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Vacuum Cleaner Buying Guide

Vacuum Buying Guide

While the first vacuum cleaners from more than 100 years ago were notoriously bulky and expensive, the vacuums of today have grown up in a lot of ways. They're still the most effective way to clean carpet, hard flooring, upholstery, furniture, and many other areas of your home. Using powerful suction and helpful attachments, they quickly remove dirt and dust as they glide effortlessly across your floors. 

Today's vacuums span a variety of types and designs, from residential- to commercial-grade models with your choice of handheld, canister, stick, or upright profiles. Contemporary models are also less noisy and include an array of special features and accessories designed to provide ease of use, bolster cleaning power, and simplify routine maintenance. Some vacuums can even help improve the quality of your indoor air thanks to HEPA filters. With so many choices and options, choosing the right vacuum cleaner depends primarily on your cleaning tasks at hand, your preferred features, and your favored design.

For easy accessibility to the topics in this buying guide, use the links below:

About Vacuums

All electric vacuum cleaners, regardless of their design profile, are composed with similar parts that make the suctioning process possible. These parts include an intake port, an exhaust port, an electric motor, an internal fan, a disposable dust bag or permanent dust container, and an outer housing that protects the internal components. To get a general idea of how a vacuum works, think of the science behind taking a sip from a straw. As you pull liquid up through the straw and into your mouth, you increase the air pressure at the bottom of the straw. As a result, the liquid is pushed up into your mouth using the force of the increased pressure.

Vacuums use a similar process to suction up dirt and dust. When a vacuum is turned on, the electric motor prompts the internal fan to begin moving air forward toward the exhaust port. This decreases the air pressure inside of the machine while the air pressure outside of the vacuum remains higher. As with the liquid in your drinking straw, the higher outside pressure pushes air - and debris - up through the vacuum's intake port, where dust and dirt are pushed into the dust bag or container and locked away. As a final step, air is exhausted back into your environment.

Vacuum cleaners are broken down into two classes: residential and commercial. Residential vacuums - including canister vacuum cleaners, stick vacuums, and upright vacuum cleaners - are designed to clean carpets, hard floors, and upholstery in a home or small office space. Commercial vacuum cleaners are heavier-duty models designed to withstand daily use in commercial applications, such as cleaning hotels, theaters, aircraft interiors, and retail environments.

Vacuum performance can be measured in airflow - expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM)- or water lift in inches. Airflow refers to the volume of air moving through the vacuum, which affects the amount of debris that can be carried by the airflow. Water lift is the ability of the vacuum's airflow to remove dirt particles based on how many inches the vacuum's airflow can pull water upward through a tube in a testing environment. Suction power - measured in Pascals - is another measure of performance sometimes listed for vacuums. This refers to the maximum pressure difference the vacuum can create. The rule of thumb is: the higher pressure, the better.

Most commercial vacuum manufacturers provide this information in their model specifications. Residential vacuum manufacturers, however, don't always include it. That's one reason why The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) developed its Seal of Approval vacuum program. CRI evaluates vacuum performance against three standards: soil removal, dust containment, and carpet fiber protection. The institute then assigns a Bronze, Silver, or Gold Seal of Approval to the vacuum.

While the CRI program seemingly provides a foolproof measurement of system performance, the institute only grants seals to those models that manufacturers submit for testing. Therefore, to get the best gauge on a vacuum's performance, be sure to research product reviews and reports from independent consumer organizations.

Residential Vacuums

Residential vacuums are available in upright, canister, stick, and handheld versions to clean a number of surfaces. Upright vacuums are push/pull systems mounted on wheels that allow easy maneuvering. These vacuums feature the motor and fan situated in the bottom of the system and a rotating brush installed at the intake port. The filter, exhaust port, and dust bag or container are usually housed in the top portion of the vacuum. Upright vacuums are often better at cleaning carpet than other models, especially medium- and deep-pile carpets. They may also have wider cleaning paths and be easier to store because of their upright configuration. However, uprights may be considerably heavier and noisier than other types of vacuums.

Canister vacuums have cylindrical bodies that house the motor, fan, and dust compartments. These vacuums come with a hose and floor tool attachment that connects to the main canister, which sits atop caster wheels. To clean, you pull the canister across the floor as you use the attached floor tool to suction up dirt and debris, which is deposited into the canister. Canister vacuum cleaners are good at cleaning carpets, but their real strength lies in cleaning hard floors. Because they are easier to handle, they are also particularly useful for vacuuming upholstery, stairs, drapes, and other hard-to-reach areas, such as underneath furniture and in corners. While they are quieter than uprights, canisters are typically more expensive and harder to store.

Stick vacuum cleaners and handheld vacuums - such as the Dyson DC59 Animal Cordless Vacuum - are newer vacuum concepts designed for quick, no-fuss cleaning. Stick vacuums, like the Miele Quickstep S194, are effective for light pick-up jobs on hard flooring, low-pile carpets, and area rugs. Many models are cordless, bagless, and feature basic or HEPA air filtration. In addition, with slim lightweight profiles, stick vacs are also easy to store. Hand vacuums work best for even lighter surface cleaning. Most models run on batteries that are rechargeable for more convenience. However, hand vacs lack the power and capacity necessary for regular and thorough cleaning. It's best to use stick and handheld vacuums for quick pick-ups in between regular vacuuming with an upright or canister vacuum cleaner.

