For those of us who are old enough to remember (or at least, those of us who have parents who are old enough to remember), wall-to-wall carpeting was a sign of wealth and prosperity. Poorly maintained carpets, on the other hand, can be a real eyesore. Worse than that, in fact, since a wet or dirty carpet is capable of assaulting several senses at once. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you avoid falling into that trap.
The Top Carpet Cleaning Methods
How To Clean a Carpet With a Vacuum
This is the first and most obvious method, and can be used for regular maintenance as well as emergency cleanup (see “How To Prevent Carpet Stains,” below). To make the steps easier to follow, we’ve broken them down into sections that depend on what type of vacuum you’re using.
These vacuums are more powerful and easy to maneuver than upright vacuums. Since the engine is stored in a separate unit, they also offer better sound insulation.
1. Start by picking up any loose objects, such as coins, paper clips, or small toys. These can damage the vacuum if they get caught in the system, and will make your job that much more difficult.
2. Check the vacuum bag to make sure it isn’t full. If it is, swap it out for a fresh one (see step 6, below).
3. Once you’ve started the motor, run the wand slowly back and forth across the carpet, taking your time to ensure a deep, even cleaning.
4. Repeat the process from a different angle. For example, if you began by moving across the floor in an east-to-west pattern, begin again by moving from north-to-south (and back again). This will help to dislodge any stubborn bits of debris that you might have missed on the first pass.
5. Use the hose attachment to vacuum beneath heat registers, behind and under furniture, or in any other hard-to-reach spots.
6. Check the bag again. If it’s more than three-quarters full, swap it out for a fresh one. This will save time on the next round and increase the vacuum’s suction power. A full bag makes the unit less effective, so make sure to keep an eye on the capacity each time you use it. For those of you who are daunted by this process (which can be messy), here’s a video that offers a detailed presentation on how to do it.
Upright units are usually less expensive than canister vacuums. They also offer a broader cleaning path and motorized brushes that are especially efficient on deep-pile carpets. Often, they’ll be equipped with a function that allows you to make an easy transition between carpets and bare floors.
1. Check the canister and empty it if it’s more than three-quarters full.
2. Pick up any objects that are too large to be vacuumed up.
3. Move any chairs or smaller furniture out of the way. An upright vacuum can’t fit into as many tight corners as a canister vacuum, so you’ll want to give it a wide berth from the beginning.
4. Check the settings on the head of the vacuum to make sure you’re getting the proper suction. Usually, the control knob will be labeled with designations like “Bare Floor” or “High Carpet,” with several settings in between. Choose the proper one before you begin.
5. Turn the unit on and move it slowly back and forth across the carpet. Repeat the process as outlined in step 4 of the “Canister Vacuums” section, above.
6. Use the hose attachment to vacuum beneath the furniture, window treatments, or any other spots that you couldn’t get to on the first pass.
7. Empty the canister if it’s full. Otherwise, store the vacuum in any space that’s large enough to accommodate it. Upright vacuums are typically very easy to store, which is one of the factors that makes them so appealing.
For more tips on how to operate an upright vacuum, check out this video tutorial.
These autonomous units represent a carefree alternative to vacuums that have to be pushed by hand. However, they won’t do as thorough a job, so they should be relied upon only when you have no other option.
1. Clear the floor of any dropped items. This will give the vacuum more room to maneuver, since it will automatically avoid any obstacles once it’s turned on.
2. Make sure the batteries have been properly installed. Set up the docking station in a convenient, out-of-the-way location.
3. Press “Clean.” Most robotic vacuums will automatically calculate the room size at this point and begin to traverse the room, stopping and retreating when it encounters the walls and furniture.
4. The device will retreat to its docking station when the power gets low, usually after about 2 hours. The bin will probably need to be emptied at this point, depending on how dirty the floors are. Some larger rooms might require an additional pass with the robotic vacuum once the battery has finished recharging.
How To Clean a Carpet With a Steam Cleaner
Even if you vacuum on a regular basis, a good steam cleaning is essential for keeping your carpet in pristine condition. Why? Steam is capable of wiping out microscopic invaders, such as bacteria or dust mites. In addition to protecting your investment, steam cleaners will help contribute to the overall health of your household.
