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Carpet 101

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Whether it’s one of the finishing details on your new house or an upgrade to your existing home, carpeting is likely going to be in your future. Carpet is something most of us don’t deal with often so it’s confusing when we first get exposed to it.

So, before you venture out into the world of carpets, here are some things you should know:

  • What are carpets made of and why should I care?
  • What does carpet style mean and how does it affect me?
  • How can I tell good carpet from "not so good?"
  • What should I consider when budgeting for carpet?

Choosing Your Materials

Carpets can be made from a many different materials, both natural and synthetic, but the majority of the carpeting you will see in stores today is man-made, or synthetic.

Nylon is probably the most widely used carpeting material. Because nylon is so strong, a nylon carpet will literally never become "threadbare;" however, nylon does stain and will look worn quickly if it is not properly maintained.

Polyester carpets, while not as strong as nylon, are more stain resistant and come in brighter colors. However, they are harder to clean than nylon.

Polypropylene (Olefin) is the most common material used today. It is the easiest of the synthetic fibers to clean, and the most stain resistant. Although not as strong as the other synthetics, it does wear well when used in a Berber style carpet—a looped fiber rather than a cut one.

Traditional wool carpets are still available; but, while wool wears well, it stains easily and sometimes the stains are impossible to remove. Wool carpets are also relatively expensive.

Carpet Styles Offer Versatility

The way a carpet is made has a direct impact on its appearance and usability. Three of the more common carpet styles are:

Cut Pile. The tips of the fiber loops are cut to create individual freestanding tips. This style is usually plush in both feel and appearance. Common cut pile carpet styles include Saxony, Saxony Plush, and Frieze.

Loop Pile. Just as the name implies, the carpet fibers are looped instead of being cut. Manufacturers can give them a number of different appearances by mixing and the length of the loops. Loop piles are durable and don’t show footprints. Common types of loop pile carpets are Berbers and Sisals.

Cut Loop Piles. In these styles, some of the fibers are cut and some are looped. Using this technique, manufacturers can achieve a number of different multi-level appearances. 

Telling the Good from the Bad

Some manufacturers assign a "durability" ranking to their carpet, ranging from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most durable.

Other manufacturers simply rate their carpet by describing its usability in various rooms, or suitability for different traffic patterns such as light, normal, heavy, or extra heavy foot traffic.

However, even without a manufacturer rating you can evaluate a carpet by looking at a combination of 3 things: face weight, fiber twist, and density.

Face weight is the number of ounces of fiber per square yard of carpet. The higher the face weight, the more yarn in the carpet, and, in theory, the better the carpet.

Twist is the number of times a fiber strand is twisted together in a 1-in. length of carpet yarn. The higher the twist, the better the performance and durability of the carpet. Carpet yarns range from 2.5 to 6.0 twists, with the majority being in the 3.5 to 5.0 range.

Density is what tells you how tightly the yarn is packed together. The higher the density, the thicker the carpet is under your feet and the more durable it is. You can actually feel the difference in density of carpet by running your hand over the surface of a high density and a lower density carpet.

A good rule of thumb is that carpet with a face weight of 35 to 40 oz., a twist level of 4 or better, and a density of 3000 to 4000 should provide good value.

Invest in a Good Underpad

Most people think carpet underpads are there to provide extra comfort under foot. In reality, a carpet underpad helps absorb foot impact that makes carpet fibers break down over time. The extra comfort is just a side benefit.

Today, carpet underpads are usually made from some form of rubber, such as waffle rubber, urethane foam, or the most commonly used underpad, bonded urethane, also called Rebond.

Just like carpet, underpad is available in various thicknesses and densities. The density reflects the weight of a cubic foot of underpad. Most carpet manufacturers recommend a cushion of at least 6 lbs. and 3/8-inch thickness for light traffic areas, and 8 lbs. and 3/8-inch thickness for heavy traffic areas.

Planning and Budgeting Your Carpet Purchase

Installing wall-to-wall carpets is not a do-it-yourself job. When you are calculating your total price, make sure it includes installation. Also consider:

  • Does the dealer charge to come to your home and measure your rooms? If they do, is the charge removed if you buy your carpets from them?
  • Will the installers take up and remove any existing carpets, or is that an extra charge?
  • How quickly can your carpets be installed after purchase?
  • What warranties and guarantees are on the carpet?

Some carpet is available in 15-ft., as opposed to 12-ft., rolls. Wider rolls mean fewer seams. Is your carpet choice available in wider rolls?

Carpets can be priced by the square yard or by the square foot. Remember that a square yard contains 9 ft.2, and budget accordingly.

If color matching is important, ask for a roll cut sample. Colors can vary between dye lots, and a roll cut is a piece of carpet cut from the same dye lot you would purchase.

Maintaining Your New Carpets

According to industry experts, maintaining carpets is a matter of vacuuming them frequently—at least once a week—cleaning them periodically, and being sure you catch spills promptly. If you have just installed new carpeting, and more dust than usual is accumulating on surfaces inside your home, the dust problem can usually be solved by wet-cleaning the carpet.

You need to deep clean your carpets every 6 to 18 months, because, no matter how often you vacuum, you won’t be able to get all the dust and grit that gets into them. For low-density carpets and low traffic areas, you can rent a machine and do it yourself. However, in high traffic areas or with high-density carpets, the power of a professional’s truck-mounted carpet cleaner will ensure your carpets are truly clean.

Finally, remember, there is no such thing as a stain "proof" carpet; there are only stain "resistant" carpets. If something gets spilled on your carpet, get to it quickly before it has a chance to set and ruin your carpet. Just as some added insurance, it’s a good idea to get the installers to leave any scraps from your carpet installation. You never know when a major accident could happen, and you will be thankful for that piece of matching carpet.