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Stina’s Space – Shampooing vs. Steam Cleaning

Christina Bagley serves as Marketing Director for Aaron’s Quality Cleaners, a carpet-cleaning company that services the Fresno and Clovis (CA) areas.  She is the author of “Stina’s Space” and provides information and perspective on topics related to the carpet-cleaning industry.


August 25, 2011

Hi everyone,     

            In my time at Aaron’s Quality Cleaners, I have received a lot of calls from potential customers inquiring “What is the difference between getting carpets shampooed and steam cleaned?”  I was a little blurry on some of the details myself (as we don’t shampoo), so I decided that this should be the first topic that I post to Stina’s Space.

The Shampoo Method – A “Wet” Method

            The main process of the shampoo method is to generate foam, allow the foam to dry and attract the soil, and then vacuum up the residue and soil the following day. Shampooing products must have high levels of stable foam, high lubricity to reduce damage to the carpet fibers from the machines used in the process, and the carpets must be able to dry to a non-sticky residue.

            The main ingredient used in most shampoo products is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (or one of its cousin chemicals). This chemical is actually used in many shampoos for human hair. It becomes very foamy (which makes you feels like it is giving you an invigorating clean), but it is actually only a “fair “detergent. This widely-used chemical surprisingly dries to a soft, sticky residue, which often causes re-soiling in carpets. Therefore, carpet shampoos will also include Resin to reduce this tendency. And because shampoos can tend to bury the dirt into the carpet fibers, they also contain high levels of optical brighteners. These magical little additives make the carpet “appear” cleaner and brighter than it actually is by taking invisible ultra violet light and converting it to visible light… but the outcome only lasts a short time. Eventually, this ends up giving the carpet a yellow tinge that is almost always permanent.

            There are two primary types of machines used in the shampooing method; the Cylindrical Foam Shampoo machine and the Rotary Shampoo machine. The Cylindrical Foam Shampoo machine uses an air compressor inside the machine to create dry foam before it is applied to the carpet. The carpet is then agitated with a cylindrical brush on the under carriage of the machine, which combs the foam through the carpet pile. This method tends to leave dirt trapped deep within the carpet fibers and the carpet must be vacuumed thoroughly, both before and after the cleaning. The Rotary Shampoo machine uses a revolving floor machine (the same kind of machine used for stripping wax off of floors). It disperses the liquid product onto the carpet from a dispensing tank, and the rotary brush then whips the detergent into foam after it is already on the surface of the carpet.

            The shampoo method is now widely believed to be an inferior carpet cleaning method, due to its poor cleaning products, probable carpet damage, and re-soiling problems.  This method is not commonly used to clean carpets any more.

The Steam-Clean Method – A “Wet” Method

            Now let’s look at the Steam Clean Method (which is what Aaron’s Quality Cleaners uses).  Also known as hot-water extraction, this method uses high-pressure steam to clean and then powerful vacuum suction to extract the water back out. It is the only method classified as “deep cleaning” because unlike the other methods, it removes soil from deep in the pile of the carpet and doesn’t leave large amounts of cleaning agent behind. It is called “steam cleaning” due to the fine spray of very hot water (we heat our water to around 240 degrees Fahrenheit) used to force dirt out of the carpet which is then immediately sucked up by the vacuum slots.

            The “standard” steam-cleaning process consists of pre-spraying a solution of an alkaline detergent  and water into the carpet pile, agitating with a brush or machine, then recovering the water, alkaline detergent, and soil with a powerful vacuum into a holding tank.  An acidic solution is used as a rinse aid to assist in emulsifying soils (break them down) and neutralize the alkaline detergent to restore the carpet to its optimal pH. If the carpets are heavily saturated with urine, a special acidic pre-spray may be used to eliminate or reduce odor problems.  Because the “standard” process uses the alkaline detergent, which often leaves tiny particles in the carpet and attracts dirt that causes re-soiling, an acidic solution must be used afterwards to leave the carpet slightly on the acidic side of the pH scale and soften the carpet fibers.

            If a carpet cleaner is not able to extract all of the detergent, however, re-soiling will occur.  This is a common problem many carpet cleaners have.  We view this as a significant issue.  Although our extraction process is excellent, we choose to use a detergent free cleaner.  The clean is just as good but we don’t risk leaving a detergent in the carpet which may re-soil.  This means you receive an excellent clean that stays clean for longer.  Our process includes:

  • Spraying a pre-spray (Chemspec – Detergent Free Cleaner) on the carpet
  • Then using our truck-mounted rotary machine (RX-20) to disperse hot water, agitate the carpet using the five metal heads (which both agitate and contain vacuum slots) on the bottom of the circular base (which spins 130 times per minute, giving 650 agitations/minute), all while vacuuming the water, solution, and soil up.  The clean we use is the best clean that exists and we are very proud of it.

            Steam cleaning is used with either a truck-mounted unit or a portable system, and both can clean carpet with a rotary machine or a wand.  However, a truck-mounted clean produces a better result and less mess.  I will save the details on truck-mounted vs. portable cleaning for another post, so, until next time, I hope this post clarifies the common misconception that shampooing and steam cleaning your carpets are one in the same, and explains the processes involved in each!

Christina “Stina” Bagley

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