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This story was updated in October 2021 to reflect new results from tests conducted by the Good Housekeeping Institute Home Appliances and Cleaning Products Lab. Newer models from Bissell, Hoover and Rug Doctor were added along with buying and use recommendations.
If your home has lots of carpeting and upholstery that get lots of traffic and stains from family, friends and pets, a carpet cleaner is a worthwhile investment in addition to your vacuum cleaner or handheld vacuum. Owning a machine is less costly over time compared to renting or hiring a professional carpet cleaning service, plus, you’ll have the machine on-hand to tackle carpet stains the minute they happen and to do regular maintenance cleanings to help your carpets and upholstery looking better, longer.
What is a carpet cleaner?
Unlike regular vacuum cleaners that remove dry, loose dust, hair, lint and grit from carpets and furniture, carpet cleaners wet clean or "wash" carpets and upholstery using water, a cleaning solution and suction to dissolve stains and remove the stuck-on dirt that regular vacuuming can't. They are often call "steam cleaners," but this is a misnomer: They don't work with steam but you can add hot water to the tank.
Carpet cleaners come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from handheld portable models and canisters to uprights and even professional machines that mimic those you can rent. Many come with hoses and mini nozzles to more easily clean small areas like upholstery and stairs and all have two tanks — one you fill with clean water and detergent solution and one for the dirty water that you pull from the carpet.
How we test carpet cleaners
The Good Housekeeping Institute Home Appliances and Cleaning Products Lab evaluates carpet cleaning machines for how well they clean pre-soiled, dingy industry standard white carpet test panels. We take color measurements before we start, set up each cleaner according to the manufacturer's directions and run each machine over the dirty carpet for the identical number of passes. After cleaning, the carpet panel is weighed to assess how much moisture each machine leaves behind. We time how long it takes the carpet to dry then remeasure the color in the same locations to calculate how well the machine cleaned the carpet. Each model is tested on a fresh carpet panel for more repeatable results.
Portable machines are tested for how well they remove stains we've applied — like red wine and chocolate — from test carpet and upholstery swatches. We also assess how easy the appliances are to assemble, use and store. We test any attachments on upholstered furniture and have consumer testers come into the lab to give us feedback on how easy the machines are to use and maneuver. Because we know that not all households have the same carpet cleaning needs, you’ll find recommendations from our cleaning experts for carpet cleaners that can tackle pet messes, are safe for area rugs, and fit in limited storage space. These are the top carpet cleaning machines in GH Cleaning Lab tests:
Best Overall Carpet Cleaner: Bissell ProHeat 2X Revolution Pet Pro Carpet Cleaner
Best Value Carpet Cleaner: Hoover Smartwash Automatic Carpet Cleaner
Best Professional Home Carpet Cleaner: Bissell Big Green Machine Professional Carpet Cleaner
Best Carpet Cleaner for Area Rugs: Bissell CrossWave Floor and Carpet Cleaner
Best Portable Carpet Cleaner: Bissell Pet Stain Eraser PowerBrush Plus
Best Carpet Cleaner for Stairs: Rug Doctor Pet Portable Spot Cleaner
Best Carpet Cleaner for Cars: Hoover ONEPWR Spotless Go Cordless Spot Cleaner
Best Rental Carpet Cleaner: Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3
BEST OVERALL CARPET CLEANER
Bissell ProHeat 2X Revolution Pet Pro Carpet Cleaner
This cleaner is your carpet’s new best friend. This full-size machine deep cleans and works on stairs, upholstery, and can even tackle pet hair. One of this Bissell’s innovative features is a targeted spray nozzle for stains. It works with just the press of a pedal and without having to stop, bend down, and use a separate product. The 2-in-1 Pet Upholstery Tool works dry to pull out stubborn pet hair and wet to zap stains on furniture fabrics and mattresses. Carpet machines of the past have been bulky, but this one is lightweight and gets a high-five from the GH Cleaning Lab for its brush roll cover that removes for cleaning.
Weight: ~19 lbs.
BEST VALUE CARPET CLEANER
Hoover Smartwash Automatic Carpet Cleaner
The Hoover Smart Wash is a convenient full-sized carpet cleaning machine at a great price. This budget-friendly model offers convenient features to get the job done without extra hassle. To use, push the cleaner forward and it washes the carpet with a premixed combo of water and cleaning formula. Pull the appliance back and it removes the moisture to dry the carpet. By automatically dispensing the correct combination of solution and water, it’s one less thing you have to. If you’re worried your carpet is too wet, select the “dry only” setting and give it a few more passes. It also comes with a hose and attachments.
Weight: ~19 lbs.
BEST HOME PROFESSIONAL CARPET CLEANER
Bissell Big Green Machine Professional Carpet Cleaner
This is the most user-friendly professional home carpet cleaning machine we've found: The large tanks are super easy to fill, carry and replace, it's simple to operate and the spinning flow indicator on top takes the guesswork out of knowing when the cleaning solution needs refilling. Though it looks bulky, we didn't find it difficult to maneuver for a machine this size even when full. The adjustable handle moves to the most comfortable position for each user and folds for easier storage.
