Should You Do It?
The short answer is, probably not. Hardwood is naturally a very absorbent material, and water can cause it to plump, warp, twist, and mold. A steam cleaner essentially uses water, heated to a very hot vapor, in order to disinfect the surface of a floor. This vapor is able to get down into cracks and crevices and kill germs and bacteria. However, with hardwood flooring, it can also stay there, causing problems to develop in the future.
Hardwood Flooring Steam Cleaners: There are several companies out there that are selling steam cleaning machines which they claim are specially built to be used with hardwood floors. According to their marketing, as long as the floor is properly sealed it will be safe. This is because these steaming machines have a function that wipes up excess moisture as it moves down the floor, absorbing and soaking it up.
Warning: Despite the existence of these machines, all of the major wood flooring associations agree that steam cleaning devices should not be used on any hardwood flooring surface. There are no major hardwood providers who recommend the use of these products on their materials.
National Wood Floor Association (NWFA); NWFA Technical Publication No. C100 Maintenance and Recoating of Hardwood Floors 2010, states on page 5, 7th point, "Using steam or excessive water may damage a wood floor."
World Floor Covering Association (WFCA): “We cannot find a manufacturer of either laminate flooring or hardwood flooring that will recommend the use of Steam Cleaning equipment on their floors.”
In addition, consumer reports state that in an independent test of steam cleaning machines “all the tested models left residual moisture, some more than others” - The presence of lingering moisture is enough to cause damage to even the tiniest cracks in the surface seal of a hardwood flooring installation.
Steam Clean Friendly Floors
What’s The Risk Of Using a Steam Cleaner On a Hardwood Floor?
Testing The Woods Seal
In order to test the thickness and durability of the seal protecting your hardwood floors, drip a small amount of water onto their surface. If the water immediately beads up, then the seal is intact and the floor cannot be penetrated. If the water spreads out or sinks into the wood, then the seal has been compromised and needs to be reapplied. The thicker and more durable the seal finish is, the more resistant to steam damage it will be.
Please note: The quality of the seal can vary from location to location across the floor. You have to test it in several locations to be sure of its overall integrity.
More About Hardwood Floors
Potential Problems With Steam Cleaning
Wood Seams: Even if the wood itself is perfectly sealed against moisture penetration, the seams between the planks can be vulnerable. You are able to seal the seams as well, however when the wood creaks, shifts, or contracts with use and weather, the seals integrity can get cracked, allowing moisture to then penetrate down and attack the floor from below.
Water Steam: The steam itself presents a unique problem with hardwood. Water is a relatively thick substance. Steam, by contrast, is very light and thin and can easily penetrate even hairline fractures in a surface. This allows it to move down the side of hardwood planks, or slip up from underneath, attacking the floor from every vulnerable angle.
Voiding The Warranty
Most hardwood flooring will come with a manufacturer’s or a retailer's warranty. This will outline how long the floor should last, under normal usage, and guarantees its replacement if the material fails due to structural problems. These warranties often come with explicit conditions about which acts will void their protection. You need to carefully read and consider whether steam cleaning is a protected action under your floors explicitly stated warranty.
Steam Cleaning Laminate Hardwood Flooring
Laminates are manufactured materials made by taking a thin strip of real hardwood, and adhering it to a filler backing. A clear wear layer is then placed over the surface, to protect that hardwood sliver from damage. The advantage is that the wear layer provides a very hard, durable, easy to clean surface, while also preserving the look of natural wood.
The problem with steam cleaning laminate hardwoods is similar to using these devices on regular hardwood flooring. The wear layer generally tends to only protect the top surface of the laminates. That means that while the top is perfectly safe, the sides, seams, and underbelly of the planks and tiles are all vulnerable to that same liquid steam.
In addition, the National Laminate Flooring Association (NLFA); Does not endorse the use of Steam Cleaning machines on Laminate flooring.
Steam Cleaning Faux Hardwood Vinyl Flooring
Unlike hardwood and laminates, vinyl is a completely man-made material, much like plastic. Despite the fact that it may accurately reproduce the appearance of hardwood, it is impervious to harm from moisture, and can be easily treated with a steam cleaner without having to worry about harming the floor.