How To Steam Clean Carpeting

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Many homeowners wonder how to steam clean carpeting to reduce dust or remove stains and odors before the holidays bring company and guests to their homes.

While you could certainly hire a pro to clean your carpets, it’s not a difficult task to do yourself. You just need to know how to do it properly, so you remove stains without making them set in permanently. Once you’ve correctly vacuumed and prepared your room, you’ll find the actual cleaning goes fast.

Plus, the results are so impressive that it’s a very rewarding chore!

How to Steam Clean Carpeting

Woman steam cleaning turquoise shag carpet with machine

What does it mean to steam clean carpeting?

The phrase “steam cleaning” distinguishes a water-based method of cleaning carpets from dry chemical compound methods used by some professional companies.

It’s not the steam that cleans the carpet, though: it’s the detergents which the steam (or hot water) activates. That is true when you rent or buy a machine, or when you hire professional steam cleaners to do it for you. Even dry chemical cleaning companies use a small amount of water!

Steam cleaning — or carpet shampooing — does not require professional equipment. It also does not have the concerns associated with dry chemical carpet cleaning.

However, since water is involved, it does take longer before your carpets to dry. For most people, the wait is worth the worries saved.

Prepare the Carpet for Cleaning

Carpet steamers (also known as carpet shampooers) aren’t vacuums. They’re specially 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 thoroughly before steam cleaning. That doesn’t mean your usual quick back-and-forth over the rug, either.

1. Pick up all toys, books and other items on the floor.

2. Move smaller furnishings to another room. Place aluminum foil squares under the legs of sofas or tables that you’re leaving in the room — the foil protects the legs from moisture. Leave the squares in place until the carpet is completely dry.

3. Dust your baseboards, so you’re not just knocking stuff off of them and back onto your carpet.

4. Use your crevice attachment around the base of the walls and any remaining furniture.

7. Vacuum carpeting in two directions, first slowly in one direction then again from a 90-degree angle. Although this seems like overkill, carpet fibers are twisted, so vacuuming from different directions ensures each “side” of the thread gets cleaned. (Here’s more on how to vacuum properly.)

Treat Stains

While the carpet cleaning machine will remove a lot of grime and dust, the heat involved can also make stains harder to remove. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, having cleaned your carpet only to find the stains come back a few days later.

Why do carpet stains return after shampooing? Because the cleaning process forced the grime into the carpet pad, and then the carpet fibers wicked it out of the pad and back to the surface.

Here’s how to remove carpet stains to keep them from coming back. It’s the same method I used to get dried paint, old pet messes, and even mystery stains out of carpeting in my home.

Before and after photos showing dried paint removed from carpet

Spot Test

It’s always a good idea to spot-test any cleaning product you plan to use on your carpet. A good place to do this is in a closet or other location that’s not readily visible.

This way, you don’t risk damaging or fading your entire carpet or making it fade. Such risks aren’t really a concern with most modern carpeting, but if yours is older or has been re-dyed, it’s best to check first.

Use These Two Non-Toxic Cleaners

If you are concerned about your carpet cleaning machine’s warranty, use the manufacturer’s recommended products and follow the directions on the bottle.

I’ve found the bottled carpet shampoos irritate our allergies due to their heavy perfumes, and they don’t seem to clean as well as the DIY carpet shampooing process below.

Step One: For the first step, find out how much water your machine’s tank holds. Fill the tank almost to the top with VERY hot (but not boiling) water and then add one tablespoon of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap (unscented) for every quart of water used.

Why use Castile soap to clean your carpet? Because it’s oil-based. Those darker places in high traffic areas on your carpet are also oil-based, usually from city grime from the bottom of your shoes. Chemically, “like dissolves like,” which makes Castile soap excellent at powering through carpet stains.

Nevertheless, it is soap, so it needs to be rinsed out of the carpet to finish the cleaning. That’s where the second step comes in.

Step Two: On the second go-through, use a 50-50 mix of distilled white vinegar and very hot water. (Do not use apple cider vinegar, which contains pectins that may attract household pests.)

In addition to neutralizing and removing the soap, vinegar also helps power through stains due to its acetic acid. So, this second pass-through will lift away more dirt and grime while also deodorizing your carpet.

No second rinse required. It is not necessary to follow it with a clean water rinse. Doing so may oversaturate your carpet. If you do want to perform a rinse, wait until the carpet has completely dried — about a day — then go over it again with plain water in the tank.

