Steam cleaners clean differently from any other method you might use. Because of this, they are often the only tool to get rid of stains and dirt that nothing else will touch.

A steam cleaner simply uses plain tap water (or preferably distilled water), which it heats to over the boiling point of 212°F/100°C, and forces out under pressure through a nozzle. Just creating steam, which increases the volume of liquid water over 1,700 times, creates all the pressure needed, and no additional pump is required. Because of this, steam cleaners are often very simple machines—the trigger or button to activate it might be the only moving part.

When the superheated steam comes out of the nozzle, the heat dissolves the bonds that are sticking tough dirt and stains to your car upholstery and other surfaces, while the moisture dilutes it to lift it away and keep it from sticking again. There’s little water used in a given area, and between that and the heat, surfaces then dry rapidly. Steam cleaners work best when you vacuum first to remove any loose dirt and then for maximum cleanliness, again afterward to pick up anything the steam cleaner has loosened from your car upholstery. A powerful shop vac, which has good suction and can suck up water, is perfect for this. There are heated carpet extractors that combine suction and steam cleaning in one unit, but they are professional machines that usually only detailers would use and often cost over $1,000. 

About Steam Cleaning

Steam cleaning was originally an industrial process in the mid-1800s, but because of the energy needed to boil water in a pressure chamber, steam cleaners for household use didn’t appear in North America until the late 1980s, long after they had been available in Europe. They took a while to catch on, but by the early 2000s, they had started to evolve into the large variety of affordable and convenient models available today. We sift through the bulky industrial and heavy-duty models to highlight the best steam cleaners that can perform various tasks within your vehicle and inside your home.

For more information on the best steam cleaners for your car and how to use them, refer to our table of contents.

1. Editor's Pick: McCulloch Heavy-Duty Steam Cleaner (MC1275)

McCulloch steamer

A long hose and cord are very helpful when working inside a car. Photo credit: David Traver Adolphus / AutoGuide.com.

McCulloch regularly tops best steam cleaners lists, and when we bought one to test, we thought it was the best value, too. The McCulloch MC1275 has a 1,500-watt heating element, and the steam is pressurized to 43 PSI, so it really blasts away stuck on grit deep in cupholders.  We found heating time beat the advertised 10 minutes at around eight, although some users mentioned slower times. With a 48-ounce water tank, the McCulloch should provide enough steam for 45 minutes of continuous cleaning, with a trigger lock to keep it going without having to hold it down. If you don’t need that much steam, filling the tank less allows it to heat faster.

The McCulloch has a 15.7-foot power cord and 10-foot steam hose, and wheels at both ends, so it rolls around easily. It comes with 18 accessories, which are mostly more useful for household use, rather than in a car. We liked the lower 212°F/100°C steam temperature because there’s little risk of damaging anything, but hotter steam is more effective for cleaning.

The MC1275 steamer earns an Amazon’s Choice selection and, with over 13,000 customer reviews, has a strong 86% positive rating. For those not satisfied, McCulloch’s Kansas-based team will help you with a two-year warranty. 

2: Best Bargain: Bissell SteamShot

Bissell Steamshot steam cleaner

Bissell's steamer is a good choice for automotive and light household use. Photo credit: Amazon.com.

Vacuum titans Bissell makes 14 different steam cleaners but only one handheld model, the convenient little 1,000-watt Model 39N7A SteamShot. It has a 200ml/7.4oz tank that makes steam at 66 PSI up to 120°F/49°C, which isn’t hot enough to disinfect. However, it’s also not hot enough to damage any materials inside a car, which we consider a feature. It’s also much safer to work around than high-temperature, high-pressure steamers.

The SteamShot steam cleaner comes with eight tools, including an angle concentrator which is perfect for little seams inside a car. Three upholstery brushes are included as well. The cord is a useful 20 feet long. The description of what accessories are included differs between Amazon’s listing and the Bissell site, which lists an additional window squeegee for this model.

Bissell’s steamer is a good choice for automotive and light household use. One of the heavier-duty (and more expensive) models would be a better choice if you want a steamer that will do more intensive cleaning.

