After 25 hours of research and six hours spent cleaning wine, chocolate sauce, and coffee off a grimy couch and a white shag rug, we think the Bissell SpotClean Pro is the best cleaner for spot treating carpet and upholstery. It removed stains better than four of the top-selling portable cleaners we tried. It’s affordable, easy to use, and runs little risk of damaging your fabrics or carpets.
We spoke with a number of professional cleaners, furniture experts, and appliance specialists, and they all convinced us it is better to hire a pro to deep clean upholstery and rugs. That said, we found that the Bissell SpotClean Pro pulled up small stains and blemishes surprisingly well. It’s a hot-water extraction machine, which uses hot tap water, a cleaning formula, and suction to pull up stains. It performed much better in our tests than the steam cleaners, which are the other type of machine sold as spot cleaners. We think the SpotClean Pro is a great tool if you have kids or pets that regularly puke, pee, or make other small messes on your stuff, or if you need to regularly clean other types of stains on your carpet, furniture, or car interior.
The slightly cheaper Bissell SpotClean performed almost as well as its big brother, the SpotClean Pro. Its smaller water tank and shorter cord make it a better choice if you only need to spot clean occasionally and don’t need a garage-length cord. It only comes with one cleaning tool, so it’s also not quite as versatile as the SpotClean Pro for a variety of upholstery and carpet textures.
To get an idea of what makes a good steam cleaner or extraction machine, I interviewed two professional carpet and upholstery cleaners (Michael D. Ellis of Dryex Carpet and Rug Cleaning and Jay from Jay’s Mobile Detail & Carpet Cleaning) who offered a solid foundation for how to go about cleaning carpet. I spoke with customer service representatives from Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Room & Board about how manufacturers recommend caring for upholstery, as well as sales reps from Sears and Home Depot for insight into alternative cleaning methods. I also spent upwards of 15 hours comparing, testing, and using some of the top-selling steam cleaners and extraction machines. Backing this, I have more than four years’ experience testing and reviewing home appliances for The Wirecutter/Sweethome, Reviewed.com, and USA Today.
The machines we cover in this guide are really only good for spot treating upholstery fabrics (including car interiors) and carpets. If you need to revitalize an old couch, make an antique rug look brand new, or disinfect a bug-infested piece of furniture (which requires temperatures above 130°F), you really need to hire a professional cleaning service.
Places like Room & Board, Crate and Barrel, and Pottery Barn recommend a general upholstery cleaning by a pro once a year. You can also rent a professional-grade carpet and upholstery cleaner from places like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Stop & Shop, but pros caution that you need to know what you’re doing, because steam and cleaning solvents can damage some fabrics.
As Michael D. Ellis of Dryex Carpet and Rug Cleaning told us: “If you know what you’re doing, you can use chemical and heat and water to your advantage to accomplish the job. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’ll bite you in the butt—by over-wetting, delamination, etc.”
Before determining whether or not you should use—let alone buy—a steam cleaner or extraction machine, figure out how your upholstery and carpet can be cleaned. Most furniture items have cleaning codes tagged somewhere on the upholstery. Labeled “S,” “W,” “SW,” or “X,” these tags tell you exactly what the fabric can handle when it comes to water and solvent treatments. (Carpets don’t have the same labels, but some area rugs come with a tag on the backside with cleaning instructions.)
Carpet and upholstery cleaning can be broken down into three categories: deep cleaning, routine cleaning, and spot treatment. This guide focuses on extraction machines and steam cleaners designed for spot treating stains and blemishes.
Extraction machines, like our two favorite cleaners from Bissell, rely on hot tap water, cleaning formula, and suction to lift stains. There’s usually no heating element or pressure mechanism involved. The machine sprays hot water-formula solution onto the stain, and the action of the scrubbing tool lifts the stain. The vacuum sucks up the loosened soil and liquid and deposits them in a separate “dirty tank.” These machines are designed for use on carpet and upholstery only. Because they don’t use scalding-hot water, you won’t risk burning yourself as you might with a steam cleaner.
Steam cleaners—including canister steam cleaners, upholstery steam cleaners, portable spot cleaners, vapor cleaners, and carpet cleaners—feature internal heating elements that heat water to steam temperatures (ideally, boiling point) and force it through a pressurized nozzle. The steam lifts soil and stains which can then be wiped away with a cloth or towel. No suction or cleaning formulas are involved. These machines can also be used on tile, flooring, slate, and other hard surfaces.
