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How to properly clean carpets

March 16, 2011
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When it comes to carpet cleaning, I have noticed over the years the misuse of the word “steam” amongst the detailing industry. In fact, even in this fine publication, the topic of steam was presented in a way that might have caused confusion for those who do not understand the difference between true steam and hot water extraction.

The confusion is compounded by the practice of using the phrase “steam cleaning of carpeting and seats” in advertisements or verbal sales pitches, which is unfortunately common among detail operators. I believe that the use of the word “steam” probably bled from the carpet cleaning industry, which also sometimes incorrectly uses the word in their advertising.

Often, operators who use the term “steam cleaning” are actually referring to the use of a hot water extractor. A hot water extractor uses heated liquid water and a powerful vacuum to deep clean carpets, whereas steam cleaning involves the use of pressurized steam vapor. Yes, certainly some steam may come off of the hot water sprayed from the nozzle of an extractor, simply because the water is hot. But the fact remains that the “active ingredient” of a hot water extractor is, as its name implies, hot water. A dry vapor steam machine, on the other hand, produces only hot water mist with almost no liquid.

Back to school
First, let’s get the facts on the table. Just pretend you’re in high school chemistry or physics class again (but only if that is at least a partially good memory). Water, at room temperature, is in a liquid state — you can put it in a glass and pour it out. As water is heated, it will stay in a liquid state until the temperature rises to over 212 Fahrenheit degrees, at which point the water begins to boil. The bubbles coming out of boiling water are caused as the water molecules change from a liquid state to a gaseous state.

If you have ever put a pot of water on a stove, you know that as the water gets hotter, more and more steam comes off of the surface. The same thing happens when you fill up a bathtub with hot water. And, the same thing happens when you pull the spray trigger on the nozzle of a fully-warmed-up hot water extractor: Hot water comes out, along with a bit of steam. The reason an extractor is so effective is that hot water cleans a lot better than cold. The hot water breaks down soil and grime, allowing the extractor’s powerful vacuum to suck it away. The hotter the water, the better the cleaning action. A good hot water extractor will be able to heat water to at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit, with some reaching temperatures well over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

I am sorry if this discussion of the basic functioning of a hot water extractor seems condescending. Nonetheless, it is critical that this point of fact be made: It is the hot water produced by an extractor that is doing the work. Further, even though the water may be hot enough to give off a bit of steam, the steam is simply a byproduct and not the main factor in the extractor’s capability.

Hot and steamy
Now, let’s return to the bubbles in boiling water. If we were able to put a top on that pot of boiling water and screw it down so that it was airtight, pressure would begin to build up because water molecules take up more space as a gas than as a liquid. (You may have heard of or seen in action a pressure cooker, which is a pot that has a locking lid to keep in some of the steam. Pressure cookers cook food faster because of the high temperature produced by the entrapped steam.)

Here is where the dry vapor steam machine comes in, and I am talking about a commercial unit, not the flimsy home models you see on infomercials. The typical steam machine has a built in container called a boiler, which is a device that heats water under pressure to create steam. (Okay, back to chemistry class … )

If it is heated enough, the steam becomes “dry vapor,” which, by definition, is steam with no liquid water whatsoever. Commercial steam machines have the capability to achieve boiler temperatures from 280-400 degrees F. If the cleaning power of the 200-degree hot water put out by an extractor is significantly better than that of cold water, imagine how much more effective of a cleaning agent water would be if it was 320 degree F vapor!

The steam comes out of a nozzle that can be wrapped with a clean towel. As the operator moves the nozzle back and forth across the surface to be cleaned, the steam comes through the towel, emulsifies the dirt, which then attaches itself to the towel.

And that is precisely why dry vapor steam machines are gaining in popularity among professional detailers and carwash owners who offer express services. A growing number of operators are finding that the cleaning power and versatility of true steam is making the steam machine the new “must have” piece of equipment in the shop.

Making the tough choice
Although steam is a great help, most operators will find that it is best to have both a hot water extractor and a dry vapor steam machine “on board.”

A hot water extractor is the best tool for deep cleaning and rinsing of carpets, mats, and fabric seats. The hot water coming out of the extractor’s nozzle head shoots deep into the material and the near-simultaneous action of the nozzle’s suction attachment extracts most of the water and emulsified debris. Nonetheless, even the most powerful extractors will leave carpeting and seats noticeably damp. Thus, drying apparatus like air movers are best used following extraction to remove any leftover dampness. This can be a problem for express detailing operations because the customer is forced to drive away with damp carpets or seats.

Dry vapor steam, on the other hand, cleans only the surface of the carpets or seats, leaving only a slight dampness on the surface of the fibers, which tend to air dry in minutes. This makes the dry vapor machine an excellent choice for express detailing operations. Moreover, the full-service detailer will find steam an excellent choice for lightly-soiled carpeting and fabric.

Steam also sanitizes on contact, as most germs are killed by the high heat. This is why steam cleaning is so popular in the medical field.

But the real benefit of steam for the professional detailer is its cleaning versatility. Steam helps with:

  • Stain removal,
  • Gum and candy removal,
  • Cleaning leather seats, headliners, and
  • Removing shoe scuffs and heavy grime.

It also helps with a myriad of other applications that are too many to discuss in this article. Not to mention that usually no chemicals are required.

A detailer’s vow
Raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I, (your name), promise to never again use the word “steam,” unless I am referring to the use of a dry vapor steam machine.” Let’s stop confusing ourselves, our customers, and our colleagues in the industry. More importantly, let’s start embracing true dry vapor steam as an excellent cleaning tool for the detailing industry.

Prentice St. Clair is the president of Detail in Progress, Inc., which offers automotive detailing and reconditioning training and consulting. He is currently vice president of the International Detailing Association. He can be reached at 619 -701-1100 or by email at Website is

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