The SteamShot has an acceptable 80% positive rating and almost 25,000 reviews. Complaints mostly center around the cooler steam and low volume that make it unsuitable for disinfecting and difficult cleaning jobs. Reviewers across Bissell’s many products also aren’t happy with customer service through Amazon. If you need it, we’d recommend going through Bissell’s website, which has a user guide and FAQs for the SteamShot. There are many options for contacting them, including chat, email, and text line. There’s a US-based 800- number as well, but you must click through several menus to find it. There are 17 different model numbers of the SteamShot. Some of these are just different colors (this is #39N7V Pearl Wasabi), others are models for specific retailers like Wal-Mart, and others are discontinued. There is a one-year warranty on the SteamShot.

3. Best for Detailers: Wagner AutoRight SteamMachine

Wagner steam cleaner

If you're a pro detailer or just serious about having a spotless car, check out the Wagner

The Wagner is comparable to the McCulloch in many ways but is a smaller steam cleaner built with cars specifically in mind. Wagner is well known for its popular home paint sprayers and, as a larger company, can offer a two-year limited warranty.

The AutoRight SteamMachine comes with a suite of seven tools which are mostly sized to fit the many inconvenient-to-reach spaces in a vehicle. There are attachments specifically for both leather and cloth seats and others for both carpet and hard surfaces. A big 40-ounce tank gives a long 35-minute steam time, but it only has an eight-foot cord and hose, so you’ll need to use either the wheels or built-in folding handle to move it around. It scores well in both steam temperature at 290° F and pressure at 55 PSI. It costs more than most handhelds but is affordable for a tank-style carpet steam cleaner. And, of course, the tools that work great on your car seats will work great on the seats in your house, too.

4. Most Versatile: Light ‘N’ Easy 7688ANB-2 steam mop

LIGHT 'N' EASY Steam Mop Cleaner

A detachable handheld unit, lots of accessories, and 20-foot cord make this steamer a versatile choice. Photo credit:Amazon.com

Light ‘N’ Easy makes a two-in-one steam mop with a detachable corded handheld unit that does double duty as a household and car unit. The low-medium-high controls are located on the handheld portion, and it works with all the many included attachments. We’d classify this model as a high-temperature steamer, making 230°F heat. That may be hot enough to damage plastics and synthetic fabrics, so we would recommend starting with the low setting, and if that doesn’t work, then try medium. In fact, some users have reported that the plastic bristles of some of the accessories can melt under extended use. While you can refill the tank at any time during use, it’s likely to overheat after 15 or 20 minutes and switch off.

The 7688ANB-2 steam mop holds 11.5 ounces of water and comes with a long 20-foot cord. The accessories include washable microfiber mop pads, grout cleaning brushes, a jet nozzle, a window squeegee, a cylinder wand, and an extension hose. It has an acceptable 81% positive rating and over 250 reviews. They make other models without detachable units with similar ratings and tens of thousands of reviews.

Light ‘N’ Easy Warranty and Customer Service

Light ‘N’ Easy is made by Xiaotian Zhongshan Industrial Co. Ltd., located right there at the end of Jungchen Boulevard overlooking the Xiaolan Shuidao. Xiaotian Zhongshan also makes the popular OApier brand and has been selling in the USA for 18 years. Light ‘N’ Easy offers a 30-day money-back guarantee and a one-year warranty against defects, with a flat $14.95 charge for returns, which is better than most competitors. There is a toll-free number, email, and registration form on the Light ‘N’ Easy website. We were sent directly to voicemail when we called. They returned our call the next day, but the number displayed as “confidential,” so it could easily be confused with a spam call. After we didn’t pick up, they called again a couple of days later, so we admire their persistence.

5. Steamfast Multi-Purpose Steam Cleaner (SF-370WH)

steamfast steam cleaner

The Steamfast steamer comes with fifteen attachments. Photo credit: Amazon.com.

Another steam cleaner we’ve selected for high user ratings, Steamfast, also earns an Amazon’s Choice badge. The SF-370WH is affordable but still delivers a pressurized flow of steam from a 1,500-watt boiler to naturally clean and sanitize. The Steamfast comes with 15 attachments, a 15-foot cord with integrated cord wrap, and a 6.5-foot hose, making it great for all the hard surfaces of your interior, windows, and wheels—even steam-clean your engine bay.

The generous 48-ounce water tank should provide up to 45 minutes of cleaning, and it takes only eight minutes to heat up, with a steam-on-demand button or a lock for continuous steam. While it maintains a 4.4-star rating, some users are critical of the product’s durability and attachments. Steamfast offers a US-based two-year warranty, though.