Let it dry. Wait 8-12 hours after cleaning to put furniture back in place. Just because the carpet feels dry when you touch it does not mean the pad below has finished drying. Be patient and give it most of a day for the sake of your carpet as well as your furnishings.

Operate the Carpet Cleaner 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 cleaner VERY slowly so you can remove 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. If you can’t open the windows, then run fans to help your carpets dry before mildew can set in.

How Often Should You Steam Clean Carpet?

At a minimum, you should steam clean your carpeting once a year. Late Spring is a good time since the weather is usually warm enough that you can open windows to speed the drying process. (Here is how often to clean everything in your home.)

If you have pets or suffer from allergies, then you’ll want to steam clean your carpet every four months. Any more often will make your carpet fade and wear out too quickly.

Comment Policy

Comments are moderated. It may take up to 72 hours for moderated comments to appear. I welcome and encourage questions and discussion. However, I will not approve comments that are off-topic, repetitive, or contain hateful or threatening language, advertising or spam. Comments asking for information already covered in the article will not be approved.

Comments may be removed in the future if the information they contain or seek becomes outdated or gets incorporated within the article itself.

66 Comments

  1. 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

    1. Katie Berry 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.

    2. TruthSeeker says:

      Tropical Traditions makes a great unscented castile without added fats The only ingredient is saponified coconut oil.

    3. Katie Berry says:

      Good to know. Thanks!

  2. 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”.

    Grrrr….

    1. 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.)

  3. 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?

    1. Katie Berry says:

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

    2. 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!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

    3. Katie Berry says:

      You’re very welcome!

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  4. 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?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It broke, and I bought a different one to replace it. I prefer the Bissell. 🙂

    2. I have a shark steam cleaner for furniture , curtains , ect. Have not used it yet except the shark steam floor cleaner , it quit , believe it waas left on . But my question is on cleaner furniture with my shark , many pads with it , flat white ones , purple with twisted 1/2 twisted strings on it ., but it says just use plain water .whats your thoughts , i have in the past used dawn dish soap in water to clean dpots by hand . AND I NO FIRST HAND ABOUT THE DIRT COMING BACK , TRIED TO EXPLANE THAT TO MY HUSBAND . SEEING IT WITH HIS OWN ETES , STILL DONT BELIEVE ANYTHING I TELL HIM. .THANKS AHEAD FOR SNY SUGGESTIONS . GOD BLESS

    3. Katie Berry says:

      I’ve never tried using that one, Lisa, so I don’t really know how it works. Sorry!

  5. 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!

    1. 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?

  6. Sue Flemke 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?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      My old machine heated the water, but I have to heat the water for the one I use these days.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. Just found your site and LOVE it! This response makes me believe that we would be great friends. No BS, straight to the point, i.e., you are an IDIOT and I can’t be bothered to waste my time with you ! LOLOLOL LOVE IT!

    3. Katie Berry says:

      LOL. Thank you!

  8. 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?

    1. 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.

  9. Bernadette Morgan says:

    Very helpful post! I’m almost done with my fall cleaning and home and needed good advice on how to clean my carpets. Tips in this post are nice and quite useful. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Nettie Hubbard says:

    Amazing tips! For me as a mother it’s very important to know more cleaning ways. Thank you for sharing how to maintain the carpets!

  11. Any tips on how to get those black filtration lines to disappear from the perimeters of wall to wall carpets? I just moved into a house where the rugs are in pretty good condition except for those grimy black lines. It’s hard to get carpet cleaners close enough to the baseboards to get that area clean.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m dealing with the same thing in one of my rooms right now. If your shampooer has an upholstery attachment you can get those black lines up. It’s tedious, but it works. Otherwise, try spraying a mixture of vinegar, hot water and a few drops of dish detergent on the area and blotting with a clean rag, or even using a wet/dry vac. Good luck!

  12. Wow, your post on steam cleaning the carpets really touches all the important parts. I am a professional cleaner and operate the heavy professional carpet steam cleaners each day. The process you describe will work perfectly for every household and I recommend to do it once or even twice a year – during the spring cleaning and before the winter. Deep cleaning the carpets before the colder months will minimize the dirt build-up after and it will be a lot faster and easier to clean them the next spring. I also use a finishing product called Scotchgard which protects carpets from future stains.

