How To Steam Clean Carpeting

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With Spring Cleaning well underway in many homes, now’s the time many homemakers wonder how to steam clean carpeting to reduce household dust and odors, remove stains, and get their floor deep-down clean. Obviously, you can go the more-expensive route and hire professional carpet cleaners, but once you know how to steam clean carpeting it’s easy to achieve professional results on your own.

The most important step? Understanding that these are actually three distinct steps, and while doing all three may seem like overkill, the combination lets our home gear accomplish just as good a job as the expensive, powerful commercial equipment.

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How To Steam Clean Carpeting

Vacuum first! Carpet steamers (also known as carpet shampooers) aren’t vacuums. They’re specifically designed to wash and at least partially dry carpets, extracting grime as they go. If you want them to get the ground-in dirt out of your carpet, you must vacuum it thoroughly before steam cleaning it. That doesn’t mean your usual quick back-and-forth over the carpet, either. To thoroughly vacuum your carpet, you need to follow a few extra steps.

  1. Pick up all toys, books and other items on the floor.
  2. Remove your furniture or, at the very least, pick up smaller pieces (floor lamps, ottomans, etc.) and take them to another room.
  3. Dust your baseboards so you’re not just knocking stuff off of them and back on to your freshly-vacuumed carpet.
  4. Using your crevice attachment, go around the base of the walls, fireplace hearth, and all of the edges of the carpeting.
  5. If you weren’t able to remove all of your furniture, use the crevice attachment to go around the base of heavier, immobile items (e.g., a piano).
  6. Switch to the flooring attachment (it’s a flat one, usually with small rollers on the bottom) and vacuum beneath heavier furniture, like a raised sofa or armchair.
  7. Using the standard vacuum set-up, vacuum your carpeting slowly in one direction using a back-and-forth motion. When you’ve completed the entire room, vacuum it again from a 90-degree angle. Although this seems like overkill, it’s not, since carpet fibers are actually twisted so vacuuming from different directions ensures each “side” of the fiber gets cleaned.

Treat stains next. Yes, the carpet cleaning machine will remove quite a bit of grime and dust from your flooring, but the heat involved can also set stains, making them even more difficult to remove. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, having cleaned your carpet only to find the stains returning a few days later. Why? Because the cleaning process forced the grime into the carpet pad and later the carpet fibers wicked it out of the pad and back to the surface.

I’ve been through that same frustration myself, so here’s my tutorial about how to remove carpet stains. For even scarier stains, see my guide on how to remove dried paint and other set-in stains from carpet.

Prepare the room: If you can remove all of the furniture from the room, great. If not, you’ll want to cut squares of wax paper or aluminum foil and slide them beneath the edges or feet of furniture. This will protect your furniture and keep it from absorbing any moisture in the carpet left behind after steam cleaning. Leave them in place until the carpet is thoroughly dry, usually about a day.

It’s always a good idea to spot-test any cleaning product you plan to use on your carpet. I recommend testing in a closet or other out-of-the-way location. This way you don’t risk damaging or fading your carpet with a product that’s not right for it.

Use the machine properly. Most carpet steam cleaners are designed to lay down water when you’re pushing the machine forward then extract it while you pull it back. Be sure to pull the machine VERY slowly so you can extract as much water as possible. Too much water left behind will cause your carpet padding to get soaked and can lead to mold, mildew, and horrible odors. For this reason it’s also best to steam clean carpeting when the weather is warm enough to open the windows, since that will speed up drying considerably.

My two-step process: If you are concerned about your machine’s warranty then, by all means, use the products recommended by the manufacturer. I’ve had great success using the following two-step method and it’s never caused a problem with my machine.

Most carpet cleaning machine manufacturers recommend using their specially-formulated products. These products are also highly perfumed, something that can irritate allergies and asthma. I’ve also found they don’t clean any better than using a homemade solution while costing much, much more.

Step One: For the first step, I use 1 tablespoon of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap for every quart of almost (but not) boiling water while filling my machine’s tank. This stuff is amazing in its ability to power through grime, and I’m always amazed at just what a difference that first pass-through makes to my carpet. But Dr. Bronner’s is soap, and leaving soap on carpeting can attract even more grime, which is why I do a second pass-through.

Step Two: On the second go-through, I use a 50-50 mix of white vinegar and almost boiling water which has the effect of neutralizing the soap while extracting it along with any remaining grime.

How often? At a minimum, you need to steam clean your carpeting once a year. If you have pets, suffer from allergies, or wear shoes indoors then you’ll want to steam clean or shampoo your carpet more often — in late Spring and late Autumn are good times since it’s typically warm enough to open the windows to speed the drying process. Between steam cleanings or shampooing it’s important that you vacuum your carpets at least once a week, including around the base of the walls, and more often in high-traffic areas.

