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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

What’s Hiding in Your Rugs? Here’s How to Unlock the Dirt

Do you know what’s lurking in your area rugs? You probably don’t want to. Many are designed to hide your dirt, dust, and dander, and they do a brilliant job. Part of the reason I picked the 10 x 14-foot area rug for my family room was because you could drop a loaded hot dog on it and no one would know.

But ignoring reality only works for so long. The truth caught up with me a couple weeks ago when I had my carpet and floor care guy out to clean up after my slovenly dogs, one of whom is notorious for leaving his mark. And I’m sorry if you’re eating, but this is a reality column.

The guy surveyed the family room rug and a smaller, equally violated, living room rug and gave me my options. He could steam clean them in my home, or, for a more thorough job, he could take them to a rug washing plant.

On-site cleaning was much less expensive, $40 for the smaller 5 x 8-foot rug. Taking the same rug to the wash house would cost $200. Ugg. “Steam cleaning won’t rinse all the urine out,” he said frankly. “Only washing it at the plant will.”

I look at Luke and Pippin who were listening intently to this conversation. “You two need to get jobs,” I told them.

I mulled my options. The six-year-old carpets weren’t cheap. I want them to last many more years. I’m aware that, besides being gross, dirty rugs deteriorate faster. However, I’m skeptical about this off-site washing process. How did I know this wasn’t just a couple of guys in their driveway washing rugs with a garden hose? I agree to send my rugs out so long as I can visit the plant to see it for myself.

When I arrived at First Impressions, in Winter Garden, Fla., owner Kurt Gilbertson took me on a tour. Gilbertson started in the carpet cleaning business 27 years ago. After seeing a need for a deeper cleaning option for area rugs, he transitioned into the rug washing business in 2000.

“It took more training,” he said. “Wet washing involves more risk than steaming. More can go wrong.”

The first stop is the dusting machine, a cylindrical tumbler, where rugs take an hour-long beating until all the dry dirt gets knocked out of them. Gilbertson opens the dustbin below to show me how much dirt came out of one rug, a layer thick enough to plant seeds in.

Workers then vacuum the rug and dye test it. “If we see it’s going to run, we spray it with a dye stabilizer,” he said. If the bleeding is too extensive, they may not be able to wet wash it.

Next stop is the wash pit, which is like a soapy waterslide for rugs. I watch as the workers spread a 9 x 12 rug onto the sloping rubber mat, wet it down and soap it up. Then pressurized water flows over and through the rug to rinse it. The water runoff is initially brown and eventually turns clear.

Gilbertson takes out his phone and shows me a video of my large rug in this same wash pit, filthy water running off it. “It took about 15 minutes to run clear,” he said. “That wasn’t bad. Most rugs I get are dirtier.”

I find this astonishing.

The third stop in the rug fun house is the centrifuge. Heavy wet rugs get rolled onto a long bar, and inserted into a giant tube that spins at 1100 rpm, driving out the moisture like a washing machine’s spin cycle.

Next, as if they haven’t had enough, the beaten, soaked, and spun rugs get hung out to dry. Hoisted 30 feet in the air on hanging racks, the rugs get hit on all sides with massive fans for a day or two until they’re dry, at which point they’re rolled up and sent home.

After seeing what goes into the process and what comes out of these rugs, I’m a changed person. Although rug washing is not something I plan to make a habit of, I’m glad to know it’s an option.

Here, according to Gilbertson, is when you, too, might consider sending your Oriental rugs out for a Turkish bath:

· Steam clean or wash? If an area rug is only lightly soiled, having it steam cleaned in your home may be all you need to do to refresh it. However, if the rug has badly soiled traffic areas, or pet or food stains that have soaked in, you’re better off sending it out for a professional soak.

· Make a value judgment. If the rug is a high-value rug, professional cleaning is a worthy investment that will help the rug last. But if the rug cost $300 and off-site rug washing costs the same, you might be better off replacing it. Rug washing typically runs $4 to $5 a square foot.

· What to send. The best candidates for rug washing are high-quality rugs made of natural fibers. Finer rugs are typically thinner than lower quality plush rugs because they have a tighter weave and shorter fibers. Sisal rugs cannot be washed, and rugs made of viscose, a synthetic fiber, can be tricky to clean because the process can turn them brown.

· How to find. When looking online for off-site rug facilities, the key is to search “rug washing” not “rug cleaning.” Cleaning implies steam cleaning in the home. Check the company’s website for photos or videos, and make sure the business is legit and well-established.

CAPTION: Fiber optics – Washing area rugs properly is an art that involves a multistep process. Rugs are put in a tumbler to remove dry dust (photo one), then washed and rinsed in a wash pit (photo two), and then hung on a giant drying rack. Photos courtesy of Marni Jameson.

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