  13. I have a runner in my foyer that’s made of wall to wall carpet. Steam cleaned it as my dogs tend to soil it. It still smells like urine which is disgusting. Thinking of steam cleaning the backing hoping it would eliminate the odors. Is it possible to do that without damaging the carpet?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Steaming the back of the runner could, indeed, ruin it. The backing is typically where carpet fibers are glued into place; the high heat of the steam can ruin this glue. Try these methods for cleaning pet stains instead.

  14. Your information was so very helpful. Your posts answered all my questions: the black lines near the baseboard; what if my carpet really doesn’t get clean the first time – when should I go over it again; and can I use a cleaning rinse with vinegar:). Thanks so much!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m happy to have helped, Ann!

  15. I just finished cleaning my carpets and I wish I had found you sooner! Great tips! They will be put to good use next time. The vinegar and water is genius. I bet it cleans out the machine and keeps it working longer, too. Can’t wait to read more of your blogs! From one house wife to another, thanks for your advice!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thanks, Tricia! I love how the vinegar-water mix really lifts away stains and kills odors without leaving behind a residue that attracts more dirt. Just be sure to use the right proportion or you could damage your machine.

  16. Long story is, I moved into a new apartment, in new city with carpeting, My pet Boston Terrier is still adjusting to the new environment, and has been urinating in the apartment. There are no visible, pet stains, as I have tried to clean up the “deposits” after coming home from work. Bought UV flashlight to find the missed invisible but odiferous deposits and ending up finding all types of old stains in carpet that had to have come from previous tenant(s) and what has to be a cleaning trail of spots from previous steam clean. Goal = to clean carpet to remove smell that I can detect, and want to clean it to a level my dog cannot detect. My planned MO is:
    1. Vacuum thoroughly (after covering furniture legs with foil
    2. Pre treat bright uv areas with ???
    – Dawn & water mix.
    – Dawn, borax, H2Peroxide & water mix?
    – Or Iron method with 1:3 Vinegar Water?
    – Prefer not to use ammonia (not pet friendly).
    3. Finish with 2 step general steam carpet clean method?
    – Should I top damp carpet after steaming with Baking soda to further neutralize
    4. Vacuum after allowing to dry overnight

    I am at my wit’s end with the smell, and am tempted to just pour essential oils all over. I feel I am making things complicated, and looking for the most thorough but simplified method based on your experience.

    Thanks!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Don’t pour essential oils all over — many can harm your pet! I think your MO sounds just fine, but for step 2 I’d sprinkle baking soda over the spots that brighten under UV light then spray vinegar on top of the baking soda. It will fizz and neutralize the urine. Blot that up and then proceed to steam cleaning the carpet. I don’t think I’d sprinkle baking soda on top of the damp carpet at that point. If you’re still concerned about odors, I might sprinkle it on after the carpet has dried, work it in with a broom or dry mop, and wait an hour before vacuuming. Best of luck!

  17. We live in a rental home, carpets were in pretty bad shape to begin with. I have a Kirby with shampoo option which I have used, but not much success. Looking at buying a cleaner but not wanting to spend a ton. Do you think I should go over the carpet several times, or do it once & wait until it is completely dry and try again later?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Ugh, the Kirby Sentra with the shampoo attachment. Shauna, I have one of those, too, and I’ll be honest: I don’t think it does a very good job of shampooing carpets. Kirbys have brilliant suction when vacuuming, but they just don’t shampoo a carpet as thoroughly as a dedicated carpet shampooer. That’s why, even before my Kirby died (don’t get me started about how they failed to honor their warranty), I bought that carpet shampoo machine listed in this blog post. That said, if you do want to keep using the Kirby, I think you should let the carpet dry between each attempt. Even though Kirbys don’t put out much water (one of the reasons they don’t work as well), too many passes will get your carpet padding and subfloor damp, and that leads to mold and mildew that is almost impossible to get rid of from a carpet.

  18. Hi,

    Thank you for your very helpful article. Could you please clarify for me whether I should be doing step 1 in both directions on the carpet followed by step 2 in both directions? Does one cleaning then consist of 4 passes over the carpet? Finally could I do step 1 on one day and step 2 the next day?

