Many of the do-it-yourself recipes I see for making your own steam cleaner solution don’t make any sense. They would have you mix an acid with a base, which are two classes of chemicals that react with each other and cancel each other out. When you mix something acidic with something alkaline–for example vinegar and baking soda–you get lots of fizzing! And people see it fizz up and come to the conclusion that it must be a powerful cleaning solution! Now, I’m not a chemist, but I did get an A in college chemistry, and it kind of boggles my mind that people swear by mixing these two types of chemicals for use in their carpet steam cleaner.
Acids & Bases
Both of these types of chemicals are very reactive, and thus are good solvents. Your body uses the Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) in your stomach to dissolve the food you eat. It’s also added to swimming pools to dissolve the solids that build up in over time in the water, which helps make the water look clear. Different types of acids are found in all aspects of our daily lives, from the food we eat to the batteries in our cars. For example, citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges contain citric acid, and vinegar products contain acetic acid.
Alkalines (also called bases) are also very reactive, and also found in our daily lives and the products we use. Most of the “Oxy” cleaning products are alkaline, because most of the organic stuff we want to clean is acidic, and acids and bases cancel each other out. Baking soda is alkaline, and it’s used in baking to react with acids in your recipe and make fizzy bubbles, which helps your cake and corn bread to rise. Hydrogen peroxide is also found in most homes, because it’s wonderful for killing bacteria, and mostly harmless on skin.
Now, acids and bases react strongest with each other. Pour some vinegar into some baking soda and watch it fizz up. For the most part, and again, with baking being one exception, it’s not really useful to combine the two. Especially for cleaning solutions, because you want your cleaning solution to react with the stuff in your carpet, not with other chemicals in the solution.
Every substance on earth has a pH value. Anything with a pH value of 7.0 is considered “pH neutral.” Pure water is pH neutral. Now, anything with a value lower than 7.0 is considered acidic, and anything with a value greater than 7.0 is considered alkaline. Over time, swimming pools tend to become alkaline, which is why pool acid is added to the water to lower the pH. Raising the pH of bacteria is an effective way of killing them, and Hydrogen Peroxide is a cheap and effective way of killing them.
Understanding the pH of what you’re trying to clean will help you make your perfect homemade steam cleaning solution. For example, bacteria and pet urine are usually both slightly acidic. This is why hot water and peroxide are my preferred cleaning solution.
Putting It All Together
Now, hopefully by now you can see that mixing acids and bases in your cleaning solution is almost completely ineffective. After reading that all those “Oxy” cleaning products are essentially just hydrogen peroxide, I started experimenting with it for use in my steam cleaner.
Most of the time I use use hot water with a couple capfuls of peroxide. I have 4 Chihuahuas, and sometimes they have accidents. The peroxide neutralizes the pet urine, which is usually slightly acidic. And the peroxide is great for killing bacteria. Not all bacteria are harmful, but I’m not a big fan of them in my carpets.
But part of the reason you want to use acids and bases in your solution is that they are also good solvents. Water is the safest and most common solvent, and just hot water will dissolve most of the dirt and bad stuff in your carpets. Try it out sometime, and notice that the water in your dirty tank will be almost as yucky as if you used a powerful cleaner. So, water will make up most of your steam cleaner solution no matter what you do.
So adding a common base like peroxide, ammonia, or baking soda to your cleaning solution, raises the pH and helps it dissolve more dirt in your carpets, as well as killing bacteria. In fact, part of the reason your carpets smell bad when they get dirty is because of the bacteria!
As I’ve said, most of the time I use a high pH cleaning solution. But there are things lurking in your carpets that are better dissolved by acids. And anything alkaline you use that doesn’t react with the stuff in your carpeting leaves a slight residue, which can build up over time. Ideally you want your carpets to be pH neutral!
So, about every third or fourth time I clean the carpets, I use a couple capfuls of vinegar instead. It helps neutralize any left over alkaline cleaning solution, and bacteria are usually no big fan of acids, either. All living things have their own preferred pH, and raising it or lowering it wreaks havoc.
I use vinegar because it’s cheap and effective, but it doesn’t smell that great, which doesn’t usually bother me. You could just as easily use lemon juice in your solution. But the smell usually dissipates, and the next time I use peroxide neutralizes any residue anyway.
Alternating between acidic and alkaline cleaning solutions has worked really well for me over the years, and I’ve saved lots and lots of money by not paying 20 bucks for a gallon of store-bought steam cleaner solutions that are mostly water and peroxide.
Most commercial cleaning solutions contain some form of detergents, which are really good solvents, and they are good at dissolving dirt. They are also usually alkaline. Detergents aren’t great for the environment, people, or animals, but most people use them anyway because they are so effective.
Notice that I don’t use any detergents in my steam cleaning solutions. I’ve toyed with the idea of adding some non-sudsy detergent like laundry soap. Dish soap would foam up too much, but a small amount of liquid or powdered laundry detergent would probably make your homemade solutions more effective.
But again, detergents aren’t really good for people or animals, and I figure it’s one more thing to get residue in my carpet. Also, I don’t usually get things like grease on my carpets, so I don’t really need the extra cleaning power of detergents.
And more importantly, my carpets seem just as clean as when I used those expensive, store-bought solutions. I haven’t noticed any difference, so I haven’t really been motivated to add detergents to my solution. Simple seems better, and it’s certainly cheaper!
You could also add a few drops of essential oils like lavender or cinnamon oils to your solutions. The oils are expensive because you only need a few drops for each batch of solution, so a small bottle of lavender oil can last you a couple years. Those essential oils can really make your carpet smell fresh, though I stopped using them because they can mask odors that you should really be neutralizing in the first place.
Also, peroxide is an oxidizer, which is why people use it to bleach their hair. And so, just like those “Oxy” products, peroxide reacts with the dye in your clothes and carpeting, and can fade it over time. Personally I think it’s a small price to pay for clean carpets and clean clothes. And honestly, your colors will fade over time no matter what you do. For example, direct sunlight will fade anything with dye in it. But it’s something you should be aware of if you didn’t already know.
Hopefully this article has helped you, and given you some ideas of your own. Even when I was rich, those store bought solutions seemed massively over-priced. And now that I’m … not rich, I see no reason to pay that price premium when water and peroxide seem almost as effective, if not as effective as that expensive stuff. With 4 little dogs, I steam clean my carpets about twice a week, and they always look and smell good.