New carpet is one of the most striking and impressive renovations you can do to a room. You may think you know exactly what you want -- whether that's plush, comfy carpet for a relaxing rec room or tough, sturdy carpet for an office. But when you show up at a carpet showroom, you'll face a myriad of choices beyond what you bargained for. And if you're a smart consumer, you won't necessarily believe everything a salesman tells you. Don't go shopping unprepared.
If you're decisive enough to settle on a color, you'll have to figure out what kind of fiber material you want. And if you don't get lost in comparing the durability tests of different carpet, you'll want to know the specific twist and density to further predict how it'll stand the test of time. Stain resistance ability will also probably be important to you. Meanwhile, it's smart to consider the matter of harmful chemical additives.
The good news is that most of the information you need is conveniently included on a carpet label. But in order to understand that label, you'll need to be a little familiar with the jargon and what each detail means for the life of your carpet.
Carpet Durability: Twist and Density
Replacing old carpet can be a costly pain in the neck. That's why investing a little more money in durable carpet is usually a smart choice. The longer your carpet lasts, the longer you can wait before replacing it -- and the more money you'll save in the long term.
Durability has a great deal to do with density and twist, two specifications listed on the label. Density simply refers to how close together the strands of fiber are -- fibers per square inch. You can judge density by bending it back and seeing how much backing peeks through. Denser carpet tends to last longer because it withstands impact better. It also protects from dirt and stain by making it more difficult for particles to sink through it, keeping soils on the surface and easier to clean [source: Home Depot].
However, twist is the number of times a strand of fiber is twisted per inch. Carpet that has a high twist level of 4 or more will also be more durable and less likely to unravel. Carpet doesn't have to be dense to be durable, as long as it has a high twist level (and vice versa).
Don't confuse density and twist with face weight, which is the amount of fiber measured in ounces per square yard (as opposed to total weight, which includes the weight of the carpet backing). Face weight won't tell you a lot about the durability of a carpet without knowing the density and twist, as well.
Standardized Durability Tests
We discussed some of the carpet label specifications that can help you determine durability, such as twist and density. However, because these are variables that also depend on the fiber type, comparing different specifications across several different carpet samples can be dizzying.
To make comparison shopping exponentially easier, there are some standardized durability tests. A number on the carpet label could refer to such a test.
Both the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) and Consumer Reports endorse the Home Depot durability rating system, which they call the Performance Appearance Rating (PAR). Home Depot uses a walk test that's supposed to simulate what the carpet will look like after a year of normal traffic by a family of four. When you're inspecting a label, look for a score from 1 to 5. A high score of 4 or 5 will quickly tell you that a carpet has good durability [source: Home Depot]. Other major retailers use similar durability tests. Shaw Floors, for example, uses its own performance rating, which also ranges from 1 to 5.
These ratings systems somewhat oversimplify the issue of durability. How your carpet will look also depends on maintenance and traffic. Though you shouldn't necessarily make your decision based solely on such performance ratings, considering them in conjunction with other specifications like twist and density will help in your decision.
Perhaps the most important aspects of a carpet is what material it's made of. And you have a raft of options when it comes to fiber type. Here's a rundown of the most common materials:
- Nylon. The most popular choice, nylon is moderately priced, durable, easy to clean and has decent stain resistance. Nylon carpet has moderate resistance to fading in the sun, but it'll fade after prolonged exposure.
- Polyester. One of the cheapest options, polyester won't fade in the sunlight and offers good stain resistance. The biggest drawback: It isn't durable. However, the new PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) polyester is stronger than the traditional version.
- Wool. Generally considered to make the best quality carpet for appearance and feel, wool is relatively expensive. It can offer rich colors but will fade in direct sunlight. Wool can also wear down more easily than some synthetics, and has poor resistance to mold and mildew.
- Olefin. Another name for polypropylene, olefin is inexpensive, won't fade (if chemically treated) and has great stain resistance (except for oily stains). It also is comparatively resistant to moisture, mildew and static. It's decently durable, but not as soft or resilient as other fiber choices.
- Acrylic. The advantage of acrylic is that it looks and feels more like wool than any of the other synthetics. However, it's a little more expensive than nylon and can tend to pill and fuzz.
Stain and Soil Resistance
Don't let a stain permanently blemish your beautiful, expensive carpet. Though no carpet is perfect, and all spills need prompt attention to keep your carpet clean, you can buy carpet that's stain resistant to assuage your fears. Some materials and carpet constructions are naturally more stain resistant than others. However, companies usually treat carpet with additional chemicals to make it more resistant.
Teflon and Scotchguard technology cause liquid stains to bead on the fabric surface, allowing quick attention to soak it up. However, StainMaster carpets work by neutralizing the electric charge on the fabric. This is because the dye used in many commercial food and drink products are negatively charged, just as the dye used in coloring carpet. Without neutralizing the charge, the spilled food attaches permanently to the remaining positive charges [source: Hilton].
Luckily, you can often find specific information about the stain resistance on the label. This might include what stain remover products to use and information on proper maintenance. Some stain resistant chemicals wear away after years of use, but you can have the chemicals reapplied.
Know Your Hazardous Chemicals
In the late 1980s, a controversy erupted when workers in the EPA office headquarters (of all places) complained that the new carpets were making them sick. Consumers were warned that the culprit was none other than the chemicals applied to carpets in the manufacturing process, including stain resistance, flame retardant and anti-microbial chemicals.
