Choosing the Right Vacuum. Things to Consider.


Amps are the amount of current a vacuum draws when the power is on--not a measure of cleaning power. Though a 12 amp motor is, in general, more powerful than a 6 amp motor, it doesn't automatically mean that the 12 amp vacuum cleaner is a better cleaner than a 6 amp machine. Motor power is only one component which determines cleaning performance of any vacuum cleaner. Other factors that define the cleaning performance of a vacuum cleaner are

type of filtration technology,
motor fan design,
brushroll performance,
proper carpet height adjustment.

A better measure of cleaning performance is the suction power and airflow of a vacuum cleaner. We recommend that you visit a store that offers vacuum cleaner demonstrations or refer to publications that test a variety of vacuum cleaners.

NOTE: One manufacturer has created cleaning effectiveness standards such as "cleaning power per amp." This allows the manufacturer to rate their product, for example, "a 22" or "a 24." Some consumers believe this means a motor size of 22 or 24 amps. These rating standards are not industry standards, nor are they used by other brands. This is solely marketing hype, and is misleading. The maximum motor size for household use is 12 amps.



The most effective measurement of a vacuum cleaner's cleaning performance is suction power and airflow.

Suction power demonstrates the actual "pulling" power of a vacuum motor. Strong suction power is needed, for example, when a vacuum cleaner is used on thick, plush, carpeting. Strong motor ability is the only way airflow can continue under obstructed conditions. Conversely, vacuums with weak suction power will "choke" when vacuuming plush carpeting.

Without airflow, there is nothing to pull dirt in and carry it away, which is why suction alone is not effective in carpet cleaning. Some vacuum cleaners have high suction power but low airflow and vice versa. The ideal vacuum cleaner offers a balance of strong suction power and an abundance of airflow: suction power to pull air through plush carpet and sufficient airflow to carry dirt away.

Some vacuum cleaners on the market bill themselves as "clean air" vacuums compared to other vacuums less commonly known as "dirty air" vacuums. Simply put, "clean air" systems means the dirt and debris you vacuum get filtered into a filter bag before they go through the motor. The advantage of this system is that the motor and fan are protected from damaging dirt and debris (i.e. pennies, paper clips).

"Dirty air" systems are just the opposite. Dirt and debris enter the motor and fan first, then get pushed into a filter bag. The downside to this is that debris can break the motor fan resulting in fan replacement or motor replacement. Over the past several years, most major brands have shifted from dirty air systems to clean air systems. All canisters are considered clean air machines. If you are considering a dirty air machine, please inquire about the vacuum warranty and specifically the motor fan warranty. This part is particularly vulnerable.

One of the most confusing features of a vacuum cleaner, beside motor amps and cleaning performance, is the filtration technology available for vacuums. Most vacuum brands offer some sort of high efficiency filtration technology, even machines costing less than $100. When comparing brands in a superstore, consumers will find terms like HEPA or HEPA type, 3M Filtrete™, electrostatic filtration (or like terms).


For those concerned about indoor air quality, it means a cleaner home environment and, generally, a reduction of allergic reactions in occupants. Consumers today are more concerned than ever about indoor air quality and a cleaner home environment.

The EPA reports that indoor air pollution can be 2 to 5 times worse than outdoor air pollution. There are three ways to improve indoor air quality:

eliminate the source of pollutant
introduce fresh air into the home
use a filtration system to remove particles

Filtration systems to remove particles are key to vacuum cleaner purchases. Because consumers are concerned about indoor air quality (IAQ), vacuum cleaner manufacturers have responded with a variety of technologies to improve air quality--HEPA, HEPA type, electrostatic, 3M Filtrete™.

So which is best? More importantly, which is best for my home environment?

Let's take a look at the two major technologies.  


Originally designed for scientific clean rooms, HEPA is a material that offers a filtration performance of 99.997% efficiency at .03 microns (a human hair is 40 microns in width, a dust mite is 5 microns in size).

Though offering excellent filtration performance, the material is restrictive to airflow--and airflow, as discussed earlier, is needed for effective carpet cleaning. Many companies tout HEPA for machines costing less than $140. This is because HEPA is not a standard regulated by any government or scientific committee. It's easy for any vacuum brand to label a vacuum as HEPA.

Just because a vacuum cleaner contains some HEPA filtering media doesn't mean the vacuum offers HEPA filtration performance. HEPA is a slow airflow media and vacuum cleaners are higher airflow machines. If the air can't go through the HEPA material, it will go around, which it does in most cases.

There are vacuum cleaners that do offer true HEPA performance. These machines typically cost over $200, with annual replacement HEPA filters costing $60 to $80. When in a vacuum cleaner store, compare a HEPA filter from a more expensive machine to a HEPA filter from a machine typically sold at a superstore. There are major differences and it is clear that HEPA is not a regulated standard, which confuses consumers.  


A second popular form of filtration on the market is electrostatic filtration. Electrostatic filtration is a super-efficient medium designed for high airflow performance with a unique quality that attracts dust particles.

Air flowing through the media creates and sustains an electromagnetic charge. This attracts fine dust particles. The result is a high-performing filtration technology ideally suited for high airflow appliances like vacuum cleaners. The most popular brand of electrostatic media is Filtrete™ by 3M. Filtrete™ electrostatic media was originally developed for hospital incubators and respirators. It has since broadened to a wide line of products requiring microfiltration performance.

