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The Best Portable Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner for 2023

May 16, 2023

We tested six models and have a new top pick, the Bissell Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner 1400B.

Drinks spill, kids and pets get sick—messes are inevitable. But a portable carpet and upholstery cleaner can make cleanup less of a disgusting hassle. We scoured hundreds of reviews to get information on the reliability of various models. And we tested six cleaners by staining a white rug with chili, wine, and chocolate—in addition to some real-life kid and pet accidents. The first model we recommend to most people is the Bissell Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner 1400B.

This extraction cleaner gets stains out about as well as anything we tested, and it costs less than most. The Little Green also seems to have fewer major reliability problems than other models.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $190.

With a combination of the handheld suction brush, hot tap water, and cleaning formula, the Bissell Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner 1400B removed several tough stains in our tests. It's a great tool if you have pets or kids who regularly puke, pee, or make other small messes on your stuff, or if you need to regularly clean other types of stains on carpets, furniture, or a car's interior. This cleaner won't tackle a whole living room's worth of carpets or rugs—you’d need an upright washer for that. Nor will it deep-clean and disinfect upholstery and carpeting.


The SpotBot has a hands-free, automated scrubber tool, and it worked as well as our top pick in tests—but it left our carpet soaked.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.

The Bissell SpotBot Pet 33N8A has an automatic scrubber tool that can deal with small messes on the floor without requiring additional elbow grease—it's sort of like a miniature, stationary street sweeper. You simply place the whole unit directly over a stain, and it does its thing. So the SpotBot is ideal for cleaning up cat puke or dog poop. In our tests the automatic scrubber tool took only a few minutes to completely remove splotches of red wine from a white carpet. This cleaner also has a handheld nozzle (as other portable carpet cleaners do), but it's less effective. And like other hands-free models, the SpotBot leaves the treated area soaked, and it can take a day or two (or more) to dry.

This extraction cleaner gets stains out about as well as anything we tested, and it costs less than most. The Little Green also seems to have fewer major reliability problems than other models.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $190.

The SpotBot has a hands-free, automated scrubber tool, and it worked as well as our top pick in tests—but it left our carpet soaked.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.

Sarah Bogdan did all of the research and testing for the 2021 version of this guide. She has more than four years of experience testing and reviewing small and large appliances—first at the Good Housekeeping Institute and now as a staff writer for Wirecutter.

Liam McCabe has worked on this guide since 2016 as both an editor and a writer. He has covered floor-care products for Wirecutter since 2013.

Tyler Lynch wrote (and tested for) previous versions of this guide, published in 2016 and 2018, and many of his contributions are still included in this current edition.

Since 2016, we’ve spent hours researching and testing 23 different portable carpet cleaners. (For the current version, we even had the great fortune of living with two sick cats while we tested, which provided us with ample opportunities to test the machines on some truly nasty messes.) This guide builds on dozens of hours of research and testing for previous editions, including hands-on tests with several additional models that we did not retest this time, either because they were discontinued or they performed poorly in the first place.

We’ve interviewed several industry experts over the years, including Lauren Fuller, brand manager at Bissell, and Brett Parent, senior chemist at Bissell in 2021. In the past, we’ve also spoken to Michael D. Ellis of Dryex Carpet and Rug Cleaning in Olympia, Washington; Dan Richard of Dan Dan the Carpet Man in Orlando, Florida; and Jay Blynn from Jay's Mobile Detail & Carpet Cleaning in Las Vegas. We also reached out to Rug Doctor in 2021, but we have not yet received a response.

If you get a lot of tough food stains or unpleasant wet messes (think pee, poop, or puke) on your rugs, upholstered furniture, or car seats, a portable carpet and upholstery cleaner may be a useful tool. From reviews we’ve read and research we’ve conducted, these cleaners seem to be most popular with parents of young kids and pet owners.

But you don't need any special hardware to clean most stains, and you may already own all of the individual tools that can combine to mimic most of the action of a portable upholstery cleaner. Or you may want to consider buying those tools instead of one of these single-purpose machines, which you’ll probably use only occasionally. So here's what you need to know.

