Choosing the right steam cleaner

Steam cleaning continues to grow in popularity because it makes so much sense – it is chemical free, produces superior results and cleaner surfaces, removes biofilms and contributes to better indoor air quality. Owning a steam cleaner means lower cleaning costs, no WHIMS, no MSDS, no gloves, no masks, no protective clothing, no locked storage for chemicals, fewer repetitive strains, little physical exertion and even deep cleaning can be done during normal business hours. Another key benefit is the complete versatility of steam systems which can be used on all types of surfaces — floors, walls, ovens, toilets, freezers, exhausts, wheelchairs, mattresses, upholstery, draperies, equipment, vehicles and so on. This growing popularity has encouraged a number of new suppliers into the business, which makes it timely to review the most important selection criteria in choosing a new steam cleaner.

WHAT TYPE DO I NEED? There are basically 2 types of steam cleaners – dry steam vapour, and saturated (or wet) steam. Dry steam is uses litres per hour of water, whereas wet steam requires gallons per minute of water. Wet steam is typically used in industrial or large-scale outdoor applications. Dry steam is used indoors for degreasing, disinfecting, detailing and deep cleaning. Note that carpet machines are sometimes mistakenly called steam cleaners, although there is no steam to be found in them.

WHAT FEATURES DO I NEED? Once decided on a type, let’s assume dry steam, you will find both Batch steamers and Continuous steamers. As their descriptions suggest, a batch steamer makes one batch of steam at a time. This is typical of consumer models, where it is not critical if you run out of steam during a job. A batch steamer has a vital safety cap to prevent the escape of steam from the boiler. A continuous steamer has a non-pressurized reserve water tank, which feeds the boiler on demand, to make replacement steam while you are using the steam cleaner, ensuring that you will not run out of steam. You can open the water tank to add water at any time, even while the machine is running. Commercial steamers are continuous steamers.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I INSIST ON? Most of the best quality machines are made in Italy, constructed with a stainless steel boiler, supplied by a well established distributor, offered with a strong warranty, and with clear service and repair capability. Of course, all machines should be properly certified by CSA or a comparable agency such as UL, to meet product quality standards. As with any important purchase, make sure that you are dealing with a reputable supplier who will stand behind his product. It is not unreasonable to ask for references. When a salesman tells me that his product will last at least 5 years, I like to hear that verified by a satisfied customer who has used the product for 5 years.

WILL I NEED SPECIAL TRAINING OR SUPPLIES? No. Steam cleaners are easy to use, require only regular tap water, and a modest amount of practice to get the most out of them. A professional supplier will review the operation of the equipment with you, to ensure you are comfortable with it. There is no need for specially treated water, distilled water, reverse osmosis water, softened water, or anything other than tap water. You should never use any chemicals in, or with your steam cleaner, as chemicals are completely unnecessary and unhelpful to the steam cleaning process.

ARE THERE MAINTENANCE REQUIREMENTS? All equipment of any type should be operated with preventive maintenance procedures. Steam cleaners should have their boilers drained regularly to prevent scale build up. If you use your steam cleaner every day in a commercial setting, drain your boiler once a week. If you use your consumer steam cleaner at home once a week, drain your boiler monthly for maximum extended equipment life. Do not put any chemicals into your steam cleaner, ever.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY? Consumer steam cleaners can be purchased very inexpensively, but remember that you usually get what you pay for. It is unlikely that you will find an Italian made steam cleaner with a stainless steel boiler, a good warranty and CSA approval for less than a few hundred dollars. A commercial system with continuous steam re-generation, CSA approval, stainless steel boiler, strong warranty, and after-warranty service capability, along with a good accessory package and product support will generally cost upwards of $2,000. Cheaper systems usually compromise some of the product quality ingredients that you should consider.

More power is desirable, within limits. If you are plugging into a regular electrical outlet, you are getting 115 +/- 10 volts and 15 amperes. This will yield up to 1725 watts, but in practical terms, our electrical supply is subject to fluctuation, so it is common to get about 1500 watts from a regular outlet.

Most consumer units draw about 1100 watts, and most commercial units draw about 1500 watts.
Steam cleaners that draw more than 1500 watts are likely to blow fuses or trip circuit breakers. In North America, we should also confirm that the equipment is built to run at 60Hz. If you operate from a 230 volt outlet at 15 amps, you can power 3000 watts of heating element. At 20 amps and 230 volts you can get to 4000 watts. Always check the electrical rating on the manufacturer’s label. All equipment for use in Canada should meet standards of approval such as the CSA designation.

A smaller boiler will heat up faster than a bigger boiler with the same heating element power. A smaller boiler in a commercial system with continuous steam re-generation will also maintain a good flow of steam for longer than a large boiler. In a consumer (batch type) steamer, a larger boiler will provide steam for a longer period of time, once it is fully heated.

