Carpet Cleaning – Dry vs. Steam

by | Dec 2, 2020 | Window Cleaning

A common question that we are asked ahead of carpet cleaning bookings is “How long will we have to wait before we will be able to walk on the carpet?” and the answer is a surprise to many people: you can walk on the carpets straight away! Now, there are a few obvious conditions that go along with this, including “don’t wear your muddy boots” and “the carpets will still be damp for a little while, so maybe slippers is a good option” but you will have access to the affected areas of your home. Little tangent on this last point, the drying time depends on an array of factors including the weather, the type of carpet and the carpet cleaning package that you selected, but we generally say to allow a minimum of 5 hours until the carpets should be dry and it will normally be less than 10. But the topic that we are here to discuss is the pros and cons of dry and steam carpet cleaning. So let’s start by defining both:

Dry Carpet Cleaning systems are more accurately known as “very low moisture” (VLM) systems since they are not purely “dry” – they utilize water along with other chemical compounds in both liquid and solid form (powders or crystals). 

Steam Carpet Cleaning systems are more accurately known as “hot water extraction” (HWE) systems (also called hot water soil extraction systems) since they do not really use “steam” as the cleaning catalyst, rather it is heated water mixed with a carpet detergent, often aided by other chemicals in both liquid and solid form (powders or crystals).

Comparison of Attributes 

Similarities 

Both “dry” & “steam” carpet cleaning:

  • Use specially formulated chemicals
  • Utilize agitation of the carpet fibers (although typically dry cleaning agitates the carpets more than steam cleaning)
  • Rely on vacuum suction
  • Require additional carpet treatments to aid in the removal of especially difficult stains or to protect the carpet fibers
  • Allow for the carpets to be walked on straight away (as long as what they are walked on with is clean!)

Differences

“Steam” & “dry” carpet cleaning differ in that:

  • Some dry carpet cleaning machines (bonnet cleaners) utilize absorbent pads and a circular buffing motion to remove impurities from carpet fibers
  • As the phrase “hot water extraction” implies, steam cleaning relies on spraying a hot water solution into the carpets and then extracting it back out, along with the impurities in your carpets
  • Dry carpet cleaning, as the name implies, aims to clean the carpets with less liquid and to reduce drying time – anything from 1-4 hours until fully dry
  • Steam carpet cleaning has a longer drying time, typically 5-10 hours until fully dry
  • Because dry cleaning aims for less water to be used in the cleaning process, it typically requires harsher chemicals than steam cleaning whilst providing a less thorough clean
  • Only steam cleaning (HWE) is truly restorative and is recommended as such by the Australian and New Zealand Carpet Cleaning Standard AS/NZS 3733 2018 edition

What Makes a Carpet Clean?

In the dot points above it says that dry cleaning provides a “less thorough clean” whilst requiring “harsher chemicals” – so what is going on there? Well, water is one of the most powerful cleaning compounds known to man and it is at the heart of nearly all cleaning processes. Water alone is not a very effective cleaning agent because of its high surface tension which results in inhibited penetration, especially when it comes to greasy substances – however by mixing water with a specific cleaning chemical fit for the job at hand, nearly anything can be accomplished! Carpet detergents, for example, enable the water to break through grease and other built up debris on or within your carpet fibers to release these and enable their extraction. Imagine, however, using only detergent without water to clean your dishes or your clothes. It would be a greasy, slimy disaster! The same is true with carpets. Now, don’t misunderstand this, dry cleaning as mentioned above is not really “dry” so there is water and other liquid compounds at play here. However, by limiting the use of water in favour of speedier drying times, the depth of the cleaning is also reduced. To compensate for this, the chemicals used for dry cleaning tend to be more concentrated, more numerous and more pungent than those used for steam carpet cleaning. Because of the depth of penetration from steam carpet cleaning, it is much more effective against dust mites, allergens (can remove over 97%) and bacteria within your carpets. 

So What’s Best for Your Needs?

Many high traffic commercial carpet areas, such as hotel lobby’s, benefit from the speedier drying time of dry cleaning. Whilst steam cleaned carpets can be walked on straight away, this is not ideal in high volume and can also present an OH&S issue if a person is walking from wet carpet onto a “slippery when wet” surface such as tiles. Having said that, steam carpet cleaning provides a deeper clean than dry carpet cleaning and overall has very few real drawbacks – it is the preferred method for most applications. 

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