What to think about when you’re buying a vacuum cleaner
Vacuum cleaners – there’s never been so much choice, in terms of styles and models. Yet, how many of us have enough time and interest to look through the entire plethora of options and advantages or disadvantages of one over another? If you’ve ever ended up with a vacuum cleaner that made you want to pull your hair out and you don’t want to make the same mistake again, then you’ve come to the right place. To save you some time and effort, read our guide for some things that are worth thinking about so you can make the right vacuum cleaner choice.
First of all, spend a moment thinking about a few things that will make it easier to choose the right vacuum cleaner: the size and layout of your home; e.g. do you have stairs, do you need it for cleaning the car and/or a garage, shed or workshop; how much space do you have for storing the cleaner? Where are the sockets – how long will the cord have to be, if a corded cleaner is chosen? Do you have carpets and/or hard floors, perhaps with rugs? Other considerations to take into account are: pets, allergy or asthma and whether any physical weakness or impairment calls for a specific vacuum cleaner feature or design. All of these questions can, undoubtedly, be answered very quickly.
When you’re ready to look at which kind of vacuum cleaner would suit you best, have a look at our guides to the different features and accessories vacuum cleaners come with and the various types of cleaners.
After you’ve made your choice, click on the category in the review section that fits your choice and read our unbiased reviews that include experiences existing owners have of the cleaners, as well as a close look at each one’s features and accessories.
The main types of vacuum are…
Bagged vs Bagless – which is best?
Neither. One vacuum cleaner can differ immensely from another in terms of overall quality and the method of capturing/emptying the dust, but there are good and bad of both. It all depends on your requirements and preferences.
Bagless cleaners with washable filters (read more about filters below) have no consumables costs or waste at all. On the other hand, they usually need emptying after each cleaning session. It is likely that you will have some release of very fine dust into the atmosphere as you empty the cleaner, but there are steps you can take to avoid this being a problem. If you develop a routine, the maintenance and emptying tasks might not seem like a bother at all and the environmental and cost benefits are indisputable.
Bagged cleaners usually have a larger dust capacity than bagless, that could be an advantage if you don’t want to keep emptying the cleaner too frequently. Branded bags usually have a sealed opening for the hose that will close automatically when you remove the bag from the cleaner and protect you from the dust. The bags do tend to be expensive and are not generally biodegradable. A good bag also acts as the first effective filter and could, in many cases, be the best option for those with severe allergies or asthma.
Bagged Vacuum Cleaners
Fitted inside the vacuum, a bag will collect dust and debris; when it’s full, you simply take out the bag, dispose of it and fit a new one into the cleaner. There are many different kinds of bags and which ones you can use will depend somewhat on the vacuum cleaner model and how much you want to spend. There are genuine and generic varieties of bags available for most models. The cheapest are little more than thick paper bags with a weave that allows air (and, inevitably, fine dust particles) to pass through them, and the most expensive, manufacturer branded ones are often at least two layers of fibres and foil materials – the first stage filter to trap dust inside the vacuum cleaner.
As a bag fills up, the cleaner will lose some of its efficiency, though many models have bag designs that encourage the dust to collect in the sides of the bags first and not get in the way of the air flow immediately. Most bagged vacuums have an indicator that will tell you when your bag is full. An advantage of bags is that they are so easy and clean to empty. Most have self-sealing openings for the hose, that close up and won’t let any dust through when you remove them from the cleaner, thus saving you from the discomfort associated with fine dust particles in the air that can affect you whether you’re allergic to dust or not.
If you want to ensure at least close to maximum efficiency at all times, some experts recommend changing the bag when it’s about half-full. However, that leads us to a definite downside of bagged vacuums: the cost of good vacuum cleaner bags is positively prohibitive. Over the lifespan of a cleaner, you will spend a few hundred pounds on new bags and filters. On the other hand, bagged cleaners tend to be a little more reliable and not need as much maintenance as bagless.
So, whilst bagged vacuums are usually cheaper than bagless, if you tally up the costs of purchase, consumables and maintenance, in the long run there’s probably not much between most of them.
Vacuum cleaner bags are not biodegradable, so there will be some environmental impact from disposing of them.
Bagless Vacuum Cleaners
Bagless vacuum cleaners have come a long way in the last few years. Better suction, more efficient filters, greater reliability and more convenient mechanics for emptying them are some of the reasons they have become so popular.
A dust container or bin captures dust and debris, separates it via cyclonic action – to trap larger pieces in the bin and tiny particles in the filter – or captures it in one or more compartments, usually compressing it into dense blocks. This is then emptied into your dustbin as the container fills up.
