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One budget carpet cleaner can run with the professional pack

It's no surprise to find commercial carpet cleaners at the top of our "best" list -- and we found two that we review below -- but a less-expected entry, the Hoover SteamVac with Clean Surge F5914-900 (Est. $140) , does about as well at a fraction of the price. It has a 12-amp motor that powers five spinning brushes, and its signature Clean Surge feature dispenses an extra squirt of detergent at the push of a button to tackle tough stains.

Of all the carpet cleaners we reviewed, including the commercial models, this one seems to do the best job of sucking water back out of the carpet, which is a task with which many carpet cleaners struggle. It also applies heat to the carpet, helping it dry that much faster; most owners say you'll have dry carpet within two or three hours of using the Hoover SteamVac. Like the commercial models, it comes with an extension hose (8 feet) and upholstery tool, plus a powered hand tool with its own spinning brushes to help you scrub. This carpet cleaner requires some assembly, but most users say the instructions are clear and it takes just 10 or 15 minutes to put together.

The Hoover SteamVac's 11.25-inch cleaning path is more than enough to play with the big boys. Its 133-ounce clean-water reservoir -- a little over a gallon -- has about half the capacity of the commercial models but is still plenty for most home users. However, some wish for a larger recovery tank that they wouldn't have to empty so often.

Another notable difference between the Hoover SteamVac and the commercial models is durability. Durability complaints about the commercial models -- mainly leaks -- are few and far between. The SteamVac draws fewer complaints than its non-commercial peers, but some users say the cleaning brushes occasionally break. We also found some gripes about leaking or loss of suction. Several owners say the leaks are caused by not following the assembly instructions correctly, and that suction can be restored by making sure the water tanks and lids are properly aligned.

While these problems seem to be common to all Hoover carpet cleaners, a smaller percentage of users report them more often for the Hoover SteamVac with Clean Surge F5914-900 than for other models. Check model numbers carefully when shopping for a Hoover upright carpet cleaner, as many of them have similar names.

Overall, the Hoover SteamVac F5914-900 gets our pick for best carpet cleaner because of its good performance, great suction, easy maneuvering and excellent value. It weighs 20 pounds and comes with a one-year warranty. If you want a longer warranty or are primarily interested in larger water tanks, either of the commercial machines would do.

Naturally, the two commercial models most commonly available for rent -- the Bissell Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine (Est. $470) and the Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 (Est. $400) -- also make the top of the list for performance. Both of these commercial carpet shampooers have saved owners from having to replace carpet they thought was impossibly soiled. The machines use high-pressure jets to inject water into the carpet, then scrub it and the dirt back out with rotating brushes.

Both of these heavy-duty machines are covered by a five-year warranty and come with typical attachments, including an extension hose and upholstery tool that can also be used for spot cleaning or to scrub stairs. The upholstery tools have their own spray triggers, so you can squirt water and detergent onto the carpet or cloth before scrubbing.

When it comes to reservoirs, the Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 has a hefty 3.9-gallon recovery tank and a clean-water tank that holds about 2 gallons. By comparison, the Bissell Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine has a 1.75-gallon clean-water tank. Bigger tanks mean fewer refills, but the more water you load into the machine, the heavier and harder to push it becomes.

None of our best-reviewed models have an internal hot water heater, which would make it easier to get some stains up but adds significantly to the price. Owners say they get around the lack of built-in heaters by pouring hot water in the machine's reservoir.

As far as additional accessories and features go, the Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 comes with an extra quick-release brush and dome filter, plus a formidable collection of cleaning solutions and wipes. The Bissell Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine has a flow indicator to tell you when it's time to change the water in the tanks, and comes with a 24-ounce bottle of Bissell's 2X Professional Deep Cleaning Formula. It also folds down for easy transport or storage once you remove the cleaning tanks.

We rank the Bissell Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine a little higher because of that folding capability. However, when it comes to overall performance, the two carpet cleaners are neck and neck. A healthy cross-section of owners compares the two and opinions are pretty evenly split. If you're not worried about being able to fold your carpet cleaner, we recommend trying them both out before purchasing and picking the one that feels most comfortable to use.

The final thing to consider about these three leading carpet cleaners is noise. Although manufacturers don't provide official noise ratings, an independent consumer research organization tested both the Hoover SteamVac with Clean Surge F5914-900 and the Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3, and ultimately gave both the lowest possible score for noise. Users say the Bissell Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine is fairly loud, too, but on balance it appears to be the quietest of the three.

While these three carpet cleaners are head and shoulders above the other uprights, a couple of other models do well enough to attract our attention.

The Hoover MaxExtract Dual V Widepath Carpet Washer F7412-900 (Est. $180) draws praise from the editors at Good Housekeeping for its ease of use; handles on both clean and dirty water tanks make it easy to get them to and from the sink safely, even when full. It also has several features typically found only on more expensive machines, such as automatic shutoff and a spill pickup function. Some users complain that it goes through a lot of cleaning solution, though.

The Hoover MaxExtract All Terrain Carpet Washer F7452-900 (*Est. $250) has the same powered brushes as the SteamVac with Clean Surge, but it can also be used on hard floors. The MaxExtract All Terrain is the top performer in one professional test, but many owners report failures of the powered brushes or the motor, and several say it's noisy and hard to maneuver.

The Bissell ProHeat 2X Pet 9200P (Est. $220) scores well in one expert test, earning very good scores for cleaning, ease of use and drying. This carpet cleaner includes 10 rows of powered brushes and a built-in water heater. It also allows the user to adjust the amount of cleaning formula used. Owners say it cleans well and is easy to use on carpet, upholstery and hard floors, but it has weak suction and leaves the carpet wet.

The Bissell ProHeat 2X Healthy Home Deep Cleaning System 66Q4 (Est. $280) has 12 rows of brushes and a built-in water heater, in addition to a slightly wider than average 12-inch cleaning path and a 30-foot power cord. It comes with four attachments: a crevice tool, a powered brush, a stain removing tool and a stair tool. Customers say the ProHeat does a great job that's comparable to professional steam cleaning, although we found enough complaints about parts breaking to cause concern.

Finally, the Bissell ProHeat Deep Cleaning System 25A3 (Est. $150) does fairly well in professional tests, earning very good scores for cleaning and drying but mediocre scores for noise, coverage and ease of use. In addition, we read more user complaints of leaks and breakdowns for this model than for other Bissell cleaners. A noteworthy number of owners also report that the machine clogs very easily, and that the internal heating mechanism doesn't heat the water much.

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Hoover SteamVac Carpet Washer with Clean Surge, F5914900
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Hoover MaxExtract All-Terrain Carpet Cleaner, F7452900PC
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BISSELL Big Green Deep Cleaning Machine Professional Grade Carpet Cleaner, 86T3
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Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 Pet Pack
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Hoover Max Extract Dual V WidePath Carpet Cleaner, F7412900
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BISSELL PROheat 2X Pet Deep Cleaning System, Blue Illusion, 9200P
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BISSELL ProHeat 2X Healthy Home Full Sized Carpet Cleaner, 66Q4
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BISSELL ProHeat Full Sized Carpet Cleaner, 25A3
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