For common, simple stains (like those from most foods), a little dish soap and hot water on a rag will usually work as well as a portable carpet cleaner. For tougher stains, a pre-bottled cleaning solution and a scrubbing brush will often do the trick. (Woolite InstaClean, for example, costs less than $10 and did a better job of removing stains than any of the machines we tested.) Spot-treating this way will leave the cleaned area damp, but air-drying should take care of it in a reasonable amount of time.

Both options are usually much more convenient than using a portable carpet cleaner. Every time you use a portable carpet cleaner, you’ll need to take it out of storage (they’re pretty big), fill it with water and detergent, and plug it in—and that's just the pre-cleaning part. With most models, you’ll need to put nearly as much physical effort into scrubbing away the stains as you would using a regular rag or brush (though there are some models with motorized brushes, which have their own downsides). Usually it takes only a minute or two of scouring, but it can take longer. Then, when you’re done, you’ll have to drain both of the cleaner's water tanks, rinse (and maybe scrub) the waste tank, wrap the cord, and put the cleaner away. It's a bunch of work. One reviewer wrote about a popular model that's typical of the category: "It cleaned ok but you need to put a lot of elbow grease to make it look really clean. I just didn't have the muscle to do it or the patience to clean it. I’m a mom and I am always cleaning and I didn't need another thing to add to the list."

Some stains and messes are best left to a machine, though. The nastier the mess (bodily fluids and semi-solids, mostly), the more thankful you’ll be to own a machine that can spray the filth with detergent, scrub it out, and suck it away—all while keeping your hands a precious few extra inches removed from anything gross. Portable carpet cleaners can also come in handy if you need to clean a lot of stains or large stained areas all at once. The setup time won't feel so onerous in this case. If you want to brighten up or de-grime an entire carpet, however, you’re better off using an upright carpet cleaner (which you can also rent from Home Depot, Walmart, and other similar stores). Or, for better results, you could hire a professional cleaning service.

After testing eight upright carpet cleaners, we’re confident the Bissell DeepClean Lift-Off 66E1 is the best for routine cleaning and spot treatment.

To be clear, you could also tackle those tougher jobs with a bucket, cleaning solution, a scrub brush, and a wet-dry shop vacuum. Each of these items can serve multiple purposes throughout your home, and the combined cost is usually less than the price of one portable carpet cleaner. Carpet cleaners generally don't last very long, either, so you may be better off without one if you can handle the bigger messes yourself.

A portable carpet cleaner's main advantage—which is actually a really important one for some people—is the convenience: It's a compact, all-in-one version of all those other tools. And knowing that the whole kit is in one place—as you desperately rush to dispatch a splat of dog diarrhea on a white shag rug—may save you some time and frustration. Also, if you’re dealing with multiple stains, it can be easier to use a portable carpet cleaner than to wrangle a separate bucket, brush, and vacuum.

We tried to remove chili and wine stains with a few different store-bought cleaning liquids and a brush (not a portable carpet cleaner), as well as with only a rag, dish soap, and water. And we got great results—just as good as with the machines, actually.

There are a few different types of portable automatic carpet cleaners, but the most common style (and the one we’ve focused on) is an extraction cleaner. These models tend to be plug-in (rather than cordless) machines. And they have two tanks for liquid (one clean, one dirty), plus a vacuum hose with a clip-on brush attachment (though there are some exceptions, like the cordless Bissell Pet Stain Eraser and the hands-free Bissell SpotBot, our also-great pick). Most of these machines are about the size of a toaster oven and weigh around 10 to 15 pounds (without water).

Usually, they work like this: You fill the clean tank with hot tap water and cleaning solution; rest the machine on the ground near the stain; squeeze a trigger on the hose to squirt the liquid onto the stain through a small, low-pressure nozzle near the brush; and scrub the stain while the vacuum sucks up the moisture and dirt into the waste tank.

