Those familiar with the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) water damage and remediation standards will quote portions of the standard that say if you have a “Level 3” black water contamination, you can’t clean the carpet and/or cushion. It must be replaced.

In those cases, you often have sewage, bodily fluids or infectious materials or bio-waste in or on the carpet; of course, the realistic procedure is to remove the carpet and replace it.

Where this becomes less clear is when the spill or contamination is small, such as less than one square foot in size and is not extensive, or is primarily located on the surface of the carpet.

Can this be saturated with a disinfectant or sanitizer, for the required dwell time, and then extracted? Would it then be considered acceptable?

That’s a question often debated by the experts and often a reality faced on the job by cleaning professionals.

It’s not always sewage

What about the homeowner who has children and pets and wants to the have the carpet sanitized during cleaning?

What about an apartment, hotel or condo building manager who has had a tenant that had pets and wants to remove pet odors and stains?

What about a day care center where multiple children play and sleep on the carpet and occasionally vomit or have an accident involving urine or feces?

What about a carpeted hospital or nursing home that smells of urine, or the carpet on a locker room floor of a health club that smells like dirty, stale socks? Is there a way to effectively and legally disinfect or sanitize these areas?

Disinfect versus sanitize

Here’s the reality: You can use a disinfectant product or solution on carpet, but that won’t — according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definitions — allow you to legally claim on a product label or in your advertising that you have or can disinfect carpet.

Depending on the carpet manufacturer, using a disinfectant or sanitizing product may void any warranty in existence. Some disinfectant and sanitizing products may leave a residue that can attract soil, and some products affect the performance of mill-applied stain resistance properties.

Lastly, there is no realistic “on the job” way to test, verify or validate that what you have done to disinfect or sanitize carpeting has actually been effective. There are protocols to test the effectiveness of a sanitizing chemical when used on carpet, but the tests are expensive and done only in a lab.

What the experts say

Cliff Zlotnik, former owner of Unsmoke Systems, which produced the Microban line of products that are now sold by Legend Brands, has strong feelings about disinfection.

“I do not believe that a product will be approved by the EPA to disinfect a carpet. My understanding is that the EPA’s position is that only hard surfaces can be disinfected,” Zlotnik said. “I also believe the EPA’s current testing protocol for carpet sanitizers is flawed.”

Zlotnik added that there are a number of sanitizers on the market that are approved for use on carpeting. “Most are quaternary (quat)-based, but there are also phenolic-based products on the market.”

Ann Kowalecki, the product manager for Legend Brands, said this: “The most important thing is to read and follow the instructions on the label. That will tell you how to use the product, its limitations and what it can properly be used for.”

Kowalecki said that this will include such things as whether the carpet needs to be cleaned first, how to dilute the product, and if it needs to be flushed after application.

“From the EPA’s standpoint, you can’t disinfect a carpet. That terminology relates to hard surfaces, not carpeting,” Kowalecki emphasized. “But you can, if you follow the label directions, say that you will sanitize or decontaminate a carpet. From a practical standpoint, it depends on how far gone the carpet is, what it’s soiled with and how much of it there is on the surface and in the backing of the carpet.”

Patrick Moffett, president of Environmental Management and Engineering Inc., said that disinfecting and sanitizing carpet are two different things. “In clean and gray water losses, carpet is expected to be able to be cleaned and restored with no appreciable increase in the biological load of the carpet,” he said. “If you look at chemical manufacturer disinfectant claims, they are for hard surfaces and seldom for fabrics.”

How we clean and sanitize clothing is to use detergents and proper rinsing, Moffett said. “Hot water must be 140 degrees Fahrenheit and, in hospital settings, hot water must be above 160 degrees Fahrenheit. When we get carpet adhesives above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, they tend to liquefy and break apart.” Using hot water is not practical in salvaging an entire sewage-soaked carpet, he said.

Also, according to Moffett, some people are promoting enzymes for disinfecting purposes. “They work to a degree, but I’ve not seen a product manufacturer step up to the plate and guarantee that their product killed 99.99 percent of coliform bacteria, viruses, mold and parasites in carpeting.”

Rick Hoverson of Advanced Vapor Technologies Inc. said that disinfection and sanitization of carpet is difficult because of the mass and irregularity of the surface. That’s why he promotes his dry vapor system.

“With dry vapor, we can get a reduction in the number of microorganisms present in a carpet and the process is quite effective against odors, dust mites and their allergens, but we can’t make claims or guarantee disinfection or sanitization,” Hoverson said. “Our tests prove that repeated passes and extended exposure to dry vapor are more effective than a single pass. We have found that dry vapor is more effective on thin fabrics such as cubical curtains, than thick fabrics such as carpeting.”

Another issue cited by Hoverson is the fact that there are no definitive or easy ways to test the effectiveness of the results of any attempt at disinfection or sanitization of carpeting.

The botanical side

The latest advancements in botanical disinfecting technology have made it possible for products to kill micro-organisms without endangering human health, according to Sam DeAth, president of Benefect Corp. “The technology continues to advance and in 2012 we will be seeing botanical carpet sanitizers registered by the EPA — the first of their kind.”

DeAth said the market is quickly becoming educated on issues regarding indoor air quality and unnecessary chemical toxicity. “Today, we have a choice to use safer, botanical products while still achieving the same results, even for carpet.”

In the past, DeAth said, it was assumed that disinfectants had to be toxic to humans to do their job. He’s excited that the botanical option has emerged as a viable solution. “While it’s true that traditional hard surface disinfectants will likely kill any organisms that they come into contact with, antimicrobial products that are EPA registered as carpet sanitizers are specifically formulated for penetrating into porous carpet materials and to avoid binding with soils or the carpet fibers themselves, which is what quats do. So they are still a better choice.”

Keep it clean, healthy and safe

If you use products or processes to sanitize carpet, the most important thing to remember is the health and well-being of yourself, your workers and your customers.

Do what is best for everyone. Keep everything clean, healthy and safe.


Bill Griffin is an industry consultant and trainer, and the owner of Cleaning Consultant Services Inc. He is also president of ICAN, a non-profit association comprised of industry professionals providing free consultation services through Cleaning Management Institute (CMI). Comments and questions about bidding and estimating are encouraged: (206) 849-0179; WGriffin@CleaningConsultants.com.