How to Use a Carpet Cleaner for Good-as-New Floor Coverings

These machines are an easy and cost-effective DIY carpet cleaning option.

person using carpet cleaner on dirty rug

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Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 day
  • Total Time: 2 hours
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $50

Vacuuming regularly is the best way to keep carpets looking and smelling fresh, but even the most diligently cared for carpet needs to be deep cleaned from time to time to remove deeply embedded soils that lend a dingy appearance and stale smell to the home. Experts recommend deep cleaning carpet a minimum of twice a year, and more frequently in homes where there are children or pets.

While you can hire professionals to come to your home to clean carpets, doing it yourself is an easy and inexpensive task. This guide explains how to use upright and portable carpet cleaners to remove stains and give carpet a deep cleaning.

How Do Carpet Cleaners Work?

Carpet cleaners work by forcing cleaning solution and water into the fibers of the carpet, then using vacuum suction to pull them back out. After the cleaning solution has been introduced to the carpet, the cleaner's brush head agitates and scrubs the fibers to loosen stains, dirt, pollen, dander, and other environmental soils that build up in carpeting over time, creating a dingy appearance and less-than-fresh smell. During the extraction cycle, loosened soils are pulled from the carpet along with the cleaning solution.

Carpet cleaning machines are also called carpet extractors, carpet shampooers, and carpet steamers. However, while some carpet-cleaning machines have a heating element, carpet cleaners do not use steam to clean, as steam is not safe for all materials and can cause permanent damage to carpet and upholstery if used incorrectly. (True steam cleaners should only be used on certain types of hard flooring, like tile or natural stone.)

Upright, or walk-behind, carpet cleaners offer the most efficiency when it comes to cleaning large areas, but they are bulky and heavy, making them more difficult to store and operate. Portable carpet cleaners, including small handheld models, are lightweight and compact, but cover less area in each pass, making them more time- and labor-intensive to use than their upright counterparts. Most machines come with attachments that allow them to be used on other soft surfaces, like upholstered furniture, mattresses, or curtains.

carpet cleaners

Henry Wortock

Renting vs. Buying a Carpet Cleaner

In the United States, Rug Doctor is the most commonly available rental option for carpet cleaners; you can search for rental locations nearest you on Rug Doctor's website. Renting a carpet cleaner will typically cost between $30 and $50 for a 24-hour period, depending on the model you choose. Large dryers, which can help to speed up drying time after cleaning carpets, are also available to rent.

Renting a carpet cleaning machine is a good idea for people toying with purchasing one; it's a relatively inexpensive way to try it out to see if you like it and determine if the clean it provides merits a bigger investment.

How to Use a Carpet Cleaner

Before using any type of carpet cleaner, whether it's a cordless handheld model, a corded portable model, or an upright model, it's important to consult the manufacturer's instructions for your particular machine. Cleaning solutions, and their amounts and ratios, can vary widely from machine to machine, and incorrect usage can cause irreversible damage to carpets and furniture.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 Vacuum cleaner
  • 1 Carpet cleaning machine
  • 1 Fan (optional)


  • 1 Carpet cleaning solution
  • 1 Carpet stain remover (optional)


  1. Prepare the Room

    For the best results, remove furniture and other objects, like houseplants or floor lamps, from the room before deep cleaning the carpet. If there is furniture that cannot be moved, work carefully around it to avoid scratching or otherwise damaging it.

  2. Vacuum Carpet

    Vacuum the carpet to remove as much loose soil and debris as possible before beginning the deep cleaning. As you vacuum, make note of any large or especially deep stains and, if needed, use a carpet stain-removing product to pretreat the stains.

  3. Prepare Cleaning Solution

    Follow the manufacturer's instructions on how to set up the carpet cleaner, including the ratio of water to cleaning solution to use, as well as the appropriate water temperature. Some models have separate tanks for water and cleaning solution, while others have one tank in which water and shampoo are mixed.

    It is critical to use only the recommended amount of cleaner to avoid damaging both the carpet and the machine.

  4. Choose Setting

    Plug the machine in. If the model you're using has settings for light, normal, or deep cleaning, select the one that's appropriate for the job. If unsure, start with the lightest setting and adjust as needed as you clean. Turn on the power switch.

  5. Release Cleaning Solution

    Hold the trigger to release the cleaning solution into the carpet. Working in a straight line, make one slow pass forward and backward over the carpet. 

  6. Suction Up Dirt and Solution

    After making one full pass forward and backward, release the trigger and make another pass over the area to pull out the dirty cleaning solution. Keeping an eye on the tank, repeat until the liquid coming out of the carpet is clean, indicating that all the embedded soils have been extracted.

  7. Give Carpet Several Dry Passes

    Once you're satisfied that the section of carpet is thoroughly clean, go back over it using the suction setting to extract as much water as possible from the fibers. This will help speed up drying time and prevent mold and mildew from developing. Watch the water tank—when you notice that no more water is being pulled from the carpet, move to the next section.

  8. Empty Water Tank

    Working in sections, continue cleaning the carpet until the water tank is full. Once filled, empty the dirty water from the tank. Refill the tank with fresh cleaning solution, as needed, following the instructions in step 4.

  9. Perform Detail Work

    Some carpet cleaning machines come with attachments for detail work, like cleaning stairs or tight corners. Detail work is best performed after cleaning the larger areas. Consult the manufacturer's instructions for the correct attachments and settings to use for detail work.

  10. Allow Carpet to Dry Completely

    Even after using a carpet cleaning machine to extract water, the carpet will remain damp after cleaning. Allow carpet to dry completely before returning furniture to its original place or walking on it.

    When cleaning highly trafficked rooms, take drying time into consideration. It can take up to 24 hours for a carpet to dry completely after being shampooed. Setting up fans to blow on the carpet can help to speed up drying time, and is especially recommended in damp or humid climates.

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