A Housekeeping Marvel, or Just a Lot of Hot Air?

The WhiteWing steam cleaner is among several reviewed on the AllergyBuyersClub.com Web site.
The WhiteWing steam cleaner is among several reviewed on the AllergyBuyersClub.com Web site. (Allergybuyersclub.com)
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By Denise DiFulco
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Steam cleaning has come a long way from those hulking, rentable machines you used to find chained up at the front of the supermarket. A very long way, in fact. Not only are many of today's devices less cumbersome and easier to use, but they're also moving beyond carpet cleaning. (The Europeans, as is true with many home innovations, embraced steam cleaning years ago.)

Dry steam cleaners -- or vapor cleaners, as they also are known -- are being touted as domestic marvels that can sanitize or refresh a variety of surfaces, from upholstery to floors to oven interiors. Most all-purpose machines resemble canister vacuum cleaners and contain a tank that superheats water to well above the boiling point. The hot vapor they produce travels through a hose that connects to a variety of attachments intended for just about any household cleaning project you can imagine. Hand-held and single-purpose varieties also are available.

Many manufacturers are playing up the environmental advantages of disinfecting with steam. It appeals to people concerned about using chemicals in their homes and about the long-term impact of releasing potentially harmful substances into our wastewater systems. Steam cleaners also are being heavily marketed to allergy sufferers because of their ability to kill dust mites, mold and other allergens.

But how well do they work?

Purely from a housekeeping standpoint, steam, when used properly, seems to be as effective as any cleaning product you'll find on the supermarket shelf. The two most critical factors are that the steam must be extremely hot and must be delivered correctly to the surface you're trying to clean, says Thomas Platt-Mills, a professor of medicine, allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Virginia.

But though steam can be a potent cleaning agent, sweeping a steaming nozzle across a dirty surface isn't like waving a magic wand -- though it might appear that way on TV infomercials. Mold, for instance, is difficult to eradicate because its spores penetrate deep below surfaces. And although steam can kill dust mites, it can't reach far enough into sofa cushions and other plush items to eliminate them all, Platts-Mills says. On carpets, steam should be used only on the top third or half of the pile. Get close to the bottom and you might kill what's down there, but you're also likely to resurrect old stains, which can rise to the surface.

That said, a good-quality steam cleaner can do many things remarkably well, from releasing odors from clothing to degreasing outdoor grills to cleansing drains. Mercia Tapping, president of AllergyBuyersClub.com, which sells several brands of steamers and provides comprehensive staff reviews and user guides, says she even takes her steam cleaner outdoors to remove algae from the steps.

As for the "green" claims, there's an inevitable weighing of pros and cons. On the surface, what's not to like about eliminating the use of chemicals for disinfecting your home? But you could argue that steam cleaners require electricity, which, depending on how it's generated, creates its own environmental concerns. And by buying a device that requires energy for production and transport and that eventually will end up in a landfill, you're contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases and creating waste.

No one ever said trying to do the right thing was easy.

There's a wide variation in price and quality when it comes to steam cleaners. The hand-held variety can sell for under $50. Larger machines range from about $100 to well above $2,000. Tapping, who has used the devices in her own home for the past decade, says the best all-purpose machines are made in Italy, although their Asian counterparts have improved. If you can't invest in a high-quality machine, you might be better off with the job-specific variety, Tapping advises. Products that perform a single function -- cleaning floors, for instance -- increasingly are finding their way into the marketplace.

Tapping says buyers shopping for a steam cleaner should pay attention to the number of tools included and their uses, the length of the warranty, and whether the unit includes a comprehensive manual and/or instructional video. (Tapping and her staff recently tested a cleaner that included only a basic, three-page manual. "The machine was quite good, but if you were a novice user, you'd have no idea what to do or for what applications the tools could be used," she says.)

Jessica Bukowinski of Leesburg worked her way through the initial learning curve after acquiring an all-purpose machine in 2003. The high cost of replacing it led her to experiment, and today she relies solely on a steam mop, which she prefers to using chemicals on the floor for her part-time home child-care business, Active Family Services. "Like with any new technology, it's intimidating," she says. "But once you do it every week, it's really simple."

But it still is work. The steam might keep Bukowinski's floors disinfected and safe from chemical residue, but she still has to sweep up the remains of craft projects at the end of the day. "At some point you have to get down and clean up the big messes," she says.

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