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 highly portable, 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.
Handheld steam cleaners resemble water pitchers, with a carry handle and a small internal boiler and reservoir. They are the most portable type of steam cleaner. 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.
Choosing the right steam cleaner
There are no comparative professional reviews of steam cleaners, and, to be honest, they tend to be one of the lowest-rated products by owners that we see. However, you can't entirely blame the steam cleaner for that. Many people buy a handheld steam cleaner thinking they can use it to power-blast their grill or car engine -- or to steam fabric -- and they simply aren't made to do that. If you need a steam cleaner for a really heavy job, you'll need to buy or rent a canister-style or commercial-grade machine, both of which we discuss in this report. If you need to steam clothing, see our separate report on garment steamers.
With that in mind, we chose our recommended steam cleaners by carefully evaluating the reviews, discarding those that were based upon unrealistic expectations. Instead, we took into account those reviews that used the steam cleaner for its appropriate purpose, and reported on how well in performed on those jobs. We also took durability and warranty coverage into account when selecting the best steam cleaners.
Canister-style steam cleaners are effective multi-taskers
Full-sized steam cleaners are a great choice if you really want to deep clean your home or accomplish big cleaning jobs quickly and with as little hassle as possible. If you just need a vapor cleaner for small jobs, see our discussion of handheld steam cleaners elsewhere in this report.
The McCulloch MC1275 (Est. $140) earns top reviews from owners for its superior performance on a variety of tasks. We found plenty of satisfied customers using the McCulloch MC1275 to clean and sanitize everything from birdcages and barbecue grills to mattresses, windows and car interiors. Some even say the MC1275 produces enough heat to kill bedbugs, and that it makes wallpaper removal easy. The 48-ounce boiler offers about 45 minutes of continuous steam, but must cool down before refilling.
The MC1275 comes with a full range of attachments, including a triangle brush, small scrubbing brushes, squeegee, upholstery/floor brush and two extension wands. Unfortunately, durability for those attachments is a weak point, according to reviewers. One owner says the sponge scrubber fell apart after just 30 minutes, and others report brushes either melting from the heat or not lasting beyond the first job. The good news is that the McCulloch MC1275 is covered by a one-year warranty and customer service gets great reviews for replacing disintegrating accessories.
At just 9.95 pounds, the McCulloch MC1275 is one of the most lightweight, portable steam cleaners around, although some reviewers say it's a little cumbersome to wheel along, a common complaint with canister-style steam cleaners. Others wish there were somewhere to coil the nearly 10-foot steam hose and 15.7-inch power cord, and would prefer that the MC1275's onboard caddy could hold a few more of the included accessories.
We also spotted a lot of good reviews for the Steamfast SF-370WH (Est. $120). It's extremely versatile and is very popular for users who want a steam cleaner that also works well as a steam mop (although nothing works as well on floors as a dedicated steam mop, which we cover in a separate report). At 64 inches, the hose on the Steamfast is shorter than the hose on the McCulloch, but the Steamfast has a compartment with a cord wrap for storage.
In addition to the floor-mop attachments, the Steamfast SF-370WH includes a wide range of other accessories, including a corner tool, a number of brushes for various jobs, an extension wand and a squeegee. There is no onboard storage for the accessories, but overall, the Steamfast steam cleaner has a smaller footprint than the McCulloch MC1275, and owners say that makes it very easy to store. At 8.4 pounds, it is also slightly lighter than the MC1275.
The Steamfast SF370WH has a water capacity of 45 ounces and steams for approximately 45 minutes. Owners rave about how well the SF-370WH works on a variety of surfaces, and quite a few say it has completely renewed their old bath or shower, rendering tough stains almost invisible. The SF-370WH also gets raves from people who use it to clean their vehicles, although a few wish the hose was longer and, as we saw with the McCulloch, the accessories don't hold up well to hard usage.
The Wagner 915 (Est. $100) is a somewhat less expensive steam cleaner that reviewers say is a top performer even for tough jobs, and it seems extremely sturdy, too. It gets particularly good reviews for its ability to remove wallpaper with a minimum of effort using an included wallpaper steam plate. The Wagner 915 also includes a full range of accessories, like two extension wands, a squeegee, floor cleaning brush and jet nozzle. The hose is 8 feet long and the water reservoir holds 48 ounces. Users say it can steam for about an hour before needing to be refilled. The Wagner lacks some bells and whistles, like a water level indicator, and doesn't get the best reviews for heavier jobs like cleaning barbecue grills, but, overall, most say it is a great value for most household tasks.
