Steamers vs. Carpet extractors- which is better?


Like a heavyweight fight, or a big game between 2 top notch teams, there will be “fans” of both sides and strong opinions for both. In this battle, or debate there is the clash between dry vapor steam machines and carpet extractors.

Years ago, it wasn’t even a battle. There were very few steamers on the market and the few that were out there, weren’t very good. Many detailers had never heard of using steam to clean a car and the “high tech” method of interior cleaning was a carpet extractor. Today, the tide has turned. There are many more steamers out there and car interiors have changed, making steamers not only a contender these days, but basically the heavy favorite. But before we crown one a winner, lets logically look at the pros and cons of both and let you decide where to place your money in this heavyweight battle.

Carpet Extractor

The old stand by; the carpet extractor has been around in many forms for decades. It’s a simple machine when you look at it. It heats water, and then delivers it through a pump and out a nozzle at the end of a wand. The wand also has a vacuum attachment to pick up the dirt that has been released by the heated water. People have been cleaning carpets in homes, business and cars like this for years.

There is certainly something to be said for a machine that dissolves dirt, flushes it out and then gets vacuumed away all in one swoop. The machines are easy to operate, not too big, and make carpet cleaning much easier than hand cleaning and much more effective. Score 1 for the carpet extractor.

But not so fast. This machine as many of you know has its drawbacks. Anyone that has ever used one is always deathly afraid of leaving the interior too wet. A few passes over a carpet or seat will leave everything fairly wet and drying time is prolonged. We have all had cars where we over-wet the interior and had to try to get it dry quickly. We have run air blowers, left the heat running in the car, used many towels trying to dry a seat or carpet, or put plastic over the seats to prevent somebody from getting a wet seat themselves when they got back in the car. In hot climates or the summertime, if a car is left too wet, there is a strong possibility of mold or mildew developing, which will result in bad odors. Used cars have had this problem as their doors are usually left shut for a long time after a detail. In cold weather you risk condensation on inside glass, or possibly ice developing and an even longer drying time.

The other negative issue about a carpet extractor, through no fault of its own…..is that is can only be used on fabrics and carpets. With many more cars having leather interiors these days that are one less thing the carpet extractor can do. So in essence, the carpet extractor is becoming a bit old in the tooth to say the least…or maybe even a dinosaur

Dry Vapor Steam Machines

Introducing….The upstart, the underdog, the new kid on the block, the new sheriff in town….you get my point. Actually steamers have been around quite a while now. The more commercial and industrial machines have been used in various industries for a couple of decades now, but it’s really only been the last 8 or 9 years that steamers have been integrated into detailing. I have been using one for about 7 years but I was not a huge fan to start out. I was a trusty carpet extractor guy and didn’t “get” steam.
My mistake back then was not researching the machines and being too cheap to buy a good unit. I bought one of those TV units that claimed you could accomplish everything with this little bitty machine for the low, low price of…….Well, as it turned out, the low, low price was just a waste of money.

The machine was basically a toy that really did nothing but slow me down and not clean very well. So, I closed mindedly wrote off the use of steamers for a couple of years and went back to using my trusty carpet extractor, compressed air, and manually cleaning the trim panels and areas where you simply can’t use the extractor.


What does steam do?

After hearing some detailers reporting success with commercial grade steamers, as well as having people ask me questions about them, I figured I needed to revisit their use. I did not want to waste money again and buy a cheapo unit this time, but I did not want to spend thousands on a steamer either. I simply did not know anything about steamers.

I must admit, years ago I did not fully understand what steam actually does in the cleaning process either, so I decided to find out what this is all about.

All steamers have a boiler. The water inside the boiler is heated and pressurized which will produce steam, or more precisely, hot dry vapor, which is a gas. As all gasses do, when vapor contacts the atmosphere it expands violently and dissipates. Vapor molecules are extremely small and are able to penetrate the pores on any surface. When the hot vapor molecules come in contact with the cool surface in the pores, they violently expand and force all dirt, debris, and bacteria to the surface. Also, because the vapor is so hot, bacteria, as well as anything else, are killed. The results are surfaces that are free of any substances that were not originally on that surface. In addition, because you are cleaning with hot vapor which has a water content of only about 5%, the surface dries extremely quickly and when using steam on the interior of a vehicle, the overall interior will be almost totally dry upon completion.

I have seen the light

After doing some research, I purchased an industrial grade steamer and started experimenting with it. There were certain things I wanted to see if it would do to merit further use. I wanted to be able to safelyclean surfaces and not damage leather, plastic trim, fabrics, etc. The steamer not only was safe but very effective. It was also very quick in eliminating some stains and grease, and in cleaning tight areas. I was able to nearly eliminate harsh cleaners while using only steam. Doing so prevents the creation of chemical residues which can attract more dirt. The result is a surface that looks brighter and is actually cleaner. The reduction of chemicals, and some harsh odors they leave behind, will help to satisfy many customers who may be very sensitive to chemical smells. The cost savings will also be impressive to your bottom line

Head to heat battle

As you can now clearly see, I am putting my money on the steamer. But, just like me many years ago, I needed to be convinced. If what you have read so far hasn’t swayed you toward steam, then maybe these points will further help you at least investigate steam use