These units are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Since they don’t take up much room, they can usually be stored in the same space where you keep your vacuum.
1. Remove all furniture and other objects from the area you’ll be cleaning.
2. Treat any stubborn stains with the methods outlined in “Carpet Stains,” below.
3. Fill the chamber with water, being careful not to overload it. Resist the urge to include additional chemicals and cleaners—the steam alone will get the job done nicely.
4. Secure the cleaning pad, then attach the carpet glider. Make sure both components are fully attached before moving on to the next step.
5. Begin by moving the steam mop over a small area of the carpet. You should see the difference almost immediately.
6. Once you’ve finished that area, continue cleaning the rest of the carpet, moving slowly to make sure the mop is doing a thorough job. Don’t linger too long, however, or you might oversaturate the carpet, which could stimulate mold growth. You’re trying to destroy bacteria, not invite more.
7. Empty the steam mop after each use. This will also help to inhibit mold growth when the unit is stored for long periods of time.
8. Allow the carpet to fully dry before replacing the furniture.
Heavy-Duty Steam Cleaners
This method is more intensive, requiring more of a time commitment than simple steam mops. Reserve it for a time when you know the house will be empty for a while, like right before a weekend getaway.
1. Remove all furniture and debris from the carpet you’ll be cleaning. If the furniture is too heavy to lift, protect the legs by placing squares of tin foil or wax paper beneath them. If you don’t have enough room elsewhere in the house to move all of the furniture, it’s acceptable to clean just half of the carpet and return to finish the job when the first half is dry.
2. Thoroughly dust the baseboards, light fixtures, heat registers, and any other surface where dust might have gathered.
3. Vacuum the carpet thoroughly using one of the methods described above.
4. Remove any stubborn stains, following the advice outlined in “Carpet Stains,” below.
5. Read the directions carefully to determine how the water and detergent should be added. Fill the compartment with hot water, then add any recommended cleaners. For a natural option, replace the detergent with white vinegar, using a solution of one part water to one part vinegar.
6. Start in a corner so that you won’t step on any portions of the carpet that you’ve already cleaned. Move the nozzle of the steam cleaner slowly around the entire room in long lines. You can do this by pushing or pulling, depending on what’s recommended by the model that you’re using.
7. Allow the carpet to dry thoroughly before walking on it or replacing the furniture. If necessary, put up a sign so that family members don’t forget and accidentally enter the room.
The Old-Fashioned Way
If you don’t have a steam mop or other fancy equipment, you can still achieve a good deep clean—as long as you’re willing to put a bit of time and elbow grease into the job.
1. Fill a bucket with warm water.
2. Find an old towel, a wash rag, or a hairbrush that you’re no longer using. You can even use a toothbrush, but this method will take far longer.
3. Vacuum the entire carpet to pick up all the dirt and debris possible beforehand.
4. Sprinkle the surface area with baking soda until it’s completely covered.
5. Use your preferred cleaning tool to scrub a small amount of warm water into the carpet. You don’t want the carpet to be soaked—it should just be wet enough to remove stubborn dirt and stains from the fibers.
6. Open the windows to speed the drying process. If there are any fans in the room, turn those on as well.
7. When the carpet is completely dry, run the vacuum over it a second time.
No matter how careful you are, accidents are bound to happen from time to time. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law dictates that most of these accidents will occur with substances that are extremely difficult to remove. In this section, we’ll give you pro tips on how to remove a myriad of different stains from your carpet.
The following advice applies to just about any type of stain. Use your judgment regarding which methods and materials to use.
- Act quickly to ensure that the stain doesn’t have a chance to set in any more than it already has.
- Use a fork or other utensil to remove any physical debris before getting to work on the stain itself.
- Repeat the cleaning method as necessary. Some obvious stains might take as many as four or five tries before all trace of the offending substance is gone.
Coffee and Tea
First, pour a measure of salt over the stain to absorb the liquid. After about 20 minutes, use a vacuum to remove the salt.
If the beverage contained cream or sugar, apply an enzymatic cleaner to the stain, working from the edges toward the middle. This will break down the protein in the milk to prevent it from turning sour.
Mix together two parts warm water to one part white vinegar. Apply the solution to the stain, using a spray bottle if you have one. Use a clean cloth to gently blot the stain.