The 3M company has now partnered with the American Lung Association through the Health House project to promote awareness of and solutions to the problem of poor indoor air quality. For households where occupants suffer from allergic reactions to pollen, dust mites, and tobacco smoke or for those demanding a cleaner indoor environment, it is highly recommended that a vacuum cleaner purchase feature either of these technologies.

Consumer Reports has tested vacuum cleaners with both types of technologies and has concluded both offer the same "excellent" ratings compared to vacuum cleaners without HEPA or electrostatic filtration.

One of the greatest areas of improvement for vacuum cleaners is the variety of tool configurations available on uprights and canisters. The tools tackle a variety of home cleaning needs. Once the advantage of canisters, most uprights offer some sort of tool package to increase their versatility as a home cleaner. In addition to cleaning versatility, on-board tools are ready to go at your fingertips and are easy to find. If the added weight of onboard tools is a concern, consider a vacuum cleaner with no onboard tools and instead purchase a separate attachment kit or compact canister.

Purchasing an additional attachment kit for an upright is a good idea. Most kits come with a separate 7- to 15-foot attachment hose that can connects to an attachment port, normally located on the back of the machine. This accessory hose makes stair cleaning safe and easy, since the vacuum cleaner can sit at the bottom of the steps while you clean the stairs.

The quality of attachment kit tools is normally much higher than onboard tools. A compact canister makes sense not only for above-floor cleaning but because it is handy to have a second quick-cleaning vacuum for basement, workbench, car, van, boat, garage, etc.

Many of the better compact canisters offer excellent suction and airflow compared with some full-sized uprights. Compact canisters also make great performers for hardwood floors and throw rugs. There are a variety of miscellaneous cleaning tools sold as accessories that could greatly benefit you. These are normally carried by vacuum shops.

The range of vacuum cleaners on the market varies greatly, from an entry-level $59 machine at the discount store to an expensive $1,600 model available door-to-door. The saying "you get what you pay for" couldn't be more true for vacuum cleaners. Some vacuum cleaners are constructed with the expectation that repair will be easy, while the low cost of other vacuums means it makes more sense to simply throw them away. This is one reason for the cost and warranty differences between the two. At the high end of cost are all-metal machines. These are sold through some vacuum stores but mostly by door-to-door sales reps. They are generally expensive in nature and offer a good warranty, but can be heavy to use and carry.

All metal machines offer "dirty air" technology, meaning the carpet dirt and debris go through the fan and motor before proceeding into the cloth filter bag. This makes these machines more prone to fan breakage and motor replacement. At the low end of construction quality are the disposable machines sold mostly at discount or mass merchant stores. With the exception of the motor, most of the materials in these machines are ABS and other types of plastic. These machines are light to use and cheap to purchase, but they don't hold up very well and normally carry just a one-year warranty.

In between these two extremes are cleaners that are a combination of materials. They typically offer metal bottom plates, brush rolls, handle tubes, etc., but also offer ABS plastic housings and handles to minimize their weight. Warranties on these cleaners are normally two years. You can find this type of cleaner at better appliance stores, department stores and vacuum cleaner shops. Your decision on the quality you need rests entirely with your comfort level. Buying a disposable vacuum cleaner may be something you are used to, something which doesn't present much of a cost or time issue to you. At the other end of the spectrum, some folks are looking for quality and are seeking years of product satisfaction. Many of us are somewhere in between.

Over the past two years, bagless vacuum cleaners have become more popular in the U.S. compared with the traditional vacuum cleaner. Bagless vacuum manufacturers argue that money is saved because there is no need to purchase bags. Other manufacturers argue differently. One thing is true--bagless technology is not fully understood by most consumers and further explanations are needed.

Bagless vacuum systems use a "cyclonic" technology that separates larger dirt and debris from the main air stream and drops these particles into a cup. This cup can then be removed and the dirt dumped into a waste can. The problem with "cyclonic" technology is that only the larger particles of dirt and debris are removed, and the fine dirt exhausts out of the vacuum -- back into the room.

To overcome this problem, all bagless machines require filters to capture smaller particles. While it's true you'll save money not purchasing bags, you will have to pay yearly for replacement filters. Bagless vacuum manufacturers recommend changing filters 1-2 times per year. New filters cost $20 to $60 per filter.

In addition to this expense, bagless owners complain about having to dump the dirt cup (releasing dirt particles back into the air), unclog the cyclonic filter cup, wash the inside filters on some models, and wash the dirt cup itself from time to time. Plus, bagless machines on the market are built like disposable machines.

Demonstrations on bagless machines show that they do an impressive visual job of picking up dirt, and the idea of not buying bags is appealing. That's why sales of bagless machines are rising. On the other hand, a year's supply of vacuum bags (12 bags) costs about $20, and are simple to remove and throw away. With traditional uprights, there's no issue of washing filters or dirt cups. Many industry experts predict that sales of bagless machines will continue to grow, but also predict that owners will soon see the realities, difficulties and costs of bagless systems and revert to using vacuum bags.

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