What the best steam cleaner has
- A durable, rust-resistant boiler. Inexpensive steam cleaners have a plastic boiler, which doesn't heat as quickly and might be prone to cracking, leading to many of the durability issues we see in some vapor cleaners. For the best results, look for a stainless steel or aluminum boiler.
- A continuous-fill boiler. If your boiler isn't continuous-fill, you may have to wait as long as 15 to 30 minutes for it to cool down before you can add more water. Then you have to wait for the water to reheat, too, although that's usually a quicker process, about 8 minutes or so.
- A pressure gauge and safety cap. Hot steam can be dangerous. A pressure gauge lets you know when it's safe to remove the boiler cap, and when the unit is ready to get back to cleaning. A safety cap with a release valve lets steam escape before the cap is removed.
- A locking steam trigger with variable settings. Holding the steam button down gets old fast, especially when you're cleaning large areas, and not every job requires an intense blast of steam. If your steam trigger locks in place, you won't have to hold the button down constantly; meanwhile, variable controls let you fine-tune the pressure to keep from unnecessarily blowing dirt around or using more power than you need for lighter jobs.
- An extension hose and nozzles, plus a long cord. The best steam cleaners have long extension hoses and nozzles to help you clean hard-to-reach places, plus a long power cord that lets you move around freely.
- A good array of accessories. Most steam cleaners, even smaller, handheld models, come with enough accessories for a wide variety of jobs, such as metal-bristled brushes for cleaning grills, softer brushes for appliance walls and grout, squeegees for windows and tile, and floor mop or fabric steaming attachments.
Know before you go
How much cleaning to you need to do? The smallest, lightest handheld steam cleaners might provide as few as 10 minutes of continuous steam cleaning, while some canister models can keep going for more than an hour. If you have a lot of ground to cover, the largest canister models save you the time and frustration of constant refills. However, if you just need a few minutes of steam for removing stickers or cleaning around the bathroom faucet, a small, inexpensive vapor cleaner will do the job.
Do you have plenty of storage and maneuvering room? Canister steam cleaners have large reservoirs that sometimes make them awkward to maneuver, and even some of the best cleaners don't include a place to neatly store the cord, extension hose or the included accessories. Be sure you're aware of the total dimensions of the steam cleaner you're considering, so it has a place where it can be stowed away conveniently when it's not in use, and so it's not too big for you to comfortably handle.
Have you read the instructions? Hot steam can be dangerous, so always fully familiarize yourself with your steam cleaner's instructions before use. Some manufacturers provide instructional online videos to illustrate a steam cleaner's features. These can be very helpful if you're unsure of how to operate your new piece of equipment.
How to avoid buyer's remorse
Steam cleaners in general get lower ratings than we see with many other types of cleaners, and the reason for that is often unrealistic expectations. People are disappointed when a small, cheap steam cleaner won't do the job of a commercial-grade model, or they expect a commercial-grade model to completely restore materials that have been virtually destroyed by time and neglect. Small steam cleaners are for small jobs; larger, canister-style vapor cleaners are for bigger jobs -- but even those are not miracle workers.
Steam cleaners are best used for cleaning bathrooms, grills, appliances, grout and other things that otherwise would require quite a bit of sprayed-on chemicals plus elbow grease. Even though they usually include attachments to clean floors and de-wrinkle fabrics, they will not work as well at either of those jobs as a dedicated steam mop or garment steamer, both of which we cover in separate reports.