Is Steam Cleaning Better Than Shampoo?

A common question business owners and homeowners have before carpet cleaning is “which method is best?”. The most popular method by far is “steam cleaning”, also referred to as hot water extraction. The second is low moisture cleaning or what some people will call shampooing.

A better way to think about this question is each process has its pros & cons. There is no super-secret way to clean carpeting. Often it comes down to the skill of the operator and the specific carpet fiber.

Some fibers can absorb water much more than others, wool retains a lot of water after a cleaning for example and need to be careful. While olefin on the other hand barely retains water.

Vacuum First

The first thing we wanted to point out is the first step before any wet cleaning is a thorough vacuuming. Most consumers don’t realize this but removing the dry grains of sand, hair, etc. is the most important step.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Imagine adding water to a handful of dirt, what happens is it turns to mud. Exactly what can happen when cleaning a carpet or rug.

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Steam Cleaning Method

Steam cleaning can also be called hot water extraction but that’s more of a phrase used by professional services. Most consumers will be familiar with the two types of equipment. Portable machine that is brought into a home or office. The other is a van-based system secured in a commercial vehicle. This is when you see the hoses running from a van or box truck.

Cleaning power is the same between both units, a truck mounted machine is mostly faster and easier for the technician using it.


After a thorough vacuuming, pre-conditioner is applied, the type of detergent chosen depends on the kind of soil and carpet fiber. It’s best practice to then work the cleaning solution into the carpet with either a hand-held brush or scrubbing machine.

The detergent is formulated to dislodge ground-in soils and liquify oils so they can be removed with the rinse / extraction process. When the pretreatment solution is applied to the carpet and agitated, ground in soil is separated from the carpet dislodging soils and solids from the carpet.

Rinse & Extract

The rinse and extraction process happens almost at the same time. The “steam cleaning” machine introduces the rinsing agent, which is then extracted along with all the dirty water including the preconditioning agent.

In most cases a technician will use a wand, rinsing backwards then vacuuming dirty water forward. In some situations, its necessary to go over a wetted area several times to get the area dry as possible.

Another tool you might see is a rotary extractor, this is a round tool that spins around. The jets shoot water in and have slots at the bottom that pick up soiled water.

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Low Moisture or Shampoo Method

With this process we have two main machine types. A brush system that digs out all hair, soil and pad machine that pushes down and absorbs any soil. Generally, it depends on the style of the carpet and if in residential area or commercial building.

Brushes systems

work great for long plush carpeting, they can reach deep in the bottom and dig out sand, hair, especially useful for hair.

Pad systems

work better on flatter carpet styles, pressing down and removing the surface dirt. These machines are much more common in commercial buildings.

After thorough vacuuming, a detergent solution is applied to the entire area of the carpet being cleaned. Usually accomplished with an electric or pump-up sprayer.

Second step with shampooing is brush agitation and is second only to the formulation of the cleaning solution itself in terms of the importance of making this system work effectively. A professional technician will agitate solution into the carpet pile.

Using a pad type of machine, a vibrating pad pushes down into the pile and extracts any soil into the pad. After soaking up enough dirty water the pad is replaced with a new one.

Vacuuming AFTER cleaning also

After allowing the cleaning solution to completely dry (usually within 10 to 30 minutes). Removal of the cleaning agent and suspended soils will be accomplished with vacuuming. The great part about this process is each time you vacuum more and more soil is removed making the carpet look better each time.