Steam cleaners have burst onto the scene in the past few years as a healthy and "green" alternative to cleaning with chemicals, detergents, and other agents that can harm your body and our environment. Using only water, the steam cleaner models that we carry can be used to deep clean and sanitize throughout your home. This Steam Cleaner Buying Guide covers the basics of steam cleaners, how they work, the technology behind them, how they can help you obtain a healthier kind of clean, and which models and brands will best meet your healthy home needs.
If you are an allergy sufferer or you have children that suffer from allergies and chemical sensitivities, a steam cleaner is a healthy way to deep clean a variety of surfaces without aggravating allergy symptoms. You and your family can live healthier and breathe better by using a steam cleaner regularly. Aside from price and budget considerations, the next big decision you need to make is in selecting a style of steam cleaner. There are three basic styles available, and each are suited for different tasks and are available at different price points.
Steam Cleaner Buying Guide - Three Types of Steam Cleaners
As the most versatile type of steam cleaner, vapor steam cleaners generally provide longer run times and have more features to enhance the overall effectiveness of steam cleaning in your home. A large percentage of vapor steam cleaners have a similar body style as canister vacuum cleaners and move freely across all types of smooth flooring. All come with a variety of accessories that gives you the ability to clean and sanitize nearly any part of your home.
Steam Mops are lightweight and easy to use alternatives to canister style steam cleaners. Typically, steam mops, much life their name suggests, are primarily used on smooth flooring like tile, linoleum, sealed hardwood, and laminate flooring. If you have children, they can play on the floor without the worry of getting chemicals on their hands, in their mouth, or in their eyes. If you are looking for an economical way to keep your floors clean and sanitized, a steam mop is an ideal solution.
Handheld steam cleaners are a quick and easy way to steam surfaces throughout your home without the hassle of using a larger unit with longer heating times.
Though not ideally suited for floors, handheld vapor steam cleaners work well in bathrooms, kitchens, and in other areas where you want to quickly sanitize or clean. Without the tiresome work of scrubbing, these steam cleaners can remove mildew, grit, and deposits left over from hard water in your bathroom. With the right attachment these steam cleaners can release wrinkles from your clothing, and conveniently sanitize high use areas that are often overlooked, like the doorknobs or sink handles.
These vapor steam cleaners use about 5-10% of the water in the steam, so most surfaces are completely dry within minutes of cleaning. You might also see this cleaning system called "dry" steam cleaning since it leaves behind so little moisture.
Residential units heat water up to temperatures between 150° and 300° Fahrenheit (66-149° Celsius). For example, Reliable steam cleaners typically have a steam tip temperature of 245° F. The hot steam kills dust mites, mold, mildew, viruses, and other allergens on contact as well as loosening most dirt and grime. For heavy soil, you may need to pre-treat with a natural surfactant or cleaner. The steam begins to evaporate almost as soon as it is on the surface so you will not be left with soaking wet floors, counters, windows and carpets.
Steam cleaners will loosen dirt and baked-on mess. Some steam cleaners come with towels or bonnets that attach to the cleaning head that help retain the steam heat and absorb loosened soil while cleaning. When steaming carpets or upholstered furniture, wait until the surface is dry (about 15 minutes) and then vacuum with a HEPA vacuum cleaner to pick up all the dead dust mites and other dirt the steam cleaner loosened and pulled to the surface.
Vapor steam cleaning can be used on almost any hard or soft surface including: hardwood floors, counter tops, bathrooms, windows, grout, tile, upholstered furniture, curtains, bed spreads, auto interiors, and even stuffed animals. Most steam vapor cleaners come with a variety of attachments for different types of cleaning jobs.
Advantages of Steam Cleaning
Steam cleaners do not use detergent - just the power of steam to clean. Steam cleaners work so well because the heat from the steam emulsifies the dirt and then the hot towel absorbs the soil.
Steam cleaning will definitely help with controlling dust mites. Dust mites die at 130° F and the steam at the tip of most cleaners is usually over 200°. Steam cleaning does not prevent dust mites from coming back, so for consistent results you should consider steam cleaning your mattress about every 8 weeks.
Origins of Steam Cleaners
Steam cleaner technology was originally developed in Italy about 15-20 years ago from the same heating technology found in espresso coffee machines. This is also why some of the best steam cleaner brands available are Italian made!
Residential units heat water up by using an internal boiler system. Ladybug, Reliable, and Vapamore all use a boiler method of creating steam for their cleaners. Take care to note that when considering a steam cleaner, make sure the boiler tank is stainless steel. Stainless steel boilers are more resistant to corrosion and far surpass other metal boilers.
