The Difference Between a Vacuum and a Carpet Steamer

Man vacuuming carpet

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Whether you recently bought a home, just installed new carpet, or are in the market for new household appliances, you might be wondering if you need both a vacuum and a carpet steamer or if one can accomplish all the tasks. While the appliances do function differently, you probably don't have to purchase both.

Think of a vacuum cleaner as your regular go-to appliance that keeps your carpets looking sharp. A quick pass weekly does the trick. It is rare that a home doesn't have a vacuum cleaner in it. On the other hand, carpet steamers are specialty units that come out of the closet much less often. They are used on stubborn stains in high traffic areas or to remove spills. They aren't as quick to set up and run as vacuum cleaners, but the results are worth the time. Since carpet steamers are only used occasionally, many people prefer to rent them rather than buy.

Vacuum Cleaner

The familiar household vacuum cleaner uses suction to remove debris, dirt, hair, and any other loose particles from carpets. It isn't used with water or with any type of cleaner. With all of the attachments that come with a vacuum, you're able to clean small areas, stairs, and in between couch cushions.

Regular vacuuming keeps carpet looking fresh, but eventually, you may notice dingy traffic areas or pet stains on your carpet that a vacuum just can't handle. Then it is time to get out (or rent) the carpet steamer.

Carpet Steamer

Carpet cleaners have changed considerably in the last few years. The terms "carpet cleaner" and "carpet shampooer" used to relate to types of carpet cleaning appliances that did not have a water tank. They cleaned using a cleaner in conjunction with brush action. The cleaning fluid stayed in the carpet to protect the fibers and was not removed, nor was any water applied.

Nowadays, the terms refer to any appliance that is used to clean a carpet—including those with water tanks. Most modern carpet cleaners are steamers. They apply hot water or steam along with a liquid cleaning solution to the carpet. Brushes rotate to lift the rug fibers and loosen grime. Then, the water and solution are extracted into a wastewater reservoir on the appliance. The carpets are deep cleaned and the cleaning solution is removed by the same machine, which allows the surface to dry quickly.

Although some carpet steamers and cleaners have a suction mechanism to remove the cleaning fluid and water from your carpet after cleaning the area, they should only be used for steaming or cleaning a carpet and never used as a vacuum cleaner.

Spot Cleaner

Spot cleaners are small, portable carpet steamers popular with pet owners. They work the same way as large carpet steamers—they apply a solution of cleaner and water to a spot on a carpet. The appliance sits in one place and rotating brushes do all the work. Then, the solution and cleaner (and grime) are extracted from the carpet into a wastewater reservoir. These small steamers are also useful on carpeted staircases, where the full-size units don't fit.

How They Work Together

Before you steam your carpet, always do a thorough cleaning with a vacuum to remove pieces of debris. After the steaming process, and once the carpet dries completely, re-vacuum the area to lift the fibers and remove any detergent residue.