Though you might like that "new carpet smell," the chemical responsible for it (4-phenylcyclohexene) is one of those suspected of causing sickness. In addition to that, critics claim that certain carcinogens are emitted from carpet, like formaldehyde, toluene, xylene and benzene.
In response to the complaints about flulike symptoms and respiratory problems, the CRI began an initiative to inform consumers about the complaints as well as reduce the levels of the supposedly harmful chemicals. The carpets that met the low-emitting standards set by CRI got a "Green Label." Check the carpet label for this certification, which we'll talk more about on the next page.
Carpet Label Wars
Despite CRI's Green Label initiative and the precautions the consumer can take to reduce the chances of getting sick from carpet, controversy remained. Critics, including New York's Attorney General, Robert Abrams, maintained that the Green Label rating system was not vigorous enough. And some blame a Green Label-certified carpet for emitting chemicals that disabled one family [source: Williams]
However, today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission admits that it doesn't have evidence that carpet chemical emissions cause adverse health effects [source: CPSC]. And, decades after the original incident in their headquarters that sparked the outrage, even the EPA says on its Web site that research hasn't determined whether carpet chemicals could be responsible [source: EPA].
Nevertheless, in the spirit of better-safe-than-sorry, the EPA recommends some precautions. The organization advises you ask the retailer to air out the carpet for several days before installation and keep your house well-ventilated for at least a few days after. You may even want to ask the retailer to use low-emitting adhesives.
Keeping the Heat: Carpet R-Value
One of the things people like about carpets as opposed to hardwood or vinyl floors is that carpet makes a room warmer. This is true both figuratively and literally. Not only does carpet make a room more inviting, but it helps insulate it. Carpet can insulate as much as 10 times more than hardwood [source: Carpet Institute].
A carpet's thermal resistance rating is known as its R-value, and this can sometimes be found on a carpet label. According to studies, the R-value of a carpet doesn't depend on the fiber type so much as its sheer thickness. If you don't see this number on the label, you can determine the approximate R-value of a carpet by multiplying its thickness (in inches) by 2.6. However, to find the total insulating value, you should include the thickness of your carpet pad in the calculation [source: CRI].
This may seem like a minor detail, but a carpet's insulating abilities could end up saving you a lot of cash. A study of elementary schools found that carpets saved them $2,000 to $8,000 in energy costs. And the Carpet Buyer's Handbook estimates that you can recoup the cost of a carpet in your home in 9 years [source: Cooper].
Carpet Construction: Backing and Cut Pile
To understand the jargon included on many carpet labels, it helps to know some general points on how carpet is made in the first place. The process most commonly used for inserting the fiber yarn into a backing is called tufting. After the yarn is inserted into a primary backing, manufacturers put down a layer of adhesive, usually synthetic latex, to attach it to a secondary backing. A carpet also could be woven on looms with continuous fibers without a secondary backing.
Another aspect to consider is the cut pile type. This is often listed on the label, and once you inspect the different kinds, you'll be able to identify them by appearance. Frieze is tightly twisted, very textured and durable. A little more formal, saxony can can vary from smooth to textured appearances. The most formal is plush style, which is level cut and dense.
Another kind is loop style, which is uncut loops of yarn rather than cut tufts. Loop-pile carpet can be level, multilevel or even a combination of cut and loop. Loop styles are very durable.
Other Carpet Label Details
You should make use of any and all other details the manufacturer chooses to put on the label. Virtually every detail will tell a smart consumer something significant.
Size is one of those important details. Make sure to go carpet shopping equipped with room measurements, and check the available dimensions of the different carpets. Keep in mind that you may need to get more carpet square-footage than the room's actual size. For instance, if the room is 10-by-10 feet, ordering exactly 100 square feet of 12-foot-wide carpet will result in 8.33-by-12 foot carpet. You'll come up short on the width and have to cut off, seeming it with the excess length [source: Hilton].
Check the label for well-known manufacturer names. These are more likely to be high-quality. It can be difficult at first to recognize differences among carpet manufacturers. However, you can research its reputation of quality and user reviews.
Labels may also list the carpet collection -- a manufacturer's line of similarly styled carpets. If you want matching carpets in various colors for different rooms, you might want to select from the same collection.
Read the Fine Print: Carpet Warranties
The warranty is perhaps the most important and revealing information on a carpet label.
However, it's a misleading rule of thumb that the better the warranty is, the better the carpet quality. Although this is generally true, some manufacturers like to take advantage of this belief and fashion a warranty that looks much better than it is. That's why it's always important to read the fine print.
Wear warranties supposedly protect against carpet wear, but conditions may stipulate that a certain percentage of the carpet would have to be worn before the manufacturer will repair it. And even then, they it'll only repair the section with wear [source: Goddard]. Wear warranties alone won't protect against manufacturing defects, so look for a manufacturing warranty that also protects your carpet if it falls apart due to shoddy workmanship.
Another kind is stain warranties, which are good, but are almost always riddled with conditions. Consumers shouldn't expect any carpet to be completely stain-proof no matter what, and manufacturers want to protect themselves. So, pay special attention to the fine print that lists the proper maintenance of the carpet. It might require you to get the carpet professionally cleaned periodically (keep the receipts!). If you don't follow the conditions, the manufacturer won't honor the warranty.
Obviously, carpet shopping is a lot more involved than it looks. But even though it requires more attention and care than other flooring choices, carpet offers advantages of comfort, insulation and style that may make it worth it.
Do you know what R-value is? Find out what R-value is in this article from HowStuffWorks.
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