A newer way to heat the water is by using a "flash" heating method. Tankless water heaters have used this style of heating for years, and some steam cleaner manufacturers, like Soniclean steam mops, have adopted a similar method for creating steam water vapor. Though this is found in smaller units, flash heating can still heat water to the temperatures necessary to kill microorganisms and effectively sanitize throughout the home.
Steam Cleaners vs. Carpet Cleaners
You may have used or rented a commercial "steam cleaner" to clean your carpets. The type of commercial grade carpet cleaner that is most commonly rented or hired out is not a vapor steam cleaner like those we've been discussing. It is actually a hot water extraction machine. Hot water extractors use a combination of hot water and detergent to clean carpets and other fabric surfaces.
In the process the carpeted surface is soaked or flooded with water and detergent. Then it is sucked back up, much like a wet/dry vac. As much as 10-15% of the water can be left behind, and this can takes hours or even days to dry.
Warm, wet conditions like these are the ideal environment for molds and mildews to form, potentially making your situation worse than before you started. This underscores the inherent difference in cleaning for appearances and cleaning for health. Most of us too often clean only for appearances but do little to actually deep clean or sanitize our home. Using a hot water extractor will indeed make your carpets look better, but they cannot give you the deep, healthy clean that only a true steam cleaner can provide.
Best Practice when Steam Cleaning Carpets
If you are using vapor steam cleaning on carpet, follow with a HEPA vacuum cleaner after it is dry to remove the waste that the vapor steam cleaner loosened and released during cleaning. Most steam cleaners have no method, other than cloths or bonnets, to extract debris.
Once soil is effectively loosened, a quality HEPA vacuum cleaner can put the finishing touches on your carpeted floor. On hard surfaces, the steam vapor dries in as soon as a few seconds to a couple minutes. We recommend that you experiment a bit with your steam cleaning. Steam cleaning is a new way to clean for most of us, and it can take some time, as well as a little trial and error, to find the right combination of steam and accessories to clean your specific surface.
Steam Cleaning and Allergies
There are submicron particles such as dust mites, dust mite waste, pollen, dander, and other allergens and irritants trapped inside the pores of flooring and other hard-to-reach places of your home. Surface cleaners cannot extract these and many cleaners cannot effectively neutralize and sanitize without a certain period of dwell time (time for the cleaner to soak).
However, vapor steam cleaners can pull and loosen debris and allergens, even those deep in the pores of even the hardest surfaces. The hot steam penetrates and loosens or removes this soil through a process of "heat transfer." Much in the way extremely hot water can loosen baked on debris in pans, so to does powerful steam lift debris without the use of detergents or cleaners.As highlighted above, hot steam is lethal to dust mites. Tiny organisms such as dust mites and even mold have very little to protect themselves from high temperatures. Dust mites absorb moisture and warmth directly through their skin, so high temperatures kills them instantly.
The cell walls of most microorganisms aren't strong enough to withstand extremely high temperatures, BUT there is a reason why microscopic life is some of the most durable and earliest forms of life. Some types of mold, bacteria and viruses will are naturally more resistant or reside under a protective "biofilm."
To address this, Advanced Vapor Technologies developed the Ladybug steam cleaners with TANCS. This system goes beyond heat and actually crystallizes naturally occurring minerals in tap water. These crystals, combined with the steam vapor work together to kill resistant microorganisms. The crystals penetrate biofilms, weaken cell walls and give the heat a better chance to actually kill heat resistant microbes.
For allergy and asthma sufferers, effectively removing or neutralizing allergens can be a big relief, and steam cleaning is a safer and healthier way to accomplish this.
Additionally, steam cleaners can kill bed bugs and help rid a home of bed bugs. While you will be very unlikely to actually see a bed bug out in the open during the daylight hours, if you know where to look, you can find them. The steam is hot enough that the heat will kill bed bugs, their larvae and eggs. Finding them is often the most difficult part, but once you do, disposing of them is easy.
Why Steam Cleaning Is Better Than Detergents & Chemicals
Cleaning with detergents and bleach has several disadvantages, including fumes and chemical vapors, hazardous residues, chemical burns and irritation as well as disposal of potentially harmful product. By eliminating them, you can go a long way in improving your health. The use of an effective home steam cleaner means no corrosive bleach, ammonia, or lye but instead, only water and heat. By eliminating these chemicals, allergy, asthma and MCS sufferers reduce their exposure to these chemical irritants.
