet cleaners frequently work in pairs. Although rates can vary and charges are typically by the square foot and not by the hour, the Chicago cleaning crew mentioned earlier likes to earn about US$130 for an hour’s work. But upholstery cleaning typically requires only one (paid) technician, which can make it quite profitable.
However, before jumping into upholstery cleaning or suggesting that distributors begin recommending the benefits of providing this service to their carpet-cleaning customers, there are some things to know. Upholstery cleaning requires training and education, possibly even more than carpet cleaning. This is because the materials and fabrics used may be more delicate and less forgiving if not cleaned properly.
For instance, while some upholstery fabrics are designed to be wet-cleaned, wet cleaning might ruin other fabric. And this is not a rare occurrence. According to one carpet cleaner, “Ask a group of carpet cleaners how often they had to pay for ‘ruined’ wall-to-wall carpet after cleaning, and the number will likely be zero or close to it. Ask the same group how often they had to replace or repair a ruined chair or couch after cleaning and expect a few hands to go up.”
Types of Fibers and Fabrics
One of the first steps in proper upholstery cleaning is understanding upholstery fabrics and properly identifying the different types of fabrics found on chairs and couches in residential and commercial settings. In most cases, the type or types of fibers used will be noted on a label or tag found on a cushion or underneath the item.
Upholstery fabrics consist of yarns constructed of very light fibers, each having its own unique characteristics. The overall durability of the upholstered item and how well it will hold up to cleaning, specifically wet cleaning, depends on such factors as:
• The type of fiber used and how well it is constructed
• Whether it is a natural (cotton, wool, silk) or synthetic yarn such as nylon
• Methods of weaving or manufacture of the yarn/fabric
• Whether any chemical “finishes” or treatments have been applied to the yarn or the upholstered furniture during the manufacturing process*.
It should also be noted that all of these factors are interrelated and can impact the durability of an upholstered item as well as its “cleanability.” For instance, many people think nylon is the most durable fiber for a couch or chair. However, there are poorly constructed nylon fabrics on the market, which can impact how well the upholstered item holds up to regular use and cleaning.
Below are the most common types of fibers used:
Nylon, which is heat resistant and usually not affected by alkalis, commonly found in the cleaning agents used to clean upholstered furniture
Polyester, a strong, durable fiber, where cleaning technicians will find that spotting and cleaning results can be excellent; however, polyester has a tendency to attract oily soils, which can yellow or discolor fabric over time
Acrylic fibers are extremely colorfast and hold up well when cleaned using different cleaning agents
Olefin is similar to polyester in that it can attract oily soils; but like acrylic, it holds up well to different types of cleaning agents.
Coded for Cleaning
The label or tag found on the upholstered item may indicate more than just the fibers used in construction. Very often, a prominent “W,” “S,” “W-S” or “X” will be noted. Although not mandatory, these ASTM International** codes used by some furniture manufacturers refer to the colorfastness of the fabric, as it relates to cleaning and the use of cleaning and spotting agents.
The codes most often used are:
W: The dyes used in the fabric are stable (will not run, fade, or become damaged) when using water-based cleaning agents or spotters
S: Fabrics that are stable as long as dry, solvent-based cleaning agents and spotters are used
W-S: Fabrics that remain stable whether water- or dry solvent-based cleaning agents and spotters are used
X: The fiber is not stable to either water- or dry solvent-based cleaning/spotting agents.
With knowledge of the type of fabric and the ASTM code, the technician can get a pretty good idea of what cleaning methods and chemicals are recommended for the upholstered item.
Methods & Machinery
There are actually two cleaning methods used to clean upholstered furniture based on the coding label discussed above, the fabric used, and/or the manufacturer’s instructions. These are:
Dry cleaning: Although used less and less frequently, some more delicate fabrics, such as Haitian or Tahitian cotton, can discolor if water is used in cleaning. Instead of water, a dry-cleaning solvent is necessary. Although an extractor is typically not used for dry cleaning, it should be noted there are extractors available that can dry-clean fabrics. If a solvent is used instead of a water-based cleaner, the machine can be used for dry cleaning fabrics.
Wet cleaning: Far more common, this method typically requires the use of a hot-water extractor and an upholstery tool, specifically designed for cleaning upholstered furniture.
For wet cleaning, the type of extractor used and its versatility can play a crucial role in how well the upholstered item is cleaned. For instance, if using a portable extractor, a system that generates approximately 200-degree-Fahrenheit heat will help improve the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals. Not only will the item look better, but also, it often dries faster and may require less chemical usage, making the entire cleaning process more environmentally responsible (and less expensive for the technician). However, the best machines usually have adjustable heat settings, allowing the heat to be adjusted to treat different soiling conditions or fabric delicacy.
The machine should also have adjustable pressure per square inch ( psi). Cleaning more delicate or older fabrics may require lower psi so as not to damage the fibers.
Regarding the upholstery tool itself, there are now several effective tools available. However, for ergonomic reasons, technicians should look for one that is light and cool to the touch. Some systems are now trigger-less, allowing technicians to use the tool in multiple positions, which can come in handy when cleaning all the nooks-and-crannies of upholstered furniture.
Final Words of Advice
Distributors, BSCs, and other carpet cleaning professionals are encouraged to take advantage of this lucrative niche in the carpet-cleaning industry, but without question, training and education are necessary.
* Chemical finishes or treatments would include such things as stain- and soil-resistant finishes that may be fluorochemical or silicone. Fluorochemical treatments protect against both water- and oil-borne soils and resists wetting by oily and watery liquids. Silicone treatments protect against water-borne soils and watery liquids only.
** ASTM, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, develops standards for the manufacture, care, and use of scores of different products.
Stephen Hanig has been involved with the professional cleaning industry for more than 20 years. He currently serves as vice president of sales for U.S. Products and HydraMaster, manufacturers of portable and truck-mount cleaning equipment. He can be reached through the Web sites www.usproducts.com and www.hydramaster.com.