    Thanks again!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Since we don’t want to oversaturate the carpet, step 1 and 2 are only in one direction. (It’s the vacuuming that gets done in both directions.) You can certainly do both step 1 one day and step 2 the next if you like. Best of luck!

  19. If the carpet cleaner uses 12 cups of clean water, how much dirty water should you get back in the return basin? I am concerned my shampooer is not sucking up enough water. I know a certain percent of water will remain in the carpet, but what percent is that? Right now it takes 12 cups to fill and when I dump the dirty water there is only 2 cups. I am worrying that too much water is being left in the carpets and causing damage or mold.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      There’s really no way to answer this, Chris, since every machine is different. It does seem that you should get more than 2 cups of water out after putting down 12 cups. I’d suggest following the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning your machine. I know when pet hair and carpet fibers clog the intake valves on mine I stop getting as much water out as I should.

  20. Hi Katie,
    Reading over your stain-removing post, you ended by cleaning with the steamer/shampooer with 1 quarter vinegar, filling with hot water and a few drops of Dawn. Why not use that as your main cleaning solution? Is that not as effective as the castille soap you recommend here?
    Thanks for your guidance.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It required several steps.

  21. Molly Lord-Garrettson says:

    Thank you so much! This worked wonders. I am so pleased to find a Bronner’s solution.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome! I trust Bronner’s and, like you, am always happy when I can find a cleaning solution which uses it.

  22. Followed your directions to the letter, and my carpet looks brand new. Thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Fantastic! I’m glad I could help. 🙂

  23. I have an off-white area rug thar sits on a rubber pad on top of bamboo floors. Just the areas where we sit are dirty. Rather then having to send the whole rug out for cleaning (it’s only a year old), I would like to steam clean only the area that’s dirty. I am concerned, however about soaking through the pad and possibly ruining the wood beneath. Can you make any suggestions on how to clean this area?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Maybe take it outside to do?

  24. I love your tips! I arrived here after googling a specific question: could I save money by buying a bargain brand spray cleaner then using only your near boiling water tip to clean my carpets as opposed to buying the expensive bissell formula? Or is that inadvisable?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I don’t use the expensive formula, though I would never recommend adding a spray cleaner to a carpet cleaning machine. Try the instructions in the blog post and I think you’ll be pleased.

  25. Hi there. I’m new to the website and have just become obsessed with reading all these posts on cleaning! I became a mum at a young age – the age of 19 – and both me and my partner never really had much interest in cleaning. In fact, we lacked motivation to clean as much as we should! Now i’m 25 though, I’ve been getting into healthier cleaning habits. However i’m also on a tight budget but have noticed that my carpets are getting duller. Would you recommend getting a steam cleaner? The appeal of steam cleaning my bathroom and hard floor is strong but I really just don’t know what steam cleaner to go for – or even what to look for! Love your reviews and how-to’s – they’ve really motivated AND my partner into loving our home more!

  26. Wow! I have owned my carpet machine for years, but I’ve NEVER gotten results like this. I wish I had taken a before and after.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Fantastic news!

  27. Dr. Bronner does make an unscented one.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Susie,
      That’s good to know!

  28. Ryann Carter says:

    I’m a bit confused. I just bought a carpet cleaner so I’m not super familiar with it. When you say do a second go with vinegar, do you mean empty the tank and go again then? I thought one tank was for the solution to go out, one tank was for the sucked up solution to go in, but I’ve seen several references to filling both tanks. I’m sorry!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Ryann! I understand this may seem confusing with a new carpet cleaner! You’re right: the machines have two tanks. One holds cleaning solution and one holds dirty water suctioned up from the floor. Between step 1 and 2 in this, you empty both tanks. So, after you’ve cleaned the carpet once with the Castile solution, you dump that out and the dirty water, too. Then you refill the tank that holds the cleaner with the vinegar solution, put both tanks back in place, and clean the carpet again.

      But since you
      mentioned that it’s a new machine, check your instruction manual. Using something other than what the manufacturer recommends might void your warranty.

  29. Can I use this on wool carpet?
    Many thanks!!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Vinegar diluted with water is a great way to clean and freshen wool rugs, and Castile soap is gentle enough for them, too. Don’t get the water too hot, though. You know what what does to will sweaters, and it’s the same with carpeting. It’ll smell like wet dog as it dries — that’s the nature of wool — but your carpet will be clean and odor-free soon enough. Enjoy!

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