Steam cleaners provide an advantage in that they use no chemicals and can actually remove chemical residue left behind from previous cleanings. Additionally, detergents only clean the surface, and all surfaces, hard and soft alike, are porous. Superheated steam actually penetrates these pores, deep cleans and sanitizes by using heat transfer.Another huge advantage of vapor steam cleaning is that the hot steam vapor is naturally sanitizing without using any chemicals. The vapor destroys many mold spores, germs, viruses, dust mites, and bacteria. It can be like a magical weapon in the war against germs when used in kitchens and bathrooms.
There are times when you will need to pre-treat with a surface cleaner, we recommend using a natural one before using the steam cleaner if there is heavy soil present. The steam will boost the effectiveness of the cleaner, and natural surfactants leave less residue and generally lack the chemicals you are trying to avoid.
Steam Cleaners - Important Features
The four primary features/functions to concentrate on when researching your new steam cleaner are continuous water refill, heat up time, steam pressure, and the steam volume control. These four features really separate the great machines from the entry level steam cleaners.
- Continuous Refill
The continuous water refill feature means that you can add water to the unit while you are in the middle of your steam cleaning job. These systems have two tanks, a reservoir for cold water and a boiler that actually converts the water to steam.
Without the reservoir, boiler style steam cleaners have to reheat before you can resume cleaning. Continuous fill steam cleaners push cold water from the reservoir to the boiler for heating, and when the reservoir is empty an indicator light or audible alert lets you know it's time to refill. Once you refilled, you can go right back to steam cleaning without any wait time since while you fill, the boiler retained the heat and water it had inside of it. For commercial use, the water refill option is a necessity.
- Heat-Up Time
Water heat-up time is another important feature. Most of the steam cleaner models that we offer heat up within 7-15 minutes. Some of the more advanced units can heat up the water in about five minutes. A faster heat-up time means that you can tackle your cleaning job quicker and you can use your steam cleaner more often.
In reality, a few minutes here or there doesn't seem like much, but most people are so pressed for time and impatient that anything that delays their goal can lead to many people not even trying to begin with. Besides, you won't find many people are going to volunteer waiting time to clean or sanitize their home. Just remember to wait for the steam ready light on your machine to tell you when the steam is at the optimal temperature and pressure to clean. Be patient and you will find better performance results.
- Steam Pressure
Other features that are important have to do with the steam pressure generated by steam cleaners. There is a common misunderstanding about steam cleaners, and too many people equate a higher steam pressure with better performance. While a higher pressure does lend itself to a better quality steam, higher pressure is... highly overrated (bad pun, we know).
No, what is most important is consistent pressure. Pressure and heat inside the boiler work together to create steam. The higher the pressure, the quicker steam will be produced. Consistent pressure means consistent performance, both in terms of steam production and volume of steam available at the point of cleaning (the tip/nozzle/tool).
If the pressure swings wildly then you can expect the quality of steam being produced by your unit to vary widely as well. Better models come standard with a steam pressure gauge for you to ensure that your steam cleaner is maintaining a good, steady pressure. Besides, the boilers in steam cleaners are really low pressure boilers. So remember, a steam cleaner isn't a pressure washer. Consistency is the key.
- Steam Volume Control
Most models have steam volume control on the handle, and this feature lends itself to a quicker and easier transition when steam cleaning across a variety of surfaces. The ability to control the steam volume indirectly gives you control over several things including the amount of steam coming out and the amount of moisture that will ultimately be left behind. This is a convenient feature that adds to the overall ease of use.
Steam Cleaner Operation and Maintenance
Operating a steam cleaner is not difficult, but there are some safety precautions and sound advice to keep in mind before you get started. You should always read the owner's manual carefully before using one of these machines. The hot steam that is released can cause damage to items and injury. Depending on the steam cleaner model that you purchased, the steam temperature can be anywhere from 230 - 320° F.
If you have a doubt about cleaning a type of fabric, you should do a test in an inconspicuous area. Be careful when you are filling with water. You do not want to overfill the boiler or soak the electrical parts of the steam cleaner.
Some units are designed so that should you overfill them, the water simply rolls off the exterior on the unit, but be sure to use the included fill cups whenever possible. Never clean electronic appliances with steam, as this could be a safety hazard. Lastly, never put detergents, perfumes, or any other chemicals in the water tank.
*Please note that when the steam generator heats up on these units, there is air that is trapped inside the unit. When the steam ready light comes on, you must release this air from the tip for a few seconds before the steam can flow from the steam tip. Doing this also drains away any water that may have cooled in the lines since your last use, and in some cases, any leftover moisture that may be left from when the unit was quality control tested before leaving the manufacturer. Always wait for the steam ready light for most effective use.