Commercial Vacuums

Commercial vacuums are high-capacity vacuums that are used for keeping a variety of workspaces clean, safe, and contaminant-free. Light-duty commercial vacuum cleaners are often used to clean theaters, retail stores, aircraft interior, museums, hotels, and large office spaces. More specialized critical filter vacuums perform bio-hazard material cleanup, wet/dry cleaning tasks, lead removal, mercury removal, and contamination control in clean rooms.

Choosing among the many commercial models available depends on your particular cleaning task. With lighter-duty models, you have some flexibility in design. For example, hotel staff may find it easier to clean room interiors wearing the Nilfisk GD10 Industrial HEPA Back Vacuum or the Nilfisk UZ964 Hip Vac. Large office or warehouse cleaning tasks may be easier to clean with the powerful Nilfisk Eliminator I HEPA Vacuum, which has a traditional canister design.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Vacuum

Many questions arise when choosing the right vacuum cleaner for your home or worksite. First and foremost, make the choice between a residential or commercial vacuum. If you plan to use the vacuum in your home only, you'll need a residential model. However, if you need a heavier-duty vacuum or a critical-filtering vacuum for a specific task, go with a commercial model.

If you opt for a residential vacuum, ask yourself these important questions to help guide your decision-making:

  • Which vacuum design do I prefer?
    • Upright vacuums are best for use in homes with lots of carpeting and some hard surfaces. They are also more economical than canister vacuums, but might be heavier and harder to handle.

    • Canister vacuums work most of their magic on hard flooring, upholstery, drapes, stairs, and under furniture. While they can clean carpeting, canisters are traditionally more effective on low-pile carpets. These vacuum types may be more expensive than uprights, but they are often easier to handle.

    • Stick and handheld vacuums are the most economical options. However, these vacuums are best suited for light cleanup tasks in between more thorough cleanings with a full-size vacuum.
  • Do I want a bagged or bagless vacuum?
    • All vacuums deposit the dirt, dust, and debris they collect into some type of dust receptacle. On some vacuums, this takes the form of a dust bag that you'll have to replace each time it gets full. Newer vacuum models are bagless and debris is deposited into a permanent dust container that you empty when it gets full. Bagless vacuums save money and reduce waste. However, bagged vacuums, such as Miele vacuum models, do a better job at keeping debris and allergens contained, with little chance of it returning to your environment.
  • What level of exhaust filtration do I need?
    • Onboard air filters are a relatively newer concept in vacuums. These filters help remove allergen particles from incoming air and ensure that the vacuum exhausts clean air back into your environment. This is a helpful feature for allergy- and asthma-sufferers. Many vacuum models are now equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtration to capture 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns and larger as well as basic pre-motor and post-motor particle filters.

If you opt for a large-capacity commercial vacuum, ask yourself these important questions to help with your decision:

  • What will I use the vacuum for?
    • If you plan to clean up both wet and dry messes, you'll need a wet/dry vacuum that can safely and efficiently pick up both. For large-area vacuuming tasks - such as regularly cleaning office spaces, museums, hotels, and other large areas - your best bet is a light-commercial canister or upright vacuum such as the Nilfisk UZ934 Vacuum. For critical-filtering tasks and bio-hazard cleanup, choose a vacuum that is specially designed to remove the hazardous material in question (examples include lead, mercury, flammable liquids, and viruses). Clean room vacuums approved for use in multiple classes of clean rooms are also available.
  • What type of filtration do I need?
    • Critical cleaning tasks often require better-than-HEPA particle filtration. In the commercial vacuuming world, this level is defined as ULPA, or Ultra Low Particulate Air, filtration. ULPA filters are capable of capturing 99.999% of particles sized from 0.1 to 0.2 microns. If the hazardous particles you want to collect are smaller than 0.3 microns, make sure to get a ULPA vacuum. Otherwise, a HEPA vacuum, which filters out 99.97% of allergens that are 0.3 microns and larger, will be sufficient.
  • What are my power requirements?
    • Large-capacity vacuums often have different power requirements than residential-grade models. While an ordinary upright or canister vacuum may be rated for the common 115-volt household circuit, an industrial-strength HEPA vacuum might require a 240-volt circuit. Be sure to check your power requirements and compare them with what is listed in the vacuum's specifications before purchasing.

In addition to the above questions, you may also want to consider a commercial vacuum's suction power rating (water lift), hose length, power cord length, and safety features.

