The best carpet cleaner has

  • A large tank. A carpet cleaner with a large tank requires fewer refills, but all that water makes the machine heavier and harder to push around. The exact sweet spot depends on your personal tolerance for pushing a heavy, water-laden carpet cleaner around.
  • Extra tools and attachments. Most upright carpet cleaners and some compact models come with an extension hose and handheld attachment for cleaning upholstery, stairs and narrow places.
  • Powered brushes to scrub out dirt. Reviewers almost universally agree that carpet cleaners with powered brushes do a better job of scrubbing dirt from carpet fibers. The alternative is scrubbing at the stains with a manual attachment.
  • Powerful suction. If your carpet cleaner can't retrieve all that water it just sprayed on the carpet, your floors will take a long time to dry and they'll probably still have some dirt mixed in with that water, too.
  • A long cord. The longer the cord, the larger the area you can clean without having to stop and fuss with the cord. The best carpet cleaners we reviewed have at least a 15-foot cord and often quite a bit longer.
  • A long warranty. In the world of consumer carpet cleaners, a one-year warranty is about as good as it gets. Once you upgrade to a commercial carpet cleaner -- the type you can rent at a grocery or hardware store, which typically costs $400 or more -- you should get a five-year warranty.

Know before you go

Do you plan to clean hard floors, too? If so, you may need to purchase an additional hard-floor attachment for your carpet cleaner. Or, see our report on steam mops.

Which convenience features are most important to you? You can get by without an internal water heater, indicator lights and automatic shutoff when the recovery tank is full, but all of these features make your carpet cleaning experience easier. Put some thought into which you're willing to pay for, as they may raise the cost substantially.

Are you okay with commercial cleaning solutions? The commercial cleaning solutions most manufacturers recommend can be pricey. Costs vary, but most start at about $20 for a 64-ounce bottle. Some owners dodge the cost and concerns about chemicals by using homemade cleaning solutions, but this may void the manufacturer's warranty; check the fine print.

How close are you to a service center? If you need warranty service on your carpet cleaner, some companies require that you take it to the nearest service center, then leave it for repairs. Some frustrated owners report having to repeat a round trip of up to 100 miles to collect their repaired appliance.

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