Cleaning area rugs runs many of the same risks as cleaning carpet: Rugs can be permanently damaged by improper or poorly mixed chemicals, or by improper brushing. But for some rugs—particularly expensive handmade wool rugs and many antique or semi-antique rugs—there are additional dangers: Dyes can run; fringes, backing, and the rug itself can tear; the rug can shrink or warp; and colors can become distorted.

Another key difference between carpet and rug cleaning is that, in most cases, rugs should be cleaned outside of your home, where you can’t supervise the work. If a company improperly cleans wall-to-wall carpet in your home, you can ask it to correct errors on the spot, perhaps even before permanent damage occurs. But if an incompetent company improperly cleans a rug in its plant, you won’t notice until it is too late.

Because the work is difficult and so much can go wrong—and since even a machine-made Oriental rug can cost thousands of dollars—make sure you entrust your rugs to a true expert.

Check Ratings

The results of our customer surveys and a review of complaint records, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find cleaners that do good work.

If you own an expensive or delicate rug, have several companies come to your home to inspect it and give you a proposal as to how they would clean it. If you’re uncomfortable with their answers, or receive conflicting answers from different companies, ask the representatives to justify their cleaning proposals.

When the cleaner picks up your rug, or when you drop it off, make sure you receive a receipt including the type, size, and description of the rug. If you own a handmade antique or semi-antique rug, make sure this is noted on the receipt.

If you know (or suspect) your rug is valuable, have it appraised so that you can be fairly compensated by the company or your homeowners insurance carrier if the rug is ruined or lost. A delicate rug can be easily damaged by a less-than-diligent cleaner. And though you might think it would be difficult to lose a rug measuring 80 square feet or more, our reviews of complaint files at consumer agencies around the U.S. reveal that some cleaners just can’t seem to keep track of their customers’ rugs. A few rug cleaners warned us that some disreputable rug cleaners take in expensive rugs for cleaning, sell them to rug dealers, and then tell their customers that their rug has been lost or stolen.

Ask About Cleaning Methods

One reason cleaning area rugs is more challenging than cleaning carpeting is that the yarns of many rugs are much more densely concentrated than the yarns in carpet. Because of this density, rugs won’t get dirty as quickly as carpet (since dirt tends to stay on the surface, rather than settling into the rug), but once dirt has penetrated the surface this density makes it especially difficult to remove.

Most rug cleaning companies advertise that they “hand wash” rugs. That doesn’t mean someone gets on hands and knees and painstakingly scrubs rugs; it’s a generic term used by almost all rug cleaning operations. Ask companies to describe in detail how they clean rugs. The preferred method is an “immersion” method, in which a hand-scrubbing machine—similar to a carpet shampooer—is passed back and forth over the rug to loosen dirt, and then the rug is completely soaked through with water and rinsed with a high-pressure hose to flush away dirt.

But many companies employ less-desirable methods. Some companies—particularly very large rug cleaning operations—use large machines that pass rugs through an assembly-line process that automatically shampoos and rinses them. Unlike hand-washing cleaners, which employ a relatively labor-intensive procedure, automated cleaners can clean a rug in less than a minute.

One disadvantage of automated rug washers is that operators have little control over the cleaning process. If a certain area of the rug needs more attention than others, automated machines won’t spend extra time scrubbing the problem area. And a possible risk of automated rug washing machines is that the fringes of the rug, or the rug itself, can be snagged and damaged as it passes through the assembly line—although this risk can be largely avoided if operators carefully monitor the machine.

Other companies—particularly small rug cleaning operations—skip the shampooing step altogether. These companies spread the rug out onto the floor of a garage or small warehouse, and then clean the rug using the same hot-water-extraction equipment they use for in-home carpet cleaning, except that they usually run tepid water through the machine. Hot-water-extraction machines can adequately clean a rug made from wall-to-wall carpet remnants, but avoid companies that use this process for other types of rugs because hot-water-extraction equipment is designed for cleaning less dense wall-to-wall carpet and may not effectively remove dirt that has become embedded into a rug’s dense pile.

Similarly, other small rug cleaning operations may clean rugs using the same bonnet-cleaning system they use for wall-to-wall carpeting. As with bonnet cleaning wall-to-wall carpet, this method’s limitations are that it provides only a topical cleaning—many of the loosened dirt particles are never removed. Also, since companies that use the bonnet method rarely utilize a rinse process, repeated cleanings can overload the rug with residues that may contribute to accelerated re-soiling.

Special Considerations If Your Rug Is Delicate

The vast majority of rugs can be cleaned using the immersion/hand-washing method—most rugs, even expensive handmade rugs, are washed using an immersion washing process after they are manufactured. But highly delicate rugs may require a different method, particularly rugs made of silk or imitation silk and very frail rugs. Most delicate rugs are cleaned in a similar way to other rugs, except that they receive a lighter, lower moisture cleaning. Often the rug can be lightly shampooed by hand. To rinse out remaining dirt and shampoo, the rug is lightly misted and then wiped clean before being spread out to dry.

A common problem with antique or semi-antique rugs is that the warm water used to clean them can cause dyes to run. Companies can prevent this problem by lightly spraying the rug with an acidic conditioner before cleaning.

Ask Who Does the Work

A lot of carpet cleaners that take in rugs don’t actually perform the work themselves, but instead send rugs to specialized cleaners. These companies may contract the work out to a local rug cleaner or to a large-scale out-of-area operation that uses automated equipment. It’s worthwhile asking companies whether they do the work themselves, as you’re likely to retain more control over quality by dealing directly with the company that actually performs the work.

Also find out whether companies employ a dedicated rug cleaning staff, or if its in-home carpet cleaners spend a certain amount of time each week cleaning area rugs. Having a rug cleaned by someone who normally cleans wall-to-wall carpet is not a concern as long as the cleaner is also an expert at cleaning rugs, but it will be easier for someone who spends all of their time cleaning rugs to gain expertise. Keep in mind, however, that an automated operation might place more emphasis on production than on diligence.

What You Should Do

If you can locate specific spots or stains, and know what caused them, point them out to the company and make sure that these problems are listed on the work order—before cleaning, spots and stains should be pretreated with appropriate cleansers. Also notify the company if the rug has been in contact with urine, feces, vomit, or blood, so that the company knows that it needs to be decontaminated.

As with wall-to-wall carpeting, some stains or problems can be difficult or impossible to correct; the company representative should speak candidly about the limits of its service. Keep in mind that companies often won’t know whether or not they can successfully treat a trouble spot until they try.

Get a Good Price

Our Ratings Tables show prices quoted to Checkbook’s undercover shoppers for in-plant cleaning of an eight-by-10-foot all-wool hand-knotted Oriental rug. As you can see, cleaners quoted a wide range of prices.

Using the prices we collected, we calculated price comparison scores, reported on our Ratings Tables, which show how each company’s prices compared to the average company’s prices. Price comparison scores are adjusted so that the average score is $100; a score of $90, for instance, means that the company’s prices were 10 percent below average.

Because we asked the companies to quote prices for a rug only moderately soiled, of a medium color, and with no stains, use the price information we report only as a reference point for your own shopping. Your rug is likely to be different in size, color, and condition. Most companies will quote prices over the phone if you accurately describe your rug and its condition. Before cleaning, ask any company to provide a written, fixed-price contract for the cleaning and any add-on services you request.