Carpet cleaning methods: Steam cleaning vs. dry cleaning
For steam cleaning, a detergent is sprayed onto the carpet and hot water activates the detergent on the carpet fibers. A wet-vac is then used to suck up the bulk of the water on the floor. (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.