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Carpet cleaner or vacuum: Which one do you need?

The answer sits somewhere between pet hair and puke

Vacuum next to carpet cleaner Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

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A basic spring cleaning may be on your mind, or perhaps you heard someone talking about getting their carpets deep cleaned after a muddy, wet winter.

But, you wonder, would I need a vacuum cleaner or a carpet cleaner for the task, and, frankly, what’s the difference?

The internet is a wonderful place to find answers to questions you are too afraid to ask. Or, you can read this article, because we’re going to dive right into these machines’ differences, when you should use one over the other, and whether you should buy or rent.

Depending on the situation, the difference can be as subtle as between a claw hammer and a mallet, or as wide as a wrench and a screwdriver. Here we go. …

What is a carpet cleaner?

At first glance, you may think this is a rectangle and square situation—a square being a special type of rectangle. However, for our purposes, we’re going to regard a carpet cleaner as a completely separate product.

A carpet cleaner is a device that mechanically applies soap and water to a carpet from a clean water tank, scrubs, and then suctions up the byproduct into a dirty water tank.

Carpet cleaner cleaning shag throw rug.
Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

Carpet cleaners work by applying and suctioning up water.


For many people, the first time they lay eyes on a carpet cleaner is for rent at a supermarket.

What is a vacuum cleaner?

We’re going to go out on a limb and assume you’ve encountered a vacuum cleaner at least once in your life.

Basically, a vacuum cleaner is a device with a small and compact fan. As the fan blows air out of one end of the cleaner, it creates a “vacuum” effect on the other, which pulls debris and dirt out of the carpet. If you’re interested in learning more about the whole process, we’ve got an in-depth article on the topic.

When should I use a carpet cleaner or a vacuum?

It all comes down to what you’re trying to get out of your carpet. A vacuum cleaner is designed for dry debris and a carpet cleaner is for stains. For example, a carpet cleaner is better suited for a pet stain, but a vacuum should be used to tackle their loose fur.

In instances where you need to clean a mixed medium like mud, it’s safer to use a carpet cleaner. Moisture can damage a vacuum cleaner.

Should you buy, rent, or hire a carpet cleaner?

Close-up Of A Person Cleaning Carpet With Vacuum Cleaner
Credit: Getty Images / AndreyPopov

Consider this when renting a carpet cleaner: there's nothing grosser than other people's messes.

Like with most things, the longer the term, the better it is to buy. Looking online at carpet cleaning ads, they can easily run you between $100-500, depending on the size of your house. Renting can cost you anywhere between $30-50 a day, so that quickly adds up.

We’ve tested models like the Hoover SmartWash, and we found them to be excellent at rejuvenating carpets and eliminating odors. If you have kids and/or pets, consider this a worthy investment.

Hiring someone is good if you’re moving. However, we recommend avoiding renting a carpet cleaner. Rental carpet cleaners share a lot in common with laundromat washers—they’re built for sturdiness rather than performance.

Also, since it's a cleaning tool, you know the product you're renting touched other people's messes—you just don't know how gross it was.

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