6. MLMLANT Power Steam Cleaner

MLM steamer

This steam cleaner weighs less than 12.0 pounds. Photo credit: Amazon.com.

MLMLANT’S C541 Power Steam Cleaner is a feature-rich canister-style pull-behind steam cleaner on gliders aimed at household usage, but its light 11.8-pound weight, generous feature set, and accessories make it a good choice for dual home and auto purposes.

Even with a big 1.5-liter water capacity for steam times in the 35-minute range, it’s a fast heater at only three to five minutes. It’s also got a long 16-foot cord that conveniently coils onboard and a five-foot hose with a trigger lock. The accessory pack is very complete as well. MLMLANT isn’t entirely consistent about their specifications, but this is a superheated steam cleaner, making 275°F/135°C.

If you’re curious, as we were, about the MLMLANT name, well, parent company MARYANT says, “MLML stands for double horsepower in China, ANT stands for hardworking ants.” We don’t know what an ant’s nominal horsepower is*, but double that has to be good.

*According to Comparative Biomechanics: Life’s Physical World (2nd ed.), despite their 50 milliwatt individual output, ants† are extremely biometrically inefficient compared to a horse as you scale metabolic output, so you’d need about 15 million ants to produce one HP. As one HP is 746 watts, and as this is a 1,500-watt steam cleaner, it has the power of approximately 30,160,858 regular ants.

†We’re using the numbers for a European red wood ant, formica polyctena, from Production Ecology of Ants and Termites.

7. Vapamore MR-100 Primo Steam Cleaner

Vapamore steamer

Vapamore has been around for over 40 years. Photo credit: Amazon.com.

If you find you’re using your steam cleaner a lot, or you’re using it just as much inside the house as in your vehicle, it might make sense to choose a heavy-duty model like the premium Vapamore MR-100 Primo. At 15 x 14 inches, it’s larger than many less expensive steam cleaners, but it’s still designed to be compact and storable. The more than 40 years of experience that Vapamore has shown in many thoughtful touches, like an easy-to-grab handle, smart tool storage, large knobs, and commercial-style solenoid to control steam flow.

This is a lower temperature unit, delivering 210-220°F steam at up to 50 PSI. There are more than a dozen cleaning accessories, wands, wipes, and nozzles included, along with a set of replacement O-rings for maintenance. At 30 Db, it is literally whisper-quiet. 

A six-foot hose is on the shorter side, but the cord is 18 feet. It has a 1.6-liter capacity for up to 60 minutes of steaming, and the heating time is 10-11 minutes. Vapamore backs its steam cleaner with a lifetime warranty.

What IS a Steam Cleaner?

Steam cleaners do one thing only: Heat water to produce steam, which is then forced out a nozzle with the pressure generated by boiling the water. They don’t use detergents, they don’t have moving brushes and most of all, they don’t vacuum. You might want to do some of those processes as part of your cleaning routine (see our Tips below), but you can accomplish a surprising amount with just hot water vapor.

Why Do I Need a Steam Cleaner?

Using a steam cleaner in your car can replace a variety of different cleaning chemicals and products with pure water, which is less damaging to many of the materials in cars. Because there are no solvents, it can be used on a variety of surfaces, from leather, fabric, and carpet, to plastics and trim materials and even places you can’t get to directly.

Although many surfaces can be cleaned using just steam, combined with the right cleaning agents, the steam cleaner can get your car interior cleaner than you ever imagined, not to mention getting your windows spot-free. It also makes the cleaning process far less strenuous, allowing the cleaning power of steam to lift dirt and debris instead of scrubbing to get stains and grime off.

And of course, steam at hundreds of degrees is extremely efficient at killing bacteria and viruses on soft surfaces like carpets and upholstery where other methods don’t work well. It has even been shown by the National Institutes of Health to reduce both allergens and dangerous chemicals in household dust.

Steam Cleaner Safety

While stream cleaners are safe to use if you follow directions, steam burns are extremely dangerous and can cause third-degree burns. Always treat steam with respect, and read your machine’s instructions and don’t deviate from them

The #1 rule of steam cleaner safety is don’t add more water when the machine is hot. The heating element in the boiler can flash boil the water you’re putting in, and cause an eruption of steam and boiling water. 

