Steam cleaners jargon buster
By Sarah Ingrams
Read our glossary of terms for everything you need to know about steam cleaner terminology, features and parts.
Once you know which type of steam cleaner or steam mop you need, go to our steam cleaner reviews to find the models Which? recommends.
Accessories/ Attachments for steam cleaners
Some steam cleaners come with attachments including brushes and nozzles to make them suitable for a wider range of cleaning jobs. Most come with a water jug to help refill the water tank and spare cleaning pads.
Cylinder and handheld steam cleaners often come with several different-sized nozzles to make them suitable for cleaning areas of different sizes. The smallest are often called 'details' nozzles which focus a tiny but powerful jet of steam for cleaning hard to reach areas or grout.
Adjustable steam rate
Some steam cleaners have a dial or buttons so you can adjust the steam pressure. Some manufacturers recommend different levels of steam for different cleaning tasks.
Also called a limescale filter, it’s worth looking out for a steam cleaner that is fitted with one if you live in a hard water area. Like kettles and irons, steam cleaners experience a build-up of limescale inside; an anti-calc filter helps slow this down. Some filters will last as long as the appliance, while others need to be replaced at regular intervals.
If you have a large area to steam clean in your home, it’s worth looking at this to give you a greater reach from your plug socket.
A steam mop attachment that fits onto the mop head to make it suitable for steaming carpets.
Steam mops come with detachable cloths which fit over the mop head. They are usually made from microfibre cloth and come in different designs depending on the shape of the mop head. They are secured in place with either Velcro, a drawstring, or clamps. We’ve found that those with drawstrings must be attached very tightly so that they do not move around.
Most pads are machine washable (but check the washing instructions). Our tests found that some retain their shape after multiple washes while others shrink or become stained so it’s worth looking at the cleaning pads rating for a product. Replacement pads cost between £2 and £4.50 for one.
Some handheld steam cleaners also come with microfibre cleaning pads to fit specific attachments, for example to refresh fabric.
Steam cleaners with this function will start to emit steam when they’re switched on and heated up. You have less control over the steam than with a trigger-activated model but this also means there’s no need to hold a button down to keep it steaming.
Clips attached to the handle of a steam mop, around which you can wrap the power cord to keep it tidy when stored in the cupboard. The best have clips that rotate so it’s easy to release the cord in one go when you want to start cleaning.
An attachment for handheld steam cleaners that's designed to remove stubborn grime in hard to reach spots.
Cylinder steam cleaner
Cylinder steam cleaners look like cylinder vacuum cleaners and comprise a body, bendy hose, plastic tube and nozzle. They tend to be heavier than steam mops but generally steam for longer. With a range of attachments they’re suitable for the cleaning tasks of steam mops and handheld steam cleaners combined and can cost anywhere between around £60 and £250.
Some steam mops have two tanks, one of which is designed for detergent.
Direct steam nozzle
An attachment for a handheld cleaner which creates a direct spray of steam for cleaning hard-to-reach spots.
Attaches to a handheld steamer to give you extra reach. Other accessories such as crevice tools or nozzles then attach to the end.
An attachment for a handheld cleaner that is designed for cleaning variety of surfaces, especially large flat areas like counter tops, walls or mirrors.
This accessory comes with some handheld steam cleaners and attaches to the end of a hose for scrubbing in small cracks and crevices.
Handheld steam cleaner
Usually compact and easy to store (often iron or kettle-sized), handheld steam cleaners are suitable for steam cleaning on a small scale – bathroom tiles, counter tops and hard-to-teach carpet edges, for example. They can cost as little as £20 or up to £100 and come with different attachments.
Cylinder and handheld steam cleaners often have boilers that rely on pressure as well as heat to produce steam. They can take longer to heat up than models without pressurised boilers. You need to completely empty the water tank to ensure that the boiler is depressurised before you open the lid to refill it – or you could be faced with a face full of steam.
A few steam mops produce steam when you pump the handle up and down, so the amount of steam produced depends partly on the user’s efforts.
Ready indicator light
This indicates when the steam cleaner is heated-up and ready to use.
Single and twin tank steam cleaners
Cylinder steam cleaners are, on average, able to produce for around half an hour. But a twin tank model can offer continuous steaming beyond this time, as you can add new water to one tank while the other is heating water. These models often have smaller overall capacities than single tank models but, as long as you keep adding water, you can clean for as long as you want.
Basic steam mops have long handles with a water tank and boiler attached. Models which come with a detachable handheld steam cleaner in the handle are called two-in-ones. Steam mops vary greatly in price from less than £30 to more than £100.
Steam mops with swivel and double-hinged heads move around well and make it easier to clean around obstacles and furniture.
Steam pressure, or output, is measured in grams of steam per minute (gm) and this figure is often printed on steam cleaner packaging. The higher the figure, the more powerful the steam. We’ve found that those which offer the highest steam output often leave your floor wettest in the process.
Some steam mops have height-adjustable handles – sometimes this means the handle completely packs away inside the body of the mop, making it easier to store.
Trigger activated steam
A button on the handle controls the steam. This means you can control at the touch of a button when you want steam – and when you don’t – which is handy if you want to pause while steam cleaning. But you’ll need to keep the button depressed all the time you want it to emit steam.
Water tank capacity
A larger water tank usually means that you’ll get a longer steaming time. There are big differences between models: some steam for less than 10 minutes while others can manage more than half an hour. However, it’s worth balancing a large tank with the weight of water you’ll have to lug around while you’re cleaning.
An attachment for handheld steamers which emits a jet of steam in the middle of a plastic blade. You’ll need one in order to get a streak-free finish on glass.