The 6 Best Carpet Cleaners, According to Our Testing
To determine the best carpet cleaners, we rounded up 24 of the most popular carpet cleaners on the market and put them through thorough testing in our Lab, evaluating them on their ability to remove various types of stains, as well as their noise level, design, and overall value. Each carpet cleaner was used to clean medium-pile carpet samples stained with wet potting soil, orange juice, ketchup, and fresh coffee. We also consulted David Ragsdale, production manager at SERVPRO, for expert tips on how to choose the best carpet cleaner for your specific needs.
Our top pick, the Hoover SmartWash PET Complete Automatic Carpet Cleaner, was extremely effective at removing stains in our Lab tests, and it features a number of attachments that make it more versatile for both wall-to-wall carpet cleaning and spot treating.
Read on for more of our best carpet cleaner picks, as well as tips on how to choose the right carpet cleaner for your home.
Our Top Picks
- Best Overall Carpet Cleaner: Hoover SmartWash PET Complete Automatic Carpet Cleaner
- Best Budget Carpet Cleaner: Hoover Spotless Portable Carpet & Upholstery Spot Cleaner
- Best Portable Carpet Cleaner: Bissell Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner
- Best Carpet Cleaner for Pets: Bissell Jetscrub Pet Carpet Cleaner
- Best Carpet Cleaner for Small Spaces: Hoover PowerDash Pet Compact Carpet Cleaner
- Best Commercial-Style Carpet Cleaner: Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 Commercial Pro
After several days spent testing in our Lab, we declared the Hoover SmartWash PET Complete Automatic Carpet Cleaner our best overall pick because of its impressive cleaning abilities and its many special features that set it apart from the competition.
Our Testing Process
We gathered 24 of the best carpet cleaners on the market, including commercial, upright, and portable machines, and spent three days rigorously testing them in our Lab. First, we evaluated the ease of setup by using a stopwatch to measure how long it took to unbox and assemble each carpet cleaner.
Then it was time to test each machine's effectiveness at removing stains: The night before our stain removal testing, we stained medium-pile carpet samples with wet potting soil, orange juice, and ketchup. We made sure the stains were really worked into the carpet fibers by rubbing them in with rubber gloves. Each stain was then topped with short pieces of wig hair to mimic pet hair, and pushed into the carpet. Everything was left to dry overnight, and on the day of our stain testing, we added a fresh coffee stain to test how effective each carpet cleaner was at removing fresh stains, too. Testers evaluated how well each carpet cleaner removed the stains, and let the clean samples sit out overnight to see whether they were still wet the next morning. During testing, we used a decibel meter to record the noise level of each machine.
We also assessed the design and portability of each machine, the range of attachments, and ease of emptying and cleaning. Finally, our Lab testers decided on overall value, considering each product's price relative to performance.
How to Shop for Carpet Cleaners Like a Pro
"You must determine if you are going to be using it for a large area on a regular basis, or if it is only for spot treatments between professional cleanings," says Ragsdale. Do you have pets or kids that make big messes? Look for a carpet cleaner with a powerful motor that can tackle tough stains and a large tank that can cover large areas.
For cleaning area rugs, it's important to purchase a carpet cleaner with good water extraction so you don't over saturate your rug. Area rugs also have a tendency to hold onto dirt and dust, but a machine with a powerful rotating brush will help to lift these out with ease.
Finally, if you're shopping for a carpet cleaner for spot cleaning small areas, cleaning upholstery, or car interiors, look for a portable carpet cleaner that is lightweight and easy to maneuver.
Carpet cleaners generally come in three different sizes: upright, portable, and commercial.
Upright carpet cleaners, which resemble upright vacuum cleaners, are designed to tackle wall-to-wall carpeting. They generally have large tanks with more cleaning capacity and more powerful motors. However, their build and heft can make them difficult to maneuver around small spaces.
Portable carpet cleaners are much smaller and feature narrower cleaning pathways for spot cleaning carpets, furniture, car interiors, etc. They're lightweight and designed to clean up messes like spills or pet stains in between deep cleanings. Some households may choose to own both an upright carpet cleaner for deep cleaning entire rooms and a portable carpet cleaner for spot cleaning. Some upright carpet cleaners can be used for both deep cleaning and spot cleaning, but portable carpet cleaners tend to be much more convenient to use for small spills and stains.