It's wise to double-check the tags to see whether these machines can safely clean your items: Look for a "W" or "WS" cleaning code on furniture tags and for written instructions on your rug tags. In general, this is a safe and gentle method that will work on the most common materials used for rugs and upholstery—but not all of them; so take care, and ask a professional if you’re in doubt.

Portable carpet cleaners can't quite work miracles, either. They can fully remove some stains and lighten many others, but you shouldn't count on them to make your rugs look like new, especially light-colored rugs that show stains easily. They won't disinfect surfaces (or at least none of the compatible cleaning formulas we’ve found are disinfecting) or kill dust mites, either. If you want a true revitalization of a very dingy carpet or piece of furniture, it's best to hire a professional service.

Steam cleaners are another affordable option for cleaning rugs and upholstery. But we found in an earlier round of testing that they’re not nearly as effective as extraction cleaners—and they are potentially damaging to some fabrics.

As of early 2021, there are about 15 portable carpet cleaner models available (most of them sold by Bissell). Some are very similar to one another, and a few have mediocre or poor user ratings, so we whittled the group down to six models that seemed worth testing: Bissell Little Green 1400B, Bissell SpotBot Pet 33N8A, Bissell SpotClean Pet Pro 2458, Bissell Pet Stain Eraser PowerBrush Plus 2837, Bissell Pet Stain Eraser 20037, and Rug Doctor Pet Portable. For previous versions of this guide, we also tested the Hoover Spotless FH11300PC (as well as several other Bissell models and a Rug Doctor that are now discontinued). Here's how we evaluated them.

All of the portable carpet cleaners we tested were pretty good (though far from perfect) at cleaning stains. They all struggled the most with oil-based stains, but they tended to do well with tannins (like wine or coffee), dyes, and protein stains (present in many bodily fluids and excretions).

In our tests, we did notice some differences in stain removal from model to model. But we couldn't always replicate the exact differences with repeated tests. So we didn't get too hung up on most of the variations among models (apart from noting a handful of very obvious differences; one machine could not clean chocolate anywhere near as well as the others, for example).

When the stain-removal results were different, it seemed to be a function of the brush type. Rubber nubs seemed to be less effective at some kinds of stain removal than nylon bristles. But rubber nubs may be better on upholstery or dense, higher-pile rugs (some models come with both types of brushes). We did not find a clear pattern to suggest that models with motorized brushes performed better than models that rely on manual scrubbing.

We didn't officially test the effects of different cleaning solutions—in our controlled tests, we used Bissell Pro Oxy Spot & Stain portable machine formula. (Bizarrely, a few models came with solutions that were intended for upright cleaners.) But we know from personal experience that the cleaning solution matters—the ones with oxygenated bleach tend to work better. You can pick from many different prepackaged formulas, and they’ll each lead to slightly different results. Bissell told us not to use common household cleaning products in the machines; it also voids the warranty if you do so.

As for solid-debris pickup, we didn't test every model—we skipped the ones that struggled with stain removal. But the models that we did try were all quite good at removing solid debris, like chunks of food you’d find in vomit, and even some of the dust that might be trapped in your rugs (if you don't have a decent vacuum cleaner).

For a dependable, versatile, and affordable cleaner, we prefer a bagless upright, but we have recommendations for other types of vacuums as well.

Drying performance varied noticeably among some models. It's an important feature because the cleaners use quite a bit of water, and your rugs could be left soaked if the liquid isn't sucked back up. The stronger the vacuum's suction and airflow, the faster your rugs and cushions will dry completely—and the less likely standing water will damage wood flooring or furniture, or lead to mildewy fabric. A few cleaners are especially good at sucking up water so that surfaces finish drying quickly. Most do a passable job, leaving a damp patch that lasts for a couple of hours. Hands-free models tend to leave a rug saturated with water and cleaning formula.

Most portable carpet cleaners require you to manually scrub stains, though a couple have motorized, automatic scrubbing tools. We recommend one of each type in this guide.