Steam cleaners for your car will protect your automotive investment
One of the most popular uses for a steam cleaner is for those who want to keep their car sparkling clean without using chemicals. For that, we recommend the AutoRight SteamMachine, which users say does a terrific job on everything from wheels to upholstery -- it gets particular raves for how nicely it cleans up leather seats. The included attachments make it a suitable choice for a variety of tasks, including a jet nozzle that gets in between the seats and other hard-to-reach areas.
The AutoRight has a long, eight-foot cord and eight foot hose. The water heats to a maximum of 205 degrees. Although it's intended for use as a car steam cleaner, most of the owners who weigh in on this steam cleaner say it's also great for jobs around the house -- cleaning cabinets, grout and ceramic tile.
Commercial-grade steam cleaners are the top of the line
While most people can get by with a standard, fairly inexpensive canister-style vapor cleaner, those who suffer from allergies, or who have situations where sanitizing is very important -- like daycare owners -- a commercial-grade machine is almost a must.
The best of these heavy-duty steam cleaners is the Ladybug XL2300 with TANCS (Est. $2,000). It's pricey, but owners say you get what you pay for: The XL2300's massive 70-ounce stainless steel boiler produces a reliable stream of high-pressure steam that offers remarkable results. Users pepper review sites with positive comments about how sparkling it gets everything from grout to cement.
Others report that it does a great job of killing mold and dust mites, and can even wipe out old stains that owners had long ago resigned themselves to. Unlike lower-priced models, you can use ordinary tap water rather than distilled water and not have to worry about mineral buildup. The optional, proprietary TANCS (thermal accelerated nano crystal sanitation) technology converts the minerals in tap water into crystals that disrupt the cell membranes of microorganisms, so that it disinfects as it cleans. Combined with the Ladybug XL2300's high heat, this qualifies the Ladybug XL2300 as an EPA disinfectant.
If you'd rather buy the XL2300 without the TANCS option, the price decreases by about $265. Either way, this heavy-duty steam cleaner has a great durability record, including input from several shop owners who've put it to regular commercial use.
The Ladybug XL2300 rolls smoothly on its casters, making it easy to maneuver despite its 16-pound weight. The big boiler gives more than an hour of continuous steam cleaning, and the separate reservoir allows you to refill the Ladybug without waiting for it to cool down first. The XL2300 has a relatively short 6.5-foot steam hose but has a long, 15-foot power cord.
The only real gripe we found about this unit is that a few users feel that the steam trigger is awkwardly placed. But most say the controls and features -- including a pressure gauge and low-water indicators -- make the Ladybug XL2300 with TANCS very easy to use. Best of all, it comes with a lifetime boiler warranty that makes it easier to justify it as a long-term investment. The non-TANCS version has a three-year boiler warranty.
If you don't quite need the power of a commercial-grade steam cleaner, the WhiteWing Breeze Steam Cleaner (Est. $600) is a relatively frugal alternative in the high-end range. It's sold only at AllergyBuyersClub.com, and experts there give it very high ratings for steam quality, accessories, ability to maintain steam and pressure, and tank capacity as well as how long it can run before its tank needs to be refilled. Users agree, saying the WhiteWing is a high-quality machine that is easy to use and offers a deep, sanitizing cleaning.
The WhiteWing steamer weighs 9 pounds, and comes with pressure and low-water gauges, plus a pressure-release safety cap on its aluminum boiler. Both the Ladybug XL2300 and WhiteWing steamers offer a similar range of attachments such as brushes, nozzles, cloth towels and extension wands.
If money is no object, the Ladybug XL2300 with TANCS is hands down the very best steam cleaner; at less than half the cost, the WhiteWing Steamer is a reasonable alternative. But if either are overkill for your needs or simply out of your budget, the McCulloch MC1275 is the next best steam cleaner and will be sufficient for most households.
Elsewhere in this report:
Handheld/Portable Steam Cleaners | Buying Guide | Our Sources