Maintaining your steam cleaner is a fairly easy process. Always switch off and unplug the steam cleaner before doing anything to the unit. Every three months or after 15 uses, it is a good idea to drain the boiler unit of any water. This advice is recommended for nearly all canister style steam cleaners. For less expensive steam mops, you should drain the tank(s) and allow them to dry after each use. You never want to store your steam cleaner in a cold place that is likely to freeze or expose the unit to cold temperatures for long periods of time.
Occasionally, mineral scale can build up inside the boiler system. Some steam cleaners have built-in methods for eliminating or removing scale (like the Ladybug steamers with TANCS) but in less expensive models this is rarely the case. So what can be done to remove scale is to flush the system with a mixture of water and baking soda. More on this can be found on our steam cleaner maintenance page.
Lastly, stick with regular tap water. It's generally the least expensive and descaling costs little. If your water is particularly hard (has a lot of mineral content), you can mix your tap water with 50% distilled water to reduce the overall mineral content. We recommend that you avoid softened water and here is why: Traditional water softeners use ionized salt to remove/replace minerals found in hard water. Over time, the sodium (salt) from water softeners can damage the boiler system and internal components, shortening the lifespan of your steam cleaner.
Here are some quick troubleshooting tips to go through before calling the manufacturer for help:
- Is there electricity supplied to the steam generator? Check the outlet with another appliance.
- Is the steam generator "ON" switch on and the light on?
- Is the steam ready light "ON" and/or is the beeper sounding?
- Is the no water light blinking because the tank is out of water?
- Is the pressure gauge showing a "ready" indicator?
- Is the flexible hose and the cleaning attachment correctly connected?
Steam Cleaner Buying Guide - Other Considerations
Like all appliances, different steam cleaners use different amounts of energy for operation. Typical steam cleaners can use anywhere from 1000 to 1800 watts. (For comparison sake, a typical lamp uses about 60 watts, while a typical computer uses about 365 watts). Wattage will vary widely depending on the heating system employed (boiler vs. flash) and the number of heating elements used in the boiler style systems.
All of our steam cleaners are relatively quiet, but they are going to make some noise. Most of these units use technology and quality components to keep the noise level to a bare minimum. The steam pressure coming out of the tip of the steam gun will sometimes make noise as the pressure is released, but aside from this all units are much quieter than any vacuum.
Easy to Use
Most steam cleaners are designed to be very user-friendly. They have very few moving parts that need maintenance. Almost all of these machines come on casters (wheels) and are relatively light for better mobility.
For example, Ladybug Steam Cleaners feature fingertip controls, a flexible hose, low water light and noise indicators, a pressure gauge, and a splash-proof design. These same features can also be found in several of the Reliable steam cleaners we carry as well.
Look for these steam cleaner features that will make your cleaning regimen easier and faster:
- Fast heat-up time
- Continuous water refill ability
- Steam pressure control on the handle
- PSI - steam pressure gauge
- Boiler tank capacity
- Quality accessory kit
Residential steam cleaners are still a relatively new product in the U.S. marketplace. Like any other home appliance (ie. dehumidifier or air purifier), some steam cleaner manufacturers make a better product than others. A manufacturer's reputation and the experiences of past customers deserve consideration in your decision. You should pay careful attention to product reviews and Achoo reviews that are posted by AchooAllergy.com staff members.
Certain manufacturers and products are highly respected in the industry for a reason. The same sentiment goes for products which have garnered less respect. So whether it is a review or award issued by a nationally recognized magazine or simply an excellent review from someone just like you, it pays to do your research before buying a steam cleaner.
In general, we recommend looking for Italian or European made units. Often inexpensive Asian manufactured steam cleaners use less durable plastic for the shell and inferior internal components. Reliable has more recently taken the approach of sourced different components for some machines in a variety of places. This can result in things like the shell and assembly taking place in East Asia while the internal circuitry and boiler were actually made in Europe or the U.S. (a middle ground approach) So yes, while you can certainly find a $100 steam cleaner, don't expect the same performance or longevity as one that is Italian made or 3X the cost. Keep this truism in mind - you get what you pay for.
For each steam cleaner, a warranty is listed at the bottom of the product page. Almost all of our steam cleaners come with a one year limited warranty on the parts. A one year warranty is the industry standard. However, most of the boilers on these units are made of stainless steel. The boiler warranties can range anywhere from 3 years to 8 years depending on the steam cleaner model. Most recently, Reliable boilers have been upgraded to a full Limited Lifetime Warranty. When researching the warranty, take into account what the warranty covers - parts, boiler, steam tank, the outer shell? Warranties are your insurance policy against defect and malfunction, so it is prudent to take these into account when choosing a steam cleaner for your home. Most of the steam cleaners that we sell can be returned and fixed by the manufacturer.
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