The bagless system is cheaper and more environmentally friendly as you don’t have to keep buying vacuum cleaner bags (which can be quite costly) and adding them to landfills. Another advantage is that, as long as the filters are kept clean, suction won’t deteriorate as the vacuum fills up, as it can do with bagged cleaners. Bagless cleaners also tend to be more lightweight than bagged cleaners.
There can be a downside, though; it is almost inevitable that some fine dust will escape when opening and disposing of it. Anyone with allergies or asthma would be best off choosing a model that can be emptied at the touch of a button and ensure they do it into a bag or container that can be kept sealed as the contents fall in. Also, good quality bagless vacuum cleaners tend to be more expensive at point of purchase and the category as a whole needs more frequent maintenance than bagged vacuums – potentially adding to the cost of ownership – unless the cleaner comes with a good guarantee.
Bagless vacuum cleaners usually have small capacity dust containers and will need to be emptied more frequently than bagged vacuums.
The pros and cons at a glance…
The main advantages of bagless cleaners are
Manufacturers claim they don’t lose suction as they fill up.
You don’t have the ongoing cost of bags.
Less bags = less waste, which is good for the environment.
Most models feature clear plastic dust containers so it’s easy to see when they need emptying.
Some models feature anti-bacterial filters which can help reduce the amount of bacteria and allergens escaping into the air – good for general hygiene as well as allergy sufferers.
And the disadvantages are
They tend to be more expensive as the technology involved is more sophisticated.
Filters can require regular cleaning.
It’s hard to avoid exposure to dust when emptying.
The main advantages of bagged vacuums are
They tend to be cheaper.
They can be preferable for allergy and asthma sufferers as changing and disposing of bags (as opposed to emptying a bagless dust container) leads to less dust exposure; some models even feature self-sealing bags.
Their filters rarely need cleaning.
They tend to have a larger capacity.
And the disadvantages are
Suction power can be reduced as the bag fills and it’s hard to know when they need emptying (although some models have indicator lights).
The cost of buying bags over a machine’s lifetime can be significant (filters also sometimes need replacing).
Fitting new bags can sometimes be tricky, especially for people with arthritis and similar conditions.
Almost any person that has shopped for a vacuum has heard of models that use cyclones or cyclonic suction. It sounds good and the term does help to sell vacuums, but how many consumers actually know how this technology affects performance?
Instead of straight suction like a traditional vacuum, a model with cyclone technology sends the air in a high-speed swirling motion as it goes through the machine. It achieves this action by forcing the air through small cylinders that are designed to create the cyclone affect. As the air swirls through the cylinder, the centrifugal force moves the dirt and dust to the outside of the cyclone where it can drop down into the dirt collection area. It is essentially a method to effectively separate the dirt from the air as it moves through the system. Many of the machines use a multi-cyclone design to further improve upon the process.
The cyclonic action is beneficial to the machine because it improves performance in a number of ways. The first and most significant is that the machine does not lose suction power as you clean. The cyclone ensures that more of the dirt ends up in the collection area instead of in the filtering system and this maintains the airflow that allows for strong suction. It makes for a machine that has better dirt pickup and it also means less maintenance for the user.
The quality of the filtration system in the vacuum will affect the indoor air quality in the home. As the vacuum releases exhaust from the system there may be some level of dust, dirt or particulate contamination in the exhaust. The filtration system will remove some of these contaminants. The quality of filtration from one model to the next can be significant and this should be a major factor for those who suffer from allergies or other respiratory conditions.
Standard or Staged Filtration
This is where the air passes through a series of filters, or stages, to remove dirt and dust from the air that is released from the machine. Most machines offer somewhere between 3-7 stages of filtration with the most common level being 4-stage filtration. This type of filtration is more common in older vacuums and the budget models that are on the current market. In general, these machines will not be good for people that have serious respiratory issues that are easily agitated by things like dust.
HEPA Filters (also known as S-Class)
A model with a HEPA filter will probably be the best choice for people that suffer from some type of respiratory condition. The initials HEPA stand for high-efficiency particulate air. A HEPA filter traps particles of 0.3 microns in diameter at an efficiency of 99.97%. A vacuum with a HEPA filter will not purify the air in the home, but it will help to ensure that most of the irritating particulates that enter the machine will not be released back into the home environment.
This is a filter that has a layer of charcoal that is there for the purpose of trapping odors. Models that have the option of a charcoal filter are especially good for people that have a lot of pets.
With many vacuums, the owner will need to occasionally change the filter. A dirty filter affects the performance of the machine and it can even damage some of the mechanical components. Some models do come with what are referred to as “lifetime filters.” These are filters that are guaranteed for the expected life of the machine and never need replacing. A lifetime filter may need to be removed and cleaned occasionally, but many consumers prefer this to searching for and buying replacement filters for their vacuum.
