Steam Cleaning vs Dry Cleaning. Explained by a pro!

by Tony Gonzalez

If you've ever had your carpets cleaned by a professional, you've probably wondered what the difference between Steam Cleaning and Dry Cleaning actually is. For some misterious reason, nobody seems to explain it in a way anyone could understand. But there's a good reason.

Steam Cleaning vs Dry Cleaning is a hard question to answer because there are actually 4 different methods of Dry Cleaning (not just the 1). And these 4 methods are quite different from each other. Trying to compare steam cleaning to the 4 dry cleaning methods would be like trying to point out the differences between american footbal and (american cheese, soccer, french toast and rugby combined!)

To make matters worse... Some of the dry cleaning methods are not even dry, and the Steam Cleaning method doesn't use Steam.

Confused? Don't worry!

It's not as hard to understand as you may think. Just keep reading and I can guarantee that by the end of this article you'll know exactly what method is best for you.

What is the difference?

Since it's impossible to compare them by how they work, we can compare them by what they're used for. Steam Cleaning is a restorative method of carpet cleaning. This means that the fibers of the carpet are cleaned from top to bottom. 100% of the fiber is clean. The Dry Cleaning methods, on the other hand, are considered maintenance cleaning methods only because they just clean the top third of the carpet.

This distinction has become the industry standard since the IICRC (Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification) in conjunction with CRI (Carpet and Rug Institute), tested all the methods and have conclusively proved that the only method that cleans the fibers all the way is the so called "Steam Cleaning" method.

Does that mean that Steam Cleaning is always the best way to go? Keep reading!

Which one is better?

There's no such thing as a "better method". There is however, such thing as a more appropriate method for you (and your carpet). Depending on how dirty your carpet is, you should aim for the restorative method (Steam Cleaning) or one of the maintenance methods (Dry Cleaning).

But since it's quite hard to explain "how dirty" is "too dirty", maybe this will help:

In almost every scenario, residential cleaning requires the restorative method (Steam Cleaning). Especially if you're a pet owner and there's pet stains and odor on the carpet (you might be interested in this guide on pet odor and stain removing. In offices (or similar buildings), a maitenance method should be enough.

But if you're still unsure which method is right for you, just keep reading to find out the difference between all the 5 methods (The Steam Cleaning method vs the Dry Cleaning method).

Steam Cleaning Explained

Steam Carpet Cleaning Method

When you hear about Steam Cleaning, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Steam, right? And, as everyone else, you might think that the steam is what cleans the stains and dirt from your rugs and carpets. I’m sorry to tell you but.. that’s not entirely right.

Let’s get things straight… the accurate way to call this cleaning method is HOT WATER EXTRACTION METHOD. It actually uses hot water (not steam) to clean. And the way steam cleaning machines work is the following: the spray hot water (usually heated between 150 and 200 degree Fahrenheit) on the rug or carpet. The high pressure with which the water is sprayed forces the particles and dirt to loosen. This makes it easier, later on, for the vacuum cleaner to suck them all and store them in the holding tank. Sometimes the water can be mixed a neutral detergent to make the cleaning process more effective.

Steam cleaning, or Hot Water Extraction Method, is know to be one of the most effective ways of carpet and rug cleaning, if not the best. It is also called deep cleaning. Studies say it’s the only cleaning method know to remove almost 97% of the dust and particles form rugs and carpets, killing any fungus and bacteria living on them.

You have 3 alternatives when it comes to Steam Cleaning:

1. Hire a professional

Truck Steam Carpet Cleaning Method

Professionals usually come with a truck that's actually a huge hot water extractor. If the professional is qualified (you can take a look at the best carpet cleaners in your city here) they'll do an amazing job and your carpet will look like new.

It is expensive though. Herer are some average quotes:

- for 900 to 1000 sq. ft. - $100 to $250 

- for 1,200 to 1,400 sq. ft. - $300 to $400 

- for 1,500 to 2,000 sq. ft. - $400 to $500 

2. Rent a Steam Carpet Cleaning Machine

Prices can vary significantly, but as a rule of thumb you should know that $100 will buy you the time and cleaning solution to clean 1,600 square feet of your carpet.

