Learn exactly how steam cleaners work, and how they leave floors sparkling clean.

Steam cleaners are great tools that can deep-clean all kinds of surfaces.

However, the quality of the cleaning is highly dependent on the equipment that's used and the knowledge behind it.

If you don't know how steam cleaners work, then you're never going to get the most out of your cleaning session.

Learn exactly how steam cleaners work, and how they leave floors sparkling clean.

In an effort to reduce chemical use in the home, many homeowners are eager to use steam-based cleaners instead.

Here's what you need to know about how steam cleaners work and what you can use them for.

How Do Steam Cleaners Work?

Steam cleaners first heat up water to its boiling point.

The water needs to be able to push past its boiling point in order to turn into water vapor.

Once the steam cleaner has gotten the water to that point, it's then pushed out of the cleaner.

how steam cleaners work

Pressure is used to deliver the vapor through the head of the cleaner at a certain amount of force.

Steam is a powerful way to clean because it can kill almost any virus, bacteria, mold, or even dust mite.

The hot temperature boils the organism alive. Besides killing germs, steam is also effective at dislodging dirt and other messes from fabric.

Steam cleaners don't require suction in order to clean. The water vapor is enough to loosen dirt and remove it.

It's highly recommended that if you have a heavily soiled area with dirt that you use a cloth after steaming the area.

The cloth needs to wipe away the dirt before the moisture dries once more.

It doesn't take long for steam to dry on surfaces. That's also why suction isn't used. It isn't needed.

Steam dries and leaves your floors looking brand new.

What Do Steam Cleaners Work On?

There are several surfaces and materials that steam cleaners work well on. They include:

  • Countertops
  • Bathroom fixtures
  • Vinyl
  • Laminate
  • Polyurethaned wood
  • Tile
  • Upholstery
  • Mattresses
  • Curtains

Steam cleaners work best on impervious surfaces like countertops and bathroom fixtures.

It doesn't matter if they're porous or not. Water vapor can mesh and form into any groove or pore that the countertop or bathroom fixture may have.

It's also safe to use on certain floor types like vinyl, laminate, tile, and polyurethaned wood.

Steam can be a great cleaning solution for these surfaces because it's easy for dirt to get stamped into the surface.

Merely sweeping, mopping, or vacuuming may not be enough to dislodge them from the surface. Hot steam can.

In the case of tile, steam is extremely effective. Cleaning grout lines can be difficult.

They can be tight and hard to fit a cloth inside of in order to clean them out.

Steam can access the grout line without any difficulties. Swiping the line with a cloth after can give you completely clean grout lines.

While certain fabrics can be cleaned with steam cleaners, too, you need to make sure that you're using a steam cleaner designed for fabrics. Some steam cleaners may be too harsh for upholstery.

It could damage it. Upholstery-approved steam cleaners, on the other hand, are effective for cleaning them. They're also great for mattresses and curtains.

Cleaning mattresses and curtains with a steam cleaner can dislodge dust, stains, and other minuscule bugs lurking within the fibers. They'll smell better, look newer, and feel softer.

What Surfaces Don't Work with Steam Cleaners

Before you break out the steam cleaner to clean just any surface, you should be aware that some surfaces can actually be damaged by cleaners. You'll want to avoid using a steam cleaner on the following surfaces:

  • Painted walls
  • Unsealed floors
  • Hardwood floors
  • Cork
  • Unglazed tile
  • Cold windows

If you use a steam cleaner on a painted wall, then you can expect the paint to start running. Most paints used on walls are water-soluble.

When a good amount of water is introduced to the paint, it causes the pigments to wash away and loosen their hold on the surface. Steam will absolutely introduce enough water to make the paint run. You'll have quite a mess on your hands.

Unsealed floors are another problem for steam cleaners. If your hardwood floor is unsealed, for example, then it's being subjected to a lot of moisture directly.

Wood doesn't like moisture. It can cause it to warp, splinter, and it may even start the growth of mold. Cork reacts similarly.

Unglazed tile may also have problems when exposed to steam cleaners. Because it doesn't have a protective layer over it, the hot water vapor may cause it to crack.

Once tile starts to crack, the rest of the tile around it will likely also lose its adhesion and cohesion. You'll quickly find tons of cracks in your tile flooring.

Finally, you should avoid using steam cleaners on windows that are cold. Windows are already under a lot of pressure.

Extreme temperature differences can cause the glass to finally crack. You may end up with a shattered window in the dead of winter.

What Features Should You Look For in Steam Cleaners

Knowing which steam cleaner to purchase isn't always easy. Each one comes with its own features which are ideal for certain situations.

One feature to consider is the warm-up time. Some steam cleaners take three or so minutes before they're ready to be used.

This may not seem like a long time, but if you're using the steam cleaner professionally, then those minutes can start to add up. Other steam cleaners may only take 30 seconds to fully warm up.

Another feature to consider is water tank capacity. Handheld steam cleaners may only be able to hold water for up to 10 minutes before running out.

This might mean that you need to spend more time refilling and heating the steam cleaner than actually cleaning. Handheld steam cleaners are ideal for those who only have small rooms to clean.

