Steam cleaners can save you a lot of scrubbing
Steam cleaners can make your toughest cleaning chores a whole lot easier. They heat water internally, then release a jet of hot, pressurized steam on demand, loosening old dirt, grime, grease and soap scum, which you then wipe away -- although some cleaners even have sponges or pads that do the wiping for you. Vapor cleaners can be used on most hard surfaces including tile, windows, walls, grills and some hardwood floors (as long as the wood is sealed), plus some soft surfaces such as upholstery, mattresses, drapes and vehicle interiors. Steam cleaners are particularly popular for deep-cleaning challenging areas like bathroom grout, and pet owners say they can neutralize urine odors.
Allergy sufferers love steam cleaners because they kill dust mites and mold. Some can even kill bedbugs. Targeted areas are coated with a hot mist that usually dries quickly, so no suction is needed to remove excess water. Many users say they feel as if their home has been refreshed to a nearly new state after a deep cleaning with a vapor cleaner.
The best steam cleaners include user-friendly features, such as variable steam controls, pressure gauges and locking "on" triggers to make them easier to use. Continuous-fill, rust-resistant stainless steel or aluminum boilers that don't have to cool down before being refilled are another nice option for a steam cleaner to have. If you have allergies or plan to use your steam cleaner frequently, a high-end model will eventually pay for itself through superior durability and performance. No matter what size or type of steam cleaner you get, it should come with an array of useful attachments: extension wands, nylon and brass scrubbing brushes, a fabric attachment, a squeegee for cleaning glass or other hard surfaces, and sometimes a floor-cleaning attachment are among what's typically found. However, the attachments on most steam cleaners get relatively poor reviews for durability on heavier jobs, like cleaning grills.
Steam cleaners aren't appropriate for all surfaces. The high heat and moisture can cause untreated hardwood floors and other wood to swell, cold glass to crack, and soft plastic and painted surfaces to scratch or melt -- so check to see if your cleaning target is appropriate before use. Additionally, surfaces treated with oil, varnish or shellac can lose their sheen from steam cleaning. If you want a deep cleaner specifically for carpeting or hard floors, see our reports on carpet cleaners and steam mops. Some steam cleaners can be used as fabric or garment steamers, as well, but if you primarily want to steam clothing, you're better off with a dedicated clothes steamer. In that case, see our report on garment steamers.
Types of steam cleaners
Canister steam cleaners are the most common type. They generally hold enough water to produce about 45 minutes or more of continuous steam, which most say is plenty of time for all but the largest cleaning jobs. These vapor cleaners tend to be very easy to use and quite affordable, usually between $100 and $150. Canister vapor cleaners can be heavy when full of water, but most have wheels to make them easier to pull around.
Portable steam cleaners are handy to have around for occasional cleaning jobs. They're smaller and lighter than full-sized canister models, but still provide good performance -- especially taking the price into account. You might need to contribute some elbow grease to the cause, scrubbing away grime that the steam cleaner loosens up. You'll also have to put up with a few quirks or absent features such as a short warranty, no steam-ready light, no continuous-fill boiler, and so on. However, like full-size cleaners, portable vapor cleaners usually include a good range of attachments.
Handheld steam cleaners resemble water pitchers, with a carry handle and a small internal boiler and reservoir. If you only want to steam-clean limited areas like a small bathroom, or use your steam cleaner to remove old stickers or detail a car, a handheld model may be appropriate. You can use handheld steam cleaners on the same surfaces you'd target with a larger steam cleaner, but they provide only 10 to 15 minutes of continuous steam. In general, performance reviews for handheld cleaners are more mixed than those for canister-style cleaners.
Commercial-grade steam cleaners are pricey, but many owners say they're worth every penny. They're very powerful, killing mold, bacteria and bedbugs, and are a particularly good choice for those who need a vapor cleaner to help control allergens. These steam cleaners usually have longer run time of an hour or more, and high-end features to make them super simple to use.
How we found the best steam cleaners
There are no comparative professional reviews of steam cleaners, so we carefully analyzed thousands of owner reviews we analyzed at retail sites, such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and AllergyBuyersClub.com, to name just a few. These user reviews give a thorough overview of how each vapor cleaner operates in real-world, long-term use. In evaluating these reviews, we consider features, performance and ease of use. We also took durability and warranty coverage into account when selecting the best steam cleaners.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Steam Cleaners: Full-sized, canister-style steam cleaners can handle even the toughest jobs; while commercial-grade vapor cleaners will scrub and sanitize. Reviews say that these are the best steam cleaners overall.
Handheld and Portable Steam Cleaners: For small, yet challenging, jobs, a handheld steam cleaner will be your best friend. Portable vapor cleaners are great for cleaning cars or for travel. These are the best choices.
Buying Guide: There are many options when it comes to steam cleaners. Our buying guide will help direct you in choosing the perfect vapor cleaner for your needs.
Our Sources: These are the expert and user tests, comparisons and reviews we used to determine the best steam cleaners. They are ranked in order of their credibility and usefulness.