Next, combine about 1/4 teaspoon of dish detergent with one quart of warm water and apply this solution to the stain, repeating as needed until all telltale signs have vanished. Rinse the solution out of the carpet by applying a clean, damp cloth to the same area.
Finally, apply a clean dry cloth to the affected area. If necessary, apply pressure with your hands to draw out the moisture. When the cloth stops soaking up liquid, step back and allow the carpet to air dry.
Kool-Aid, Cola or Other Soda Pop Beverages
To remove spilled soda or other sugary drinks from a carpet, first soak up as much of the liquid as you can using a towel or rag. Mix up a solution of warm water (about two cups) with liquid dish detergent and white vinegar (about one tablespoon of each).
Apply the solution to the stain with a clean rag as many times as needed, blotting it gently until the stain is gone. Repeat the process using cold water.
Dry the affected area with a clean rag.
There are special products available that will aid you in this task. If you drink red wine frequently, you should consider investing in one of these. If not, you can use the method described below.
The important thing to remember when it comes to removing wine from the carpet? Always blot the stain gently—no hard rubbing. You’re trying to get the wine out of the fibers, not rub it in.
First, mix together a solution of two cups warm water, one tablespoon white vinegar, and one tablespoon liquid dish detergent. Apply this solution to the affected area, then pat gently to dry. Repeat the process using cold water.
There are several useful methods for removing a gum stain from a carpet. Note that while the first method is fairly simple, it requires the use of a hair dryer. If you don’t have one on hand, skip directly to the second method.
1. The Blow-Dry
Turn a hair dryer on full blast and aim it at the wad of gum. Keep a close eye on the area surrounding the gum to avoid melting the carpet fibers.
When the gum begins to melt, grab a plastic bag and use it to gently pick up the substance. The melted gum should adhere to the bag, making it easier to lift. Repeat this process until the gum is completely gone.
2. The Ice-Out
Gather a handful of ice cubes in a zip-top bag and place the bag on top of the gum. When the substance has hardened, use a scraping tool to dislodge the gum from the carpet fibers.
Apply a cleaning fluid or enzymatic cleaner to the stain as soon as you’ve gotten all the solids out. Cover the affected area with a clean rag and pat dry.
Fresh Berries and Juice
If you’re dealing with fresh berries, first remove any solids from the stain using the edge of a spoon or a similar tool. Be very careful not to push the solids deeper into the carpet.
Combine one teaspoon of liquid dish detergent with two cups of warm water. Use a sponge or rag to apply the solution to the stain, blotting gently. Make sure to rotate the sponge or cloth so that you’re not pushing more juice down into the areas you’re trying to clean.
When the cloth stops absorbing colors, repeat the process with a clean cloth and plain cold water. If you don’t rinse the detergent out of the carpet, dirt and debris can become stuck to it, causing additional stains that you’ll have to clean again.
Tip: If this method doesn’t work, you may apply a solution of oxygen-based bleach and cold water to the same area. Make sure to read the instructions thoroughly before applying the solution, and allow it to sit on the affected area for at least 45 minutes before rinsing.
Two or three drops of 3-percent hydrogen peroxide might also do the trick. You can allow this to sit on the stain for one hour before carefully blotting it away. With peroxide, you don’t need to do any rinsing—the substance will convert to water when it’s exposed to the light.
When the stain has disappeared, dry the area with a clean cloth.
Since gravy is sort of a cross between a liquid and a solid, scrape up as much of it as you can with a spoon before attempting to remove the stain. Don’t worry if it looks like you’re smashing more of it into the carpet—you’ll be able to get it out by using the following steps.
Cover the stain with baking soda or cornstarch and wait 15 to 20 minutes. Use the hose attachment on your vacuum to suck up the powder.
Combine about one cup of warm water with one tablespoon of liquid dish detergent. Apply this mixture to the stain, then blot it away with cold water to rinse. Repeat two or three times as needed.
If the dish detergent doesn’t get the job done, try adding a solution of two tablespoons ammonia to one cup of water. Apply and rinse, just as you did with the dish detergent/water mixture. If the stain remains after this treatment, you can try lightening it with a bit of lemon juice. Since this acidic juice has a bleaching effect, be sure to test it on a small portion of the stain before applying it to the rest.