Larger steam cleaners, like those that use a canister, can carry enough water to last around 45 minutes. This gives you a longer period in which to clean.

However, it also means that your steam cleaner is going to be quite heavy. You'll want to make sure that it has wheels in order to be moved around with ease.

Efficiency is another feature to consider. Some steam cleaners require you to hold the steam in place for several seconds. Perhaps even a minute.

This can make cleaning take a long time to finish. Others only need to be held in place for two or three seconds. This allows you to quickly cover large rooms. You should consider which model best serves your needs.

Finally, you need to consider the cost. Handheld steam cleaners are significantly cheaper than canister steam cleaners.

You'll also need to consider whether you need something that's professional-grade or more geared towards everyday residential use.

How to Clean a Carpet with a Steam Cleaner

Steam cleaners can effectively clean and sanitize your carpet by using hot steam and pressure to kill germs and remove dirt.

It's even powerful enough to kill fleas that may be lurking within your carpet's fibers.

It's better to use a steam cleaner over a cleaner that uses a shampoo because the shampoo can actually leave a residue behind.

That residue can trap dirt and grime easier than if it wasn't there. Steam cleaning gets rid of everything without leaving anything behind.

There are a few things you should consider before steam cleaning your carpet. The first is to check your steam cleaner. Is it designed to clean carpets?

If so, then you're able to proceed. You should also check the carpet to see if it can hold up against steam. It's always a good idea to first test a section of your carpet to see how it reacts to your steam cleaner.

Here are some steps you should follow to properly clean your carpet with a steam cleaner.

  1. Vacuum the carpet first
  2. Fill the steam cleaner's reservoir with water (preferably distilled water)
  3. Attach necessary attachments like extended hoses
  4. Plus the steam cleaner into the outlet
  5. Let water heat up for the appropriate time
  6. Pull the trigger and release steam onto the carpet
  7. Hold steam in place for the desired time to sanitize the carpet according to instructions
  8. Use steam cleaner in a pattern that covers the entire area
  9. Let the carpet dry

Cleaning a carpet is relatively easy as long as you take the necessary precautions beforehand. Knowing how your steam cleaner affects the carpet can avoid disaster.

Depending on how long it takes for your steam cleaner to heat up, you may have some time on your hands before you can start cleaning.

To thoroughly clean your carpet, use the extra time to move the furniture off of it.

Depending on the thickness of your carpet, you may also need to hold the steam in place longer than what the instructions say.

Thicker carpet takes a bit longer for the water vapor to reach its roots. If you want to thoroughly sanitize your thick carpet, then take extra time in the application of the steam.

The amount of time it takes to dry the carpet is also dependent on the thickness of the carpet and how much steam was used.

If you used a lot of steam and thoroughly soaked your carpets, then it may take several hours for them to dry. Thinner carpets will require less time to dry.

How to Steam Clean Hardwood Floors

Most manufacturers agree that you should avoid steam cleaning hardwood floors.

It usually presents more challenges and problems than benefits. Hardwood floors need to be sealed before you can steam clean them.

You can test to see if your hardwood floors are still sealed by dropping a bead of water onto them.

If the water remains a bead on its surface, then the seal is intact. If the water drop soaks into the wood or spreads, then the seal is not intact.

Another problem with using a steam cleaner on hardwood floors is the spaces between the planks.

The surface of the wood may be sealed, but the tiny slits between the planks aren't. Steam uses extremely small water droplets. They can slip into those slits and small fractures in the seal of the surface.

If you do want to use a steam cleaner on hardwood floors, then here's the method you should use.

  1. Test the surface to see if it's sealed
  2. Prepare steam cleaner by filling its reservoir with water and heating it
  3. Turn steam cleaner on and hold it slightly above the floor to ghost the surface with steam
  4. Wipe down floors afterward instead of waiting for them to dry

There are some steam cleaners designed for use on hardwood floors. These have a head that wipes away moisture after it's been applied.

Those may work better than other standard steam cleaners. However, you should still check to ensure the floor is sealed and dry up any lingering places that contain moisture.

How to Steam Clean Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl flooring can also be damaged by steam cleaners if you don't know how to clean them properly.

The vinyl can become warped under heavy temperatures. It's crucial that you use a steam cleaner that has temperature control.

This allows you to use lower temperature settings that won't damage the vinyl.

From there, follow these steps to safely steam clean your vinyl flooring.

  1. Fill steam cleaner reservoir with water
  2. Plug in the steam cleaner and let the water heat
  3. Adjust temperature to the lowest setting
  4. Wrap the head of the steam cleaner with a microfiber cloth
  5. Clean the vinyl flooring without lingering too long in one place

Using a microfiber cloth can keep the steam from directly making contact with the vinyl.


Steam cleaners can kill germs and remove dirt and dust from almost any kind of surface.

It doesn't use chemicals to do this. Instead, it relies on hot temperatures of pure water that's transformed into water vapor.

Understanding how a steam cleaner works can help you steam clean the above flooring types.

Be sure to find a steam cleaner that has the features you need to give your home the sanitary clean that it deserves.

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