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Carpet Cleaner vs Steamer vs Vacuum: which to use on your soft flooring?

woman and man dancing on the floor

There’s a lot of confusion about how to clean carpets properly. In fact, it’s one of the things we’re most often asked questions about. People wonder about all sorts of things. Is it safe to vacuum them more than once a week? What’s the difference between steaming and shampooing it? Is this even worth trying to do yourself?

In this guide, we’ll address all those FAQ and get you on the right track to a clean carpet! The good news is, you don’t need to pay lots of money for professionals to do the job! You can do just as well by yourself, as long as you’ve got the right tools.

What a vacuum will and won’t do

The most important maintenance tool in your arsenal is a good vacuum. While vacuums don’t do the whole job, as you’ll see, they’re your best way to keep dirt and filth from accumulating in your carpets. And even the best carpet cleaners aren’t equipped to handle loose debris and pet hair as well as a good vacuum.

So, make sure you’re staying on top of vacuuming your carpets. Vacuums should be used at least every week, if not twice weekly. You’ll need one with powerful suction and a scrubbing brush head. It’s no good trying to use a standard floor head on carpeting. You need something with a brush head that can agitate fibers and shake out all the ground-in dirt and dust.

To answer one common question we receive, no–vacuuming won’t harm your carpet. Most vacuums are designed specifically to clean soft flooring fibers, so they’re not dangerous. They shouldn’t damage carpet fibers if you use them properly and have a high-quality machine.

Height adjustments are important for making sure you’re cleaning effectively without damaging your carpeting or the vacuum components. The key is to find a height at which the brushes are digging into the fibers without tearing them up or jamming. Suction control is also handy, since it allows you to tweak the “lock” on the floor attachment of your vacuum.

Even the best vacuums can’t get everything out of carpets, though. Vacuums can’t handle stains or spills. They’re only for loose debris like dirt, dust, and pet fur. That’s why we turn to carpet cleaners! To remove the deepest dirt particles that won’t come up with an agitating vacuum head, and to address stains, get yourself a carpet cleaning machine. When you start to see stubborn stains or discoloration, it’s past time to use a one!

The deal with carpet cleaners/steamers

A lot of the confusion people have around cleaning carpets comes from the nomenclature. You’ll hear people referring to both carpet cleaners, and carpet steamers. From what you read, you’d be reasonable in assuming that there are two separate appliances being discussed. In fact, that’s not actually the case.

Carpet steamers, in nearly every case, are misnomers. The vast majority of carpet cleaning machines don’t actually use steam at all. In fact only some rare, expensive, commercial machines do. Anything a consumer can buy will be a carpet “steamer” that uses a mixture of hot water and detergent. They don’t usually heat water by themselves, so you fill the tank with hot tap water and then mix in detergent to make a cleaning solution.

That’s why we always refer to them as carpet cleaners, though you’ll hear people use both terms. 99% of the time, the terms are referring to the same thing. We think it’s a bit misleading to use the “steam” term, though, since it’s really a hot sudsy wash rather than a steam treatment

A carpet cleaning machine–whatever it’s called–scrubs using brush heads like a vacuum, to agitate fibers and wash thoroughly. It injects the hot, soapy water on the forward pass, then you pull the machine back across the same area to use the onboard suction system to suck the dirty water back into the machine. Some have blow-dryers on board and many have separate rinse functions to make sure you’re getting all the cleaning solution out of your flooring.

You need to use a machine like this to get out stains, oils, and ground-in messes from your carpet. Think of it like this: using a vacuum is essentially a very sophisticated and effective version of shaking out a garment. But, you’d never consider a shaken garment to be completely clean, right? You want to run it through the wash to do the job thoroughly. The same is true of your carpets.

You can also get miniature versions of these gadgets, and they’re great for spot cleaning and carpeted stairs. We recommend one in our buying guide

Steam and carpets

As we’ve said, most carpet “steamers” on the market don’t use steam as such. However, steam can also be effective in your care regimen. You can use it to sanitize, to kill dust mites, and to deodorize. You’ll want to use a steam mop with a glider or a floor attachment on a canister steam cleaner in order to apply steam to soft fibers.

As good as steam is at killing germs and neutralizing allergens, though, it doesn’t pull anything up. That’s why it’s a tool for spot treatments rather than full cleanings.

Should I really bother buying a carpet cleaner? Why not rent one?

You can certainly rent a carpet cleaner, but we don’t recommend it. If you take a close look at the rental units in your local Home Depot or Lowe’s, you won’t ever want one in your home!

Think about it this way: when would you rent a carpet cleaner? When your place is filthy, right? Or when your pet has made some unspeakable mess. Other people are doing the same thing. And since your average big box store isn’t always going to clean and sanitize the machines between users, you could end up making your floors even less sanitary than they were when you decided to get a machine.

The way we see it, if you’re going to own carpets long-term, a cleaner is an essential part of your toolkit. They’re not very expensive these days, either. Good models don’t cost more than the average vacuum cleaner. Do yourself a favor and get your own machine. It’ll make carpet care a lot more convenient, and you’ll save money in the long run. You’re supposed to clean carpets at least every six months, so your machine will pay for itself fairly quickly.

If you have more questions about carpet cleaners, or want to see the models we recommend, head over to our buying guide!