Choosing a Carpet Cleaner
There are few cleaning tools that save as much time, money, and aggravation as a carpet cleaner. While you can hire a pro or rent a machine, most carpet cleaners cost less than one visit by a professional, and every carpet cleaner in this report gets very positive reviews from both experts and consumers. We've also identified some other top steam-cleaning appliances — steam mops for floors and steam cleaners for grout and tile — so you can deep-clean the rest of your home, as well.
Full-Size Carpet CleanersThis type of carpet cleaner looks much like an upright vacuum with a water tank. Some have separate tanks that mix the cleaning solution with water before spraying it on the carpet; others require the user to mix the water and solution and then add it to the reservoir. Clean water is squirted from the tank onto the carpet, a brush mechanism scrubs the area as you push it over the carpet, and then the machine extracts the excess water, which goes into a separate tank for dirty water. Full-size carpet cleaners can handle bigger jobs, like heavily trafficked areas or big spills. Some full-size carpet cleaners are behemoths — the professional-grade Bissell Big Green weighs about 40 pounds — but they also get carpet as deeply clean as a professional job. However, for most people, a smaller, lighter, full-size carpet shampooer like our top pick is more than adequate.
Portable Carpet CleanersAlso known as spot carpet cleaners, portable carpet cleaners operate much like their bigger siblings, although they're easier to store than a full-size carpet cleaner. They have one tank for clean water, one for dirty. A hose with a brush attachment and nozzle squirts the water, which you manually scrub, and the suction function extracts the excess water. A portable carpet cleaner is a great choice if you need to deal with only occasional barf bouts, small pet accidents, or fairly minor spills. This type of portable cleaner is also a good choice for cleaning upholstery or car seats. Of course, a portable carpet cleaner isn't suitable for very large spills or entire carpets; you would wear out your knees before the job was done.
Steam MopsA possible companion to a carpet cleaner, or an alternative for a home with mostly hard floors, a steam mop cleans and sanitizes by using heated water to create steam and loosen dirt. Pads attached to the cleaning head wipe up the damp grime, leaving floors very clean. However, be warned: You can't use a steam mop on all floors. Steam mops can damage many hardwood and laminate floors, and using one may void your warranty. Most tile floors and many types of linoleum can hold up to the heat. Regardless, always check your floor's warranty before buying a steam mop, and always test it in an out-of-the-way area before tackling the entire floor.
Steam CleanersLarge steam cleaners resemble canister vacuums with handheld steam nozzles. The handheld versions resemble water pitchers — you fill them with water and attach the lid, and steam comes out of the spout. Both types, also known as vapor cleaners, produce jets of steam for loosening dried-on grime, soap scum, grease, and general crud from tile, grout, and items like grills. Pet owners say they even neutralize pet odors on hard surfaces, and many parents (and day care operators) appreciate being able to use them to clean toys. Some larger steam cleaners come with attachments to clean other items, such as floors or upholstery, or to steam fabrics. In general, though, experts and users say that cleaning tools dedicated to those specific tasks do a better job overall. As with a steam mop, it's important to be sure the surface you want to clean can hold up to superheated vapor. Testing in an out-of-the way area is always a good idea.
Pricey vs. Cheap Carpet CleanersUpright carpet cleaners are surprisingly affordable; even very highly rated ones come in around $130 or less. All have two separate water tanks and include at least a starter bottle of carpet cleaning detergent. Those at the upper end of the range often include a few attachments, as well, such as different types of brushes or nozzles to clean upholstery, stairs, and other areas where an upright cleaner otherwise wouldn't be practical. A select few feature a separate detergent tank and a rinse setting, so you don't have to pre-mix cleaning solution or refill the tank with clean water.
More expensive carpet cleaners have additional features that make cleaning easier, such as multiple cleaning modes and powerful suction to remove excess water so carpets dry faster. Other nice-to-have extras include a self-heating reservoir (most carpet cleaners must be filled with water that's already hot) and a sprayer to pre-treat tough spots. However, these models can cost upward of $250, with professional-grade cleaners edging toward $400.
Steam mops, which deep-clean hard floors, generally cost less than $80. They're pretty simple and generally come with one or more reusable cleaning pads. Some manufacturers make steam mops that also vacuum, but they tend to get very poor reviews for the latter feature so probably aren't worth the premium price (usually around $100 more).
Steam cleaners have the broadest price range in this category, with small, handheld steam cleaners starting at around $30 and the priciest, commercial-grade cleaners topping out at $2,000 or more. Most people don't need that level of steam cleaning, so the priciest one we recommend is less than $150 and should be powerful enough for the average home steaming task.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Carpet Cleaner Reviews: What We Considered
Carpet cleaners are reviewed extensively by several expert sites, including Consumer Reports, Reviews.com, and Top Ten Reviews. All three make their picks based on hands-on testing. In an older report, Wirecutter tests and recommends two portable carpet and upholstery cleaners. Although one has been discontinued, the top recommendation, the Bissell SpotClean Pro, is still available and still very highly rated in more recent reviews. Wirecutter also tests steam mops, as do Top Ten Reviews and the home product review site Your Best Digs. We also consulted owner reviews on major retail sites like Amazon and Walmart, where the best carpet cleaners get tens of thousands of ratings that exceed 4 stars.
There are no expert reviews for steam cleaners, so we relied heavily on user reviews for those recommendations. One thing we noticed with steam cleaners: They have lower owner satisfaction ratings overall, mostly because people have unrealistic expectations. An underpowered handheld steam cleaner can't blast years' worth of built-up grease off a grill or clean deeply embedded mold off brick walls.
In addition to cleaning performance, we also considered features, ease of use, and durability in making our picks.