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 devices 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's rare to find a home without a vacuum cleaner. On the other hand, carpet steamers are specialty units that come out of the closet much less often. They clean up stubborn stains in high-traffic areas and can 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 occasional-use devices, many people prefer to rent them rather than buy them.

Vacuum Cleaner

The familiar household vacuum cleaner uses suction to remove debris, dirt, hair, and other loose particles from carpets. It isn't used with water or with any liquid cleaner. With all of the attachments that come with a vacuum, you can clean small areas, stairs, and in between couch cushions. Other options to consider when getting a vacuum are the features that set apart the different styles. Do you prefer upright or canister bagless, bagged, corded, cordless, and stick vacuums? They each have their pros and cons.

Upright vs. Canister Vacuums

Canister vacuums house the motor and dirt in a canister or container that wheels behind the user who holds the tube, hose, and head. Canisters are usually quieter, provide better suction for bare floors, and cost more. It can sometimes be a hassle to tote the canister everywhere. But they can vacuum stairs, unlike upright vacuums.

Upright vacuums are efficient carpet cleaners, less expensive, and easier to maneuver and store. However, they're heavier, and you can't reach corners with their large cleaning head. Vacuuming stairs effectively is next to impossible with an upright since they're bulky, weighty, and hard to maneuver on the space of a step. However, a great benefit is you have the option of bagged or bagless upright vacuums.

Bagged vs. Bagless Vacuums

Bagged vacuums have a dust bag that fills with dust, hair, and debris every time you clean. Bagged vacuums are known to be very hygienic and are recommended for allergy sufferers. Most have HEPA filtration. Two of its cons include buying bags continuously, and the vacuum decreases in performance as the bag fills.

The most significant benefit of bagless vacuums is that you do not have to repeatedly buy bags or dispose of them, making it a more economical and eco-friendly option. One of the drawbacks is when you are cleaning out the dust bin, you can kick dirt and dust back into the air, making a mess.

Corded vs. Cordless Vacuums

Corded vacuums are a popular option because they are robust and reliable. They never run out of power since they’re connected to a power source. However, that cord is also its biggest crutch. You have to move power outlets when vacuuming between zones and be mindful of the cord wherever you go.

Cordless vacuums are easy to move around the house, but they are limited by their battery time. A cordless vacuum is an easy choice if you have a small rug or minimal carpet. However, they can be pricier and may not have as much heavy-duty cleaning power as corded models.

Stick Vacuums

Stick vacuums have their motors and dust containers housed at the top of the unit near the handle. The vacuum is one long stick with the cleaning head at the end of a solid suction tube. Stick vacuums are often more expensive than upright or canister vacuums of comparable quality. Most are cordless and bagless but require frequent emptying of the dust bin and continuous charging. Although some are top-heavy, they are slim, easier to store, and simple to maneuver.

Pet Vacuums and Heavy-Duty Models

Vacuums remove pet hair with unique bristles or special filters for dealing with fur and dander; they often come with accessories that remove pet hair from the surfaces. They are not designed for pet stains—you'd need a spot cleaner or steam cleaner for that.

Heavy-duty vacuums handle the dirtiest jobs. They can clean up after construction work, and most are designed for daily use in office buildings accustomed to a lot of traffic. When you use a vacuum several times a day, you need a workhorse to last for years. They may not look as nice, but they are practical and will not break down as quickly as home models.

Carpet Steamer

Carpet cleaners have changed considerably in the last few years. The terms "carpet cleaner" and "carpet shampooer" relate to carpet cleaning appliances that do not have a water tank. They clean 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.

Now the terms refer to any appliance used to clean a carpet—including those with water tanks. Most modern carpet cleaners are steamers. Steamers heat water to boiling point, steam is sprayed out onto the surface with pressure and worked into the fibers, loosening dirt and stains. Some cleaners offer a liquid cleaner used in conjunction with the steam. 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.

Carpet experts recommend that you steam clean your carpets every six months if you have pets, and at least once a year if you don't. Since professional-grade steamers tend to be very expensive and only used infrequently, they are often rented at supermarkets, home improvement stores, or you call in a steam cleaning company to deep clean your carpets.

Although some carpet steamers and cleaners have a suction mechanism to remove the cleaning fluid and water from your carpet after cleaning the area, you should only use them for steaming or cleaning a carpet and never use them like a vacuum cleaner. This is why we now have a new option: a vacuum and steamer combination unit. And, for some, they are a game-changer.

Vacuum and Steamer Combos

All-in-one vacuums and steam cleaners combine both vacuuming and steam cleaning into one machine, so you can knock out both tasks with one purchase. They work like wet-dry vacuums. You vacuum debris and give your floors a deep clean at the same time, effectively killing germs and sanitizing your floors. 

Power is the most critical factor for both parts of the cleaning process when shopping for a model. A worthy combo cleaner needs to have enough suction to get the dirt out. And, it needs equally strong steam and pressure for deep cleaning and germ-killing. Dirt and grime should lift away easily. However, combo machines often have the disadvantage of not being as powerful as single machines that do one task. Other factors to consider when buying a combo unit are:

  • How long does it take for water to become steam?
  • How long does one tank of water last?
  • Does the model handle hardwood floors and carpets?

Most units will only handle steaming and vacuuming hard surfaces like tile and hardwood floors, but if you need it for carpets, too, you might need to purchase an additional carpet attachment. Unfortunately, its vacuuming power is not as powerful as a stand-alone vacuum.

Price is always a consideration, but you should expect to pay a lot more for a good cleaner combo; it should be better built and last longer. A good machine has the time-saving benefit of vacuuming while steam cleaning simultaneously and only taking up storage space for one unit—making the extra cost worth it.

Spot Cleaners

Spot cleaners are small, portable carpet steamers popular with pet owners. They work the same way as large carpet steamers—they apply a cleaning solution 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 full-size units don't fit.

How to Use a Vacuum and Steamer Together

Before you steam your carpet, do a thorough cleaning with a vacuum to remove debris. After completing the steaming process and the carpet has dried completely, re-vacuum the area to lift the fibers and remove any detergent residue.