All of these devices can damage fabric, especially steam cleaners, which can get hot enough to blemish upholstery but not quite hot enough to deliver a robust clean. In our tests, we found the steam cleaners burned upholstery very easily. This is less of an issue with extraction cleaners, but the cleaning formulas used are not uniformly safe for all fabrics. Bissell, for example, has many different cleaning formulas for different purposes.
In general, these machines also don’t deliver a true deep clean because they either don’t get hot enough or don’t have enough suction. None are certified by the two industry standard organizations (the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification and the Carpet and Rug Institute).
For all of the machines we looked at, we considered water tank capacity, the number of attachments, suction, and wattage.
Next, we compiled a list of all the products that met our initial requirements. We threw them into a spreadsheet and compared the specs against user reviews and sales data from Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart. From 21 strong contenders we narrowed the list down to five: three steam cleaners and two extraction machines.
For our fabric tests, we used a small, cheap white shag rug and a couple cushions from an old couch. We doused them in Hershey’s chocolate syrup, a heavy cabernet red wine, and dark roasted coffee, and then we tested how well each of the cleaners pulled up the stains from the cushion fabric and rug. We finally tallied the results and tested for convenience, ease of use, portability, and safety.
The Bissell SpotClean Pro is the best carpet and upholstery spot cleaner we tried. It was one of the only machines to completely remove stains from upholstery and it did a better job at minimizing stains on our white shag rug. It’s less likely to damage fabric than a steam cleaner, cheaper than most competing devices, and fairly easy-to-use with very few safety hazards.
To be honest, we were shocked at how well the SpotClean Pro performed. After testing three high-powered canister steam cleaners that all proved more or less useless in the stain-removal department, we did not expect this hot water extraction machine to do much (especially considering that it wasn’t recommended by any of the pros we spoke to). We wouldn’t go so far as to say the SpotClean Pro could compete with professional services, but it certainly performed as advertised, lifting some very heavy stains to near completion. Rather than merely scattering the soils like the steam machines did, the SpotClean lifted stain particles and removed them with the vacuum. In our upholstery test, it powered right through chocolate syrup, red wine, and coffee to the point of the upholstery looking almost brand new.
None of the machines removed stains completely from the white shag rug, but the SpotClean Pro still outperformed all the others. While the steam cleaners only dulled the tone of the stains a bit, the SpotClean Pro effectively cleaned and extracted them. It left only a vague impression of a stubborn old stain—like something that had been through the wash a dozen times. We were so impressed by its performance that we decided to see if the rug—which we’d been dousing in wine, coffee, and chocolate all day—could be reclaimed. We spent about 10 minutes working at it with full suction and a full tank of the cleaning solution. While it didn’t exactly reach resale quality, considering how tough those stains are, it looked pretty darn good—much more like neapolitan ice cream than a saturated triptych of the worst stains you can imagine.
Because the SpotClean Pro’s heat is limited to whatever your tap can produce you run little risk of damaging your fabric—and little risk of burning yourself (unless your tap water is preposterously hot). We still recommend checking out those cleaning codes before using the SpotClean Pro, since some types of upholstery are not meant to be used with cleaning solvents. Still, the risk is minimal—not only with the SpotClean Pro but with any extraction machine.
The SpotClean Pro retails for around $130 at the time of writing, which is about the same price as—or cheaper than—most consumer-grade steam cleaners. Compared to the slightly cheaper SpotClean 5207A—the only other extraction machine we tested—it has a larger water tank (96 ounces versus 37), which means you won’t have to constantly refill during periods of rigorous cleaning. It also features a longer five-foot hose that wraps around the side of the device, a power cord that is a garage-friendly 22 feet, and it only requires a single cleaning solution (the SpotClean 5207A requires two). The whole thing is small enough to store in a closet, and it’s light enough (13.2 pounds) for pretty much anyone to handle.
