One of the non-chemical methods for killing bed bugs is to apply high temperatures to them.  When done correctly, this can be a “total extermination” process because it can kill not only the adult bed bugs that plague sleepers at night, but also the eggs of these insects.  This means that both the current infestation and potential future ones can be eliminated, though of course the use of a steamer does not guarantee that the premises cannot become re-infested at some future date.

Challenges associated with using a bed bug steamer

No eradication method is perfect, however.  When it comes to steam-killing bed bugs, one challenge is that the steamer must produce high enough temperatures to be effective.  This generally means using a steamer specifically engineered for insect infestations.  The small, hand-held steamer model that you use to get rid of wrinkles when you travel is simply not appropriate for use in a bed bug eradication effort.

Another challenge to “steaming your bed bug troubles away” is the fact that steam only works well when you have the right kind of surface to apply it to.  Steam can be used very successfully on a variety of surfaces such as:

  • crown moldings or other moldings
  • mattresses and bedding
  • box springs
  • sofas, couches, and other upholstered furniture
  • rugs and carpeting
  • headboards
  • floorboards
  • furniture with cracks and crevices

Note that the list above contains both soft and hard surfaces.  It is not true that steaming works adequately only on one or the other.

On the other hand, there are some places that don’t take well to being steamed.  For example, if bed bugs are lurking inside electrical outlets or on the interior of your appliances, you will need to use another method to kill them.

Steam as part of a multi-pronged approach

Because not all areas can be effectively steamed – and also because some individual bugs or eggs may be missed even in an extremely thorough steaming operation – most experts recommend that steam cleaning be used only in combination with other kinds of methods.

Home owners have a wide variety of choices when it comes to companion methods that will help to make their steaming efforts all the more effective.  For example:

  • thorough vacuuming
  • chemical “dry” cleaning of bed bug infested areas
  • use of topical sprays, powders, and dusts
  • enclosure through the use of mattress covers and other physical entrapment mechanisms
  • bed bug traps

One important caveat to keep in mind is that the use of any toxic chemicals must be separated from the use of steam since the last thing anyone wants to do is cause chemicals to become even more inhalable.  Chemicals are best used when the home owner can “walk away” for some time in order to allow them to do their work and then dissipate.

Choosing a bed bug steamer

As mentioned earlier, effective steaming means having a proper bed bug steamer – a machine that is custom engineered to get this particular job done.  However, not all bed bug steamers are equally effective.  As is true in many realms of life, this is one situation in which you really do get what you pay for.  High quality tools cost more, but they produce a superior result.  This is as true of bed bug steamers as of rotary saws or curling irons or any other mechanical object.

What makes for a high quality steamer, though?

Steam that is hot enough

One key characteristic is steam temperature.  Bed bug steamers should produce steam that is hotter than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  This temperature is necessary to make sure that even a relatively quick pass over a surface will instantly kill all bugs and eggs encountered.  If a steamer registers a lower temperature, it may still kill some bugs, but many will survive.  In order to be sure that your bed bug steamer measures up to the necessary standard, use a thermometer intended for evaluating the inside temperature of an oven.  Pass the steamer slowly over the temperature gauging portion of the thermometer and read the result.

A wide enough nozzle

Some steam cleaners intended for ordinary household use – mucking out the stovetop, for example – have fairly narrow nozzles designed to be able to penetrate inside tight spaces.  This is well and good for detailed cleaning tasks, but hardly adequate when steaming the large areas that can make up a bed bug infestation.

A narrow nozzle will mean many, many passes over the surface areas that need to be treated for bed bugs, and this in turn will lead to exhaustion and most probably, some missed strips in between the areas that get properly treated.  The end result will be a partially done job, hardly what the home owner had in mind when he or she went to the expense of purchasing or renting a steamer and the trouble of treating large areas of the home.

It is best, therefore, to have a nozzle that is at least six inches wide.  A large nozzle will have another beneficial result – it will mean that bed bugs die before they are able to scurry away from the steam source.  With a narrow nozzle, you may end up merely chasing bed bugs hither and yon as they escape the steam over and over.  A wider nozzle will tend to trap them in the “steam zone”  — and if the temperature is hot enough, this will be a zone from which there is no escape.

Wet or dry vapor?

Most people probably tend to think of steam as wet, but the truth is that some steamers can produce what is known as a “dry vapor” that rapidly evaporates.  This is generally considered preferable to steamers that produce a wet vapor that will soak your things.  After all, you hardly want to eradicate your bed bug problem only to find out that you have caused mold to grow in your home.

A high capacity boiler

This is more of a convenience feature than a strictly necessary one from an eradication standpoint, but then again, anything that makes bed bug extermination easier to accomplish will probably also make it more likely to get done.  If your steamer has a large boiler that can hold a good amount of water at once, you will spend less time lugging it back to the sink for a fill-up.

The issue of cost

Good tools cost more, but only an individual can ascertain what is a reasonable expense to add to his or her budget.  A high quality professional grade steamer will work quite effectively, but will cost as much as $300 or possibly even more.  If you can’t afford anything close to that, you might want to look into the option of renting a steamer instead.  The downside to a rental is that over time, you may end up paying more than $300 – but that will probably only happen if you have quite a few infestations to deal with over the course of the coming years.

Recommended steps for using a bed bug steamer

  • The most important step is to proceed in the proper order.  Steam first, and then use any chemicals needed to achieve complete eradication.  If you reverse this order, you may find out firsthand that heat can cause chemicals to break down into constituent parts – some of which can be very hazardous to human health.
  • Identify the areas that you need to steam.  This may involve the use of bed bug monitoring devices such as passive interception traps.
  • Thoroughly and completely vacuum all the areas you plan to steam.  This will serve to pre-treat the area.  Be sure to seal the vacuum bag completely afterwards and dispose of it well away from your home.  Otherwise, living bugs trapped inside may simply crawl out into your carpet.
  • The step above can be skipped if you opt to use a combination vacuum and steamer, which does both tasks at once.
  • Prepare the steamer and purge any excess water from the nozzle.  This will clear it out so that you are applying an effective treatment from the start.
  • Always steam areas from the top down, using the largest available head that will fit into the areas being treated.
  • Move no faster than approximately an inch a second as you keep the nozzle tip only slightly away from the surface of your mattress or other area.  One to two inches is a standard distance.
  • Allow steam to dry out completely before you attempt to enclose your mattress or box springs in an encasement.  Otherwise you may simply encourage mold growth, which will probably mean you have to discard your mattress and box springs.  Pillows may also be encased, but the same guidelines apply.
  • Re-steam as needed if you see bed bugs reappear.  You may wish to use alternate methods as well.

Steamers can be an invaluable tool for the eradication and control of bed bug infestations.  Another option is to hire a professional bed bug extermination company who can do the work for you.  This is a personal choice that will have to depend on your resources and your willingness to do the work yourself.