But if cleaning your carpet is something you want to take seriously, you may want to consider buying your own machine. It will pay for itself with a couple of uses and you won't be risking renting a worn out machine that doesn't clean anymore.

3. Buy a Steam Carpet Cleaning Machine

Steam Carpet Cleaner

This is probably the best option if you want to have your carpet always looking like the day you bought the house. There are some amazing options in the market, and you can find different alternatives depending on your budget. Check out this buying guide, for different options (from budget to pro).

Dry Cleaning Explained

As we said earlier, all these methods are maintenance methods. But some are more aggressive than others. Let's take a look at when you should use each!

1. Dry Compound

Dry Compound Carpet Cleaning Method

It's probably the simplest method, but the least aggressive too. You simply spread a powder on the carpet, and vacuum it up after a couple of minutes.

What is great about this method is how fast it is to apply. That's why is especially used in high traffic areas that need constant (and fast) cleaning.

2. Encapsulation & Dry Foam Absortion

Encapsulation Carpet Cleaning Method

If you hear about Encapsulation and Dry Foam Absortion as two different things, don't worry too much. It's almost the same method with one tiny difference: the product being used. But besides that, it's the same method.

These methods work with a scruber. You put the product in a scruber and the scruber pushes the product deep into the carpet. The products that are used have a liquid polymer that traps the soil and the dirt.

Once it's dry, the product is vacuumed and it pulls up all the soil and dirt with it.

I personally wouldn't recommend this method unless you're doing it in-house. If you're going to bring in the professionals, pay for a more expensive method. Your carpet will thank you in the future.

3. Bonnet Cleaning

Bonnet Carpet Cleaning Method

The Bonnet method sounds very fancy. But it's actually a super logical carpet cleaning method.

Just like on the previous method, a scruber is used. But this time, there's a cotton pad on bottom of the scruber:

Bonnet Carpet Cleaning Method

The product forces the soild and dust to break off and stick to the cotton pad that's rotating fast. It's just like rubbing a while cotton towel on the carpet very very fast.

Just like in the previous method, I would only recommend this method if you're cleaning your carpet regularly. But don't waste money paying a professional to do this! It can easily be learnt and handled by any janitor.

4. Shampoo

We finally have to talk about the Shampoo method. Nobody really uses it anymore, although a lot of rug cleaners still offer it because it was very popular in the 60's and in the 70's.

It's a mix of the encapsulation and the bonnet method. The only difference is that the scruber uses brushes to apply the product. Once it's dry, it's then vacuumed.


Now that you understand the differences between all the 5 methods, you probably already know which one you're going to ask your carpet cleaning professional for.

In my experince, the best cleaning method is not needing a professional at all.

But... is that even possible?

Absolutely yes! You simply need the right equipment. It's 2021! We now have carpet cleaners that match professional equipment. Sure, you need clean your carpet every couple of months (2-3) to keep it as clean as a professional would. But it's doable. Check out this post on the best carpet steam cleaners. It's exactly the same method that professionals use when they talk about "Steam Cleaning", but you can DIY. In the long run, you save so much money!

Tony Gonzalez Picture

By Tony Gonzalez

Carpet Cleaning and Installation

I'm Tony and I consider myself a carpet cleaning expert! I've tried the 5 most common professional cleaning methods myself, and I've reviewed thousands of carpet cleaning & installation companies. I'm currently exploring the DIY Cleaning and Installation world. It's not that hard and it's a lot of fun!

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Tony Gonzalez Picture

Tony Gonzalez

I'm Tony and I consider myself a carpet cleaning expert! I've tried the 5 most common professional cleaning methods myself, and I've reviewed thousands of carpet cleaning & installation companies. I'm currently exploring the DIY Cleaning and Installation world. It's not that hard and it's a lot of fun!

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