We hate to break it to you, but after putting in 38 hours on research and testing, we’ve learned that most people don’t need a steam mop—they aren’t any better than wet mops, and we were shocked to find that they can damage almost every kind of floor in your house. But if you need to clean glazed tile or sealed stone (only), the Bissell PowerFresh Steam Mop 1940 will make the job the easiest.
Its cleaning head has the best flexibility and cornering of any mop we tested, its removable water tank was the easiest to refill, and it uses a continuous stream of steam that’s less complicated to operate than the triggers or buttons on its competitors. The 1940 PowerFresh also looks decent (or at least subtle), it has a reasonable price for the category, and it takes up a bit less room in a cleaning closet than other steam mops. It weighs less, too, especially compared with other mops’ full water weights. It reaches under things easily, and the back of the mop head has an “easy scrubber” useful in getting down into grout.
If you have a lot of steam-tolerating stone floor to clean, you’re going to go through multiple cloth mop heads in one session—and in that case, it’s worth upgrading to the Shark Genius Steam Pocket Mop System. You can flip over a cloth mop cover and use the other side without having to stop the mop and you can change out covers without touching them while they’re hot and messy. The Genius Steam Pocket Mop is also relatively lightweight, maneuvers well (though not as well as our top pick), and uses Shark mop head covers that are easy to wash or replace.
I’ve been writing for The Sweethome since 2012, researching and testing home goods like cutting boards, kitchen thermometers, and paper towels. I also own a more than 100-year-old home with roughly 1,500 square feet of hardwood floor, along with sealed tile and stick-on vinyl. I co-own a coworking space with both engineered wood floors and tile in the bathroom. In short, I’ve spent a lot of time comparing products, and even more time cleaning floors.
Let’s begin by looking at who doesn’t need a steam mop. Steam mop manufacturers claim their products work on a range of floors, but most flooring manufacturers—including companies that make hardwood, engineered hardwood, laminate, vinyl, and stick-on vinyl tile floors—explicitly warn against the use of steam mops. In fact, using a steam mop will usually void your floor’s warranty. Flooring maker Armstrong has a strongly worded blog post on steam cleaners; the summary is, don’t use them, especially on hardwood or engineered wood floors.
Our own testing confirmed that these products have the potential to damage floors. Every single steam mop we tested, on all settings, left behind a good amount of water on the floor. Flooring maker Armstrong plainly prohibits against using water (let alone steam) to clean any hardwood flooring, as does TrafficMaster, Anderson, Bellawood, Heritage Mill, and many others. The steam itself combines moisture and heat, which can break down the adhesive holding engineered pieces together, causing floors to swell and buckle. The heat can discolor and damage even seemingly impervious materials, like vinyl—testing two steam mops for a few minutes on the stick-on vinyl floor in my laundry room caused cloudlike white spots to form.
Some floors are safe to clean with a steam mop, though. Glazed tile, sealed granite, and most other sealed stone floors usually will come out of the cleaning undamaged. Luckily, this is also the kind of floor that steam mops work best on. We interviewed Jolie Kerr, host of the Ask a Clean Person podcast, right after she had finished testing a steam mop for a magazine review.1 On Kerr’s tiled bathroom, the steam mop glided, cleaned up well, and “got things clean in a way that I’ve never felt I could get with a regular mop,” she said. On her parquet-style hardwood floors (which she said she was not worried about, because they were “so old and beat up, nothing can harm them”), the steam mop didn’t do any better than any other mop. “I had high hopes it would get more dirt off the floor than normal. I was expecting some kind of steam magic, which might have been unrealistic, but it wasn’t magic.”
There are a few more things to know when deciding if this product is right for you. The steam produced by these mops is quite hot, enough that you have to wait a good 3 to 5 minutes before you can replace a pad. Using them for more than a few minutes in a closed room makes the room itself uncomfortable. When you turn off a steam mop, it emits steam for sometimes 30 seconds more, so you have to find somewhere to raise or remove the still-hot, moist mop or you’re almost certain to damage your floor.
Last, steam mops often tout benefits such as sanitizing floors and killing bacteria. This may or may not be true (we didn’t test). Do you really expect your floor to be sanitary, or stay that way for any length of time? We don’t, and neither do most researchers.
Knowing their limits, we focused on finding steam mops that seemed reliable, available, and popular, and we stayed away from those that promised far more than we knew they could deliver.
Some publications have tested steam mops, like Good Housekeeping, but provide very little detail on how they tested or what made one better at cleaning than another. Consumer Reports found that steam mops generally don’t work any better than sponge mops and can be used on only a few types of floors (agreed), and noted that they would do no further steam mop reviews after that April 2016 round of testing. Consumer Search did a meta-review of reviews to praise three steam mops in July 2016, including our two picks.
