Steam Cleaners

Written by Jeremy Horelick
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Steam cleaners are one of the most effective, safe, and simple methods of deodorizing, sanitizing, and degreasing. Though steam cleaners have been in wide use since the 1920s, their residential and commercial applications have remained largely unknown, at least in the U.S., until quite recently. European readers will undoubtedly scoff at this fact since vapor steam cleaners are staples in the majority of most European households and businesses.

So just what are steam cleaners, where and when did they originate, how do they work, and what are their practical advantages? These are all common questions among restaurant owners, janitors, industrial plant supervisors, commercial cleaning specialists, and just about anyone who takes more than a passing interest in his or her own health. And if steam cleaners are so obviously superior to more traditional cleaning methods such as vacuuming, why have they been kept so secret?

The History of Steam Cleaners

History buffs and fans of arcana in general may find the history of steam cleaners amusing. Like a lot of other now indispensable products and innovations, steam cleaners were invented more or less by accident, in this case by the employee of a Pennsylvanian water heater and boiler company in 1926. Frank Ofeldt never set out to perfect a new system of stain- and allergen-removal, just a better way to distill whiskey in the era of Prohibition.

While tinkering with his contraption, which would come to be known as Ofeldt's Still, the inventor found that the steam emitted through its pressure-release valve had an unintended effect. Namely, it emulsified the grease stuck to his garage floor. From there, it was only a matter of further tinkering and slight modifications before the "steam cleaner" was ready for sale as a commercial product. Of course, the process wasn't quite so simple, but that story is best left for writers and students of Americana.

Today's Steam Cleaners

Nowadays, portable steam cleaners are used just about everywhere, from supermarkets and automobile plants to laundromats and sports stadiums. But their residential uses are just as manifold and include clothing, bed linens, countertops, tile floors, and drapes. While industrial-strength vapor cleaners can cost literally thousands and thousands of dollars, smaller, more affordable versions are available (though obviously of lesser strength) for a fraction of the price.

Today's steam cleaners hold countless advantages over other forms of cleaning and disinfecting. They are more efficient, not only in terms of speed, but also in power; they are safer on the environment as well as human and animal respiratory systems; and, of course, they simply do a better job of removing stains, spills, dust, oil, and countless other pollutants and allergens. To understand why this is, it's important to grasp how exactly steam cleaners work.

The Anatomy of a Steam Cleaner

The key to steam cleaners success is their ability to combine high heat with moderate pressure to remove impurities. Vapor cleaners use a tank or boiler to heat ordinary tap water, be it hard, soft, ionized, mineral, what have you, into a low-moisture steam that leaves no residue and wipes away quickly and easily. The high temperatures effectively part grime from the surfaces to which they're stuck by destroying the bonds between them. No vacuum cleaner can produce power or heat to rival that of a steam cleaner.

So how come the whole planet hasn't flocked to steam cleaners? Well, in many parts of the world (not just Europe) it has. But the electrical components of most steam cleaners were originally never designed for compatibility with the American electrical standards. Fortunately, in recent years, enterprising companies have redesigned their cleaners to work on both systems, allowing more and more Americans to witness first hand their superiority over conventional vacuum cleaners.

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