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Professionals and users agree on the best carpet cleaners

No matter how frequently you vacuum, carpets eventually show their age. But often, what we consider general wear is just a combination of stains and dirt ground into the carpet fibers. So before you replace that tired-looking carpet, you might consider a thorough cleaning in one of three ways: You could hire a professional carpet cleaning service, rent a carpet cleaning machine or buy your own.

Professional carpet cleaning services provide the best results, but are far and away the most expensive option. They also require you to clear the furniture from every room you want shampooed, not to mention adjust your schedule to suit the cleaners. If you'd rather do it yourself, most consumers report paying about $30 per day to rent a commercial carpet cleaner plus the cost of cleaning solution.

If the carpet cleaning is really a one-off event, hiring a professional service or doing it yourself makes sense. For best results, however, you should clean the carpet regularly. Experts say that if you clean frequently when the carpet is lightly soiled, you'll get much better results than if you wait until stains and dirt are old and set in.

Those frequent cleanings -- plus the convenience of being able to do one room at a time on your own schedule, or tackle spills immediately -- are when the cost of buying your own carpet cleaner starts to make sense. After all, if you pay $30 a pop to rent a carpet cleaner once every season, our best-reviewed upright carpet cleaner, the Hoover SteamVac with Clean Surge F5914-900 (Est. $140) (Est. $140), would pay for itself in a little more than a year.

If you need to deal with only occasional spots and stains as opposed to cleaning the entire carpet, you might prefer a compact, lightweight carpet cleaner. These models use the same techniques found in upright cleaners: They inject water and detergent into the carpet, scrub the dirt out with brushes, and then suck the dirt-and-water mixture back into the recovery tank. Most compact carpet cleaners tackle just one isolated spot at a time and some require you to scrub stains by hand, so they're not the best for cleaning large areas.

Compact models usually have weaker suction than upright models do, so your carpet may take longer to dry. Still, their small size and light weight make them easy to handle and store. Most owners say smaller cleaners do a great job of dealing with small problem areas, sometimes so much so that the cleaned spot stands out against the rest of the carpet, which you might not have realized was even dirty.

Water is a challenging companion

Although some carpet cleaners are clearly better than others, no machine is perfect. Candid user reviews posted on retail sites make it clear that even the highest-rated carpet cleaners are prone to leaks, clogs and mechanical problems.

In addition, although users report astonishingly good results with some carpet cleaners, there is a point at which some stubborn, old stains are just beyond help. That's another reason why it's best to have a carpet cleaner or spot cleaner tucked into the closet, waiting for your moment of need. To help you sort out the best carpet cleaners from the crowd, we evaluate several models and select those with the best performance, ease of use, features and durability.

Looking for steam cleaners or steam mops?

This report does not cover multipurpose steam cleaners, which look like canister vacuums but don't use suction and usually aren't meant for cleaning carpet. Instead, these machines use steam vapor to clean walls and other hard surfaces, and may sometimes be used to steam wrinkles out of garments or steam clean upholstery. If you want to clean only hard floors, a steam mop may be most useful.

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Hoover SteamVac Carpet Cleaner with Clean Surge, F5914900
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $179.99 $130.00   
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