Manual models require more elbow grease (no surprise), though they tend to cost less. You’ll have to crouch down, brace yourself, and tackle the mess with a brush that's attached to the end of a relatively short (4- or 5-foot), stiff hose. The machines themselves usually weigh 10 to 15 pounds, plus a couple more pounds when they’re filled with cleaning solution (generally about a quart). But they rest on the ground and normally have long (15- to 20-foot) power cords, so it's usually easy to find a comfortable spot to place the machine. Most models also have a handle for easy carrying, and a few have wheels.

Cordless models are more similar in shape to handheld vacuums and are lighter. But they have smaller tanks and still require you to be hands-on with the cleaning.

A few hands-free models can automatically scrub stains with a motorized brush, which requires much less physical effort and contortion. However, the auto-scrub models tend to have other downsides, such as weaker cleaning or leaving a cleaned area soaked.

Portable carpet cleaners pick up some nasty, gunky stuff, so we paid extra-close attention to how easy it was to clean their dirty-water tanks and hoses. (To prevent odors, it's a good idea to at least empty the machine after each use.) You can always give them a simple rinse, swish, and dump. But it's pretty tough to give most of them a thorough clean-out, unfortunately. The tanks usually have a tiny opening (about the size of the mouth on a gallon jug of milk), so you can't simply reach in with a cloth and wipe everything down (a bottle brush wouldn't be that helpful either). The tanks can even be a little tricky to just empty out when you’re done cleaning; some of the leak-prevention mechanisms actually make it harder to dump a dirty tank's contents. A couple of models make it easy to reach inside the tank to do a good manual clean-out, and some come with a tool that at least makes it easier to rinse the tank or hose. But with most models, you’re on your own.

It's also worth noting that, as essentially fancy vacuum cleaners, all the portable carpet cleaners we tested are relatively loud (though we didn't take any actual decibel readings).

We read hundreds of owner reviews for a handful of popular models. And we came away with the impression that, unfortunately, you can't count on any portable carpet cleaner to be especially durable. They may last many years, if you use them infrequently. One of our editors has owned a Bissell SpotBot for a decade, but she uses it only a handful of times per year. With regular use, they may not hold up like you’d hope.

All of the models we tried share a similar hollow, plasticky build quality. The plastic hoses on many models seem like they could be prone to splitting over time, and it's often not easy to find replacement parts. Leaking is a common complaint. The nozzles may stop spraying cleaning solution over time. And some models have longer warranties than others. But that's small consolation if, when you desperately need to clean some vomit, the machine won't spray or suck.

That said, we think we’ve identified the models that have the best (or least-worst) reliability. And for what it's worth, Bissell does have a dedicated support page that makes it relatively easy to find replacement parts.

We’ve been testing portable carpet cleaners since 2016. Our most recent round of tests took place in 2021 (and we continue to long-term test our picks from earlier versions of this guide).

We stained a medium-pile, cream-colored area rug with a bevy of stains that—based on our experience creating stains to test laundry detergents and other cleaning products—we thought would be hard to clean. Everything that we tested made short work of the Kool-Aid, mustard, and soy sauce, as well as the Cheez Doodle remnants we smushed into the rug. But we did end up with a few stains that posed a challenge to most or all of the cleaners: chili, chocolate syrup, red wine, and an oil pastel alternative. (For the 2016 and 2018 editions of this guide, we used slightly different stains. But we think our current batch is the most realistic set yet.)

With each of the six finalists, we sprayed the cleaning solution through the nozzle. We then scrubbed until the stain was either gone or not getting any lighter. The easy stains took about the same amount of time as scrubbing with detergent and a wet rag—a few minutes at most. For tougher stains, if the cleaner wasn't getting anywhere after five minutes of scrubbing, we ended the test.

Notes on some other tests: We also tried to remove the chili and wine stains with a few different store-bought cleaning liquids and a brush (not a portable carpet cleaner), as well as with only a rag, dish soap, and water. And we got great results—just as good as with the machines, actually.