Most 115 volt-15 amp-1500 watt steam cleaners will produce steam at 30—70 PSI (2-5 bar), but the actual operating range is normally 30-45 PSI (2-3 bar). The peak pressure of 70 PSI is rarely sustainable, and seldom desirable. More pressure in itself contributes little to cleaning effectiveness, which is mainly a result of the steam’s heat. Think about cleaning: you confront a small mess, aim high pressure at it, and turn it into a bigger mess, blowing and splattering the problem across a larger area. The real objective should be containment, which is best achieved with the lowest amount of pressure.

The hose is the most vulnerable part of a steam cleaner. I have seen people drive over it, slam it in a doorway, cut it on a sharp edge, and use it as a leash to pull the machine—around corners, up the stairs and even down the stairs. A detachable hose is easier to repair or replace than an attached hose. For this reason, detachable hoses are standard with commercial equipment. Different hose lengths are also available for commercial systems. A detachable hose usually contains wiring to allow the control switches on the hose handle to activate the electrovalves, which consist of a monoblock and solenoid valves. Consumer machines tend to have attached hoses, which are also shorter. Consumer machines are more likely to have a mechanical switch at the handle, therefore electrical wiring in the hose is not necessary (there is no electrovalve to control).

It is very important to understand not only the length of the warranty period and the scope of the warranty coverage, but also to know the terms under which warranty claims can be made. Most equipment and appliance warranties require you to return the machine to the manufacturer or a specified authorized service centre. This can be challenging, costly and time-consuming if it means sending the machine to another country. Always look for a domestic service centre that carries parts for your machine, and that has trained repair staff. The best-sounding warranty is not helpful if you can’t get the service done promptly and affordably. Frankly, most equipment should outlive its warranty if properly maintained. So ask about post warranty service—costs, parts availability, turnaround time, and overall service guidelines.

Dry steam is extremely effective for cleaning hard surfaces, not only the obvious and easy ones like floors and walls, counters and tables, but also the difficult ones like handrails and baseboards, grout lines and crevices, cracks, corners and kickplates. With adequate exposure, steam disinfects as it cleans, because organic matter cannot survive the heat. Steam works well on most kinds of hard surfaces, including glass, plastic, ceramic, enamel, steel, aluminum, brass, stone, slate, brick, concrete, finished wood, hardwoods, laminates, vinyl, painted walls (with oil-based paints), wallpaper, and wallcloth coverings.

On the least porous surfaces (glass, ceramic, enamel, steel) the steam heats the surface and thereby softens and lifts the dirt and contaminants. In more porous surfaces (concrete, grout) the steam is injected into the pores, forcing the dirt out to the surface.

A few hard surface types are not suitable for steam cleaning: Walls painted with latex paint (blisters), unfinished wood and uncoated acoustic ceiling tiles (grain opens to absorb moisture). Steam also cleans soft surfaces: draperies, tablecloths, bed linens, clothing, upholstered furniture, carpet stains, vertical blinds, mattresses, pillows, seat belts, safety harnesses, rubber bumpers and guards. In most cases, steam will take wrinkles and creases out of the fabric as it cleans, because it refreshes the texture of the material during the cleaning process. Soft surfaces that are unsuitable for steam cleaning are delicate and heat-sensitive materials like silk, kid leather and some deep pile woolens (Persian rugs for example).

In environments such as hospitality, recreational or healthcare facilities, we encounter not only hard and soft surfaces, but also the shapes and contours of fixtures and equipment. Because steam melts grease, kills mould and mildew, and strips residual biofilms from all kinds of urfaces, it is well-suited to kitchen equipment: ovens, fryers, racks, pans, carts, grills, proofers, coffee makers, dispensers, shelves, counters, exhaust hoods. Steam can penetrate corners and crevices to get at hidden challenges.

In the freezer and the cooler, steam can clean spills, ice and frost buildup on shelves, fans, gaskets, seals, screens, coils and fins. In the washroom steam cleans and disinfects the toilet, sink, partitions, mirrors, windows, ledges, vents, fans, drains and trim. In other parts of the facility, steam is the best way to clean escalators and elevator door tracks, to keep them from jamming with dirt, thereby reducing costly repairs and downtime. The ability to maintain a higher level of cleanliness extends the life of your physical assets, reduces the need for most chemical cleaning products and chemical disinfectants, and allows you to do more of your own preventative and restorative projects, such as stripping wax from baseboards, cleaning grout lines, clearing floor drains, cleaning heating and cooling coils, fins and ducts, air diffusers, air vents, screens and filters.

There are many more uses for your steam cleaner. Once you have one and you begin to explore the possibilities, you will learn that this is probably the most versatile piece of cleaning equipment you can buy. After 12 years of cleaning with steam, I am still discovering new applications. You will too.

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