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Carpet cleaners

Carpet cleaner buying guide

Last updated: June 2012

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Getting started

Getting started

Got dirty carpets? There's certainly no lack of cleaning options, including buying a carpet-cleaning machine, renting one, or hiring a pro. We tried them all. While nothing beat the ease and performance of a pro, some of the machines we tested came pretty close for less money.

Before we put the machines to work, we had to ready our lab. By the time we were finished, it looked like a gang of kids wearing muddy sneakers had run amok. Panels of off-white nylon plush carpet treated with stain repellent were embedded with topsoil. After vacuuming, we tested each carpet cleaner with its manufacturer-recommended solution and passed over a soiled area 20 times.

Size matters

Machines that were better at lifting embedded dirt have larger, more powerful motors. Almost all of the full-sized models did a better job at removing dirt. Bissell and Hoover, the two largest manufacturers of carpet cleaners, say you must use their cleaning solutions in their machines or you could void the warranty or cause electrical shock or fire by damaging the machine. The good news is that most of the manufacturers' solutions we tested performed similarly and were very good.

Rental pros and cons

Rug Doctor's Mighty Pro, which can be rented at stores nationwide for $20 to $30 per 24 hours, seems like a bargain. It cleaned as well as some of our top-rated machines, and you can clean a large area before emptying the dirty water. But it was heavy and bulky and left the carpet pretty wet. So you'll have to wait longer to put furniture back in the room and walk on the carpet. Use a dehumidifier to speed up drying.

Pros are easy but expensive

Stanley Steemer, a nationwide chain, outperformed all of the carpet-cleaning machines we tested, removing all visible dirt. Even the best machine we tested left behind some dirt. Stanley also removed tough stains from a staffer's carpets. Even the best machines in our tests only lightened the stains.

How to choose

Embedded dirt requires deep cleaning. Check your carpet's warranty or manufacturer's website for suggestions on how often you should clean. Otherwise you could damage the carpet or void its warranty. Some companies, for example, don't allow a pro to reapply stain treatments. Then consider these tips:

Focus on features

Separate tanks for hot water and cleaning solution make refilling quicker because you usually need to refill water more often. Smaller tanks mean more frequent refills. Carry and push the machine before buying, especially if you'll be carrying it up and down stairs. Look for models with attachments if you'd like to clean upholstery or stairs.

Doing it right

Working with water and electricity requires extra care, so if possible plug the machine into an outlet with a ground fault circuit interrupter. Wear hearing protection when using any machine for an extended period of time. Don't walk or place furniture on carpet until it's completely dry.

Going pro

Select a company approved by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, a nonprofit organization, to ensure the company carries liability insurance and employs certified technicians. Make sure they vacuum before deep cleaning, and ask about spot removal. Get a detailed written estimate, check references, and obtain an invoice.

Vent properly

Some stain removers and cleaning solutions for machines emit fumes, so be sure to open windows and run fans when cleaning. That is especially important if someone in your home has respiratory problems such as asthma.

Types

Homeowners who only occasionally clean their carpets may choose to hire a reputable professional or rent a carpet cleaner. But if you have a lot of carpeting and a house full of kids and pets, you might want to consider buying a machine. Here are the types of carpet cleaners to consider.

Rental deep cleaners

Often available at a nearby supermarket, hardware store or home center for about $20 to $30  a day, these upright machines combine a tank for dispensing cleaning solution, a second tank for holding dirty solution, a vacuum, and a fixed or moving brush into a single, heavy unit. As a result, they're cumbersome to push around. Performance and convenience vary from one machine to the next. In general, look for the cleanest, least-worn brushes on any machine that you're thinking of renting.

Full-sized cleaners


They're lighter and less bulky than typical rental machines. Most work by scrubbing in a solution of water and detergent, then vacuuming up the water and dirt. They can be  expensive and take up a fair amount of broom-closet space. In our last tests, they produced mixed results. All those that we tested also required you to use the manufacturer's special detergent.

Compact cleaners


For small jobs or tackling stains a compact cleaner is easier to maneuver than the bigger and bulkier full-sized model, and it takes up less closet space and can be stored on a shelf. One compact, the Bisell SpotBot, allows you to push a button and walk away while it goes to work on stains. In our tests it removed the toughest stain from carpet treated with stain protector, but didn't do as well on untreated carpet. Bissell's compact cleaner didn't clean as well as most of the full-sized models we tested and did little on tough stains.

Features


Carpet cleaners can be a bit unwieldy, so look for features that will make it easier to maneuver, especially if you have carpeted stairs. Here are the carpet cleaner features to consider.

Attachments

On upright models, they let you clean upholstery, stairs, bare floors, and tight spots between furniture.

Belt free

As with vacuum cleaners, many carpet cleaners have a belt that, over time, needs replacing--a do-it-yourself task for some owners. Belt-free units dispense with this part.

Moving brush(es)

A moving brush tends to give a more aggressive scrub than no brush or a fixed one that moves only as you push the machine, though having one or more does not guarantee good cleaning.

Large tank

The larger the cleaning-solution tank, the less often you'll need to refill it if you clean a lot of carpet at a time--though the more liquid, the tougher the machine can be to maneuver.

Long hose

The heavier the cleaner, the harder it is to maneuver. A long vacuum hose can reach, for example, up a flight of stairs.

Separate soap dispenser

This automatically dispenses the right amount of detergent with water, and shuts off to allow rinsing with fresh water.

Tank indicator lights

These lights alert you when the clean-solution tank needs refilling--or the dirty-solution tank needs emptying.

Tank shutoff

Some cleaners feature a sensor-operated cutoff that stops an extractor's suction when the tank storing dirty solution is full.

Brands


Some of the companies that make vacuum cleaners make carpet cleaners too. Use these profiles to compare carpet cleaners by brand.
 

Bissell

Bissell offers dozens of upright, canister, and compact carpet cleaners to address the preferences and needs of specific consumers, such as pet owners. The company also makes upright, canister, hand, and stick vacuums, along with bare-floor cleaners and carpet-cleaning formulas. Bissell products are available at a variety of mass merchants and home centers, including Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's, Target, and Walmart.

Hoover

Hoover introduced its first vacuum in 1907 and has established itself as one of the most recognizable brands in the country. It is owned by TTI Floor Care, which also makes Dirt Devil. The company markets several upright carpet cleaners. Hoover also makes upright and canister vacuums, hand and stick vacuums, bare-floor cleaners, central vacuums, and an outdoor sweeper. Products are available at a wide variety of mass merchants and home centers, including Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's, Target, and Walmart.

   

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