  • The steamer can clean hard surfaces. This is huge. A carpet extractor cannot. Nobody uses an extractor to spray water all over door panels, consoles, cup holders, dashes, leather trim, etc. But I have actually seen detailers use an extractor this way, but its wrong and there are so many bad things that can happen if an extractor is used like this
  • The steamer can clean carpets! Yes it can it a great one will do it very well. Many detractors of steam will say the machine cannot clean a carpet. This is NOT true. A great steamer will clean all but the nastiest and grungiest of carpets. There are tricks to creating more wetness with a steamer if you need it on dirty carpets.  The detractors also say you need a vacuum to immediately suck up the dirt. This is also NOT true! You DON’T need a vacuum incorporated with a steamer. The steamer will lift the dirt to the top. You can then come back with your own vacuum and suck up the dirt and/or wipe it up with a clean towel. A carpet extractor absolutely needs a vacuum follow up immediately because of the vast amount of water you are laying down. Another myth about steam and carpets is that steam will hurt or ruin the carpet fibers. This is simply not true.
  • A steamer will not leave a carpet or seat soaking wet. You can go over a seat or carpets multiple times without creating anywhere near the wetness of a carpet extractor. Drier interiors will not smell or leave a customer with a wet behind
  • Steam acts as its own blower and air pressure. A good steamer has enough power to blow stuff out into the open so it can be wiped up or vacuumed. There will be no more need to clean with compressed air
  • If you have ever seen steam clean a dash, air vent, cup holder or any hard to reach area, it will basically sell you right there. Its lightning quick, creates hardly any mess, and wont have you reaching for a new towel every 5 minutes
  • A steamer can clean leather seats. With the correct brush attachment, a steamer will clean leather better than any other method. Just ask a leather guy. They have been using these machines longer than detailers have to prep leather for re-dying, soften it and stretch it to install new pieces, and clean expensive leather couches in people homes. The leather will be left soft and supple with no need for dressing in many cases. This will save tons of time. Steam also WILL NOT burn leather. I have tried and it just doesn’t happen.
  • A steamer can be used to clean windows to perfection, without the streaking often seen from the use of window cleaners. Steam WILL NOT shatter glass either as some people have heard.
  • A steamer does a tremendous job in removing window tint and decals safely and more quickly than any other method. Some detailers also use steamers to remove clear bra film quickly and effectively
  • With a steamer, you are using super heated vapor. Chemicals are kept to a minimum which keeps the interior drier, saves you money and still leaves the inside smelling fresh, not harsh.
  • A steamer absolutely will save you time. The cleaning process is made quicker with the use of its attachments along with the steam itself. You will reap all these benefits of using a steamer with the time savings being an added bonus. Let’s face it. Most of us hate doing interiors. I look at it like housework but it has to get done. Why not do it faster, more effectively and wow your customers at the same time.
  • A steamer can safely and effectively clean a headliner if used correctly.
  • A steamer can get into tight areas like door jambs, seat tracks, under seats, between seats and consoles, air vents and more!
  • A steamer WILL NOT burn paint. Again, I have tried it on scrap panels and also on some very expensive cars by holding the wand in one spot for 30 seconds. Sure, it gets hot but doesn’t burn the clear coat

so these are just some of the advantages of a steamer over a carpet extractor. But with any machine there has to be some disadvantages……right???

Steamer disadvantages??

With the right steamer, there are very few disadvantages, if any at all. But here are the common complaints about a steamer. Mind you….these are with the cheaper, homeowner grade units. But let’s examine some of the complaints a detailer may have about a steamer.

  • Some steamers are not hot enough
  • Some steamers lose pressure way too quickly
  • Some steamers have low capacities and need to be refilled often.
  • Some steamers have a very short hose
  • Some steamers have very low pressure and are not too powerful
  • Some steamers have poor brushes or no brushes to clean leather and sensitive areas.
  • Some steamers don’t clean carpets very well
  • Some steamers just don’t last and they cant be fixed if they break


These are all valid issues with the cheaper steamers. So does that mean you shouldn’t buy one, or that a carpet extractor is better? The disadvantages can be addressed and basically ELIMINATED but…….there is always a but….. right??? It will cost you a little more money

Don’t be fooled

The only thing that will definitely be a disadvantage is if you purchase a cheap steamer. The homeowner or TV advertised units are a waste of money and will never work for detail use. Even some of the machines you see online that are advertised as “commercial” really are not. We know that detailers in general are hard on equipment. We also know you need a piece of equipment to operate all day long, all week long, all year long.  You need a heavy duty commercial/industrial unit to tackle the tough jobs and have it work effectively and last for a long time

Here is what I know and want to pass on to you so the same mistakes are not made.

Over the years I used and tested many different steamers to find the best one for the harsh detailing environment. I was looking for that special one that would deliver superior results, cut time, and stands up to the demands of a busy detailing business. Most were fine for light duty and home use but never measured up to the expectations of prolonged use and my extremely high standards for what a steamer needed to accomplish in my detailing business and for my demanding customers. The best ones are expensive but worth every penny. Purchase the best one you can afford with the highest heat and pressure. It will make a huge difference in both effectiveness and time savings.

So which machine wins?

I prefer steam as you can now see. However, there is a place for a carpet extractor since there will always be vehicles with filthy, ground in dirty carpets. In these extreme cases a carpet extractor will be better equipped to “flush” dirt from the material. It will do the job quickly and pull the dirt from the surface and into the machine. If used correctly, an extractor can be very effective and not soak the carpets. In many detail shops, you may actually benefit from using BOTH machines. Some shop owners will not want to hear this, but having the trusty extractor available sometimes is just peace of mind. My goal is not to use it if I don’t have to, but I know its there when the carpets just need the extra flushing action that a good heated extractor will give you.

In my opinion, this heavyweight battle is won by the Steamer (make sure it’s a really good one however) but the extractor wont have to retire just yet.