Expert Advice

Carpet • Upholstery • Tile • Healthy Home •

A Burning Question:
What is Causing this Odd Discoloration Problem on my Upholstery?

From time to time, during my complete pre-inspection process of a client's furniture (which I do before every professional cleaning), I may discover a faint yellow or pinkish blotchy discoloration on the seats and/or back cushions of a piece of furniture.

fire retardant damaged sofa

Fabric discoloration may come from many factors such as oily soils, or even the nicotine buildup from smoking. Treating many yellowing problems requires skill and experience, and I can achieve a lot of success with advanced techniques using “reducers” — which means removing oxygen molecules to make the yellowing stain invisible. Multiple cleanings will likely correct a challenging correctable issue.

But sometimes — depending on the type of fabric and other conditions — there is a bigger problem lurking beneath the cushions causing the blotchy discoloration. The good news is that it’s fairly easy for an experienced professional cleaner to diagnose the cause of this mysterious problem.

This unusual discoloration pattern usually only shows up on the seats and the back cushions, but not on the base or frame of a sofa, for example. It can show up on fairly new furniture which is only about a year old.

After the pre-inspection, an important part of my service is to communicate with my clients about everything I find during the pre-inspection to ensure that I give you accurate and honest expectations. And I am committed to doing everything possible from my 15+ years of professional experience and training to meet those expectations.

But what about this very unusual discoloration problem? What’s causing it?

And naturally, you’ll also want to know if a professional cleaning will take care of the problem, and restore the original beauty of the sofa cushions.

The mystery cause of blotchy discoloration may be decomposing fire retardant chemicals applied to fabrics by the manufacturer when it was new.

Some General Information on Flame Retardant Treated Furniture

Basically, there are standards for furniture flammability that vary worldwide and from state to state. California is the only state with a flammability standard for residential, upholstered furniture that was passed into law in 1975; and many furniture manufacturers chose to implement this tough standard for their entire lines. Therefore, no matter which state you live in, you’ll likely have furniture that meets the tough California standards that have been shipped to Texas for sale.

A lot of furniture fabrics are naturally fire resistant due to the fiber’s innate properties. Fabric is tested and classified as fire resistant based on the time it takes for it to burn, and at what temperature it begins to catch fire.

Some of these materials that are inherently fire resistant are acrylic, polyester, nylon, and wool, just to name a few.

The furnishings that display the discoloration problem often contain a down or other feather-type filling stuffed into a cotton “bag” known as ticking that holds the material together. Then the ticking is placed inside the cover fabric to form the seat and back cushions.

Flame or Fire Retardant (often abbreviated as FR) is defined as a material that has been chemically treated to self-extinguish.

The fire-retardant chemicals (which are usually based on inorganic salts) are applied to the cotton ticking, which is in constant contact with seat and back cushion fabrics. Unfortunately, these chemical salts can decompose over time and form acids. Then these acids can do actual fiber damage to the cushion fabrics, causing the discoloration.

The transfer of flame retardant chemicals in cotton ticking to the cover fabric can become worse steadily over 6-12 months after the furniture is installed, simply from the atmospheric humidity in the Houston Texas area.

Now for the burning question: Can this condition be corrected?

Unfortunately the bad news is that this type of fiber damage is generally not correctable.

According to Cleanfax Magazine, for this particular situation

Most attempted corrective measures have been in vain … almost all flame retardant-related upholstery problems we have seen have been resolved eventually by replacement of the damaged fabric (and the offending ticking).

Source:Cleanfax Magazine Article

The good news is that this condition is fairly rare. I have only encountered this problem a few times since 2004.

At My Pro Cleaner, I pride myself for keeping my customers informed, and taking on the toughest cleaning challenges to achieve the best possible results. And when a piece of furniture shows actual fiber damage from fire retardant, it is no longer a cleaning issue, and I will always let my clients know.

I do a pre-inspection and perform pretests before all cleaning jobs start so I can give my clients accurate expectations, and then I use the approved cleaning method for all fabric types, and diagnose any existing fiber damage issues I discover.

If you have any questions about this article, or anything related to cleaning carpet, upholstery, tile and grout, and maintaining a healthy home, please feel free to give me a call, and let’s talk!

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