Spoiler alert: Vacuuming isn't enough.

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Credit: Eric Piasecki

You'll be surprised to learn how much dirt vacuums miss-and how simple the best cleaning methods really are. The pitch was simple. In the 1950s, a vacuum salesman would come to the door, spill dirt on the carpet, and ask the lady of the house to clean it with her machine. Then he would load a fresh bag into his model, run it over the "clean" carpet, and open the bag to reveal what it had picked up.

Frequently that was all he needed to close the deal. Had the salesman reversed the order, however, using his machine first, the results might have been the same. Often the problem wasn't the old vacuum. It was the fact that once dirt goes into carpet, it doesn't easily come out.

Keeping Clean: The Basics

An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure. To keep carpets as clean as possible, limit how much dirt gets into them in the first place. Declare a shoes-off rule, or place sturdy doormats at all entries. Frequent vacuuming is the only way to keep grit from becoming embedded, and having a vacuum that's easy to use is crucial. Spend the bulk of cleaning time where dirt collects: a dozen passes of the vacuum within four feet of outside doors, eight passes in high-traffic areas, and four passes elsewhere. Where carpets have not been regularly and thoroughly cleaned, double the passes for three months.

How to Clean Common Carpets

Depending on the materials of your carpet, different methods should be used for vacuuming, liquid spills and deep cleaning.

Carpet Type: Synthetic

Vacuum first. Remove grit with multiple vacuum passes in varying directions using the beater brush, set to the pile height. Change the bag once it's bag is half full because efficiency decreases after that. When you're dealing with a liquid spill, clean the area promptly using the blot technique: Cover the area with a clean towel or a thick pad of paper towels. Press down with the heel of your hand. Repeat using dry towels until all the liquid has been absorbed. If the spill is large, use a wet-dry vacuum (if available) to remove most of the spill before blotting.

Professional steam cleaning works best on wall-to-wall carpeting that needs a deep clean, and it may be required by the warranty. If you want to do it yourself, vacuum thoroughly, then use an extraction machine from a rental company (supermarket models are less powerful). Test the cleaning solution before you begin by pouring a few drops into a saucer and allowing it to evaporate (a hair drier speeds the process). If the dried residue in the saucer remains sticky, switch cleaners. Use fans or air-conditioning to dry the carpet. Area rugs can be cleaned using the same methods.

Carpet Type: Wool

To vacuum, follow the instructions above but avoid using a rotary brush on loop-pile (Berber) carpets; the yarn may get fuzzy. Instead, use a floor tool. To clean liquid spills, start by misting with water and blotting, as you would for synthetic carpets. Never use ammonia or any other high-alkaline cleaner, which can damage wool. To deep clean bor both area rugs and wall-to-wall carpets, home cleaning is not recommended because wool fibers absorb more water than synthetic fibers do. This makes them hard to dry, and area carpets become very heavy and difficult to maneuver. Additionally, many available cleaners are too alkaline for use on wool.

Carpet Type: Plant-Based Fibers

Use the same vacuuming technique as for synthetic carpets. A beater brush is the best way to remove grit, which causes excessive wear on these carpets. Plant fibers are less stain-resistant than synthetics or wool, even if they have been treated with a water repellent, so blot liquid spills promptly using the method described above. Make sure damp areas dry quickly by using a fan or a hair drier (set on low heat). As for deep cleaning, manufacturers recommend the use of dry methods only. Other methods should be left to professionals.

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