Steam cleaners are perhaps a little easier to set up, only requiring that you pour some tap water into the canister, hit the on button, and wait a few minutes as it heats up. The SpotClean Pro requires hot tap water to be poured into the tank along with the proprietary cleaning formula. After that, however, the device works more or less the same as a steam cleaner: Hit the on (vacuum) button, scrub the cleaning tool back and forth across the stain, and occasionally spray it with cleaning solution. The suction does the rest. You’d think the lack of a heating element would limit the efficacy of the machine as the water begins to cool, but we didn’t find that to be true. We used the same solution after it had been sitting in the tank for an hour and it worked more or less the same. It’s a straightforward little machine.
Our complaints about the SpotClean Pro have nothing to do with performance and everything to do with usability. It comes with only two tool attachments: a three-inch stain tool and a six-inch stair tool. Seeing as the SpotClean Pro is only meant to be used on carpet and upholstery, this is probably enough—and we certainly didn’t feel like anything was missing—but it is less than the 12 or 13 different nozzles and tools that come equipped with canister steam cleaners. (Although the reason steam cleaners have so many attachments is that they’re meant to be used on a variety of surfaces and materials.)
The SpotClean Pro is also pretty noisy. Because it uses suction to remove dirt and stain particles, it’s about as loud as a standard floor vacuum. Spot-cleaning individual stains only takes a minute or two, so the noise isn’t going to drive you crazy, but you may need to warn anyone in the vicinity. We were also annoyed by the process of filling the water tank; the inlet is on the bottom and sealed by a threaded cap that isn’t exactly watertight. You may spill a few drops as you flip the tank to insert it into the receptacle. Also, the fact that you have to use a cleaning formula is a bit of a nuisance when compared to canister steam cleaners, which only require water. Bissell claims you can use the device without the proprietary solution and just rely on the hot water and vacuum, but that formula is full of surfactants that do most of the leg-work in removing stains. One PR rep told us you can use alternative cleaning formulas, but it really depends on the stains you’re trying to remove (i.e. oxygen or enzyme-based).
The SpotClean Pro’s little brother, the SpotClean, also performed very well in our tests. The Pro was a bit better at removing stains, but seeing as our stains were particularly heavy, we imagine this smaller SpotClean would offer comparable performance in most cases. It isn’t quite as versatile, given its smaller water tank (37 ounces), shorter power cord (15 feet), and shorter hose (3.5 feet). You’d need to fill the tank more often and it only comes with one cleaning attachment compared to the Pro’s two. But it costs roughly $30 less than the SpotClean Pro at the time of writing.
It outperformed all of the canister steam cleaners we tested—and by a long shot. We even preferred some of the SpotClean’s operational components, as it’s about two pounds lighter and features a water inlet that’s on top of the tank, rather than below it. If you’re only going to use a spot cleaner a few times a year, we’d probably go for this model.
One difference between this cleaner and our main pick is that is that the smaller SpotClean has what Bissell calls “heatwave technology.” This keeps the hot tap water at a constant temperature, but it doesn’t heat the water to steam temperatures. The SpotClean Pro, which doesn’t have this feature, did just a well or better at picking up stains, even as the water cooled.
We tested the older version, the SpotClean Portable Carpet Cleaner, 5207A. Bissell recently updated this model, changing the name to the SpotClean ProHeat Portable Spot Cleaner, 5207F. Bissell told us the newer 5207F has a larger dirty water tank, comes with a slightly different cleaning tool, and comes with one extra Oxyboost cleaning product. Otherwise, they’re the same.
I’ll be blunt: The canister steam cleaners we tested all performed abysmally. These steam cleaners may prove superlative on hardwood floor, tile, linoleum, and other hard surfaces, but we did not test them for those purposes and cannot say for sure. The only reason I can think of to use a steam cleaner for cleaning carpet or upholstery is that you’re trying to disinfect it.
All three of the steam cleaners we tested reached hot enough temperatures to kill 99.9 percent of bugs and germs. These temperatures were also high enough to cause fabric damage, which they did on more than one occasion. If disinfecting is what you’re after, these machines will do the trick. What they won’t do is effectively clean your carpet and upholstery. This all but confirms what several experts told us, which is that consumer-grade steam cleaners lack the power to effectively remove carpet and upholstery stains. “That’s the problem with these machines,” says Jay of Jay’s Mobile Detail and Carpet Cleaning. “A customer can’t go buy anything that’s got a lot of [extraction] power. That’s why we pay the big bucks for the big machines.”
