You might expect a steam mop to be more convenient than an ordinary squeeze mop, with no squeegee to squeeze and no pail of water to deal with. You might also expect the steam to loosen dried food spills effectively, and perhaps even sanitize floors and other surfaces. But not all of these expectations matched the reality.
A full head of steam
We coated vinyl flooring with catsup, hair spray, toothpaste, pasta sauce, olive oil, cat food, pancake syrup, mustard, barbecue sauce, and other sticky household stuff and let the goop harden overnight. Admittedly, this was a much tougher test than the typical small kitchen spill.
Some spills were almost gone after two passes of the steam mop, although others, such as mustard, clung tenaciously. We judged two models very good overall in cleaning up the small individual messes. The rest were middling.
Cleaning up a larger mess--the entire row of spills--proved much more challenging. Eventually even the best performers pushed aside more grime than they were picking up. The results looked like a lawn where the mower had missed narrow strips along its path. And the entire floor looked dull from the partial cleanup of so many messes.
A low-tech alternative
We repeated our tests with an ordinary $15 squeeze mop, using hot tap water with some mild detergent. The squeeze mop cleaned our floors at least as well as the steam mops, if not better. Of course, we had to scrub more vigorously and allow extra time to refresh the mop repeatedly in a pail of hot water. Despite that, our testers found the squeeze mop strangely more satisfying.
The cartons of all but one steam mop promise to sanitize floors and other surfaces. Those claims may well be true, at least to some extent, because all the tested models produced steam that was hotter than 200 F. (With a typical home heating system's hot water set to 120, the hottest you can make an ordinary squeeze mop is about 100.)
Safe for floors?
Manufacturers indicate that their steam mops can be used on various hard floors, including vinyl, tile, and sealed wood. But all the tested models left residual moisture, some more than others. A wood floor that appears sealed might have crevices where water can seep in and cause damage. Also, some wood finishes or older waxes might haze over. Check with the manufacturer of your flooring to make sure a steam mop won't void the warranty.
The removable pad at the bottom of each steam mop can hold only so much grime before it just pushes the excess material along. Before upending the mop to replace the dirty pad underneath, you have to drain the reservoir or run the mop until it's empty. You may be able to remove the pad without upending the steam mop. But the heavier models--up to 10 pounds with full reservoir--can make that inconvenient.
The instructions suggest cleaning the pad in a washing machine, but we wouldn't want to toss a grungy pad in the same load with the bed linens and kids' school clothes. Running an entire washing-machine cycle just for one or two pads is wasteful. And hand washing the pads in a sink isn't all that appealing either.
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