After we worked the stains, we gave the machines an extra minute or so to suck up as much leftover liquid as possible. We laid down one paper towel to sop up any lingering moisture: Most models left the towel just a little damp, but one worked better than the rest, and there was one that obviously performed worse.

This extraction cleaner gets stains out about as well as anything we tested, and it costs less than most. The Little Green also seems to have fewer major reliability problems than other models.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $190.

The Bissell Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner 1400B is among the best stain removers we’ve tested, at least for rugs. It also seems to be the most reliable (or the least faulty) model in the category, as well as one of the most affordable. This cleaner is far from perfect (which is also true of the category as a whole). But it's the portable carpet and upholstery cleaner that we recommend you look at first.

Although there's no portable carpet cleaner that can magically undo every type of carpet stain, the Little Green does a better job than most. In our tests, it completely removed common stains, like chocolate syrup and wine, with a few minutes of scrubbing. And it significantly lightened the most challenging stains: wax- and oil-based pigment sticks and chili. Some models worked a bit better than the Little Green on the chili and pastels, but the difference was not dramatic. In a previous round of testing, the Little Green also did a very good job on whisked eggs, blue dye, and bacon grease—again, not quite the best of the bunch, but very close. In our uncontrolled, real-world testing, we also found that the Little Green could reliably clean up dog-poop smears and kids’ vomit.

The Little Green seems somewhat less likely to break—in important ways—than other portable carpet cleaners. We scanned hundreds of Amazon reviews for a handful of popular models. The tendency to leak was the only reliability-related problem cited more frequently for the Little Green than for other models. But most of those complaints have more to do with how awkward it is to deal with the clean-water tank than with actual hardware failures (and if you know how to handle the clean-water tank, you’re much less likely to notice any leaks). It's still kind of a janky, cheap-feeling machine. Of the 300-plus Amazon reviews we read, about 5% of owners who left critical reviews said the Little Green stopped working much sooner than they’d anticipated. But that percentage is actually at least a few points lower than for any of the other models we examined closely.

Compared with the other manual-scrub, plug-in cleaners we tested, the Little Green is slightly easier to use. It's smaller and lighter (9 pounds empty, and almost 12 pounds with a full tank, which is a few pounds below average). But it also has a huge capacity—at 48 ounces, the Little Green's capacity is the second largest of the models we tested (following the SpotClean's 96 ounces). We think this capacity is plenty for a typical cleaning session (being able to hold more isn't always convenient or cost-effective). The carrying handle makes this carpet cleaner easy to tote. Even the water tanks are easy to grip, with two indents on either side (though the tanks would be better if they could rest on a flat surface; they’re rounded). The dirty-water tank is easier to empty than those of most other models we used: Because the inner mechanisms aren't in the way of the dirty-water stream, you don't have to hold the tank at an awkward angle to get the liquid out. The hose (4 feet) and power cord (15 feet) are a little on the short side for the category. But we didn't find the length of either to be a hindrance, and only a handful of Amazon reviewers cited this as an annoyance. You will need a Phillips screwdriver to attach the hose to the machine when it's new, but it's just one screw, and that's as complicated as it gets.

Maintenance and cleanup are a bit of a challenge with any portable cleaner, because the dirty-water tanks tend to have small openings. But the Little Green makes it a little easier than some other models. The version of the Little Green sold on Amazon (and maybe some other retailers) comes with a "hydro rinse tool," which you attach to the end of the hose to help remove any gunk that's left in the hose. (This video also has some excellent tips on how to clean the Little Green—sucking clean water into the vacuum hose will accomplish a lot.)

In our tests, we found that the Little Green sucked up as much leftover liquid from our carpet as its more expensive, higher-powered competitors (like the SpotClean and some others). It took just one paper towel to soak up any residual moisture left by the Little Green. That said, we noticed a relatively high rate of "wet rug" complaints in owner reviews; this is a common complaint with every portable carpet cleaner, but it is somewhat more common with the Little Green. You can mitigate this by avoiding overspraying stains with the cleaning solution, as well as by leaving the hose over damp spots for a little longer than you normally would (to give the vacuum a chance to suck up more moisture).