Energy Efficiency & Performance
In September 2014 the EU introduced new regulations affecting the sale of all new vacuum cleaners in the UK. Every product sold now has to bear a label similar to the example shown below listing various pieces of information relating to how much energy the machine uses when operational and how well it performs. The label has 6 key areas, each of which are explained below
- Energy Rating – This refers to overall energy efficiency and ranges from A for the most efficient products to G for the least.
- Annual Energy Consumption – This figure relates to the total energy used by the appliance over the course of a year (assuming average usage).
- Emissions – This gives you an indication of the amount of dust in air emitted from the machine’s exhaust (with A being the least dust, and therefore the most desirable).
- Noise Level – This figure tells you how loud the vacuum is when it is operating in decibels.
- Carpet Pick-up – This tells you how efficient the machine is at removing dust etc from carpets.
- Hard Floor Pick-up -This tells you how efficient the machine is at removing dust etc from hard floors such as wood and laminate floors.
You should be aware, though, that the ratings are all based on the performance of straight out of production vacuum cleaners and do not take into account the performance in a real-world setting. Although the label is likely to be a very good indicator of overall quality, some cleaners’ performance can be affected by clogged filters or poor dust and debris distribution, so it’s probably still worth having a look at what other users have to say about it after a period of ownership, if you can.
The EU Regulations Explained
The EU Ecodesign regulations ban any new stock of vacuum cleaners with motors above 1600W from being imported to or produced in the EU for domestic use (after 1st September 2014). From 1 September 2017, the motor will be limited to 900 watts and the max noise level allowed will be 80db (hearing damage can start occurring at 85db, so this is hardly unreasonable).
The idea behind this move is not to frustrate those with a penchant for a clean house, but to encourage manufacturers to come up with more innovative designs that will be energy efficient, have better build quality and suck up dust more efficiently. The technology exists, but the industry has been dragging its feet and they’ve known about this regulation and the implementation date for years.
Although the energy saving for a single household will never amount to much, if you look at the total number of vacuum cleaner users, there will be a substantial energy reduction when every household runs vacuum cleaners that only consume half the energy of the average cleaner before September 2014. The directive is expected to save about 19 TWh by 2020 (equivalent to the energy 1.4 million UK households use in a year).
The criticism in the press largely stems from the misunderstanding that suction power is linked to its wattage. In reality, it is the design of the beast that mostly determines how well it functions, as can be seen from the number of well-designed low wattage vacuums that outdo the power hungry ones. In fact, Dyson claims to be able to produce a 700W vacuum that will be just as effective as a 2,000-3,000 model.
Over the next few years, expect some new improved designs from manufacturers trying to outdo each other in order to get the best ratings. For the consumer, this is a win-win directive.
The modern vacuum comes with a range of tools and attachments that are designed to provide the user with more cleaning options. Most models will at least come with a basic set of tools to help the user clean their furniture, dust and to help them clean their stairs. In addition to this, some models may come with specialized tools that are made for specific purposes. If your home has issues with certain types of messes (like pet hair) then having a specialized tool for that job can be advantageous.
Crevice tool – The crevice tool is long and narrow with an angled tip. This attachment is made for getting in the narrow, hard to reach places like in the sofa cushions and around large, hard to move appliances.
Upholstery tool – This is almost like a mini vacuum head without the brushes. It is designed to allow the user to vacuum different upholstered surfaces like that of home furniture.
Dusting brush – This is the round attachment with the soft bristles at the end. It is used for cleaning the dust around things like curtains, shades and other delicate items.
Turbo/Power tools – Some vacuums come with a special tool, sometimes they have names that are unique to the manufacturer, but they are generally known as turbo tools or power brushes. This is another one that is like a mini-floorhead, but this one has brushes or rollers to agitate the carpet and improve upon the dirt and dust removal abilities. These can be good for homes with pets or areas with thick carpeting.
Extensions – Vacuums often come with extensions for the cleaning hose. This can be good for helping the user to get hard to reach areas and to provide the user with a larger cleaning radius.
Telescopic wands – For added convenience, some of the cylinder machines have cleaning wands that come with a telescoping action. It allows the user to extend the wand for greater reach, without having to add an extension to the unit.
When it comes to the cleaning capabilities of a vacuum, there are a lot of factors to consider. In addition to the design and features of the machine itself, the types of surfaces that you need to clean and the different kinds of messes that may need to be cleaned will influence how well a machine will work for the individual. For this section, we are going to focus primarily on the
factors that play a role in the effective cleaning of floors.
While it is not the be all and end all of what makes an effective vacuum, the power of the motor will make a significant difference in regard to the cleaning capabilities of the machine. Typically, you are going to find stronger motors in cylinder models, but this does not necessarily mean that they have better cleaning capabilities. With a cylinder, the air has further to travel from the vacuum itself to the cleaning head and this difference in design means that the machine needs more power.
