Which one is best?
I grew up in a spotless house. In spite of the fact that my mother had a full-time job, our windows were clean and the grout in our bathrooms was mold-free. Magazines were never allowed to make themselves at home on our coffee table. We had few knick-knacks. Gifts from our family back in Russia were carefully tucked in a drawer. "These things collect dust," my mother would say.
I had to take her word for it. The accumulation of dust was for me a theoretical phenomenon until I moved away from home and realized the extent of my domestic incompetence. Like many people, I find cleaning, especially mopping, so loathsome that I put it off for ages, even if it means I can no longer receive guests. I've thought about scraping together the money for a cleaning lady, but in New York City a cleaning lady is most likely to be an immigrant woman of a certain age—in other words, for me, a mother figure. I would be almost as uncomfortable letting one of these women view my apartment in its raw state as I would be inviting the real Mrs. Blair to lift the dust ruffle and see what's seething under my bed.
But enough! I want to live differently. I recently searched the marketplace for gadgetry that would be an improvement over my off-brand sponge mop, and maybe even make the chore more palatable. Mops, I discovered, now divide roughly into two categories. There is the traditional style you swish around in a bucket of soapy water and wring out. These can be either sponge mops (in which the cleaning surface is a sponge) or string mops (in which the business end is a Medusa's head of string or other ropy material). Then there is what I call the new generation of mops, which allow you to do away with the bucket entirely. These have flat heads to which you attach disposable cloths or pads. Either the cloths come soaked with cleaning fluid (kind of like baby wipes), or you rig up a container of cleaning fluid to the mop itself and push a button on the handle to dispense the fluid (it comes out of a nozzle just above the mop's head and falls on the floor just ahead of your mop). When the cloths become sufficiently dirty you throw them out and replace them—thus, there's nothing to rinse or wring. (The cleaning fluids that come with new-generation mops have ingredients similar to other brand-name floor cleaners. If you prefer health-food-store brands like Seventh Generation or some other ecologically friendly concoction, you'll have to buy it separately and pour it on the floor yourself.)
There is also a third kind of wet hard-floor cleaner—the combined vacuum/wet cleaner. These devices, which cost between $100 and $250, spray cleaning fluid and have built-in scrubbers for hard floors. They also double as conventional vacuum cleaners and are about the size and shape of a smallish upright. I didn't test them because, with their much-higher prices, dual function, and large size, they seemed to belong to a different category of cleaning tool, but readers may want to keep them in mind.
Thanks to my landlord's maverick decorating scheme, my apartment has three different kinds of flooring, each more difficult to clean than the next. The kitchen is done in large, smooth, square tiles—the kind in public elementary schools. Another room has vinyl flooring with a textured, slightly dimpled surface. And the bathroom floor is the lowest level of housekeeping hell: tiny beige tiles surrounded by light-colored grout.
On each of these surfaces I subjected the cleaning implements to two tests. One was the orange juice test, in which I poured juice on the floor and let most of it become dry and sticky. Because of my warped, undulating kitchen floor, some of the juice pooled usefully into little puddles, allowing me to also test the absorption capacity of the mops. The second test was the kitty litter test, in which I poured clay kitty litter on the floors and sprinkled water onto it so that it melted and re-hardened into an obdurate mess.
As I tested a given mop, I considered its absorption capacity (can it clean up serious spills?), convenience (how far do you have to bend and how hard to you have to press to wring it out? In the case of the bucketless mops, is it easy to apply cleaning fluid and change the cloths?), the effectiveness of the mop's cleaning surface (is it abrasive enough to scrub off stubborn, gooey material and pliant enough to get into the cracks between tiles?), its ability to reach corners and crevices, and its heft (very lightweight or spindly mops can make it difficult to apply enough pressure to scrub away, for instance, coagulated kitty litter; of course, a mop that's too heavy would be cumbersome, but none of the mops seemed heavy to me, and I suspect I have less upper body strength than the average American). I rated the mops on a scale of 1 to 6 in each of these categories.
I didn't include price in my evaluation because it seemed impossible to compare prices directly—the mops come with varying numbers of replacement cleaning heads, and the new generation mops also come with their own cleaning fluid. The prices range from $8.99 to $21.99 (and may vary slightly depending on where you shop), but, crucially, I did not find that price correlated with effectiveness.
Results (from worst to best):
Price (kit includes two wet cloths for mopping and two dry cloths for dusting): $9.99
Wet cloth refills (12 count): $4.99
Absorption capacity: 1 (out of 6)
Effectiveness of cleaning surface: 1
Ability to reach corners: 5
Total score: 13
Elaine Blair is on the staff of the New York Review of Books.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.