The Little Green, like most portable carpet cleaners we tested, requires you to scrub stains out yourself. The dirty-water tank is hard to clean. Both the clean-water and the dirty-water tanks can leak sometimes. And based on a number of reviews from owners, the Little Green doesn't seem to last as long as people would hope. But all of these shortcomings are common among portable carpet cleaners. You can buy a model with an automatic scrubber (like our also-great pick, the Bissell SpotBot). But if you want a portable carpet cleaner, you can't escape those other problems. If anything, the Little Green seems to be a little more reliable and easier to clean (thanks to a small tool that comes with the machine) than others. And the leaks can usually be prevented by making sure that the gaskets are clean and forming a seal, and that the covers are centered on the threads and turned tightly.

Although the Little Green performed very well in our stain-removal tests, a significant percentage of owners who reviewed the carpet cleaner on Amazon noted that it did not meet their expectations for cleaning upholstery or deep-cleaning certain rugs. If you’re nervous about this limitation, you could try one of the other manual-scrub models from Bissell that we cover below (all of them registered fewer complaints about cleaning ability).

The Little Green's biggest flaw is its clean-water tank. It's kind of a pain to fill and then place back onto the machine without spilling at least a few drops of water, since you have to flip it over. (One owner suggests that as long as you’re sure the caps are on securely, it won't dribble.) The tank doesn't have a flat bottom, either, so you’ll have to hold the tank in your hands while you fill it in a sink. And the tank has one set of measuring lines printed on the sides—for a full tank's worth of fluid—to help you portion out the correct ratio of cleaning formula and hot water (the ratio is not specified on the formula bottle). If you need only a small amount of cleaning solution, you’ll have to guess the ratio of formula to water.

The warranty on the Little Green is only one year, whereas most other models are covered for two or even three years.

The SpotBot has a hands-free, automated scrubber tool, and it worked as well as our top pick in tests—but it left our carpet soaked.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.

The Bissell SpotBot Pet 33N8A is a great option if you can't—or simply don't want to—manually scrub stains. The SpotBot has a motorized, totally hands-off brush, sort of like the side brush on a street sweeper. You place the brush directly over a stain on the floor, press start (using either a three-minute or six-minute cycle), and then come back when it's done. The SpotBot removed most stains just as effectively as the Little Green did, and the SpotBot actually did a bit better on chili stains. We found several reviews from owners who complain that the SpotBot works a little too well, leaving a noticeably lighter circle in an otherwise dingy rug.

The automatic brush is just one of several things that make the SpotBot easy to use. This model is a little heavier than the other cleaners we tried (17 pounds when full, according to our own measurements), but you won't be carrying it very often. The clean-water tank has a flat bottom, which makes it easier to fill because you can just rest it in or next to the sink. And it has markings for both large and small batches of cleaning liquid (so you don't have to fill the entire tank if you just want to clean a single small mess). The dirty-water tank is pretty straightforward when it comes to emptying and cleaning it. Ideally the tank would have a removable lid so it would be easier to clean, but this design is normal for the category.

The main downside to the SpotBot is that it leaves surfaces soaked: You’ll want to sop up the excess liquid with a towel or with the SpotBot's vacuum hose (which is similar to the Little Green's and those of other models). Although the auto-brush isn't really meant to work on upholstery, we’ve found it will basically work as long as the scrubber can sit flush with the surface (just beware of the soaking). And the SpotBot does have a regular handheld manual brush, if you’d like to use that (though for reasons we don't understand, it doesn't work as well as the brushes on other Bissell models).

Another reason the SpotBot isn't our top pick is the price—almost $200 for a device that chugs cleaning solution and probably won't get used very often. It has all the same reliability risks as other Bissell models, too.

The Bissell SpotBot 2117A is a variant of the SpotBot Pet 33N8A, and it has a brush made entirely of nylon bristles, rather than a combination of bristles and rubber nubs, like on the 33N8A. (The 2117A is the blue model you see pictured in some of the images in this section.) We haven't seen it in stock anywhere in a while, but it's still listed on the Bissell website.