For more tips on how to get oil-based stains out of the carpet, see the “Oils and Fats” section, below.
Oils and Fats
Set your household iron to “Warm,” or whatever the lowest setting is. Lay a paper towel over the stain. When the iron is warm, lightly move it over the paper towel until the oil or fat seeps out of the carpet and into the towel. Repeat if needed.
For ice cream, mix 1/4 teaspoon of white vinegar with one quart of water. Apply this mixture to the stain, then rinse and repeat as necessary. Vanilla and other light-colored ice creams might only require one go-round, but chocolate will probably need two or three treatments before the stain has fully disappeared.
Jelly is another water-soluble substance, so the stains can be treated using the same vinegar-and-water method described in “Ice Cream,” above. You might also consider substituting a bleach-free detergent for the vinegar.
Treat milk stains using 1/2 teaspoon of white vinegar or bleach-free detergent mixed with one quart of warm water.
Tip: When removing all milk-based stains from a carpet, make sure you treat the area and soon as possible and rinse it thoroughly afterward. Milk solids will curdle and sour if they’re left too long, resulting in a foul odor that will be increasingly difficult to remove.
Remove any large pieces from the stain before proceeding with the next step. For chocolate, you’ll want to run cold water directly over the affected area until it’s thoroughly moistened, then rub liquid dishwashing detergent into the stain with a clean damp rag. Rinse and repeat, if necessary.
Unless you have a wool-based carpet, you can remove mustard stains using one tablespoon of ammonia mixed with one cup of water. For wool or wool-blend carpets, try substituting a mild dishwashing detergent for the ammonia. In either case, proceed as you would with most other stains, rinsing and repeating the process as needed.
Use a butter knife to remove as much of the ketchup as you can. Then mix together a solution of one tablespoon dishwashing detergent to one quart water and apply it to the entire surface area of the stain. Rinse and repeat if the stain persists.
Nail polish stains are some of the toughest and most frustrating ones you’ll encounter. To remove the polish, blot it carefully with paper towels. Then apply a household window cleaner (such as Windex) to the stain, using a circular motion to cover the area. Rinse with water and let dry.
Latex Paint or Washable Ink
Getting paint and ink out of your carpet is easier than you might think. A simple vinegar and water solution will work, or you can substitute a non-bleach detergent for the vinegar. Use about 1/2 teaspoon vinegar or detergent per quart of water, and apply and rinse as needed.
Since wax is an oil-based substance, you can treat these stains following the same method outlined in the “Oils and Fats” section, above. Just wait for the wax to fully dry before prying as much of it out of the fibers as you can. Then proceed with the iron and paper towel trick.
Getting a cigar or cigarette burn out of the carpet is easier than you might think. All you need is a scraper or a dull knife to position against the fibers. Rub the burned area gently and insistently, until the blackened areas are worn away. You might want to vacuum the area afterward to redirect the pile so that your tracks are covered, so to speak.
To get glue out of your carpet, moisten a cotton ball or Q-tip with rubbing alcohol. Dab the affected area with alcohol until the glue is thoroughly moistened, then gently wipe it off with a damp rag. Repeat as needed.
For tar stains, you’ll want to vacuum the area first, then apply a cleaning solution made of about two cups warm water and 1/4 cup liquid dish soap. Apply in circles from the center outward, rinsing and repeating if necessary.
Crayons are made of a wax solution, so you can use the same paper-towel-and-iron method here. You might also want to try mixing a solution of one cup water and a few drops of liquid dish soap and soaking a rag in the solution before placing it over the stain. Proceed with the iron as directed in “Oils and Fats,” above.
Melted Plexiglass or Plastic
To remove melted plastic or plexiglass from the carpet, heat your iron until it’s hot. Place a brown paper bag over the melted plastic and wait for it to melt again. When it does, it will cling to the bag, and you can pull it away neatly.
Vacuum the area well, then wrap a length of packing or masking tape around your hand with the sticky side facing out. Gather as much of the glitter as you can by patting the affected area gently and repeatedly, switching out with fresh tape as needed.
Blood or Vomit
These stains will respond best to a mixture of one tablespoon ammonia and one cup of water. Again, you should never use ammonia on a wool carpet; substitute a mild detergent if your carpet has wool fibers.
