Steam is a very effective method for killing bed bugs in all the stages of development, if applied correctly. When using steam as a treatment the quality of the steamer is very important. Use a commercial steamer with a minimum capacity of 1 gallon, preferably with a steam volume control. Do not use a carpet cleaning machine. Carpet cleaning machines do not reach high enough temperatures to kill bed bugs. Although a steam cleaner is expensive for one person to purchase (approximately $800 – 1,200), it may be reasonable for a housing cooperative, social assistance group or another type of organization to purchase a steamer and make it available for people who might not have the means to hire a pest management professional. It may also be possible to rent a steamer.
Steamers work by delivering lethal temperatures to where bed bugs may be hiding. Steam is very effective when bed bugs are on the surface of items and can be effective up to 3/4” into fabric surfaces. In cracks and crevices, steam will kill bed bugs up to 2-3/8” into a gap. Bed bugs are killed by heating the surface and the bed bugs above temperatures that bed bugs can withstand. Use a non-contact thermometer to monitor the surface temperature of the area being treated. To effectively kill bed bugs the surface temperature should be at least 160 – 180 F immediately after the steam brush has passed.
While steam is effective, there are several precautions to take when operating this equipment.
- Always read and understand the manual that came along with the equipment.
- The steam is under pressure, so care must be taken when refilling the machine or using the stream wand. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.
- The steam will be hot, as high as 212 – 230oF. This can cause burns, so never let children use the machine and always direct the steam away from yourself.
- When using steam on a surface, always test on an unseen area as some fabrics may be damaged. With microfiber fabrics, always steam with the direction of the microfiber.
- Steamers will sometimes spit out hot water when you start up, or after the steamer has not applied steam for some time. Pointing the wand at a towel when you first start will allow you to capture this water.
- Do not use a pin-point steam nozzle; make sure you use a nozzle to distribute the steam at lower pressures such as a floor or upholstery attachment. Pin point nozzles can blow bed bugs off a surface and they may survive.
Using a steamer to kill bed bugs
Following the manufacturer’s directions for the equipment and the additional precautions above will help you generate steam safely and obtain maximum control of bed bugs. Below are some additional tips that you can follow:
- Attach a nozzle to the steam wand. There is often a triangular nozzle that comes with the steamer and this nozzle works well for most applications. The floor nozzle will also work, but you will have to move the nozzle more slowly to obtain the correct temperatures.
- Surfaces must reach a temperature range of 160 – 180 oF. Below this temperature range, bed bugs may survive. Above this range increases the risk of damage to the fabric and other materials. An infrared thermometer should be used to measure surface temperatures after the wand has passed over the area being heated. If the temperature is too low, move the wand more slowly. If the temperature is too high, move the wand faster.
- Fabric may be damp, but it should not be wet. If it is too wet, the steamer usually has a switch or a dial that you can use to decrease the steam output.
- Use the steamer on all surfaces where you see bed bugs and areas where you suspect bed bugs may be hiding.
- After you are finished, using a fan in the area will circulate air and help remove excess water from surfaces.
- When you are finished, follow the manual instructions regarding cooling off the steamer and ensuring the pressure is relieved.
- You may have to repeat this procedure a couple of times as this method only provides immediate control of bed bugs that are exposed to the heat.