Vacuum cleaners come with a plethora of fancy-sounding features and specifications, but there’s really little to no standardization in the industry, so—to make a good investment—you need to do your homework, learn the industry jargon, and know what questions to ask before initiating contact with someone looking to sell you a machine. Here at MaidPro, we’ve done extensive research and testing to find just the right machines for our PROs; here’s a high-level summary of what we’ve learned and key things to consider:
Type. Primary vacuum types for home use are stick, cannister, and upright. Other types include backpack, central, wet/dry, handheld, and even robotic. Determining the best-fit type for your home will depend on such factors as: room sizes, open space between furniture, ratio of carpeted to non-carpeted floors, plushness of carpeting, number of levels and staircases in the home, typical soil conditions (pet hair, beach sand, etc.), and whether or not you’ll be vacuuming more than just floors (for example, stairs, furniture, blinds, molding, and so forth, requiring a variety of different vacuum attachments).
Performance. Vacuum makers and sellers frequently cite specifications such as watts (the amount of electricity the machine uses) and amps (the max amount of electrical current used), but neither of those things actually influence what matters most, which is machine performance. For performance, you need to look at three essential things: airflow, static lift, and filtration. The first two—airflow and static lift—combine to define the overall suction power of the machine (its ability to pick up particles).
- Airflow, typically expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM), is the amount of air moving through the machine while it’s operating. This movement of air is what draws soils from around the surrounding perimeter of the vacuum head and underneath the machine to be sucked inside and stored. The range of airflow can be anywhere from 50 to 100 CFM for residential machines, while industrial specialty machines can sport CFMs of 300+! Sadly, many residential vacuum manufacturers don’t report this value. Those that do report it are more likely to be proud of their stats and vice versa.
- Static lift (also called water lift) measures how many inches the machine can suck water up a closed tube in a controlled lab experiment. This measurement shows the raw suction power of the machine and the max weight of objects it can lift from the ground, through the hosing, and into storage once the airflow has moved dirt particles in range.
For all vacuums, airflow moves soil under the machine and static lift pulls it into storage. Achieving a balance between these two forces is the central challenge in vacuum design as overly strong suction would cause the unit to clamp to the ground before soils can be pulled in by airflow under the vacuum head. With high-end vacuums, what you are really paying for is this design sophistication versus raw motor power (signified by amps), which any manufacturer can add at a fairly low cost.
- While airflow and lift (taken together) influence the particles-in side of the vacuum equation, a third key factor—filtration—affects the clean-air-out side, managing the machine’s ability to capture and remove particles versus simply tossing them up or releasing them back into the air. Common filtration types range from standard, to micro-allergen, to high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA). If you have allergy sufferers in your home, you will definitely want to invest in a vacuum with HEPA-level filtration, as these are the only vacuums able to keep microscopic particles (such as mold spores, pollen, cigarette smoke and other allergens) from releasing back into the air. Even without allergies, every home user sees a health boost and quality of life lift from investing in better filtration, as higher filtration reduces dust resettling onto the surfaces of your home (yay, less cleaning!) and keeps foul odors and bacteria from dirty carpets from blasting up into the air.
Beyond basic filtration ratings, it’s also worth considering overall machine design to understand how dust and other particles might be released back into the air either through standard machine exhaust, leakage (due to design flaws), or when emptying, cleaning, or changing filters.
Corded vs. cordless. For corded models, pay attention both to cord length (Will it be necessary to stop and switch sockets due to room size?) and how the cord will be stored (Is it wound? Retractable? And, if it retracts, will that mechanism be reliable over time?). For cordless models, the primary concerns are weight and run time, as even with cutting-edge battery technology, most cordless units are considerably heavier with limited run times. Be sure to ask about vacuum weight, run time per battery depletion, recharge time, and battery lifespan (the time frame in which it can be expected to lose its ability to hold a charge requiring replacement).
Weight. Most vacuums designed for residential use will range between 10 and 20 lbs. in weight—if you have back-pain issues or multiple floors in your home, an extra 10 pounds could be a deal breaker. On the flip side, being too light can be an indication of poor quality where long-lasting metal components have been swapped out for easily damaged, cheaper plastic parts. Like most things with vacuums, premium prices are often spent on a achieving a sophisticated engineering balance between strength in parts that need to be durable, and lighter weights in parts that take less wear and tear.
Cleaning path. Typically expressed in inches, this signifies the amount of carpet that can be cleaned with a single swipe of the vacuum; 10–12 inches is fairly standard for residential vacuums, while 18 is more common for industrial. While a large cleaning path might be more efficient in terms of total swipes, too wide will not maneuver well around furniture and into small spaces. Too wide of a beater-brush opening can also diminish a machine’s airflow, undermining cleaning effectiveness unless the manufacturer goes up in engine size, which adds weight. Again, a well-crafted vacuum will be designed to balance optimum width with suction strength, path clearance, and engine weight.
Maneuverability. This is something you’ll want to test for yourself, so be sure to shop for a vacuum in a place offering multiple options with ample space for testing. Pay attention to how easily the machine rolls, turns, and backs up. How smoothly will it move around furniture, into small spaces, and up and down flights of stairs? If the vacuum offers an ability to clean multiple surface types (hard floor, carpet, and upholstery), how well does it maneuver during each of these tasks? For example, some upright vacuums with detachable hoses claim to be able to clean upholstery and stairs, but their short hoses and awkward connections make those tasks far more challenging than canister types, which are primarily designed for those types of jobs.
Decibels. Noise factor may be more of a concern for cleaning PROs who vacuum frequently, but can also affect the comfort of pets, children, elderly, and anyone else trying to work, read, or watch TV in the vicinity of where you’ll be vacuuming. There is a surprisingly large range of decibel ratings for vacuums, with standard machines running in the high 70 to low 80 decibel range and so-called quiet machines falling into the low 60s.
Bag/no bag. With so many bag-less models now available, whether or not your vacuum uses a bag might boil down to how strongly you feel about future spending for replacements and adding to the global waste stream. Different bag types also have different levels of permeability, which can affect overall filtration performance. Bag-less models, of course, require consistent maintenance, the failure of which can diminish filtration performance and add costs for filter replacements. Bag-less models are also technically missing a layer of filtration (disposable bags are part of a vacuum’s filtration system), which puts more pressure on the other exhaust filters to pick up the slack, usually requiring more frequent filter washing and replacement than their bagged counterparts. Bag-less models also tend to be heavier due to large plastic containment portions and filter apparatus. Reusable bag options would seem like the best of both worlds but require constant washing and close contact with one’s filth, making them a rarity in the market for good reason.
Belt. It’s unlikely you’ll have an opportunity to peer inside a vacuum to inspect its belt type, which is a great reason to work with a knowledgeable seller. A cheap, flat belt will typically fail more rapidly than a high-quality, gear-type one, potentially adding both inconvenience and repair costs over time.
Reliability/warranty. Warranties for residential models often range from 1–3 years in length. Perhaps the best way to avoid needing that warranty is to spend sufficient time—before talking with a vacuum sales rep—investing in access to independent reliability reviews available online. Beyond researching reviews, the best way to avoid needing the warranty is to follow the maintenance schedule detailed inside the user manual as dirty filters and hairy beater bars strain a vacuum’s engine and gears, leading to eventual failure. While you’re at it, walk around each room for a moment before you vacuum and pick up all the small items you don’t want to pay a repairman to fish out of your vacuum hose. Your child’s little Lego people will not enjoy riding the world’s dirtiest rollercoaster and your wallet will thank you as neglectful use is often not covered by warranty.