Tip: For stubborn blood and vomit stains, mix one part household bleach with five parts warm water. Only use this method if you have a solution-dyed carpet. If you aren’t sure of the type, either check with the manufacturer or avoid the use of bleach altogether, because it might harm the fibers.
Blot out as much urine as possible using dry towels, then apply a solution of one cup vinegar and one cup water. When you’ve rinsed away this solution, mix 1/2 teaspoon of bleach-free detergent with one quart of water, then apply and rinse this solution as well.
The process for removing excrement stains from the rug isn’t as complicated as you might expect, which is especially good news for pet owners. First, remove as much of the solid material as you can, then apply a solution of 1/4 teaspoon bleach-free detergent or white vinegar with a quart of water. Apply and rinse as many times as needed.
First, put on a pair of rubber gloves. Next, pour on a measure of carpet stain remover, beginning with a small area to ensure that the carpet doesn’t get discolored. After about 10 minutes, rub the carpet cleaner gently into the entire area in a circular motion.
Place a damp cloth over the stain and apply a warm iron to the cloth for a light steam. Scrub the stain with a damp cloth. If this doesn’t work, use your steam mop to give it a more thorough cleaning.
Finally, apply acetone to the wood stain with a clean cloth until it disappears. If all else fails, you may need to call in a professional cleaner, since wood stains can be tricky.
Begin by giving the area a good vacuuming to remove any loose soil. Next, mix two teaspoons of liquid dishwashing detergent into two cups of cool water. Apply using a cloth, sponge, or toothbrush, then blot away the mixture with paper towels. Rinse and repeat if needed.
How To Prevent Carpet Stains
Of course, it would be nice if you never had to follow any of the advice listed above. Here are some tips on how to keep your carpet looking as fresh and as bright as the day it was installed.
- Have your carpet cleaned regularly, or perform the maintenance yourself using a steam cleaner. Be sure to do it every 12 to 18 months for best results.
- Make carpeted areas designated snack-free zones. This is easier said than done, especially if there are young ones in the house, but try to follow the rule whenever possible.
- Similarly, keep carpeted rooms gated off to prevent pets from entering. If this isn’t an option, put plenty of papers down until the pets are fully housebroken.
- Put down drop cloths if there are any arts-and-crafts projects taking place in a carpeted room.
Frequently Asked Questions
How often should you clean your carpet?
For best results, a full steam cleaning should take place at least once a year. You should vacuum more often—twice a week at minimum. If this doesn’t fit in with your schedule, consider investing in a robotic vacuum.
Are there any fast, easy hacks for simple spot removal?
Removing stains doesn’t have to be difficult. The first rule is to attend to the problem as soon as you notice it. After that, just remember that warm water mixed with a few drops of liquid dish soap works well on many substances. If the stain persists, then you’ll have to get more creative. See the final question below for information on how to remove stains using shaving cream.
We moved into a new house, and we can tell the previous owners had cats just from the smell of the floors. How do you get pet odors out of your carpet?
Pet odors can be very persistent, especially if they were deeply ingrained over long periods of time. The best way to remove them is to cover the carpeted surface with copious amounts of baking soda and let it sit overnight, then thoroughly vacuum the area. If the problem persists, you might want to call in a professional.
Tip: If you have pets of your own, keep them away from the treated area until you’ve had a chance to remove the baking soda. Large amounts of baking soda can be toxic to pets.
Is it necessary to invest in a steam cleaner if I’m only going to use it once a year?
You can rent a steam cleaner from a local company if needed, or hire professionals to do the job for you. Over time, however, you might find that it’s more cost effective to purchase the unit and do the work yourself.
I’ve seen articles that describe removing stains with foam. How does this work?
This trick involves spraying the stained area with a blast of shaving cream (make sure it’s the foam kind, and not a gel) and waiting 30 minutes before blotting the foam away with a clean cloth. While this hack might not work on all stains, it is especially effective on grease. It also gives the carpet a fresh, soapy smell.
That’s everything we know about cleaning carpets at home. We hope you’ve come away with some valuable information. With any luck, you’ll only need to use about half of the advice we’ve given, but it’s always nice to have the knowledge, just in case. Best of luck!