Versatile steam cleaners aren't just for floors
Steam cleaners can tackle some of the toughest cleaning chores. They heat water internally, then release a jet of hot, pressurized steam on demand, loosening old dirt, grime and soap scum. They can be used on most hard surfaces including windows, walls and some hardwood floors as long as the wood is sealed, plus some soft surfaces such as upholstery, mattresses, drapes and vehicle interiors. They are particularly popular for deep-cleaning tough areas like bathroom grout.
Steam cleaners are popular with allergy sufferers to kill dust mites and mold. Some owners even say they effectively kill bedbugs. Targeted areas are coated with a light mist that usually dries quickly, so no suction is needed to remove excess water. Pair that with a deep clean that leaves most surfaces looking brand new, and it's little surprise that most owners love their steam cleaners -- once they find one that works well, that is.
Finding a steam cleaner that gives professional results can come at a price of $600 or more. In fact, our best-reviewed model, the Ladybug XL2300 with the optional TANCS (thermal accelerated nano crystal sanitation) feature, costs a hefty $1,825. Allergy sufferers and those in search of a commercial steam cleaner say it's well worth the price, though; the XL2300 is recognized as an EPA disinfectant and can greatly reduce allergens.
Top-end steam cleaners include user-friendly features. The best of them have 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. 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'll come with an array of typical 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.
Some steam cleaners are handy to have around just for occasional cleaning jobs. For lighter duty tasks, most people find that a model costing between $100 and $200 works just fine. These bargain-priced cleaners still provide good performance -- especially taking the price into account -- as long as you're willing to occasionally 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.
Canister steam cleaners usually hold enough water to produce 45 minutes or more of continuous steam. That's enough to clean most houses, especially if you work in sections with a brief pause in between. If you only want to steam-clean small areas like a single room, or use your steam cleaner to remove old stickers or detail a car, a handheld model may be appropriate.
Some handheld steam cleaners resemble water pitchers, with a carry handle and a small internal boiler and reservoir. 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 cleaners.
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.
ConsumerSearch editors analyzed more than a dozen steam cleaners, ultimately selecting the top three models in each category. The most important factors are performance and ease of use -- because if your steam cleaner doesn't perform well or feels cumbersome to use, it eventually ends up collecting dust in a closet. We also took features, durability and warranty coverage into account when selecting the best handheld and canister steam cleaners.