We also read as many owner reviews as we could, although steam mop reviews on Amazon are heavily influenced by reviewers provided with free samples by a few companies. Reviewers also often fail to specify the type of floors they are cleaning, or suggest uses for their mop that most people should avoid.
If you have to buy a steam mop for one or two small rooms worth of glazed tile or sealed stone, you should buy the Bissell PowerFresh Steam Mop 1940. It was the easiest mop to push around, get into corners, or tilt under sinks, tables, or other low surfaces. The PowerFresh’s removable water tank is far easier to remove, fill, and replace than the competitors. It offers continuous steam, which is more convenient and comfortable than pump handles or triggers, with three levels of intensity. It doesn’t weigh less than others, looks inoffensive, and can stand on its own while most steam mops cannot. The PowerFresh has thousands of positive reviews from owners, its pads are relatively easy to remove and clean, and it sells for less than many other steam mops we found (which were not worth the price).
If you’re going to commit to cleaning certain floors with steam, you want to be able to clean all of that floor. The Bissell PowerFresh’s flexible joint and the shape of its cleaning head (rounded on one side, flat on the other) allows you to get right up against a floor edge, or into and around rounded areas. Its handle and tank can dip lower than most other steam mops, so the steaming head maneuvers underneath sinks and other furniture. The PowerFresh can also lock into a standing position, while most other steam mops make you find something to lean them against.
You should be able to clean multiple rooms with a full PowerFresh water tank, but when it’s time to refill, the process is simple. You grab the clear blue tank on its textured sides, lift up, unscrew the stopper, fill it up, put the cap back on, and slide it back into place. This sounds obvious, but some steam mops provide tiny, narrow-spouted filling cups that you pour into the mop itself, or removable tanks that are heavier than they should be. If you find yourself having to refill your mop halfway through a job, the PowerFresh tank is the easiest to work with.
The PowerFresh pushes out continuous steam when turned on, which we found far more convenient than having to press a trigger or pump the handle to release steam. Some expensive steam mops offer multiple settings for different floor types (most of which you should avoid anyway), or a “scrub” setting, but they’re all just pushing out more or less steam. Other, usually cheaper, mops have only one steam level. The PowerFresh is right in the middle, offering three levels of steam output, and one button to choose those levels or turn off the mop. It’s easy enough to understand just by looking at it, and it gives you a modicum of control.
The body of the PowerFresh is among the slimmest of the mops we tested, out-skinnied by only one Shark model. It’s also the second lightest (4.8 pounds empty, 6 pounds full), again bested only by that svelte Shark. This makes the PowerFresh easier to push around and put away. And while steam mops are not something you might rate for looks or feel, we thought the PowerFresh looked more modern, but less gadgetlike, than most other mops.
More than 6,300 verified purchasers have rated the PowerFresh on Amazon, with an average of 4.3 out of 5 stars. Notable in the reviews are appetite-killing photos of just how much grime the PowerFresh mop was able to pick up with its pads. The pads are also as easy to clean in a sink or washing machine as any other steam mop pad—it’s helpful if you have other soiled cleaning rags to wash at the same time.
The PowerFresh has the so-called Easy Scrubber attached to the stem of the mop, behind the head. The idea is that you press down with your foot, lock the stiff-bristle scrubbing pad into place, and use that to clean deep into tough stains or grout. It can catch some of the deeper gunk on its way past what you just cleaned. But we found ourselves wanting to hold the Easy Scrubber down with a foot to get really deep into grout, and that was not a smart move, balance-wise.
At around $90, the PowerFresh is a pretty average price for this quite limited tool. Cheaper models are more likely to break and less convenient to fill and push around. More expensive mops are loaded with features that aren’t necessary for the primary job of a steam mop.
In addition to the general flaws of all steam mops noted in Who needs a steam mop:
The relatively small tank on the PowerFresh will need to be filled once or twice if you have more than two rooms (about 10 square feet each) to clean. The PowerFresh’s two cleaning pads (one regular, one “strong”; replacement PowerFresh pads are available) are not very easy to get on or off the mop. Lifting a little tab above the mop head is cumbersome, and the process can take several minutes while the mop is hot. Consider our upgrade pick for bigger jobs or easier pad replacement.
The PowerFresh’s indicators do not blink or turn a different color when the mop is warming up to steaming temperature, nor when cooling down. It’s a minor thing, and you’ll probably know from the sounds when steam is escaping the mop head. Still, it would be better to have visual confirmation that you’re not going to ruin your floor by leaving it in one place.
