Sick of vicious headaches from her allergies to household cleaners, Mercia Tappings tossed the chemicals from her Massachusetts home and invested in steam.
She's used it to blast mold from old bathroom tiles, grime from kitchen counters and allergens from delicate bedroom pillows.
''It really was just an answer to my prayers,'' Tappings said of her hand-held steam cleaning machine. ''When I got the chemicals out of the house, I literally didn't wake up with headaches anymore.''
Steam isn't just for carpets anymore, and it's not just allergy sufferers who are using it. Home appliance makers have tapped into the strength of super hot water vapors, offering new ways to clean up the toughest mess and sanitize without harsh chemicals.
Steam functions can be found in self-cleaning ovens, microwaves, dishwashers, washers and dryers -- and some personal household steamers are now less than $1,000.
''I think it mostly has to do with the increased consciousness of health effects and environmental impacts of products we use on a daily basis,'' said Matthew Baratta, a spokesman for Daimer Industries Inc., which produces a variety of steam cleaners.
The Environmental Protection Agency says cleansers, disinfectants and aerosol sprays contribute to indoor air pollution; the agency recommends lots of fresh air when using such products. A number of companies now sell gentler household cleansers, but for those wary of chemicals -- either for health or environmental reasons -- steam has obvious appeal.
''A lot of our customers are janitorial servicing companies and that's one thing they want to be able to tell their customers -- they're a green cleaning company,'' Baratta said.
Hand-held steamers offer attachments that focus on surfaces and crevices, shooting a continuous stream of high-pressure water vapors. There's actually little water present, and the intense heat disinfects.
''You don't have to rub hard or push hard or scrape hard,'' Tappings said of hand-held cleaners. ''You just actually need to be over the spot and very gently move it. What the steam does, the steam pulls the dirt out from the surfaces.''
Consumer Reports magazine reports washing machines tackle tough stains better with steam, but other machines without the function still clean well. Dryers also did well releasing wrinkles and odors with steam -- an alternative to dry cleaning.
There was a slight difference in cleaning among dishwashers, which cost between $850 and $1,500, that used steam to bust up food on cups, bowls and plates. But the magazine suggested sparkling dishes were possible with a much less expensive machine.
This year, Whirlpool is offering a steam-cleaning option in an electric range that promises to help consumers get more done and save energy. It takes about 20 minutes and starts at $649.
''Not everybody enjoys a good scrub down of their ovens,'' said company spokeswoman Audrey Reed-Granger.
Tappings, the allergy sufferer, founded a company in 1998 that tests a variety of products, including steam cleaners. She offers consumer advice and sells the recommended products on her Web site AllergyBuyersClub.com.
''We find more people at the moment are buying more for the health reasons,'' Tappings said. ''But it's interesting to me is that suddenly steam cleaners are being picked up because of their environmental benefits.''
She loves to clean with steam even though the appliances cost more.
''After all, when you work out how much to pay for what comes out in spray bottles, especially when you start to pay the premium price for the nontoxic kinds ... it's amazing how that can add up,'' Tappings said.