The previous edition of this guide, written in 2018, recommended the Bissell SpotClean Pro 3624 as the best model for most people. Even though it still has an average owner rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars at Amazon, we decided to pull the recommendation because there were hundreds and hundreds of complaints that the hose breaks at the joint where it meets the body of the machine. That suggests to us that something about how the SpotClean Pro is made or designed makes the hose prone to breaking. In our tests, the Pro cleaned slightly better than the Little Green (the difference was pretty negligible, though), it has a little extra suction for faster drying, and it comes with two types of brushes (one with nylon bristles, one with rubber nubs). Its clean-water tank is also a little easier to fill, and the dirty-water tank is easier to empty and wipe than the Little Green's tanks. The hose is replaceable at home, too. The Pro is a perfectly good (and slightly more expensive) option if you think you’ll get some utility from those very modest advantages over the Little Green. Though most people won't notice—and why risk dealing with the Pro's broken hose if you can avoid it?

The Bissell Little Green Pet Pro 2891 has the Little Green name, but it seems to be the same basic model as the SpotClean Pro 3624 (but with the addition of a crevice tool that can spray cleaning solution). We aren't recommending it because its hose is likely to have the same breakage issue as the 3624's hose.

The Bissell Little Green ProHeat 2513G also has the Little Green name, but again it is not really the same cleaner as the tried-and-true 1400B. It actually looks a lot like another old pick from a previous version of this guide (a model that one of us has been using a few times per year since then, and it still works fine). The differentiating feature here is that this model has a heating element to keep the clean water warm as long as the machine is plugged in, which in theory should help it clean better. If your cleaning sessions drag on for a while, this might come in handy. But the constant heat supply did not make this thing a better cleaner in our old tests. We did not test this current model, though.

The Rug Doctor Pet Portable Spot Cleaner cleaned well and proved to have the strongest suction (for thorough drying) in our tests. But the nozzle equipped with rubber nubs was difficult to use and abraded some of the fibers on our test carpet (it's really best for shorter rugs, we think). Rug Doctor's other model, the Portable Spot Cleaner Vacuum, is equipped with a bristled brush instead of a nubbed brush; it will therefore work better on longer rugs (we tested it for an earlier edition of this guide), though it's often unavailable or out of stock. Either model can be a good alternative to the Little Green if you want your cleaner to leave your rugs as dry as possible. The Rug Doctors are also the largest and heaviest portable carpet cleaners we’ve seen (they’re nearly twice as heavy as the Little Green when empty). But they do roll around on wheels and have a telescoping handle, so you don't have to spend much time carrying them.

We haven't found power cords to be much of a hassle with the cleaners we’ve tested because they don't have to move around very much. But if you want a cord-free option, the Bissell Pet Stain Eraser 20037 is one of two cordless models in Bissell's portable lineup (as of early April 2021). The Pet Stain Eraser is actually the best stain remover we tested, possibly because it has the stiffest bristles and the most highly concentrated cleaning formula of all the models we’ve used. (Bissell told us this is to increase the convenience, which makes us wonder why the company can't just put better bristles on its other models and package them with stronger cleaning solution.) Unfortunately, the Pet Stain Eraser has even more complaints about leakage than normal for this category.

The Bissell Pet Stain Eraser PowerBrush 2837 is the other cordless model in Bissell's lineup. It has a motorized, automatic scrubbing brush. But the awkward shape and bulk made it just as uncomfortable as other manual-brush models. You still have to hold it, and this model did not clean very well in our tests—it just smeared the color-stick stains.

We tested the Hoover Spotless Portable Carpet & Upholstery Spot Cleaner FH11300PC for a previous version of this guide, but it did not clean as well as the Bissell models we used.

The Black + Decker Spillbuster BHSB320JP is a new model that looks like the cordless Bissells. However, the owner ratings are very weak so far, so we chose not to test it.

