Plan your clean
If you’re going to wash your carpets, the first thing to do is plan. The carpet will still be wet for several hours after you finish the job. The most common estimate is five or six hours, if you use a good quality cleaner and don’t over-wet the carpet. But it may take as long as 24 hours for it to dry completely. Your best bet is to leave the floor to dry out overnight.
Otherwise, when you move furniture back in, spots where the furniture covers or touches the floor will remain damp. This will affect the pile of the carpet and may leave the carpet in danger of mould or mildew.
The worst mistake you can make in cleaning the carpet is getting it too wet. Carpet cleaners work best to remove dirt from the top section of the carpet, the pile. Wetter isn't better. If you get your underlay soaked, it's another way to encourage mould growth.
You also want to make sure that pets can’t track dirt into the room while the carpet is still wet.
Move your furniture
If possible, clean your carpet room by room. Choose one room and remove all of the furniture. If you can’t take everything out, then clean the room in sections.
Once you have a space cleared, vacuum the carpet thoroughly. Ideally, go over it twice. The first time, go lengthwise across the room as though you’re swimming laps. Then vacuum diagonally from one corner. The idea is to lift the pile and remove as much of the loose dirt, hair and fluff from the carpet as possible before you wet it.
Read the manual
The next stage is to read the manual and instructions carefully. Even if you’ve used a carpet cleaner before, the amount and type of detergent to use can vary between brands and models. Fill your cleaner with detergent and water, according to recommendations.
Don’t be tempted to add more cleaning fluid if your carpet is especially dirty as you'll just end up with soap in your carpet that won't come out. Make sure you don’t overfill the water tank as the machine may not run properly. Follow the instructions as to whether you should use warm or cold water.
Water and detergent
If you have the option, warm water will work best. Never use very hot water. Most cleaner manuals will tell you not to put boiled or microwaved water in the tank, as water that’s too hot may damage your machine and scald you. If you have pure wool or wool blend carpets, use cooler water. A carpet cleaner shouldn’t be used on non-colourfast rugs and carpets or on silk, jute or leather.
Some machines may require you to add detergent to the clean water tank. Others will have a separate compartment. There may also be a recommended brand of cleaner.
Next, look for particularly soiled patches on the carpet. You should pre-treat them. Your carpet cleaner may come with a hose attachment, for cleaning stairs and upholstery. You can also use it on spills or stains. Pre-treat your carpet five minutes before you’re ready to start the main clean. If you have old, dried-in stains, you may find it more effective to use a separate stain remover (like a product from Vanish). Don’t get these patches too wet as they won't dry properly and then they might end up mouldy as well as stained.
When you’re ready to start cleaning, take your machine to the furthest point from the door. You don’t want to go over any area twice. You'll also want to minimise the amount of time you spend on the wet carpet. You'll have to walk over it once, when you come back to rinse it, and that'll be unpleasant enough.
Your machine will probably have different settings depending on the type of carpet you have and the level of soiling. You may want to use a higher setting for areas of the floor where people walk often and a lighter setting for areas around the edge of the room.
Start in the corner of the room and clean in a straight line to the opposing wall. Then turn around and go back in the opposite direction. You should be cleaning in stripes as though you’re mowing a lawn. Carpet cleaners aren’t meant to be pushed around in random directions. Get as close to the wall or skirting board as you can. Make sure that the stripes slightly overlap so that you don’t miss any sections of the carpet.
How quickly should you clean?
Move at a slow pace. A carpet cleaner works by spraying the carpet with clean, soapy water and then sucking it back up. If you move too quickly, it won’t have time to complete this process and will either fail to clean a spot or leave dirty water behind. The more slowly you go, the deeper the clean. But don’t stop altogether or you’ll get the carpet too wet. If you need to take a break, turn the cleaner off straight away and start back at the same point.
Change the water tanks
Keep an eye on the water tanks. Your cleaner will alert you when the dirty water tank is full. Stop immediately to empty it and refill the clean tank. Depending on how large the area you want to clean is, you may have to change the tanks more than once. Empty the tank outside, if possible, or into your toilet. Don’t pour the water into your sink or shower as it may clog the drain.
It’s possible that you may want to go over the room twice if the carpet is very dirty but you should follow suggestions in your instruction manual on this point.
Once you’ve finished the clean, you should fill the water tank with cold water. Don’t add detergent this time. Start back at the far corner and go over the room once again. This will help to rinse the carpet, removing any soap and dirty water trapped in the fibres. Using cold water will stop the detergent from foaming up again.
When you’ve finished, leave the carpet to dry for as long as possible before moving furniture back in. If you have fans or a dehumidifier, set them up in the room. If possible, leave the room for 24 hours. If not, leave for five hours at least.
Empty and rinse out the water tanks of your cleaner and set them aside to dry before putting them away.
Many carpet cleaners will have a smaller cleaning head that can be used on upholstery and mattresses. Before you do this, check that the fabric you're going to use it on is colourfast and can be cleaned without damage. Your carpet cleaner manual should have information on compatible fabrics. As with the carpet itself, make sure you don't over-wet fabric and give it plenty of time to dry before use.
If you're looking to buy a carpet cleaner, Vax has a good deal on at the moment. You can get its highly-rated carpet cleaner and a steam cleaner together, for £249. Find out more about the products in our article, or go straight to the Vax website to buy the bundle.