Steam Cleaner vs. Dry Vapor Steam Cleaner: What's the Difference?

This article was updated in 2024 to reflect how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world.

In the cleaning industry, not all terms are created equal, yet often they’re incorrectly used interchangeably. For example, the distinction between the terms “steam cleaner” and “steam vapor system” is often blurred, even by cleaning professionals. This is because the definition of each term changed during the global pandemic as manufacturers rushed to introduce chemical-free technology to homes, businesses, and schools to replace toxic disinfectants that are linked to a range of serious illnesses and diseases from respiratory problems to cancer.

While informal use of these terms might not require precise definition, knowing the difference is important to help you better understand which device is right for you.

What is a steam cleaner?

A steam cleaner is a device that turns ordinary tap water to a cleaning agent that can both clean and sanitize surfaces using a combination of heat and pressure. Much of what comes out of the tip of a steam cleaner is water—which means the surface of what is being cleaned is left wet. And that means mold and other damage.

How about a steam vapor system?

A steam vapor system (often called a "dry vapor steam cleaner"), on the other hand, uses a boiler like a steam cleaner to create pressurized steam to effortlessly clean, sanitize, and deodorize. But unlike a steam cleaner, what comes out of the tip of a steam vapor system is less than 5% water. So most surfaces—even your mattress—dry almost instantly.

Cleaning with steam or steam vapor provides a faster, deeper clean than chemicals that threaten the health of your family and pets. Both perform with a simple pass over a surface. That’s it. No elbow grease is required.

But besides the amount of water that comes out of the tip of the device, there are other differences between a steam cleaner and a dry steam vapor system. 

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So, what are the other differences?

Droplet Size and Temperature

To begin with, steam vapor is comprised of water droplets smaller and hotter than steam. This is very important. The tiny water droplets allow steam vapor to reach nooks and crannies steam cannot—such as the nicks and gouges caused by a knife striking the surface of a cutting board. This fact combined with a superhot temperature (240°F to 260°F) makes steam vapor more reliable than steam in lowering the risk of spreading germs from surfaces by touch, which the COVID-19 pandemic taught us is extremely important. A steam cleaner is not, and has never been, a disinfection device. It is at most a sanitizing device.

What all this means is that your home or place of work will be cleaner than it’s ever been with steam vapor. In fact, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates devices claiming to kill microscopic organic matter—germs, bacteria, and viruses—assigned an EPA Establishment Number to Advanced Vapor Technologies because of its Thermal Accelerated Nano Crystal Sanitation (TANCS®) technology, which combines superhot dry steam vapor at the macroscopic level you can see with nanotechnology at the microscopic level you cannot see. The number “EPA Est. No. 82121-WA-01” is proudly displayed on each machine and tells you in a glance that your steam vapor system qualifies as a disinfection device for the EPA. No other steam vapor system, let alone a steam cleaner, has TANCS®.

Tendency to Damage Surfaces and Remove Color

Going a step further, unlike steam, steam vapor will not discolor or degrade the surface of what is cleaned.

While some manufacturers might tell you that hardwood floors can withstand the moisture of a steam cleaner, using a steam cleaner on hardwoods is tricky, as they’re vulnerable and easily damaged by excessive moisture. Over time, the excessive moisture could not only dull the finish but also force itself into the joints between the boards and cause the wood to expand, discolor, and warp.

The same thing is true for imitation hardwood flooring or laminate flooring. The buildup of moisture in the flooring can trap mold and mildew, causing damage and a musty smell. These are costly issues that you can avoid by staying away from steam cleaners. However, a dry steam vapor system cleans hardwood and laminate floors perfectly with a streak-free finish and no damage.

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Power to Destroy Germ Colonies

You probably haven’t thought a lot about the residues from cleaning chemicals and the possible affects they have on you and your family. These residues tend to become airborne and when inhaled cause serious health problems for asthmatic, allergic, or sensitive people. Plus, when left on a surface, residues act as a food source for germs to colonize, forming communities called biofilms.  

Because biofilms are extremely hard to kill and thrive on environments where moisture is in contact with a surface, steam cleaners may actually contribute to biofilm growth.

But scientific studies say that dry steam vapor systems equipped with TANCS® leave no residue behind and literally destroy biofilms.

"It is extremely difficult to get rid of biofilms and kill them,” says Chuanwu Xi, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Michigan. “The efficacy of the steam vapor system is important because even strong chemical disinfectants such as bleach when allowed 20 minutes of dwell time did not achieve the same degree of kill that the TANCS®-equipped unit accomplished in 3 seconds."

The following explainer video describes TANCS®.

 

The Verdict Steam Cleaner vs. Dry Vapor Steam Cleaner

In sum, you can see why it’s easy to confuse the terms “steam cleaner” and “steam vapor system.” They’re related to one another and there’s an ebb and flow between them as consumers become more educated on the dangers of the chemical cleaners that line grocery store shelves. But there are important differences that set steam and dry steam vapor apart and you would do well to consider them before making a purchase. 


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