Carpet Spots vs. Stains: Like Oil and Water

The first step to spill removal from your carpet is identification

Carpet Spots vs. Stains: Like Oil and Water

Nothing in a facility says you have let your floors go like spots that inevitably appear in the most high profile of places. As a facility manager, your proficiency in spotting is essential. In this article we are going to talk about some of the basics you will need to get the job done.

One of the first things you will need is an understanding of what constitutes a “spot” versus a “stain.” While we may use the words spot and stain interchangeably, there is an important difference between the two. According to the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC) R100 Reference Guide for Professional Cleaning of Textile Floor Coverings, a spot is defined as “the result of a material adding substance or texture to a fabric or surface,” while a stain is “the result of a material adding color (without texture) to a fabric or surface.”

Understanding the difference between a spot and a stain is significant because it may be easy to remove a spot from a carpet fiber, but stains become part of the structure of the filament since the color is absorbed. To further complicate stain removal, the dyes found in most common spots and spills are acid dyes that are the same type of dyes used to color many commercial carpets. Therefore, spotting agents designed to remove color must be used with care and patience to prevent color loss.


One of the most common mistakes when attempting to clean a spot or stain is not identifying what type of problem it is or the correct detergent for treatment.

There are multiple ways to identify a spot or a stain. One way is by appearance. If the appearance is shiny, it could be oil based, or if the appearance is dull and crusty, it could be sugar based. Another way to identify the type of mess you have on your hands is to feel the spot or stain while wearing gloves. If you can’t feel any difference in texture compared to the rest of the carpet, there’s a high possibility it’s a material that added color, making it a stain. If it has a texture to it that you can feel, then most likely you are dealing with a spot.

Where to Start

It’s impossible to address every combination of spot and spotter in a few pages; however, let’s start with this basic understanding: You must use formulated dry solvents or d-limonene-based spotters to remove oil-based spots. Water-based spotters will not remove oily substances from carpet because water and oil do not mix. Dry solvents are liquids with no water in them. Although you would never use gasoline to clean carpet, it is an example of a familiar dry solvent. It is a liquid that contains no water.

Common Removal Problems

The most common problems for carpets are spots that reappear within 24-48 hours, which is also known as “wicking.” Wicking is the result of soil migrating from within the pile of the carpet through capillary action. Generally, we only remove the spot on the surface of the carpet that we can see, which means there is more to our problem than typically meets the eye.

Consider a spot on the carpet the size of a baseball that you physically see with your eyes. If we were to pull the carpet up and look at the backing, the spot could be the size of a bowling ball. This is caused by the spill spreading out when it hits the backing of the carpet, thus creating a much larger spot than we usually see on the surface.

The best way to avoid spots appearing through wicking is to blot or extract the carpet as dry as possible during the spotting process and then use air movers to finish the drying. The faster you dry the carpet, the less chance you have of spots wicking back to the surface.

The most effective method for rinsing and removing residue from a spot is through the use of a spotting extractor since you’re able to clean the spotted area more thoroughly. Extraction will also reduce the wicking effect because you can recover water, detergent, and soil more effectively. Spotting extractors are small and portable, allowing for the cleaning professional to get effective and efficient results.

It’s All About Perception

As we have discussed, perception is vital in commercial establishments, and very little gives people the impression that your facility is dirty like stains or spots in your carpet. But now that you understand the difference between a spot and stain, along with the correct process and tools needed for cleaning, you can maintain your carpet’s appearance efficiently and effectively.

Posted On June 7, 2019

Anthony Velez

Anthony Velez is senior sales training specialist with Kärcher North America. For more information email him at

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Carpet Spots vs. Stains: Like Oil and Water
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