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 nine 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.
But sometimes you just need to clean up a few spills by hand. To test stain removers, we poured specific amounts of wine, coffee, spaghetti sauce, and French dressing on untreated nylon carpet panels. After two hours we blotted up what hadn't been absorbed. The next day we worked in the removers. Here are the highlights of our various tests:
Machines that were better at lifting embedded dirt, such as the $270 Hoover Dual V Steam Vac and the $170 Hoover Steam Vac, have larger, more powerful motors. The $80 Bissell QuickSteamer 1770 was a lightweight, in pounds and performance. It was very good at extracting cleaning solution because it didn't put much down. It was only fair at cleaning.
The $80 Little Green compact carpet cleaner claims it cleans as well as a full-sized model and works on stains. But it left our off-white carpet a medium gray; almost all of the full-sized models did a better job at removing dirt. Plus the Little Green did little on our tough stains.
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, which is why they're not in the Ratings. If your machine doesn't specify a solution, try Fresh Solutions Allergen Complete, sold at Sears. It was tops in our tests and costs less.
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.
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.
Coffee and red wine stains are tougher to remove because they tend to quickly soak into carpet. None of the stain removers we tested were very good at removing all types of stains. Vacuum maker Dyson's Dyzolv was the least effective and most expensive.
With Bissell's $130 SpotBot compact cleaner, you push a button and walk away while it works. SpotBot removed all of the red wine and most of the tomato sauce from carpet treated with stain protector, but on untreated carpet it wasn't much better than a mediocre stain remover. Instead try a wet/dry vacuum to lift the initial spill. Then apply the stain remover and use the vacuum to suck up the cleaner and stain. Repeat as needed. That should improve the performance of the stain removers. If you don't have a wet/dry vacuum, consider the midsized $115 Ridgid Pro Utility WD1450, a CR Best Buy sold at Home Depot.