Floor care: 4 spot cleaning secrets

Jim Mallery | Improvement Center Columnist | February 12, 2013

You know how it is; you have barely had a chance to enjoy the new flooring under your feet before you find a spot, stain, spill or other nastiness on it. You have no idea how to clean it up without damaging your costly investment. Do you have to pay a professional?

Fear not. Almost any floor-cleaning problem has a solution. Here are four hypothetical floor horrors and some spot-on DIY tips for cleaning them up.

1. Adhesives

Double-backed tape is great for stopping area rugs from sliding on hardwood floors. But it's not so great when you want to remove the rugs; that tape can leave stubborn adhesive patches on the wood, unsightly residue that cannot be removed by either warm water or elbow grease.

What to do:

You need a solvent that can loosen the tape but not damage the floor's finish. Anything you try should first be dabbed on your floor in an inconspicuous spot to see how it affects the finish.

You can try some common items that you might have around the house: WD-40, lighter fluid (for cigarettes or charcoal) and mineral spirits. Dampen a soft cloth with one of them, then dab or rub lightly until the adhesive is removed. Monitor your cleaning to make sure you are not damaging the finish.

If one of those household items fails, then go to Plan B -- a trip to the hardware, big box or flooring store for a stronger cleaner -- the paint department of Lowe's or The Home Depot is a good source. Two common adhesive cleaners are Goo Gone and Goof Off. Goof Off probably is the more effective, but it's the harsher of the two and more likely to mar your flooring. You might try Magic Eraser by Mr. Clean, but be careful as it is slightly abrasive and might scratch your floor.

Note that these methods can also work on adhesives other than tape; however, glue used to adhere engineered flooring to the subfloor during installation is often particularly problematic. It is most important to wipe up glue before it cures, when it can come off easily with mineral spirits. If it has already dried, you can try one of the commercial cleaners mentioned above, or a cleaner specific to that brand of adhesive.

2. Scuff marks

Maybe you had guests with black-soled shoes that left marks everywhere. Whatever it was, your tile and wood floors appear to be scuffed worse than center court at the U.S. Open.

What to do:

Seasoned floor veterans would reach into the closet and pull out a tennis ball. Seriously.

Don't grab the one that your dog plays with; it's likely to be full of slobber or else all the fibers have been chewed off. On the other hand, a brand new ball might leave bits of fluff lying around for you to clean up. Use a ball that has suffered bashing for a set or two on the tennis court. That one should work just fine.

You can cut a small X in the ball and stick a broom handle into it; then start rubbing out the scuffs.

Not a tennis player? You can try putting on sweat socks and sliding around on the floor (better yet, let the kids do it!). But tennis balls work better.

Other effective scuff cleaners include lighter fluid, toothpaste, WD-40 and Goo Gone. Just remember to clean the area afterwards with a damp cloth. On wood flooring use moisture sparingly. You don't want any dampness to penetrate the seams.

3. Candle wax in carpet

Candles are a nice touch when you are entertaining, especially during holidays or romantic interludes. But it's not so nice when the wax gets splashed onto the carpet.

What to do:

With one precaution, it is pretty easy to get wax out of carpet. All you need is an iron and some paper towels.

If you catch the wax drip while it is still hot, blot the wax with a paper towel to absorb as much as possible. If the wax has hardened, gently scrape up as much as you can, taking care not damage the fibers or pull them out of the backing.

To remove the rest of the wax, simply cover it with a paper towel and put a hot iron over it; the paper absorbs the wax as the iron melts it. Make sure the iron is not so hot that it melts the carpet fibers. Repeat as many times as needed.

Colored candles may leave some stain on the fibers. Usually such stains can be removed with some type of oxygen bleach, such as OxiClean® -- don't use chlorine-based bleach! Just dab a ¼ solution (2 ounces in a cup of water), let it sit for several minutes; then blot it up. Always blot -- never rub the carpet. Rubbing can force the stain deeper into the fibers.

4. Pet stains on carpet

Puppies, kittens, old dogs, old cats. They all can have accidents.

What to do:

This problem is all about what the nose knows.

Pets will stick their noses in the most obnoxious places, seemingly unfazed by what we consider the most repugnant of smells. Those same noses can also sniff out the most delicate of scents, like the spot on the rug where they relieved themselves, and which you thought you had thoroughly cleaned. Despite your scrubbing, they can sniff out that spot, and finding it friendly, squat on it again.

What you really need to use is an enzyme cleaner available at pet stores. It breaks down the smell so that they no longer recognize it.

Whatever flooring spot-cleaning challenges you face, always remember the basics: try your cleaner first in an inconspicuous place to make sure it does not damage the floor; use minimal water on wood; and blot, don't rub, to remove stains from carpets. Learn these lessons and you are on the path to a spotless floor.

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing and rebuilding homes.