Carpet cleaner vs vacuum cleaner – which is best?

The difference between a carpet cleaner vs vacuum cleaner is crucial for your cleaning.

A Bissell Crosswave HyrdroSteam, a useful example for carpet cleaner vs vacuum cleaner
(Image credit: Bissell)

In recent years, domestic carpet cleaners have gotten smaller and smaller, and that means that more and more are coming onto the market. You used to need to hire a carpet cleaner for a professional clean. Where they were big, expensive unwieldy machines, they're now around the size of an upright vacuum cleaner. 

If they're now freely available for home use, surely it makes sense to just buy one of those?  When it comes to a carpet cleaner vs vacuum cleaner, should you even bother with a vacuum any more?

I spoke to carpet and cleaning experts to get their professional advice, and they don't think you should throw out your vacuum cleaner just yet. We've also tested some of the best carpet cleaners and the best vacuum cleaners, so we know exactly which are worth your time. 

Head to head - carpet cleaner vs upright vacuum

The fairest thing to do is compare like with like. The closest direct comparison is two Shark products. They're from the same manufacturer and have very similar dimensions, weights, and prices. 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Shark Carpet Xpert vs Shark Stratos
Header Cell - Column 0 Shark Carpet XpertShark Stratos
Dimensions:13.15" x 11.97" x 43.5" 11.02" x 12.2" x 46.46"
Weight: 18.05 lbs17.2 lb.
Capacity:30.4 gal47oz
Cleaning Path:10 inches10.63"
Power Cord: 20ft26.2ft
Warranty:5 years5 years
Features 3.5-inch stain tool, crevice tool, pet tool, hose cleaning tool, 12-oz. Shark CarpetXpert formula and 16-oz. Shark StainStriker formula Odor neutralizer cartridge, crevice tool, and upholstery tool

You can see in this comparison table that they're fairly evenly matched. However, a couple stats leap out. The upright vacuum is about a pound lighter than the carpet cleaner, so it's easier to push across a surface and pack away for storage. The vacuum also has a longer power cord thank the carpet cleaner, so it can reach further before you need to plug it into another outlet. The vacuum is also slightly more powerful than the carpet cleaner, and has a wider cleaning path by half an inch.

However, the carpet cleaner has many more accessories to help it tackle a wide range of surfaces and scenarios. It also looks like the capacity of the carpet cleaner is much, much higher than the vacuum. However, that's a little deceptive. A vacuum only needs to pick up dust and hair, both of which are lightweight. A carpet cleaner, on the other hand, works by flushing the dirt out of a carpet. That means that the carpet cleaner is not only picking up dirt, but also the water that removed the dirt, so it needs a larger capacity. 


Carpet cleaner vs cordless vacuum

You may be weighing up carpet cleaner against a cordless vacuum. They're very different machines, so here's a comparison of two of our favorites. 

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Shark Carpet Xpert vs Shark Stratos
Header Cell - Column 0 Bissell CrosswaveDyson V15
Dimensions:10" x 10.7" x 44" 9.84" x 10.47" x 49.6"
Weight: 12.5 lbs6.79 lbs
Cleaning Path:10.7 inches10.63"
Power Cord: 25 feetCordless
Warranty:Limited 3-year warranty that varies by state 2 years
FeaturesPET multi-surface brush roll, water tank, clean-out and storage tray, 2 CrossWave filters, 8-ounce Sanitize formula, 8 ounce FreshStart Clean Out formulaLaser Slim Fluffy cleaner head, High Torque cleaner head with anti-tangle comb, hair screw tool, crevice tool, stubborn dirt brush, mini soft dusting brush, combination tool, wand clip, docking station, charger

Comparing these two side by side is a little more interesting. Both are similarly-sized and have the same cleaning path, but that's where the similarities end. 

Unsurprisingly, the Dyson is a lot lighter and easier to use. It's cordless, so you can use it all over your home without having to fiddle with a power outlet, and it's also The Dyson weighs half as much as the Bissell Crosswave Hydrosteam. While it looks like the Dyson is less powerful, Dyson only give out air watts as a measure of power, and the whopping 250AW this vacuum can put out makes it much, much more powerful than it seems. However, it also holds a lot less waste than the Bissell though the previous caveat that a lot of that weight is water weight still stands. 

The Bissell is also less expensive than the Dyson. Granted, it doesn't have the fancy particle sensor nor the laser, but unlike other carpet cleaners, it can treat wood floors. However, a word of warning. Your floors need to be sealed, otherwise using a wet vacuum like this on them could cause some damage. That said, on test we found it does an incredibly job of steam-cleaning hard floors. 

What are the drawbacks of a carpet cleaner?

Carpet cleaners are great for tackling carpets,  and they can be used on some area rugs, but they can ruin them if the detergent is too strong. Rug restoration expert Ali Hafezi Mashhadi told me that 'It's not uncommon for people to ruin their area rugs using carpet cleaners'. To avoid this, he told me that you 'must always test that the detergents do not cause dye bleeding in the rugs'. You can do this 'by dabbing a bit on the back of the rug, pressing it in, and seeing if any dyes are lifted off the rug'. If the rug runs, then don't use the carpet cleaner. If it doesn't, then you're good to go. 

Ali Hafezi
Ali Hafezi Mashhadi

Ali Hafezi Mashhadi is an IICRC Certified Carpet Cleaning Technician & WoolSafe Fiber Care Specialist who has been working for his family business for over seven years.

What are the drawbacks of a vacuum cleaner?

The drawback with a vacuum is that it simply doesn't clean as deeply as a carpet cleaners. Carpet cleaners are a lot more hassle, but they clean better. Cleaning exper James King told me that vacuums 'struggle with deep, hidden dirt, or those stubborn stains that have settled into the carpet over time'. On top of that, there's all the usual little annoyances with a vacuum; what James calls 'the regular chore' of emptying the dustbin and cleaning the filter. 

