Carpet cleaning methods: Steam cleaning vs. dry cleaning

For steam cleaning, the machine sprays detergent onto the carpet and then activates it with hot water. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Brian K. of Avon Lake, Ohio.)

For steam cleaning, the machine sprays detergent onto the carpet and then activates it with hot water. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Brian K. of Avon Lake, Ohio.)

The time has come. Despite your best efforts, years of stains, grit and grime have accumulated in your carpet. You finally decided to get it thoroughly cleaned, but how do you know which carpet cleaning method to pick?

Steam cleaning a dry cleaning are both popular methods for cleaning carpets, but does one have an advantage over the other?

The myth of the steam clean

In the steam clean versus dry clean debate, it's important to clear up the myth that "steam" is actually used to clean your carpets. While home and commercial machines use hot water, which gives off some steam, steam itself does not clean your carpet. Instead, a detergent is sprayed onto your carpet. Hot water activates the detergent on the carpet fibers -- alkaline for synthetic carpets and acidic for wool or natural fiber carpets. A wet-vac is then used to suck up the bulk of the water on the floor.

Home steam cleaning products

There are many types of steam machines available for home purchase or rent. Home models typically rely on hot tap water to get the job done, while those rented from a hardware or grocery store may have a heating element. Both types operate the same way: You place a cleaning solution in the machine, move it slowly and methodically over your carpet, then suck up and dump out the water. Once cleaned, your carpets are not usable for a period — usually between 12 and 24 hours — while the remaining water dries. One issue with the steam method is the shrinking of the carpet when leftover water dries; however, unless your carpet is made entirely of natural, untreated fibers, this will not be a problem.

The case for commercial steam cleaners

You can also hire professional carpet cleaners to come and steam clean your flooring. They will often use a more highly powered machine or one attached to a vehicle. These systems operate on the same principle as at-home systems but are much more powerful, allowing them to force more detergent into the carpet and suck up more water. They are faster than home systems and have a shorter drying time.

Dry cleaning carpets

The other option available is dry cleaning. This method of carpet cleaning uses dry chemical compounds that are placed on a carpet and break down whatever soil or particulate matter they find. The name of this cleaning method is also misleading because they use a small amount of moisture in the form of application solutions, which complement the dry compounds used. Dry cleaning offers the advantage of time; floors can be used again almost instantly after cleaning is complete. Dry cleaning compounds are often used in industrial and retail settings for this reason.

Pros and cons

Steam cleaning your carpet yourself means you need only hot water, a rented machine and detergent. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait between 12 and 24 hours to walk on your carpet again. Ground-in stains typically reappear in the first few days after cleaning. Commercial solutions can eliminate some of these problems, but there are certain stains — pet stains or chemical stains, for example — that require multiple treatments or cannot be removed.

Dry cleaning, meanwhile, offers the advantage of almost no drying time and an effective cleaning through chemical agents and application solutions. The chemicals used, however, can often be harsh, and homeowners are advised to speak with a commercial cleaning company about the products they use and any strong odors they may have.

For more information, visit the Angie's List Guide to Carpet Cleaning.

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Hire a professional to clean heavy stains and get the best results. (Photo courtesy of Brian Kuck)
Hire a professional to clean heavy stains and get the best results. (Photo courtesy of Brian Kuck)

Carpet cleaning services use steam and hot water extraction to remove dirt, stains, allergens, mites, mud and other kinds of debris embedded deep in your carpets for a deep and complete clean.


I have just had my carpets dry cleaned by a professional cleaning company. He could not remove several staines because " the carpet is old". I have a vax-machine so I had a go at the staines. The staines did not improve, but i got a lot of grit and muddy water out of the carpet. It was filthy. I rang the carpet cleaner that i was not happy with the job he did, but he again said " it is an old carpet". The carpet is 20 years old, but what has that to do with leaving grit and soil after he did his job? Is that what dry cleaning does? He did not extract any dirt as far as i can see. Was i taken for a ride??

If you've read through the comments here you can tell there is a heated debate in the carpet cleaning industry about which method is best. At All Seasons Carpet Cleaning we understand that all cleaning methods have their place when properly used. In fact, we use several different methods on a regular basis. We make the decision with the customer based on what is best for them. I will confess that we primarily use the hot water extraction method, but we keep our minds open to what is best for the situation. I recommend that you stay clear of anyone who dogmatically states that their method is best and that all others are methods are ineffective and maybe even dangerous to your carpet or even yourself. Educate yourself and ask questions. Then you'll make the right decision for you and your carpet.

The comment submitted by Steve is fuilled with misleading information. There are over 100 carpet manufacturers that recommend dry extraction over steam of hot water cleaning. Any carpet cleaning performed with water over 160 degress damages the carpet by opening dye ports that hold in the color, loosens the taped seams, and promotes shrinkage. I have used both methods in the 15 years I have been cleaning carpet professionally and I would never use the hot water wet extraction again except in very small areas where there is no foot traffice for at least 12 hours.

Having professionally cleaned carpets since 1993 I know of zero US residential carpet manufacturers that recommends dry cleaning method over steam cleaning. All recommend "hot water extraction" to properly remove soil and clean residential carpet. Exception is wool based carpet. Dry cleaning is like washing your hair with soap but instead of rinsing clean with water you use a vacuum cleaner in attempt to suck out and remove the soap... just doesn't work very well plus too much chemical is left behind. We recommend our residential customers use 212 degree high temperature steam clean method with deodorizer included followed by a neutral steam rinse to get the very best results. The higher the temperature that is used for cleaning the better as this allows for lower chemical use and faster drying time as well. Good steam cleaning drying time depends on moisture and humidity in the air but typically between 4 and 8 hours for truckmounts and 8 to 16 hours for high powered portable carpet cleaners. Very dirty carpets that can be restored will need rotary shampoo process added to steam cleaning to fully remove tougher stains. Look for a company in your area that offers this extra step if needed for your carpet. Home carpet cleaning machines are great for in between professional cleaning but do not substitute for a deep cleaning offered by most companies. You must have a heating element in your home unit to boost water temperature to effectively work well.

Your information is flawed in regards to carpet cleaning. True there is steam cleaning and dry cleaning. There is also what is called low moisture cleaning. Low moisture cleaning is where a chemical is sprayed onto the carpet then using a pad machine and a cotton bonett the carpet is extracted. This is a very popular way to clean residential and commercial carpets. Please do some research before you make statements.

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