Steam serves several useful functions, from turning turbines to humidifying rooms and even power cleaning.

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Most of us don't give much thought to steam. Unless it burns us, we probably dismiss it from our minds as quickly as it mysteriously dissipates into the air from our hot cup of morning joe. But this ubiquitous gas is profoundly useful. Not only do power plants use steam to turn turbines and produce electricity, but steam is also a very useful cleaning tool.

Steam is a tried and true sanitizer. And unlike some abrasive cleaners, steam is both penetrating and gentle at the same time. It effectively sanitizes because it can reach high temperatures (above the boiling point of water) in pressurized atmospheres. And, by effectively rehydrating and breaking the bonds of muck and dirt, it's highly effective at spot-cleaning and deodorizing without all that rough treatment. And irons, of course, use steam to work the wrinkles out of fabrics when dryers don't cut it.

Steam is such an appropriate fabric cleaning tool that, in a way, it's surprising washing machines and dryers haven't used it before. Realizing the benefits of steam cleaning technology, several appliance brands, such as Maytag, LG, Kenmore, Whirlpool and Samsung, are beginning to offer steam washers and steam dryers (and even two-in-one units). And, as an added bonus, most of these models are energy and water efficient.

It stands to reason that steam, as the gaseous state of water, will moisten things. So it may seem odd that it could also dry things. As it turns out, the term "steam dryer" is somewhat of a misnomer for these particular appliances. Indeed, throwing already dry items into these steam dryers will make them wetter during the process before drying them again. Though it seems illogical for a dryer to apply more moisture to clothes, it's actually useful, reducing wrinkles and eliminating odors.

Read on to learn the steamy details about these new features in washers and dryers and whether they could save you trips to the drycleaners.