James King
James King

James King is operations manager of DeluxeMaid, a home cleaning service in Indianapolis. With years of experience in the industry, he oversees all aspects of the business, ensuring exceptional service to clients.

Which is best for carpets?

Vacuuming a carpet with the Shark Rotator Pet Lift-Away Upright Vacuum

(Image credit: Future)

Unfortunately, there's no straightforward answer. A carpet cleaner is better, but not for everyday cleaning. 

On balance, I think a carpet cleaner is better for your carpets and area rugs, but it's not without its drawbacks. If you need to lift a stain, whether food, drink, or a pet mess, a carpet cleaner is invaluable. 

However, carpet cleaners leave your carpet damp. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can be tedious to wait for your carpets to dry after you've cleaned them. If your home is prone to mold, you'll want to avoid this, because routinely damp carpets will encourage mold, especially in winter. 

So while a carpet cleaner is much better than a vacuum for tackling stains and serious dirt, for everyday cleaning you're far better off with an ordinary vacuum cleaner. Ali Hafezi Mashhadi recommends 'vacuuming rugs twice a week, with a professional cleaning every six months to two years depending on the circumstances'.

Which is best for hard floors?

Vacuuming hard floors with the Shark Rotator Pet Lift-Away Upright Vacuum

(Image credit: Future)

This is an easy one to answer. With the exception of the Bissell Hydrowave, you can't use a carpet cleaner on wood and hard floors, because the moisture will damage them. A vacuum, on the other hand, is 'equipped with settings and tools that delicately clean and capture fine particles from surfaces without causing any harm', according to James. A carpet cleaner can only be used on soft floors furnishings, so if you have hard floors and leather furniture, you're far better off with a vacuum. Hard floors are really easy to maintain with a vacuum, too. James says the only extra thing you need to do is 'throw in a dry mop or a trusty microfibre cloth every now and then'. 

Which is best for upholstery?

A carpet cleaner is best for upholstery, as it can restore faded sofas and curtains to their best. For example, take a look at this before-and-after from Camryn's test of the Carpet Xpert.

Upholstery before and after cleaning with the Shark CarpetXpert

(Image credit: Future)

The carpet cleaner took a little of the yellowing out of this outdoor sofa, but more importantly, got rid of the stain on the seat. This is something a vacuum simply can't achieve, unless you're will to shell out for it. For example, in our tests of the Dyson V15 we found it restored a faded old dog bed to its former glory. However, this is a top-line, expensive cordless, and that isn't removing a stain, just revitalising color. Don't get me wrong, it's incredibly impressive, but it's not removing a stain. 

Which is cheaper?

Carpet cleaners tend to be cheaper upfront than vacuums. Spot cleaners (small, handheld carpet cleaners) are particularly inexpensive, and often cost under $150. However, there are ongoing costs with most carpet cleaners. You have to keep buing the cleaning solution, and while it's not particularly expensive – a bottle of Shark Stain Striker costs $10.99 – over the lifetime of the carpet cleaner you'll end up paying about as much as you would upfront for a vacuum cleaner. So while certainly cheaper upfront, in the long run you may not actually be saving that much money.

Which is easiest to store?

Vacuums are easier to store. While it's great that carpet cleaners have so many attachments, they take up a lot of space. The biggest carpet cleaners take up a lot of room, and even the smallest models have tanks and attachments that take up room.

While upright vacuums are around the same size as some domestic carpet cleaners, cordless vacuums take up a lot less room. They're designed for tucking away into the corner of an apartment. The smallest we've tested, the Dyson Omni-Glide, can even fit into a kitchen drawer. 

Which is easiest to maintain?

A vacuum is far easier to maintain than a carpet cleaner. All it needs is a to clean the filter every few months, and let's be honest: almost nobody bothers to do this and most vacuums run fine. The most you have to do is empty it, and on most vacuums you can get two or even three uses out of it before you need to do this. A carpet cleaner, however, needs to be refilled and emptied of cleaning fluid every single time you use it. The bristles also need regular cleaning and drying out so they don't become stagnant and smelly. If you want an easier clean, a vacuum is the way to go. 

Carpet cleaner FAQs

Can you use a carpet cleaner on car seats?

Yes. There's no reason you couldn't use a carpet cleaner on car seats, because they're also upholstery, It's just a little unwieldy if you're using a larger carpet cleaner.  

Can a carpet cleaner kill fleas?

It can, but you're much better off getting a fumigator to deal with the problem. Fleas won't stand up to the steam, vacuuming, and cleaning solution of a carpet cleaner, but it's easy to miss a spot, so if you want guaranteed results, you're better off hiring a professional.

Should I rent or buy a carpet cleaner?

Renting a carpet cleaner is much cheaper than buying one outright. At the time of writing, 24 hour hire costs $34.99 at Lowes, $39 at Home Depot, and $39.99 at the Rug Doctor. If you need a one-and-done carpet cleaning, this is a lot cheaper. If you'd prefer to clean more regularly, it works out better to buy your own. 

As I've laid out in this article, carpet cleaners can be a little limited, and there's lots of floorcare small appliances out there. It's well worth considering the best vacuums for pet hair and the best robot vacuums, too. 

Alex David
Head of eCommerce

As Head of eCommerce, Alex makes sure our readers find the right information to help them make the best purchase. After graduating from Cambridge University, Alex got his start in reviewing at the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, testing a wide range of household products and appliances. He then moved to BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, assessing gardening tools, machinery, and wildlife products. Helping people find true quality and genuine value is a real passion.