While steam is flowing, we felt a slight, intermittent vibration in the handle of the PowerFresh. It was helpful in some way to know when the mop had steam (since it lacks a warm-up/cool-down light), but it could be annoying to some with longer cleaning jobs.
We don’t recommend Bissell’s scent discs, which provide Febreze-like odors when placed between the cleaning pads and the mop head. (These come standard with the Purple Pet model and are sold separately for the Blue model we recommend). Both mops come with a plastic ring attachment that you can use to run the PowerFresh over your carpet and “refresh” it. It didn’t do much to help a section of carpet that one pet had (ahem) made its own.
For larger jobs that require multiple pads, the Shark Genius Pocket Mop makes switching and replacing them as easy as any steam mop we tried. You press a small lever with your foot, let the folded-over Genius pad flip open onto the floors, and shimmy the mop head out of the pad. You can then flip the pad over to use the back side or click a fresh pad into place, all without touching it with your hands—it’s faster, cleaner, and safer, especially while the mop is still hot. That convenience will cost you $20 to $30 extra over the PowerFresh; in most other respects, the Genius Pocket Mop nearly matches the PowerFresh in ease of use, weight, and flexibility.
Beyond the easy-change mop head, the Genius Pocket Mop has a single level of steam operation, which is fine and gets the job done. The mop’s blue light blinks when warming up and cooling down, which is convenient. If you flip the mop head backward (underneath the body instead of in front of it), the mop’s steam shoots out directly onto the floor (as a so-called Steam Blaster), which might help with truly sticky stains. The Genius Pocket Mop was not quite as agile as the PowerFresh in bending sideways or dipping low beneath objects, but it was more flexible than all the other mops we tested.
The pads have longer strings and denser pile than the PowerFresh and work on both sides. They don’t seem to absorb as much grease and grime as the PowerFresh’s terrycloth-like pads, but they appear to do more scrubbing work. Shark Genius mop pads―the kind that specifically work with the mop’s click-to-open head―are not as easy to find for replacement or additional purchase, although the two pads that come with the mop, each with two usable sides, should go a very long way.
We specifically recommend the S6002 version of the Genius Pocket Mop, because it comes with a potentially useful add-on: a second mop body and spray bottle that you can attach to the Genius mop head, giving you a mop that can work on the floors that steam mops should never be used upon. If you don’t have another dust mop to use, and you like the Genius mop head style, that can be convenient. The S5003 version of the Genius Pocket Mop is the same steam mop, but in a different color and with three steam modes.
Bissell’s Steam Mop Deluxe 31N1, billed as the “hard floor cleaner,” is one of the simpler, cheaper steam mops. Its pads fit onto its steaming head like a low-cut athletic sock and tended to bunch up at the edges when pushing across rougher surfaces. It was also difficult to keep the 31N1 standing on its own without tilting over, and the trigger was tiring to keep pressed down during longer jobs.
On the other end of the design spectrum, Hoover’s FloorMate SteamScrub Touch Hard Floor Steamer has an on/off switch, two tanks for water and Hoover’s own cleaning solution, and four touch-sensitive buttons for different water/solution mixes to clean vinyl, wood, or tile, or to use steam only. Its head has a built-in stiff-bristle scrubber for grout, and the triangular shape does get into crevices well. But this mop is bulky at its tank, and far too heavy (7.6 pounds empty, 9 pounds full). Most of all, nobody should have to keep a steam-mix solution in stock just to damage a floor with unnecessary settings.
The Shark Blast & Scrub is also a bit much, giving you a mop that can turn into a curtain steamer, an ironlike hand steam cleaner, a spray-bottle hard floor cleaner (the same as the Shark we recommend), and a dust-wand-style attachment (that, of course, also releases steam). As an actual steam mop that cleans floors, it’s fine, but not any better than the Pocket Mop we recommend. If you want to clean your curtains and other upholstery, read our guide to the best upholstery steamer. Shark’s S6001 Genius Mop, a variant of our upgrade pick, requires that you pump the handle to issue steam, and for $100, nobody should have to do that.
The Reliable Steamboy Pro 300CU 3-in-1 Steam and Scrub Mop can switch between a steam pad and a very stiff scrub brush, once you press with your foot to release one triangular section and press the mop onto the other. The switching mechanism works pretty well, but it’s a niche need, considering how small the terrycloth mop pad is and how often you’ll need to clean it for any sizable room cleaning. Small isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for everyone, but the head is also more limited in flexibility than the one on the Bissell PowerFresh.
(Photos by Kevin Purdy.)
Originally published: November 4, 2016