Equipment I Use For This:



  1. Katie B. says

    I need to get motivated to do it, too. Until now, the weather’s been cooperating by remaining cold and snowy, so I really didn’t feel like it was time to Spring Clean. But now? It’s sunny and we’re expecting temperatures in the 60s for several days. Guess I can’t put it off much longer. Oh, and thank you for the invite, Julie. I’m already linked up! :)

  2. Camille says

    I have a question regarding the Dr. Bronner cleaner. When I look for that product, all of them have a ‘scent’ such as Almond, Lavender, etc. Are any of those OK or should I continue to look for one without a scent? This my first time to your site, and I’m intrigued and impressed by the natural products you use and the methods (and frankly, the organization) that you recommend. I have had a house cleaner for the past 5 years and she recently left. I’m retired now and have decided to do it myself. I’m a tad rusty to say the least and looking for excellent results in minimal time! lol I AM retired after all! Thanks so much

    • Katie B. says

      Camille, it’s so nice to meet a new reader! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an unscented Dr. Bronner soap in the store, either. I’ve used both the peppermint and the lavender and have never had a problem (aside from a sudden craving for candy canes in the middle of August once). My condolences on your housekeeper’s retirement. You must feel so lost trying to remember it all! If there’s anything I can do to help you get back in the swing of doing it yourself (besides cleaning for you HAHAHA), let me know.

  3. Richard says

    Ummmm… in spite of the four headings that talk about steam cleaning carpeting, this article isn’t about “How To Steam Clean Carpeting”. It’s about how to use a carpet cleaning machine to clean carpet, not a *steam* producing machine.

    It wouldn’t matter, but you have to read an awful lot of text until you get to the bit that says, “it’s important to realize that most carpet steam cleaners are designed to lay down water when you’re pushing the machine forward, and extract it while you pull it back toward you”.


    • Katie Berry says

      My apologies for your frustration, Richard. Most consumer-purchased residential carpet cleaning machines are hot water extraction systems, but are commonly referred to as steam cleaners. Unless you’ve purchased an industrial system, cleaners that actually work by injecting steam into the carpet aren’t as effective as their hot water counterparts, especially if they don’t also extract moisture. (Not to mention, steam is a lovely way of ruining the backing, and eventually the carpet.)

  4. Esther Romero says

    I have a bissel machine where the water and detergent containers are separate, no mixing needed. When you say you use 1 tbls. of Dr. Bonner’s soap for every quart of water, are you mixing them? I’m assuming I would simply fill my detergent container full with either the soap or the vinegar and allow the machine to mix them, as per the operating instructions?

    • Katie Berry says

      Yes, my machine has one dispenser that hot water and soap go into. You should always follow your machine’s instructions.

      • ARick64 says

        Thanks for a great, well-written article! I didn’t have any trouble at all understand your directions and I totally plan on steam-cleaning my carpets today using all of your advice. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!! :)

      • VLemon says

        DO you think it is ok to FILL cleaner part with the Dr Bronners soap?? Won’t get carpet too soapy?? I also have a Bissell.

      • Katie Berry says

        Did you even bother to read the article before leaving a comment? I’m pretty clear that you aren’t to FILL the cleaner with Dr. Bronners. You add a small amount along with water, and then you follow with a second cleaning using water and vinegar to get rid of any soap residue.

  5. Marsha says

    I am new to your site, and thoroughly enjoying all the advice. I noticed that in this article you recommend the BISSELL PowerLifter PowerBrush Upright Deep Cleaner, 1622
    machine, but an earlier post, it’s a Hoover SteamVac Carpet Cleaner with Clean Surge, F5914900. I am planning to purchase a steam vac, but now I’m confused on which one?

  6. Linda says

    Can I use my Bissell steam cleaner to clean rugs on top of engineered hard wood floors? Love the tip about putting down foil so you don’t have to move big pieces of furniture. Thanks bunches!

    • Katie Berry says

      I really wouldn’t recommend it. Engineered wood is sensitive to moisture, and I’d worry that the Bissel wouldn’t dry the rug enough to prevent warping the floor. Maybe move the rug to a patio to steam clean?

  7. says

    I have a question. Do you use a regular carpet machine or does yours heat the water? I’m thinking of just getting a regular machine and putting hot water into it. It sounds like what you did, correct?

  8. Delores Lyon says

    Thanks for sharing this advice on keeping carpets clean! The last thing I want is a house that has a ton of stains from ineffective cleaning. Do you happen to have any advice when it comes to hiring a carpet cleaner? It would be nice if I had someone do the cleaning for me so that I don’t have to take too much time out of my day to do it myself.

    • Katie Berry says

      My first suggestion would be not to hire blog comment-spamming carpet cleaning companies or janitorial services like the one you work for. If you aren’t smart enough to realize that this is a “no_follow” blog, and that I delete URLs to commercial sites, you certainly aren’t smart enough to be dealing with carpet stains. And that’s saying a lot.

  9. T-Bone says

    I have a hoover and Ive looked everywhere for this answer and cant find it. How many times do you clean your carpet? Ive done mine 6 times in a row making sure I maximize water extractions and let the carpet dry a little between passes. The water in my bucket while its not as dark as it once was is far from tap water clean looking. How do I know if Ive given it enough cleanings?

    • Katie Berry says

      It just depends on how dirty it is, T-Bone. I’m always concerned about soaking the pad and causing mildew, so I usually do one cleaning working the length of the room then another working the width. If it’s still looking dirty a week later I’ll do it again — especially the high-traffic areas. But that way I feel a bit more confident that the pad didn’t get soaked through.

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