Steam cleaners are a relatively new home appliance here in the United States. Founded in Italy, they have been in wide use throughout Europe for decades, but steam cleaners have only began making headway in the U.S. around the turn of the century. And while this new technology features some very old principles, steam cleaning has been shown to be a safe and effective way to clean and sanitize your home. For those who are new to the concept, we'll take you through the basic principles behind it and briefly outline why steam cleaning is particularly beneficial to asthma, allergy and MCS sufferers.
How Steam Cleaners Work
Most basically, steam cleaning is the use of super-heated water vapor to clean and sanitize. Though we say "clean", the real emphasis is on sanitize.
While most steam cleaners do clean, by removing grease, grime and even odors, none of those things individually make you sick. So more than clean, steam cleaners sanitize by destroying germs, bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that are often just spread around with traditional cleaners and rags. Many have the ability to penetrate and destroy harmful biofilms (hard organic coatings that protect colonies of bacteria and harmful pathogens).
Steam cleaners can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but there are basically 3 styles that are most common today.
- Very basic and primarily built simply for flooring, a steam mop, is generally very inexpensive but many lack durability and most are not very versatile.
- The next type of steam cleaners are hand steamers only. They generally have short run times, but most have enough included accessories to handle small jobs quickly.
- The largest group of steam cleaners are canister style steam cleaners. These closely resemble canister vacuum cleaners, and generally come with an array of attachments. Longer run times and a versatility that makes them excellent, all around cleaning appliances
Regardless of which style you select, nearly all operate on the same principles.
Mechanism Behind Steam Cleaning
Once a steam cleaner is filled, the water is heated to well over 200° F. Most steam cleaners use a small internal boiler while others use a system similar to that of a tankless hot water heater (flash heating).
This steam is then sprayed out through a variety of attachments or floor tools. As the attachment passes over the surface you are cleaning, the heat and steam vapor work to loosen and remove soil, even grime and grit that is deep within the surface. The process of "heat transfer" is the active agent in this cleaning method. The heat literally extracts germs, odor molecules and other debris that is lodged in the pores of any surface.
With most steam cleaners, there is a bonnet or towel that you will use over the floor tool or attachment. These are often very basic terry cloths or microfiber towels that help trap the steam as it comes out the nozzle. By trapping the heat, instead of letting it dissipate, the towel allows the heat to better do it's job and lift grime. The towel also works to capture and retain any excess moisture or debris and mess that is loosened by the steam. Any moisture that remains evaporates. Included accessories generally work to loosen grime and soil from specific surfaces or give you the ability to clean a wider variety of surfaces, like your windows, tile grout and oven.
Prices, temperatures and features will vary according to the style and manufacturer of a particle model. None employ any sort of cleaners, detergents or soaps as those things can damage the internal workings of steam cleaners and often leave residue which defeat the purpose of cleaning with steam. While selecting a steam cleaner you will want to weigh several factors before you buy, including price, brand reputation, type of use, frequency of expected use, durability and usability. Some offer special features that make them unique, but all should provide you with some very fundamental health benefits.
Health Benefits of Steam Cleaning
If you're new to steam cleaners, you may be unfamiliar with all the ways they can improve the health of your home. First, and most importantly, is that unlike common bleach or ammonia based cleaners, steam cleaning uses no chemicals to clean or sanitize. This means that unlike common cleaners that often contain an array of toxic chemicals, steam cleaning uses ONLY water and heat.
There is no residue, no bleach or ammonia smell, and no chance of chemicals further polluting your indoor air. In other areas of our website we have discussed contact dermatitis and how simply coming in contact with the residue from household bleach cleaners can actually trigger a reaction in sensitive people. As trite as it may sound some people have developed contact dermatitis from toilet seats.
As another example, have you ever given thought about a small child or pet crawling or walking barefoot on a bathroom floor that you have cleaned with bleach? Bleach is a highly caustic substance and the chemicals that make up bleach, like sodium hypochlorite, are corrosive oxidizing agents that can burn the eyes as well as damage your airways and lungs. Bleach cleaners have more recently been shown to generate chlorinated VOCs, like carbon tetrachloride and chloroform. All of these situations can be avoided or minimized with the use of a steam cleaner.
Even if you've used chemical cleaners in the past, anytime is a good time to change that, and a quality steam cleaner can actually help remove the chemical residue left from previous cleanings.
Aside from reducing your exposure to or eliminating the excess chemicals in your home, you can also save money. In exchange for the myriad of cleaners and deodorizers used throughout the home, you would instead simply pay for a few liters of water and the electricity used to heat it.
For allergy, asthma or MCS sufferers, the benefits of steam cleaning are even greater. High temperature steam kills dust mites quickly and effectively with no harmful residues. Steam cleaners can also be used to kill bed bugs, fleas, eggs and larvae, all without the use of costly pesticides or chemicals.
Not only do you get a healthier kind of clean, but the steam kills bacteria, viruses and well as other germs and microorganisms. In kitchens and bathrooms where MRSA, listeria and salmonella can often be found, clean steam vapor can kill theses pathogens before they become a more serious problem.
The last major benefit of steam cleaning concerns mold and mold removal. Mold and mold spores are both organic agents that many people are highly allergic to. While mold spores are on virtually everything we touch, they often only become a serious problem when they begin to grow and form colonies. Once they begin to actively grow, they can produce harmful and deadly mycotoxins. Mycotoxins can be fatal and cause a whole host of health issues.
Mold growth most commonly occurs in your bathroom, particularly on the grout or caulking around your shower or bathtub. Mold removal isn't easy, and while there are some quality products on the market that remove mold without the use of harsh chemicals, most people still mistakenly reach for the bleach.
The inherent problem with using bleach is that bleach most often does NOT kill mold. It does have however do a fantastic job of bleaching mold white so that it blends right in with your grout and caulk. Just because it has a new color doesn't mean it's still not there growing. Steam cleaners can actually kill mold. The high temperatures kill mold while the bristles of brush attachments can help remove it from cracks and hard to reach places. And because steam actually penetrates the pores of the surface you are cleaning, it cleans deep to kill and remove mold, instead of just bleaching it invisible.
For those not familiar with steam cleaning, the concept of cleaning with just water and heat may seem a bit strange, but the use of a quality steam cleaner is a great way to begin weaning yourself off of chemical based cleaners while creating a more comfortable home environment. The reality is a steam cleaner is a very versatile home cleaning tool that focuses less on cleaning for simple appearances and more on cleaning for your health.
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