Finally, a commercial carpet cleaner is a big machine meant for big cleaning jobs. If you're someone who frequently rents carpet cleaning machines or hires professional carpet cleaners, investing in a commercial-style carpet cleaner can save you money in the long run. However, they're big, bulky, and difficult to store, not to mention pricey. For homes or businesses with a lot of carpet, they can make a great investment, but for the average person, an upright or portable carpet cleaner will be easier to use and more economical.
Attachments and Accessories
Extra tools like an extended hose or a crevice cleaning tool can be helpful for maneuvering around stairs, furniture, car interiors, etc. Some attachments may be included with the carpet cleaner, while others must be purchased separately. More attachments make for a more versatile device, but it also means there will be more setup and cleaning involved.
Upright carpet cleaners generally have large tank capacities, which means they'll have more cleaning power and require fewer refills. However, this also means they'll be heavier, and the weight will only increase as they fill up with dirty water. Some carpet cleaners feature a dual or two-tank design, meaning there's one for clean water and another for dirty water. This means you won't have to keep emptying and refilling the tank because the water is dirty.
Most quality carpet cleaners come with extra features that set them apart from the competition. These could include things like a cleaning agent dispenser that automatically adds cleaning solution to the water, dry-only settings that suck up water to speed up dry time, an internal water heater to help you heat or maintain the temperature of the water, a rotating brush for lifting dirt, stain pretreatment, and more.
More Carpet Cleaners to Consider
Bissell ProHeat 2X Revolution Pet Pro Deep Cleaner: When it comes to the ability to remove tough stains, this model is up there with our best overall pick. It really stands out for its HeatWave technology, which helps to maintain the temperature of the water you put in the tank. Unfortunately, testers found it bulky and cumbersome to use.
Questions You Might Ask
How do carpet cleaners work?
According to Ragsdale, most commercial carpet cleaners use what's known as "hot water extraction" to clean carpets: "To clean carpet, soils must be suspended in a solution and then extracted. Soil suspension is achieved by using heat (hot water), cleaning product, and agitation to separate the soils from the carpet fibers…Once soils are separated from the carpet fibers they can be 'washed' out of the carpet with hot water, leaving the carpet free of soils and cleaning product residues." Many carpet cleaners also feature a powerful suction to remove moisture for quicker drying.
What is the difference between a carpet cleaner and a steam cleaner?
Carpet cleaners are sometimes referred to as "steam cleaners," but this is actually a misnomer. The difference between the two largely comes down to the use of a cleaning agent: "A carpet deep cleaner is going to perform a shampooing action," says Ragsdale. "Shampooing is achieved with aggressive agitation of a product into the carpet which will create a shampoo/foam and that is then extracted."
A steam cleaner, on the other hand, relies solely on steam and water to loosen dirt, and then vacuums it up into a holding tank. The high temperature can act as a disinfectant and help get rid of pests, germs, and allergens. Some steam cleaners can work on both carpets and hard surfaces, while others might have a steam output that's too powerful and can damage carpet fibers. And, without the use of carpet cleaning solutions, steam cleaners may struggle to remove set-in stains.
In general, steam cleaners can help to refresh your carpets, but for heavily soiled carpets, a carpet cleaner is the better choice.
How often should you clean your carpets?
Ragsadle suggests deep cleaning your carpets every six months to a year, depending on the foot traffic of the area. However, owning a home carpet cleaning machine—as opposed to renting one or hiring a professional service—means you can achieve a deeper clean as often as you think necessary, whether it be monthly or even weekly. If you have pets, kids, or other sources of build-up, you may want to do more frequent cleanings. In between deep cleanings, you can use a portable carpet cleaner or the crevice/upholstery attachment on your upright carpet cleaner to spot treat any stains and spills.
Take Our Word for It
This article was written by Melanie Fincher, associate commerce editor for Real Simple with nearly three years of experience writing product reviews and lifestyle content. To compile this list, we tested 24 carpet cleaners over the course of three days in our Lab and evaluated each model on its ease of setup, effectiveness, versatility, noise level, design, portability, and overall value. For expert tips on how to buy a carpet cleaner, Melanie consulted David Ragsdale, production manager at SERVPRO.