Muddy paw prints, suspect smells and unidentifiable stains that simply refuse to budge. If this sounds like your carpets at home, it's probably time to have them properly cleaned. Carpeting your home is no small investment, costing on average between $3000 and $6000, so you'll want to make sure your carpet cleaner knows what they're doing.

According to the Australian standard for carpet cleaning (yes, there is one), it's recommended that you get your carpets cleaned once a year. When you decide that time has come, it's well worth keeping a few things in mind:

  • The carpet-cleaning industry is unregulated, and only a small percentage of carpet cleaners receive formal training.
  • If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid the temptation to choose a carpet cleaner solely on price.
  • There are carpet cleaners out there who are members of an association, which holds them to a code of practice. Look for one of these when choosing a cleaner.

How do you choose the right company?

Get quotes from a couple of carpet cleaners before making your choice. This list of questions will give you an idea of whether or not they're worth the money.

Are they a member of an association?

National trade associations provide training for their members and have a voluntary code of practice. If you're not satisfied with the service of your carpet cleaner, you can contact the association they're a member of for help. Associations include:

Do they have any qualifications?

Qualified carpet technicians will have skills and qualifications such as a Certificate II or III in Asset Maintenance - Carpet Cleaning. This trains them in:

  • Work health and safety, including appropriate chemical handling.
  • Identifying the appropriate chemical for both the type of carpet and the stain.
  • How to use their equipment effectively to avoid mishaps like over-wetting the carpet.

What do they charge?

Price should never be the deciding factor in choosing a carpet cleaner, so be wary of very low prices. Quality service won't be cheap. You'll almost certainly come across the old "bait and switch" technique in the carpet cleaning industry. It happens when a company will charge a low price - sometimes as low as $5 a room! - just to get their foot in the door. Then, once they're there, they try and convince you that you need extras, such as spot removal or sanitising until you are paying well over the original quote.

  • They should give you an estimate over the phone, but may need to inspect your carpet first. Make sure that you give a good description of your entire home, including whether you have pets and if your carpets are stained.
  • Most cleaners charge by the "standard" room, which can be as low as $25. Others charge by the square metre, starting at around $4 per square metre. Every job is different so there is no one-size-fits-all price.
  • Basic spot removal, pre-vacuuming and moving furniture (with the exception of large or delicate items) should be included, but make sure you ask. The company may offer extras such as deodorising, sanitising and carpet protection, which forms a protective - but not impenetrable - layer on your carpet.

What guarantees do they offer?

  • Guarantees should be given in writing, so if you aren't satisfied with the work of the carpet cleaning company or if they cause any damage, they'll be more likely to correct their mistakes.
  • Do you have insurance? The company should have public liability insurance to cover the cost of any damage done.

How long will it take?

  • This will depend on the size of your home, the method used and how much furniture needs to be moved, but allow at least three hours.
  • Carpet drying time will also vary but for hot water extraction (also known as steam cleaning) it shouldn't take longer than six to eight hours with proper ventilation. If it takes longer than 24 hours to dry, too much water has been left in your carpet.

Carpet cleaning methods

Steam cleaning (hot water extraction)

Steam cleaning is suitable for most carpets. It's done with a truck-mounted or portable machine. The truck-mounted option is more powerful and will do a more thorough job.

Carpet manufacturers recommend hot water extraction as the preferred method of carpet cleaning to invigorate and prolong the life of the carpet. In the process:

  • the carpet is vacuumed
  • a chemical is sprayed on and left to bond with the soil
  • water is injected into the carpet with a high-pressure jet spray,
  • and finally, the water is vacuumed out.

Dry cleaning

Dry cleaning (some water is used though less than in steam cleaning), is what the standard refers to as a "surface cleaning". It's handy for areas that receive a lot of traffic and need a fast drying time. Dry cleaning can be used as a maintenance clean, but steam cleaning is best as your full clean.

Bonnet cleaning

This is the most commonly used form of dry cleaning. In this process:

  • the carpet is vacuumed
  • a cleaning agent is applied to the cleaner. The cleaner has a pad (the bonnet), which rubs the carpet, transferring the dirt onto the pad,
  • and, finally, the carpet is vacuumed.

DIY carpet cleaning

You can hire a carpet cleaning machine from most Coles and Woolworths supermarkets, as well as some smaller independent stores; they're known as steam cleaners.

Carpet manufacturers often warn against doing it yourself, as there's more chance of over-wetting your carpet, but you'll save money this way. General costs will involve:

  • Rental of the carpet cleaning machine
  • A heavy-duty cleaning agent
  • The spotter spray
With a DIY job, you're liable for any damages done to your home, so take care. If you're having trouble making the machine work, call the machine's supplier to guide you through the steps.

Problems with carpet cleaning

Over-wetting is the most common problem, whether done professionally or DIY. It can result in:

  • the growth of mould and a musty smell
  • water stains and brown stains from the carpet backing
  • shrinking or cracking, which in extreme cases will destroy the carpets.

If your carpet seems overly wet, ask the carpet cleaner to suck more water out if possible, and to lend you an industrial-strength blower to help dry them faster. They may also need to lift the carpet back so the underlay can dry.

The company that caused the damage is responsible for rectifying the situation. If the carpet cleaner is a member of an association, you can also contact them for assistance, or call your state's department of fair trading.