What You Need to Know When Carpet Shopping
When you select the floor finishes for your new house, you may decide to splurge on tile or hardwood for your kitchen and entry foyer. But for most of your living space, you'll probably conclude that carpet is the most cost-effective choice. That's the easy part. Then you have to pick one or two from a vast number of carpet squares that line the walls of the builder's sample room.
As you begin to get oriented to this dizzying array, the first thing you'll notice is that the number of color choices increases with price. Indeed, this is part of the builder's marketing strategy. Only six to ten colors are usually offered in the lowest, base carpet grade that is included in the house's base price. The carpet supplier typically sells the base grade to the builder at or below cost, and invariably it is of minimal quality. But as many as twenty-four colors may be offered in the highest upgrade category, where the builder's (and his supplier's) profit margins are greatest. Beyond color and price, there are additional but more subtle differences between carpet grades that can make one choice prudent and another extravagant.
The first thing to note on the carpet samples is the fiber type. Your builder will most likely offer nylon, polyester, and/or olefin. Of these, nylon is the most widely used and the strongest. A nylon carpet never becomes threadbare, and in this conventional sense it never wears out. But nylon will "ugly out" and look ratty if not properly maintained or if inferior padding has been installed. Nylon will also stain if the fibers are not treated with a stain-resistant product such as Dupont Stainmaster. Higher quality nylon fibers are "branded" and the carpet label will list the fibers as "100% nylon Monsanto" or "100% Dupont Masterlife." Lower quality, unbranded nylon fibers are listed simply as "100% nylon."
Polyester carpet fibers are less strong than nylon and tend to shed some, but they are more stain resistant and the colors are brighter. Polyester is also cheaper than nylon and more environmentally benign. Some or all of the polyester fiber material, depending on the manufacturer, is made from recycled plastic bottles. Image Polyester, a division of Mohawk Carpets, manufactures polyester carpet made of 100 percent recycled material. Phil Cavin, Image's national procurement officer, estimates that the firms' manufacturing activities consume about 5.5 million bottles a day. Before you buy a whole house full of polyester carpet, though, try to see a room with it. Some people find the carpet sounds odd when they walk on it and it has a different sheen because it is plastic.
Polypropylene, commonly called olefin, is the weakest of the three synthetic fibers, but this material works well when made into a looped berber-type carpet with a knobby weave. Its knobby berber texture conceals dirt, even in light colors. For this reason, olefin berber carpeting is often selected for high-use areas such as family rooms.
Next check the twist level of the individual carpet fibers. All carpet yarns are twisted together to form lengths of yarn, but the degree of twisting varies. The higher or tighter the twist, the better and generally more expensive the carpet. A twist rating refers to the number of times the fiber is twisted together in a one-inch length. With a loop-pile carpet such as a berber, the twist level is less critical because the fibers are looped in and can't unravel.
Now check the density, a measure of how tightly the fibers are attached to the carpet backing. The closer together the fibers are attached, the less wear to each individual fiber, and the longer the carpet will last. To test for density, see how easily you can move the carpet tufts to see the backing. The harder it is to see, the higher the carpet's density.
Face weight measures the number of ounces of fiber per square yard of carpet. It is a significant quality determinant, but harder to distinguish by visual inspection. The higher the face weight, the more yarn, and the better the carpet, with this caveat: A carpet with a longer fiber can have a higher face weight, because face weight simply measures the weight of all the fibers above the primary lacking. But a longer-fiber, higher-face-weight carpet can still have a low density, and it will not wear as well as a carpet of identical face weight but shorter, more numerous fibers and higher density.
To determine overall carpet quality, you need to look at face weight and density as well as the twist level. As a general rule of thumb, carpet with a twist level of 4.0 or better, a density of 3,000 to 4,000, and a face weight of 35 to 40 ounces will hold up well. For production-built houses in the middle or lower price ranges, such a carpet may be two or three upgrades above the builder's standard. For production-built houses in the upper price ranges, some builders may offer carpets with face weights that can range from 45 to as high as 70 ounces.
Durability is another important factor in selecting a carpet, but it is difficult to ascertain by visual inspection. Many carpet manufacturers assign a durability rating to each carpet style after testing it by simulating wear conditions over time. For example, Shaw Industries has a 20,000 Steps Contract Walker Test facility at its headquarters in Dalton, Georgia. The 20,000 steps, the equivalent of about three years of normal residential use, are taken by six to eight people walking in shifts for eight houses a day over a five- to seven-day period.
The higher the durability rating of a carpet, the more slowly it will lose its like-new appearance. Shaw measures the durability of its carpets on a scale from one to five, with five being the most durable. For a household with more than four adults, toddlers, children, teens, pets or one that entertains frequently, a durability rating of 3.5 and above for heavily used areas is recommended. For other households, a durability of 2.5 for most rooms will be adequate.
While Shaw uses the sliding scale, other manufacturers describe their carpet's durability by rating its performance in individual rooms - bedroom, living, dining and family rooms, hall, and steps. Still others rate their carpets by their suitability for light, normal, heavy, and extra-heavy foot traffic.
Besides helping homebuyers evaluate an individual builder's carpet offerings, all of these factors enable buyers to compare one builder's carpet offerings to another's. There is no industry-wide standard for disclosing this information, but many manufacturers voluntarily list it on the back of their samples. Manufacturers who do not will usually give out the figures when asked. If you don't see any rating on your builder's samples, ask the sales agent to track it down from the builder's carpet supplier.
Yet another characteristic that distinguishes different grades of carpet and can serve as a quick test is the backing. An inexpensive, low-end carpet has big squares on the back. Better grades will have small, tighter squares and the best quality carpets have a woven backing.
A carpet manufacturer's warranty is also telling, especially the mat-and-crush clause that attests to the carpet fibers' "memory retention" - their ability to retain their twist level and return to their original upright shape after being walked on. A 15-year mat and crush warranty is offered on more expensive carpeting, and top-quality carpets offer a 25-year warranty. A production homebuilder is unlikely to offer this, but you should try to get carpeting with at least a 10-year warranty. If the warranty is shorter than this, the carpet will show wear in a few years. A production builder's base-grade carpet will likely have only a five-year warranty, but check the upgrades.
Author: Katherine Salant