A rotating brush roll gently works the cleaning solution into the carpet pile and this, combined with the strong suction, removed deep down dirt and left our carpets feeling soft and not overly wet so they dried quickly. The extra-long 25-foot power cord meant we could clean an entire room and then some without stopping and a nine-foot hose and handheld stain tool is perfect for cleaning upholstery and stair treads.
Weight: ~ 42 lbs.
BEST CARPET CLEANER FOR AREA RUGS
Bissell CrossWave Floor and Carpet Cleaner
Low pile area rugs are easy to clean because dirt stays mostly on the surface, so you don’t need a stiff brush to get deep down. The Bissell CrossWave gently cleans area rugs with a soft microfiber and nylon brush, so there’s no fear of damaging the short pile or fraying the loops. Best for low flat rugs, this lightweight Good Housekeeping Seal holder also vacuums dry dirt and works on bare floors. And we liked that it dispenses just enough water for cleaning, but not so much that it wets the carpet back or the flooring underneath. It’s lightweight and has easy-reach controls so you can go from vacuuming to washing without missing a step. There’s even a spot to stash the wet brush until it’s dry.
Weight: ~11 lbs.
BEST PORTABLE CARPET CLEANER
Bissell Pet Stain Eraser PowerBrush Plus
This cordless Bissell has a built-in rotating brush for deep cleaning that's easy to switch off when cleaning delicate fabrics. It comes with a nubby rubber pet tool to tackle messes from furry family members. In our most recent test of portable carpet cleaners, this Bissell snagged a "best overall" rating for stain and odor removal, sound, run time and more. It removed fresh and dried red wine and blueberry pie filling stains in our tests and ran for 20 minutes on one charge. We found the Bissell easy to clean and maintain so it's always fresh and ready to use when you need it. It was also among the quietest models we tested.
Weight: ~ 4.4 lbs.
BEST CARPET CLEANER FOR STAIRS
Rug Doctor Pet Portable Spot Cleaner
This Rug Doctor is a real workhorse that powered through our stain tests and did the best job removing both stains and odors. Its large tanks hold 64 ounces of cleaning solution meaning there's less refilling and emptying during big or multi-room jobs. Though heavy — especially when full — its retractable handle and large wheels make it easy to maneuver or wheel into a closet for storage. And with the Rug Doctor, staircases are no longer an obstacle to clean. Place it either at the top or bottom of a staircase and with its four-foot stretch hose you may be able to clean an entire flight. Have pets? No problem! The Rug Doctor's nozzle has rubberized bristles to grab hair while it's removing stains.
Weight: ~ 19 lbs.
BEST CARPET CLEANER FOR CARS
Hoover ONEPWR Spotless Go Cordless Spot Cleaner
If the upholstery and carpet in your car seem to need constant cleaning, this cordless Hoover is the must-have appliance to keep in your garage. The removable battery recharges in under three and one half hours and works in other Hoover ONEPWR devices like the leaf blower and vacuum cleaners. We found that its slim design and two-foot hose make it especially suited for reaching and cleaning under a car's seats, inside the trunk and all nooks and crannies. Its smaller tanks make it lightweight and easy to maneuver and store and in our tests, tea and red wine stains were history.
Weight: ~ 7 lbs.
BEST RENTAL CARPET CLEANER
Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3
If you're really serious about carpet cleaning, we think the Rug Doctor is the next best thing to a professional cleaning. The rental option is best if you don't want to own or don't have adequate storage space for your own carpet cleaner. The Rug Doctor has earned the highest rating from the Carpet & Rug Institute — the trade organization of the carpet industry — for soil removal, water removal and gentleness. Note it only works on the backward stroke. If you purchase it, you get a hose and attachments for cleaning stairs and upholstery along with cleaning formulas. When you rent, everything is purchased separately.
Weight: ~39 lbs.
What to consider when shopping for a carpet cleaner
Renting a carpet cleaning machine may sound convenient, but when you factor in the coordination required to pick up the appliance and drop it off, the additional cost of cleaning solution, and the fact that the rented machine is probably quite used (i.e. not as efficient or clean as as a new one may be), you may want to spring for your own. Rolling up your sleeves and cleaning your carpets yourself will give your carpets new life and give you the satisfaction of having a clean home. Keep these points in mind before deciding on a model:
Weight and maneuverability. Carpet cleaners are much heavier to push and more cumbersome to use than traditional vacuum cleaners and once you add water, they weigh even more.
Footprint. Upright models require more storage space than portable or handheld models. If you don't have a lot of carpeting, a smaller model may be sufficient for your needs.
Special features, like edge cleaning, rotating brushes, a hose, a heater and attachments. Most come with attachments to clean upholstery and small areas and small bottles of detergents to get you started.
Warranty (many manufacturers post this information on their websites). While you're at it, check your carpet's warranty to make sure you're not using a product that will void it.
How often should you clean your carpets?
Carpet manufacturers and the Carpet and Rug Institute recommend having your carpets professionally deep cleaned every 12-18 months. Some carpets even require it to uphold the carpet’s warranty! While professional cleaners use stronger, more powerful equipment than what you can buy or rent (plus they pretreat stains and can refresh and reapply the stain repellent that your carpet likely came with when it was new), owning a carpet cleaner — even a portable one — means you can do more frequent cleanings and tackle stains promptly so your carpets will look better longer.
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