The Hoover BH12010 ONEPWR Spotless is another cordless portable cleaner, the only one from Hoover. This model is unique because it offers the same design features as the larger, corded models, but it has the convenience of the cordless models. Unfortunately, owner reviews were also pretty bad for this model, so we didn't test it.

In a nutshell: We couldn't find a low-cost steam cleaner that worked well, and some of them actually damaged the fabric we tested them on.

Steam cleaners have internal heating elements that force hot water through a pressurized nozzle, so it comes out as steam. Ideally, the steam helps lift soil and stains from the fabric, and you can then wipe them away with a brush (sometimes attached to the steam wand) or a cloth or towel. Steam cleaners don't use cleaning formulas. And they don't soak fabrics, so they might seem like a great alternative to wet extraction cleaners (like the ones we recommend in this guide) for rugs and upholstery that aren't meant to be maintained that way. But we can't recommend them in this context.

We used the steam cleaners exactly as the manuals instructed. All this seemed to do was spread the stain around.

We tested a few steam cleaners in 2016, and they all performed abysmally. They include the Wagner 915, SteamFast SF-275, and McCulloch MC1275 (now discontinued). The category does not seem to have changed much or improved since we tried these models. They seemed to permanently damage the couch cushions we tried to clean, yet they didn't really remove any of the stains. We used the steam cleaners exactly as the manuals instructed, working the nozzle in a back-and-forth motion and using a towel to wipe away loosened soil. All this seemed to do was spread the stain around. The colors were perhaps dulled a bit, but not to the point anyone would consider clean.

To be fair, steam cleaners are marketed as "multipurpose" cleaners. Although manufacturers claim that they can be used on carpet and upholstery, these cheap models are perhaps better suited to hard surfaces like tile, ceramic, slate, hardwood, and linoleum, as well as to stove tops, grills, shower stalls, appliance interiors, and even shoes. Because we were looking for upholstery and carpet cleaners, we didn't test on those surfaces.

For carpet and upholstery cleaners, use and care guidelines vary from model to model. But here are some general tips.

Empty and rinse the dirty-water tank after every use. If you leave waste water in there for long, it’ll start to smell, so just don't do that.

Two or three quick squirts of cleaning solution per stain is a good baseline. You don't need to keep the spray trigger held down; just squirt, scrub back and forth a handful of times, and repeat as needed. Then give the vacuum a chance to suck up the water.

Gunk may build up throughout the tanks, hose, and even parts (like the suction gate leading into the dirty-water tank). More of these parts are removable and rinsable than you might think, and you can consult the manual or DIY cleaning videos on YouTube for more tips.

If you don't have any cleaning solution, but you need to take care of a mess (or you just hate Bissell's proprietary formula; some reviewers have said they find the smell unbearable), Bissell told us you can just use hot water, though it won't work very well. Bissell recommends using only its portable cleaner formula. And when we asked the company, a Bissel representative said you shouldn't even use its upright cleaner formula, or any other formula, with a portable model, otherwise the warranty is void. In our own experience, we’ve used non-Bissell cleaning products and DIY formulas (essentially diluted laundry detergent) in Bissell cleaners, and they’ve worked fine. And they haven't broken any of our machines yet. Without more information we can't really endorse the use of non-Bissel cleaning products, but take that info for what it's worth.

Lauren Fuller, brand manager, and Brett Parent, senior chemist, Bissell, phone interview, February 21, 2021

Sarah Bogdan

Sarah Bogdan is a former staff writer at Wirecutter covering appliances. Previously, she tested cleaning products and appliances at Good Housekeeping. Her degree in mechanical engineering and product design helps her understand how products work and how people interact with them. When she's not tackling messes, she's tackling rivals on the rugby field.

Liam McCabe

Liam McCabe is a former senior staff writer for Wirecutter, and has covered the wild world of appliances since 2011. After testing dozens of robot vacuums, he is neither worried about AI nor holding his breath for self-driving cars. He enjoys visiting factories and learning about regulatory loopholes, and has flooded our testing area only three times.

Tyler Wells Lynch

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