Obviously, the design of the machine will have an effect on performance. A machine with motorized brushes and rollers will remove more dirt from carpets than one that does not. A machine with cyclonic suction will provide performance that is more reliable and consistent. The design and shape of the head will also make a difference. A vacuum head that is well designed will focus the suction in the cleaning path and distribute it evenly in the cleaning area. In addition to that, a vacuum that has an adjustable head will be more versatile for providing good results on more than one type of carpet or hard flooring.
The type of flooring in your house will be an important factor to consider when you are shopping for a vacuum. Some models work better on carpets, while others will provide better performance on hard floors. If your home has a significant amount of hard flooring and carpets, there are models that perform well on both.
The traditional view of this problem is that cylinders tend to work better for homes with hard flooring and that uprights are the way to go if you have carpeting. In a lot of ways, this rule does hold-up, but manufacturers have found ways to design machines – in both the upright and cylinder category – that defy this traditional wisdom.
As mentioned above, uprights tend to be the best option for cleaning carpets. The main reason for this is that they more often have motorized brushes and rollers that help to remove the dirt, dust and hair from the carpet. That being said, you can find cylinder machines that come with a brush head for cleaning carpets. It all really comes down to the design of the machine and the features that are included.
Cylinders have always been viewed as the better option for hard flooring. The brushes that help to lift dirt and debris from a carpet are actually counterproductive when it comes to cleaning hard floors. With this being the case, lacking a motorized brush is actually a positive for cleaning hard floors. This gives an advantage to the cylinder models because most of them do not have the brushes. However, some upright vacuums come with a switch to turn off the brushes and this can make them good for cleaning hard floors.
If you are looking for a vacuum that will clean both hard floors and carpets, then you want to make sure that it has an adjustable head. If the cleaning head does not adjust to the floor type, then the machine will not provide good suction on the different types of flooring. Most machines will require a manual adjustment of the head as you move from one surface to the next, but there are models that have self-adjusting heads.
Handling the Machine
For some consumers, handling the machine is not a big factor. This can be especially true for those who are young and physically fit. However, for many handling is a major factor. If a machine does not handle well when it is in use, it will require more work to get the job done and it may have trouble getting around certain objects in the home. Additionally, a machine that does not handle well will be more difficult to get out and store away.
Steering and maneuverability
There are some vacuums where the user is the steering system. You turn the machine as you move it back and forth and that gets the machine where it needs to go. But there are also machines that have steering systems to help make the machine more maneuverable and easier to use. In addition to this, many of the newer models have heads that angle and pivot to help the user to access places that are hard to get.
Weight & Size
How heavy a machine is and the compact nature of the design will make a difference for handling. A lighter, more compact vacuum will be easier to steer and it will be able to fit in more places. Along with that, machines that are low in size and weight will be easier to store and easier to get out when you need them. Lugging around an oversized, heavy vacuum cleaner can be a real pain for some people.
This is a factor that you are usually only going to look for in an upright. The further back the handle can recline, the more places that you will be able to get with the vacuum. If an upright has a compact head and good recline, it should be easy to get under chairs and tables as you clean.
Additional factors to consider…
Capacity – The capacity of the bag or dust container will make a difference. A lower capacity means more emptying or changing and with many vacuums, as it nears capacity, it will affect the overall effectiveness of the machine.
Cord length – The length of the cord directly affects the cleaning radius of the machine. A shorter cord means that the user will need to change plugs more frequently and that time and effort can add up.
Cord storage – Most machines come with some form of cord storage. Some have a spot where you manually wrap the cord and others may have an automatic rewind system. If a vacuum does not have a good cord storage solution, then it will be more of a hassle to clean the machine up and put it away.
Storage – Is the machine easy to pack up and store away? Does it have good cord storage? Does it have a place for all of the tools? Can the machine, or pieces of the machine, fold-up or break down for convenient storing?
Noise – Between the vacuums that are on the current market, there can be a significant difference as to how loud they are. If you are sensitive to noise, this may be a serious thing to consider.
Settings – Most vacuums come with only one power setting, but some do come with two or more. The idea is that the different settings are for different cleaning tasks. You use a higher setting for cleaning up dirt that is deep in a carpet, but you use a lower setting for jobs like dusting.
Pets – If you have pets in the home, you are going to want to look for a machine that has features and accessories that are designed for cleaning up pet hair. From the type of filtering and the dirt collection method to the types of brushes and the optional attachments, getting the right machine for the job will make a big difference if you have pets.
Warranty – A consumer should always consider the warranty with a purchase like this. Even the best of manufacturers with the strictest of quality control practices can let a faulty machine off the line from time to time and if the vacuum quits early, you want to know that the problem will be addressed by the people that made the machine.