Versatile steam cleaners aren't just for floors
Often lauded as an effective chemical-free cleaning solution, steam cleaners can tackle some of the toughest household chores. Experts say this all-purpose cleaning appliance can be used on most hard surfaces, plus upholstery, mattresses and more around the home as well as the interior and exteriors of vehicles. These machines are also frequently used by allergy sufferers to kill dust mites and mold. Steam cleaners -- also called vapor cleaners or vapor systems -- employ internal boilers that heat water then release the resulting pressurized steam through a nozzle to naturally loosen dirt and grime. Because targeted areas are coated with a light mist, which dries quickly, suction isn't needed to remove excess water.
If you're looking for an appliance that that cleans just floors with steam, see our separate reports on carpet cleaners or steam mops. Carpet cleaners inject hot water combined with detergent into carpet fibers, and then use suction to collect the dirty fluid into a reservoir. Steam mops are similar to steam cleaners in that they heat water internally, but these upright devices are mostly used to clean hard floors.
Steam cleaners range from handheld devices that produce enough steam for about 10 minutes of continuous cleaning to larger wheel-mounted canisters capable of cleaning for an hour or more before their water reservoir needs to be refilled. In addition to cleaning time, these appliances differ in their amount of steam pressure, water temperature and cleaning attachments. Although more expensive models offer a wider array of attachments, most steam cleaners include an assortment of brushes for cleaning hard surfaces. Typical accessories include a squeegee tool for cleaning smooth surfaces, a brass brush for cleaning metal surfaces, and a wide nozzle with a cloth attachment for cleaning upholstery, mattresses and other fabrics. With the exception of handheld models, most steam cleaners typically come with two wand attachments to clean hard-to-reach areas.
For the most part, steam cleaners get little attention from professional reviewers. ConsumerReports.org has yet to test and rate these items, and we found very few other expert reviews. Steam cleaners are also often used by allergy sufferers, so we found some reviews at websites that specialize in allergy products. AllergyConsumerReview.com offers numerous articles about steam cleaners, and editors test several models that are sold on sister site AllergyBuyersClub.com. Testing involves using the steam cleaner on a variety of surfaces in the tester's own home, rather than a laboratory environment.
Consumer reviews at AllergyBuyersClub.com also serve as a solid supplement. Users rate the steam cleaner on quality, value, effectiveness and reliability. Plentiful owner-written reviews at online retailers like Amazon.com and Walmart.com are also helpful in illuminating how well steam cleaners perform in real-life cleaning tasks. HomeDepot.com, Target.com, Sylvane.com and Epinions.com also offer info, though they have far fewer owner reviews.
The serious side of steam
While steam cleaners have the ability to quickly loosen dirt and grime, they don't include suction. Instead, manufacturers recommend removing dirt by wiping steamed surfaces off with a clean cloth before they dry completely. Some owners say this process can be strenuous. Sanitizing with a steam cleaner can also be a slow process. Although all steam cleaners produce steam that's at least 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the required temperature to kill microorganisms), some manufacturers' instructions say to hold the nozzle a half-inch from the surface for at least five seconds. Depending on the size of the area, this can take some time.
Savvy shoppers should also be aware of the dangers of steam. Steam cleaners emit extremely hot vapor that should never be aimed at people, pets or plants. The attachments on these appliances can also become very hot and their reservoirs must cool down slightly before being safely refilled. Manufacturers also warn that the combination of high heat and moisture isn't safe to use on all surfaces. For example, the high heat and moisture can cause hardwood floors and other untreated 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 prior to use. Additionally, surfaces treated with oil, varnish or shellac can lose their sheen from steam cleaning.