You’ll want to be very gentle on hoses and wands. Don’t pull or stretch them, just move the machine closer. We’ve certainly torn our share of vacuum cleaner hoses, but where all that does is make you lose suction, in a steam cleaner that can release a jet of superheated steam. Also be careful of parts of the machine, hose or accessories heating up, especially after extended use. Any exposed metal parts are particularly likely to get hot.

And it goes without saying: Never get any part of your body close to the nozzle any time the machine is warm.

What Should I Look For in a Good Steam Cleaner?

The cleaning potential of steam comes from the heat, which not only cleans, but also kills germs, so temperature is the biggest requirement. More power, measured in watts, gets the steam hotter, and therefore dissolves sticky gunk better, getting surfaces cleaner. And for some purposes, having good pressure can help blast dirt away. But high heat and pressure can damage delicate surfaces and is less safe to use.

Although there are some battery-powered units out there, steam cleaners suck down a lot of power and we stuck with more powerful corded models. Make note of the length of the hose and cord, which gives you greater range, although using an extension cord will get you as far as you need to go. Then again, more powerful units are usually heavier and bulkier, meaning they will be less convenient to move around and take up more storage space.

Look for models with decent capacity for water and good efficiency to give you longer run time, allowing you to finish projects without having to fill up partway through. Also check out what kind of attachments come with the model you choose, as certain attachments will make easy work of seats and large areas, while you’ll need others to get into small spaces and little nooks and crannies.

If you’re more interested in a carpet cleaner, which doesn’t vaporize the water into steam and won’t tackle the hard surfaces in your car, look for models that are at least heated, which should increase their cleaning effectiveness. Also, dig into the owner reviews regarding the effectiveness of the brush heads and the suction power to lift stains and messes.

What to Avoid?

You’ll want to make sure you don’t order an old-old-fashioned stand-up steam cleaner as that won’t be very useful in your car, unless it has a bypass hose with attachments, and even then it is not the right tool for the job. And although some of the compact, handheld units can do some detailing, they have limited usefulness and the fact that the water and steamer are combined means you are waving around a lot more weight than you would for a canister-style steamer with a hose.

Be very careful when using steam to clean leather, suede, or microsuede fabrics. Although the Alcantara brand recommends against using steam, some makers claim that their low water content can clean the surfaces without oversaturating it and risking damage. Do not steam clean leather or suede too frequently either, as it can cause it to dry out, and each material might have particular needs when it comes to stain removal, so research each accordingly. As with any delicate fabric, try an out of the way test spot first.

Dupray also has a great primer page about steam cleaning your car that includes tips and techniques to use for getting the dirt out of various interior materials and exterior surfaces, with quick demo gifs that illustrate exactly how to detail different things. However, note that for many of the jobs, a powerful 220-volt steam cleaner is required for getting an exterior properly clean, and those can cost thousands of dollars.

Tips for Steam Cleaning your Car

Rule number one with steam cleaners is to use distilled water. Not only could tap water leave a layer of whitish mineral deposits, but it will rapidly form scale inside the cleaner that will need to be cleaned out with vinegar. Even an hour of steam cleaning won’t use more than a dollar’s worth of distilled water, so it’s worth the expense.

Always vacuum first. Steam cleaners can do an amazing job, but you need to remove as much loose dirt as possible so the steam can get to the stuck on gunk. And vacuum again after surfaces are dry to pick up the dust that steaming has loosened.

Spend some time with the instructions or user manuals, or visit the manufacturer websites for guidance on how to use all the attachments so you have the right tool for each job. Make sure you use the various tools provided, as they not only help you clean more effectively, they also protect surfaces.

 

Recent Updates

January 3, 2023: Removed promoted product recommendation.

October 28, 2022: Updated product links. 

October 2, 2022: Added a new promoted product recommendation

August 23, 2022: Removed unavailable Dupray One. Awarded Editor’s Pick to McCulloch Steamer.

July 6, 2022: Added notes from hands-on testing to McCulloch Steamer.

June 13, 2022: Updated product descriptions, gave “Best Value” award to McCulloch steamer based on testing. Updated McCulloch photo and added link to hands-on test.

June 9, 2022: Updated product links.

May 3, 2022: Updated product links.


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Photo credit: David Traver Adolphus / AutoGuide.com.