If you have stained or dirty carpets in your home, you have three choices: Hire a professional carpet-cleaning service, rent a carpet-cleaning machine or buy your own.
We found three publications that have conducted detailed tests of carpet cleaners. ConsumerReports.org published a report on carpet cleaners in March 2010, its first in seven years. Although its tests are scientific and thorough, it reports the results only in a concise chart form, rating each carpet cleaner's overall score and its performance in such areas as cleaning, drying and ease of use. There is little analysis of each particular cleaner's pros and cons.
Good Housekeeping magazine, by contrast, offers a detailed description of each recommended model's pros and cons. However, it does not directly compare carpet cleaners to each other, and it does not provide any information about the units it tested that aren't recommended. U.K.-based Which? magazine offers the best of both worlds, providing both a numerical score and a detailed analysis for each carpet-cleaning machine in its tests. Unfortunately, none of its recommended models is available in the United States.
A few other reputable professional reviews exist for carpet cleaners and spot cleaners, but they don't provide any information about their testing methods or, in some cases, whether they conducted any tests at all. Two About.com channels discuss carpet cleaners and spot cleaners, but without formally rating or ranking models. Barbara Whiting, the former About.com guide to stay-at-home parents, recommends a handful of carpet cleaners without explaining how she came to choose them. Mariette Mifflin, the About.com guide to appliances, compares several Bissell ProHeat models on her site, but it's not clear whether she's personally tried each model or is basing her recommendations on features. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
To back up these professional sources, we turned to user reviews -- lots of them. Amazon.com has by far the largest collection of opinions, followed by Walmart.com, Viewpoints.com, Target.com, BestBuy.com and Epinions.com. Sears.com and HSN.com allow visitors to write reviews for carpet cleaners sold on those sites, but only a few individual cleaners have a significant number of reviews. Large home-improvement retailers, including Lowe's and Home Depot, aren't much help. We found few or no reviews for carpet cleaners on their websites.
Though we didn't find a large number of sources, we found consistency among the reviews used for our research. The carpet cleaners that did best in professional tests were generally favored by users as well. One exception is the smaller portable spot cleaners, such as Bissell's SpotBot Pet and Little Green, which weren't rated in professional comparison tests. To evaluate these portable cleaners, we had to rely on user reviews exclusively.
One other fact emerged from our research -- although some carpet cleaners are clearly better than others, no machine is perfect. On retail sites, we found that even the highest-rated carpet cleaners are often prone to problems, such as leaking, leaving carpets wet, and mechanical problems or breakdowns. And while advertising may lead shoppers to believe that carpet cleaners will leave carpets looking brand new, experts such as David Ristenbatt, a Pennsylvania-based vacuum repairman, say otherwise: "Hot water extractors work best when used to periodically clean carpets which are lightly soiled. Performance on a heavily soiled or stained carpet can be disappointing at best." Although users report very good results with many carpet cleaners, no machine consistently succeeded in removing all kinds of stains -- particularly those that had been in the carpet for a while.