The Best Portable Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner for 2021

We tested seven models for our 2018 update. Photo: Liam McCabe

We started by making a detailed list of all the portable carpet and upholstery cleaners we could find. It turned out to be more than 20 different models.

Most of these things are pretty similar to each other, prices are in the same range ($ 80-130), the vast majority are made by Bissell, and some of them have terrible owner ratings. That’s why we’ve narrowed the list to seven models, focusing on the popular models with good reviews while aiming for a certain variety between brands and designs.

important functions

In our testing, we found that with a portable carpet cleaner, only three things really matter:

Cleaning performance: The best carpet and upholstery cleaners completely remove stubborn, dried-out stains of all kinds – tannins, dyes, protein and oil – from any suitable fabric surface. It should remove the stains within a dozen or so passes with the scrubbing tool – if it takes longer, the stain probably won’t go anywhere. It should also soak up as much cleaning solution as possible to help dry faster, which in turn prevents microbial growth. Some cleaners do this very well; most of them are just passable.

Easy to use: A good carpet and upholstery cleaner is easy to find out without consulting the manual. The solution tank should have clear level lines that show where the water needs to be added and where the detergent needs to be added. The filling lines should also contain a few options: one for a full load of detergent and one for a small amount – a “quick clean”. The tanks should have a flat bottom so you can place them on a surface while you fill them with solution. The dirty tank should have a removable lid so you can use your hand to wash your hands. The solution shouldn’t drip from every crack or opening. A cable wrap and attachments can secure the hose and cleaning tools, and the machine should have a handle for easy portability. Ideally, all of the components should be placed somewhere on the machine so that you don’t have to keep parts in another location and are likely to lose them. We like cleaners with automatic cycles because they allow hands-free cleaning, but we’ve only seen this feature on one model so far – and it happens to be our great pick too.

Light, compact: The best cleaning supplies are easy to lift and move around and can be quickly stored in a closet. In our experience, size doesn’t really mean cleaning performance. So don’t think that you need a giant soap machine to properly clean your couch. Most portable models weigh less than 14 pounds and are about the size of a toaster, but some are larger.

Unimportant functions

This didn’t really affect our experience with the detergents:

Number of scrubbing tools or cleaning equipment: All carpet and upholstery cleaners come with at least one cleaning tool, but some have two or even three different-sized attachments for cleaning stairs or hard-to-reach corners. We found that they all work well and that it is not worth sweating as many are in the kit.

Cleansing Formula: Every cleaner we’ve come across comes with an 8-ounce bottle of cleaning formula, which should be enough to fill a standard-sized cleaning tank (with water) twice. If you only pull your carpet cleaner out of the closet a few times a year, this sample bottle will easily last a year or two. If not, you can get a 32-ounce bottle of formula for $ 10. We can’t tell one way or another which brand has the best cleaning formula, but it probably makes more sense to worry about whether or not your carpet or upholstery is designed for water-based cleaning solutions.

Rated capacity: You would think a high powered motor would result in better vacuum suction, but we haven’t found that it does. The top performers we tested ran on 4 or 5 amps, while one of the worst performers had a super loud motor that ran on 10 amps.

Cable length: You probably won’t find a carpet / upholstery cleaner with a power cord that is less than 14 feet long, and most are around 20 feet tall. That’s long enough for pretty much any situation. With that much cord, you can easily snake it around your car until it becomes tangled. We tested a cordless model – the only one we could find. It worked surprisingly well, but there were terrible reviews from owners, most of whom complained about leaks.

Radiator: Some cleaners have a keep warm feature that keeps the cleaning solution hot for more effective cleaning. Regardless of how much the temperature drop is in a regular extraction machine, it doesn’t seem to affect cleaning performance – especially not within the 30 minute window that most people use these things for. Other variables – such as the type of stain, absorbency, form stability and carpet / upholstery fabric – are far more important.

Bikes: It’s a nice addition if you’d rather not carry a 13-pound cleaning machine with you, but for most people, wheels just add bulk and weight to something light enough to easily carry.

Water tank capacity: The more solution you can build into the machine, the better. However, since these machines are primarily intended for spot treatments, a small 35 ounce tank is sufficient. Don’t sweat the size.

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