Dirty upholstery challenges

by Jeff Cross 

Upholstery can get just as dirty as carpet... but there are some major differences in your cleaning process that you must consider.


For many upholstered pieces, you can't get out your super-strength "it's good for any carpet" cleaning chemicals.

You also have to be careful with agitation. Too much agitation - either with a brush, bonnet, upholstery tool, etc - can damage a sensitive weave.

Save those stronger chemicals and agitation for heavily-soiled synthetic carpet.

The types of natural fibers and the dye methods used for furniture are just two concerns that create these limitations.

Residential upholstery cleaners deal with more natural fibers than commercial upholstery cleaners. This tip is geared more towards the residential market.

Click here for an article on step-by-step procedures for cleaning upholstery in commercial settings.

The down and dirty

The first step to determine what chemistry you can use starts with fiber ID.

Once you have determined the proper cleaning method for the upholstered piece in question, you will no doubt notice that the arms and cushions are heavily soiled, while the sides and back of the piece are not.

The types of soils on upholstery are different than carpet.

Soils on upholstery are more oily - typically from body oils.

Your biggest challenge is cleaning the "contact points" of the piece.

Here is where you need a good preconditioner that has better solvency, to break the oily structure of the soils.

Carpet will have more water-soluble soils (in most cases - although each carpet cleaning job is different) and the chemistry you should use should reflect this.

Upholstery needs a preconditioner that will handle large amounts of oily soils. Without that, you need more agitation, which can damage some weaves, as mentioned above.

Chop stroking is one cleaning technique used to remove heavy spots or soils.

That method is perfect for most carpet and some upholstered pieces. But if you "chop stroke" or use too much agitation with a tool on a delicate weave, you will create damage.

Potential damage can include - gasp - holes in the piece you are cleaning, loosening the weave and puckering, among others.

Proper steps

Once you have determined your cleaning method (hot water, shampoo, foam, etc), you should start your cleaning process by concentrating on the contact points of the piece.

After testing your chemistry (remember your pH scale) on an inconspicuous section of the piece, mist your preconditioner on the arms or cushions (basically, anywhere there is heavy soil that needs preconditioner).

Don't apply too much, and don't get too far ahead of yourself. You don't want the preconditioner to dry out before you can extract.

Work the preconditioner into the fabric, and allow it adequate dwell time.

"Well, what do I do while I wait for the preconditioner to dwell?" you ask.

Clean the sides and back of the piece. Those areas probably do not need preconditioning, so your rinsing step should suffice and produce good cleaning. For most pieces it is best to use an acid-side rinse.

Then go to the first section that you preconditioned and begin extracting, shampooing - whichever method you are using.

Keep an eye on the fabric as you work. If you see any distortion or color loss, it's time to stop and figure out a solution to get the piece cleaned without any damage.

That's why pre-inspection and testing is important. You don't want an unwanted surprise to occur after you start cleaning.

Using the dual method of shampoo and hot water extraction is very effective on heavily soiled pieces.

The shampoo/agitation will help separate and lift the soils, and the hot water extraction process will remove them. This combination is perfect for heavily soiled pieces that can handle the agitation involved.

If concerned about color loss or bleeding of dyes, there are products on the market that you can use to "lock" the dyes of an upholstered piece. Check with your distributor or supplier.

There isn't enough space here to outline complete cleaning methods for upholstery. Stay tuned for future tips on topics like this.

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Jeff Cross is the senior editor of Cleanfax magazine and an industry trainer and consultant, and offers carpet cleaning marketing, disaster restoration marketing and contract cleaning marketing seminars and classes through Totally Booked University , and also IICRC technical training for carpet and furniture cleaning, spot and stain removal and carpet color repair. For more information, visit his technical training website and marketing training website.