Special Features

Both residential and commercial vacuums often come equipped with special features designed to simplify your cleaning experience. When shopping for a vacuum, think about which features you prefer and let your preferences guide you toward the right model. Popular onboard features of vacuums include:

  • Cleaning Attachments - Nearly all residential vacuums and some commercial vacuums come with onboard tools to help clean certain surfaces. These may include crevice tools, dusting brushes, upholstery brushes, bare floor attachments, and telescoping wands.
  • Suction Control - Residential and commercial vacuums often feature adjustable suction controls to cater to the different surfaces in your home. For example, you might use lower suction power when cleaning fragile lampshades or a higher suction setting when vacuuming upholstery.
  • Dirt Sensor - This feature helps you detect when the vacuum is no longer picking up dirt and debris.
  • Full Container Indicator - This indicator lets you know when the vacuum's dust bag or container is full and needs to be emptied or replaced.
  • Filter Change Indicator - Like a full container indicator, this indicator lets you know when it's time to change the exhaust filter(s).
  • Multiple Floor Settings - Many upright vacuums include multiple floor settings to optimize cleaning for low-, medium-, and high-pile carpets as well as bare floors.
  • Edge Cleaner - This feature helps clean hard-to-reach corners on wall-to-wall carpeting.
  • Retractable Power Cord - Many upright, canister, and commercial vacuums are equipped with a retractable cord for easy storage.
  • Power Switch On Handle - Power switches that are located on a vacuum's handle are more ergonomic than switches located on the base of the appliance.
  • Extra-Long Power Cord - Many commercial vacuums and some residential vacuums have extra-long power cords for easy maneuvering across large areas.
  • Overheat Protection - Automatic overheat protection switches curb operation when there is a risk of overheating.
  • Headlight - Upright vacuums often have headlights on their motor heads to illuminate debris as you vacuum.
  • Protective Bumper - Upright vacuum motor heads and canister vacuum powerheads may also be equipped with protective bumpers to reduce the risk of wall and baseboard damage.
  • Easy Turning Mechanism - Dyson vacuums feature a ball for easier turning around corners and furniture, while Miele upright vacuums boast a unique swivel capability.
  • Easy-Roll Casters - Many vacuums feature smooth-rolling casters for effortless mobility across your floors.
  • Manometer - Some critical filter vacuums have onboard manometers to provide accurate and continuous pressure readings.
  • Airtight Seals - Critical filter vacuums may also feature airtight seals on their collection containers to ensure that hazardous materials are not leaked.


Properly maintaining your vacuum is an important step toward keeping it in top-performing shape. After all, replacing these appliances is often expensive, so you'll want to ensure that you get as many years of service out of your vacuum as possible. Start by reading the owner's manual that comes with the vacuum. Most manufacturers provide tips for regular cleaning and maintenance to bolster your vacuum cleaner's performance.

Perhaps most important on the list - make sure to empty the dust container or replace the dust bag regularly. Vacuuming with a clogged system will reduce the vacuum's efficiency, waste power, and accelerate normal wear and tear on the appliance. In addition, be sure to replace or wash filters regularly to ensure that airflow through the vacuum continues unobstructed and suction power is maintained.

Vacuuming for Allergies

Along with helping to maintain a clean, dirt-free environment, vacuuming can help you improve your indoor air quality and address irritating allergy symptoms. The newer HEPA vacuum models - such as the Bissell Healthy Home Vacuum - are designed specifically to filter out airborne allergens along with capturing dust and debris and returning cleaner air to your space. Additionally, many allergists recommend that allergy-sufferers use a bagged vacuum instead of a bagless vacuum. This helps reduce your risk of re-exposure to the allergens because you'll never have to open the dust bag as you would with a permanent dust container. 

To learn more about how vacuuming can help an allergy condition, read our article Vacuums and Allergies.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Vacuums are available in residential and commercial models to suit your cleaning task.
  • Residential vacuums - including upright, canister, stick, and handheld vacuums - are designed to tackle messes around your home or small office.
  • Commercial vacuums, which include wet/dry vacuums, critical filter vacuums, clean room vacuums, and large-capacity HEPA vacuums, are designed for heavier industrial use such as hazardous material pickup, contamination control, wet/dry vacuuming, and commercial space cleaning.
  • Upright vacuums are generally better suited to clean carpet than canister vacuums. They're also more economical, but may be heavier and harder to maneuver.
  • Canister vacuums are better at cleaning hard floors, upholstery, drapes, and stairs. However, these models are often pricier than uprights.
  • Stick and handheld vacuums are best for quick pickups in between thorough cleanings with a full-size vacuum.
  • When choosing a residential vacuum, consider the system's design, your preference for bagged or bagless, and exhaust filtration.
  • When choosing a commercial vacuum, consider your cleaning task, the filtration level you need, and your power requirements.
  • Many vacuum models come with special features to help simplify operation and optimize cleaning power. These include cleaning attachments, suction power controls, dirt sensors, overheat protection, and many more.
  • To keep your vacuum performing effectively, clean and maintain it using the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum, a bagged vacuum, and/or an allergen-killing vacuum can help address your allergy symptoms and improve your indoor air quality.

Still Have Questions?

For more information on specific vacuum cleaners and other ways to improve your indoor air, review our extensive product listings and visit our Knowledge Center. Not sure what's best for you? We can take the guesswork out of decision-making. Contact our product experts toll-free at 1-800-934-9194. We want to help make your indoor environment healthy and comfortable.

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