For more than 100 years, electric vacuum cleaners have dominated the household cleaning industry as some of the most effective appliances for cleaning carpet, hard flooring, and upholstery. Using powerful suction, these systems remove dirt, dust, and other debris as they glide effortlessly across your floors, leaving only clean surfaces behind. While the first vacuum models of the early nineteenth century were notoriously bulky, heavy, noisy, and expensive, the vacuums of today have grown up in lots of ways.
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. 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.
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All electric vacuum cleaners, regardless of their design profile, are composed of the same 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 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 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.
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:
If you opt for a large-capacity commercial vacuum, ask yourself these important questions to help with your decision:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.