Tips for Using a Portable Steam Cleaner

Steamers Are Handy, But Use Them Wisely

A hand cleaning gray drapes with a portable steam cleaner
Flickr CC 2.0

There are several types of steam cleaners for home use, including carpet steam cleaners and steam mops, but some of the most versatile are handheld steam cleaners of the type most often used to clean clothes. These compact, easy-to-store tools generate steam that can sanitize materials of blast dirt out of crevices, making the cleaning process quicker and easier. Consumers have used these tools for hundreds of different purposes, some of them effective and appropriate uses and others that are frankly ineffective and even dangerous. If in doubt, refer to the manufacturer's instructions—any safe, reasonable use for a portable steamer will be mentioned by the maker of the steamer.

General-Use Tips

No matter what the specific application, there are some general tips to follow when using a portable steamer around the house:

  • Use the steamer only for what it is designed to do—cleaning.
  • Always wear shoes when operating any kind of electrical steaming device.
  • Buy only certified electrical appliances that carry approval ratings from an official certification agency, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Use a portable steamer only on surfaces and materials that are sealed and can take high heat and moisture.
  • Be aware of temperature variations that could cause glass or porcelain to break. For example, do not steam-clean a glass window pane on a very cold day.
  • Ensure that accessory tools are properly and securely attached.
  • Remember that steam continues to exhaust from a steamer for several seconds after the trigger is released—be careful not to direct steam at plants or other items that cannot take moisture or heat.
  • When using tool pockets or cloth covers with a steam cleaner, remove them after use and wash/dry as per manufacturer recommendations. Never store damp cloths.
  • Unplug a steamer before refilling with water and before changing attachments.
  • Use care when temporarily putting down a still-hot tool. It can stay hot and moist for quite a while. Propping it across a wastebasket temporarily ensures it will not damage a table or the floor.
  • If you have hard water, use distilled water in your steamer.

Common Uses for a Steam Cleaner

There are a considerable number of approved uses for a steam cleaner, all of which will be mentioned by the manufacturer's instructions:

  • Cleaning ceramic or porcelain tile and grout, provide the products are sealed and glazed
  • Cleaning and sterilizing glass shower doors and tracks
  • Cleaning patio door tracks
  • Cleaning pet cages made from metal wire
  • Cleaning the exterior of appliances
  • Washing patio furniture
  • Cleaning and sterilizing countertops
  • Sanitizing sinks and plumbing fixtures
  • Sanitizing and refreshing mattresses and bedding
  • Combined with a steam duster, cleaning drapes
  • Cleaning ceiling fans
  • Cleaning hulls of boats
  • Removing algae and mold from synthetic decking materials
  • Cleaning garden tools

What NOT to Clean With a Steamer

Versatile as these tools are, there are also materials and uses that are NOT appropriate for a portable steam cleaner:

  • Do not use on unsealed, polished, waxed, or freshly painted surfaces. Though some people like steaming walls, steam cleaning painted surfaces is not recommended and you should proceed with caution.
  • Do not use a garment steamer on delicate fabrics, on colors that could run, or on items that cannot take heat and steam.
  • Never steam-dust musical instruments—they have a unique finish, unlike wooden furniture.
  • Do not linger long when using a steam cleaner on sealed wood, painted surfaces, or any area that has a paper, wood, plywood or cardboard composite construction. If using for walls or other areas you are not sure about, always test a small area first and use at your own risk.
  • Do not use a steam duster on finished wood unless you know that the finish is polyurethane-based and can take a little heat and brief moisture. Refer to the cleaning instructions for the product.
  • Do not use a steamer to dust or clean antiques. Most have varnish or shellac type of finishes that cannot take the heat. The luster/sheen may be affected and the finish could blister.
  • Do not use on nylon mesh window screens, which may not be able to withstand heat.
  • Do not use on laminate flooring, which has a fiberboard core that can be ruined by moisture that seeps through the seams between planks.

Time-Saving Tips

To shorten your cleaning time, follow these tips for efficiency:

  • Clean top to bottom on a door frame and threshold, to avoid having to backtrack to re-clean an area.
  • When using tools with cloth pockets or covers, clean those items that are the least dirty first, to keep the cloth cleaner, longer.
  • Plan your cleaning route and time, so you can start and finish without too many interruptions.
  • Change the cloth covers on steaming tools when they become soiled. Otherwise, you will be smearing dirt over a surface rather than actually cleaning it.
  • Have all the attachments you're likely to need, close at hand.
  • Take time to vacuum or sweep up any loose particles, dust or debris to keep from dragging this dirt along as you steam-clean.
  • Keep all the attachments stored along with the steamer bottle for quick retrieval when needed.
  • Empty the steamer of water and wash/dry any tool pockets or cloths so they are ready for the next cleaning task.