Auto Laundry News - March 2011

Steamers vs. Extractors — Part II: Head to Head

By Kevin Farrell

In Part I of this article (Auto Laundry News, February 2011) we paid homage to the venerable carpet extractor. We also traced the rising stature — and growing popularity — of the dry vapor steam machine. In this conclusion of the article, we measure one machine against the other, listing, in the process, the benefits of the steam machine — and its disadvantages, such as they are.


As Part I of this article makes clear, I am putting my money on the steamer. But, perhaps like me many years ago, you need to be further convinced. If what you have read so far hasn’t swayed you toward steam, then maybe the following points will help convince you to at least investigate steam use.

  • The steamer can clean hard surfaces. This is huge. A carpet extractor cannot. Nobody uses an extractor to spray water all over door panels, consoles, cup holders, dashes, leather trim, etc. I have actually seen detailers use an extractor this way, but its wrong and can produce some really bad results.
  • The steamer can clean carpets, and can do it very well. Many detractors of steam will say the machine cannot clean a carpet. This is not true. A great steamer will clean all but the nastiest and grungiest of carpets. There are tricks to creating more wetness with a steamer if you need it on dirty carpets. Detractors also say you need a vacuum function to immediately suck up the dirt. You don’t need a vacuum incorporated with a steamer. The steamer will lift the dirt to the top. You can then come back with your own vacuum and suck up the dirt and/or wipe it up with a clean towel. A carpet extractor absolutely needs a vacuum follow-up immediately because of the vast amount of water you are laying down. Another myth about steam and carpets is that steam will hurt or ruin the carpet fibers. This is simply not true.
  • A steamer will not leave a carpet or seat soaking wet. You can go over a seat or carpet multiple times without creating anywhere near the wetness of a carpet extractor. Drier interiors will not smell or leave a customer with a wet behind.
  • Steam acts as its own blower and air pressure. A good steamer has enough power to blow stuff out into the open so it can be wiped up or vacuumed. There will be no more need to clean with compressed air.
  • If you have ever seen steam clean a dash, air vent, cup holder, or any hard to reach area, it will basically sell you right there. It’s lightning quick, creates hardly any mess, and won’t have you reaching for a new towel every five minutes.
  • A steamer can clean leather seats. With the correct brush attach- ment, a steamer will clean leather better than any other method. Just ask a leather guy. They have been using these machines longer than detailers have to prep leather for re-dying, soften it, stretch it to install new pieces, and clean expensive leather couches in people homes. The leather will be left soft and supple with no need for dressing in many cases. This will save tons of time. Steam also will not burn leather. I have tried and it just doesn’t happen.
  • A steamer can be used to clean windows to perfection, without the streaking often seen from the use of window cleaners. Steam will not shatter glass — another tall tale some people have heard.
  • A steamer does a tremendous job in removing window tint and decals safely and more quickly than any other method. Some detailers also use steamers to remove clear bra film quickly and effectively.
  • With a steamer, you are using super-heated vapor. Chemicals are kept to a minimum, which keeps the interior drier, saves you money, and leaves the inside smelling fresh, not harsh.
  • A steamer absolutely will save you time. The cleaning process is made quicker with the use of its attachments along with the steam itself. You will reap all these benefits by using a steamer with the time savings being an added bonus. Let’s face it, most of us hate doing interiors. I look at it like housework, but it has to get done. Why not do it faster, more effectively, and wow your customers at the same time.
  • A steamer can safely and effectively clean a headliner if used correctly.
  • A steamer can get into tight areas like doorjambs, seat tracks, under seats, between seats and consoles, air vents, and more.
  • A steamer will not burn paint. Again, I have tried it on scrap panels and also on some very expensive cars by holding the wand in one spot for 30 seconds. Sure, it gets hot, but it doesn’t burn the clear coat.

So these are just some of the advantages of a steamer over a carpet extractor. But with any machine there has to be some disadvantages, right?


With the right steamer, there are very few disadvantages, if any at all. But here are the common complaints about a steamer (mind you, these are with the cheaper, homeowner grade units). Some steamers:

  • Are not hot enough
  • Lose pressure way too quickly
  • Have low capacities and need to be refilled often
  • Have a very short hose
  • Have very low pressure, and are not powerful enough
  • Have poor brushes or no brushes to clean leather and sensitive areas
  • Don’t clean carpets very well
  • Just don’t last, and they can’t be fixed if they break

These are all valid issues with the cheaper steamers. So does that mean you shouldn’t buy one, or that a carpet extractor is better? The disadvantages can be addressed and basically eliminated, but — there is always a but, right? — it will cost you a little more money.


You will definitely be disadvantaged if you purchased a cheap steamer. The household or TV-advertised units are a waste of money and will never work for detail use. Even some of the machines you see online that are advertised as “commercial” really are not. We know that detailers in general are hard on equipment. We also know you need a piece of equipment to operate all day long, all week long, all year long. You need a heavy-duty commercial/industrial unit to tackle the tough jobs and have it work effectively and last for a long time.

Over the years I have used and tested many different steamers to find the best one for the harsh detailing environment. I was looking for that special one that would deliver superior results, cut time, and stand up to the demands of a busy detailing business. Most were fine for light-duty and home use but never measured up to the expectations of prolonged use and my extremely high standards for what a steamer needed to accomplish in my detailing business and for my demanding customers. The best ones are expensive, but worth every penny. Purchase the best one you can afford with the highest heat and pressure. It will make a huge difference in both effectiveness and time savings.


I prefer steam, as you must have gathered by now. However, there is a place for a carpet extractor since there will always be vehicles with filthy, ground-in dirty carpets. In these extreme cases a carpet extractor will be better equipped to “flush” dirt from the material. It will do the job quickly and pull the dirt from the surface and into the machine. If used correctly, an extractor can be very effective and not soak the carpets. In many detail shops, you may actually benefit from using both machines. Some shop owners will not want to hear this, but having the trusty extractor available sometimes offers peace of mind. My goal is not to use it if I don’t have to, but I know it’s there when the carpets just need the extra flushing action that a good heated extractor will give you.

In my opinion, this heavyweight battle is won by the steamer (make sure it’s a really good one, however), but the extractor won’t have to retire just yet.

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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