We used the steam cleaners exactly as the manuals instructed, working the nozzle in a back-and-forth motion and using a towel to wipe away loosened soil. All this seemed to do was spread the stain around. The colors were perhaps dulled a bit, but not to the point of what anyone would consider “clean.” In the manual, Wagner recommends the following:
“When cleaning upholstery or clothing, do not soak the material. Only a small amount of steam is sufficient for cleaning. Too much steam can leave water marks or other damage.”
To be fair, steam cleaners are marketed as “multipurpose” cleaners. While claiming they can be used on carpet and upholstery, they are perhaps better suited for hard surfaces like tile, ceramic, slate, hardwood, and linoleum, as well as stove tops, grills, shower stalls, appliance interiors, and even shoes. Because we were looking for upholstery and carpet cleaners, we didn’t test on those surfaces.
Caring for steam cleaners and hot water extraction machines really depends on the unit in question. Mineral buildup is always a concern when you repeatedly add tap water to a plastic receptacle. You can avoid this risk by using distilled water, but this workaround is by no means necessary. Bissell points out that you may need to occasionally clean the suction gate, which can be accomplished by removing the dirty water tank and unscrewing the suction gate door. Wipe it clean and rinse it with cold water, then screw it back in place.
To keep upholstered furniture in tip-top shape, give it a routine vacuuming to prevent dust and dirt from collecting and wearing away the fabric. A customer service representative from Room & Board told us it’s also a good idea to flip, rotate, and fluff the cushions to ensure more of an even wear (which is inevitable) and to increase longevity. Avoid placing furniture in direct sunlight, and hire a professional cleaning service once a year. For upholstery cleaning formulas, Room & Board recommends Folex and Crypton.
Our pick does not use boiling hot water, but it does use a cleaning formula. It’s always a good idea to check the upholstery cleaning codes before applying any sort of cleaning product.
As far using the extraction machine goes, we recommended scrubbing the stain in a back-and-forth motion while occasionally dousing it in the cleaning formula. The vacuum does most of the work. Some stains may warrant a pre-treatment formula, but it really depends on the nature and severity of the stain.
The best bit of advice we can give you for keeping your carpet and upholstery cleaner in tip-top shape is to just read the manual. There are significant differences between these machines, and they all have different stress points.
As far as carpet and upholstery go, all the steam cleaners we tried sucked, but the Wagner 915 sucks the least. It was the only machine that seemed to show a discernible level of stain removal, and we’re not exactly sure why. The Wagner’s pressure level is 41 psi, which is right in between the two other cleaners we tested, the McCulloch MC1275 (35 psi) and the SteamFast SF-275 (44 psi). At the end of the day, though, it’s just an ineffective machine when used on carpet and upholstery.
By the way, all three steam cleaners we tested look to be the exact same machine (they are owned by the same company). All three have the same sized water tank (48 ounces) and the same wattage (1,500), but the Wagner appears to reach higher temperatures. (It even singed the upholstery fabric.) It bears repeating: You need to know what you’re doing with these machines, or you may damage the fabric.
Like the Wagner 915, the SteamFast just didn’t do a very good job at cleaning. The SteamFast SF-275 looks almost identical to the McCulloch MC1275. Though it may have different internal hardware, it’s the same external design.
While more or less identical to the SteamFast SF-275—both in terms of hardware and performance—the McCulloch MC1275 costs more, and we’re not exactly sure why. Like its twin, the SteamFast, it proved a poor performer on carpet and upholstery stains.
We did not have the opportunity to test the Rug Doctor Portable Spot Cleaner, which is the SpotClean Pro’s primary competitor. We decided not to test it because it had less enthusiastic user reviews. We’ll consider testing this one for a future update. It retails for the exact same price as the SpotClean Pro, has a slightly longer hose (5½ feet), and works more or less the same way. The cleaning tool is fixed, meaning you can’t swap it out for one that specializes in a particular type of fabric, and the water tank is a bit smaller than the SpotClean Pro’s. But because its primary cleaning mechanisms (cleaning formula, hot tap water, vacuum suction) are the same, it’s safe to assume the Rug Doctor is an effective stain remover.
(Photos by Liam McCabe.)
Originally published: July 25, 2016