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How to Choose a Vacuum Cleaner

There are so many different vacuum cleaners on the market that it can be confusing to choose the right one.

The first step is to determine whether an upright or canister is right for your lifestyle and home environment. So, we'll identify the different types of vacuum cleaners and examine how you decide which type is right for you.

This decision is based on the amount of carpeting and other flooring in the home, whether or not you have stairs, as well as any specialized cleaning situations.

Once you have identified the type of vacuum cleaner, there are still a number of other considerations that will narrow your choices further and ultimately lead to the vacuum cleaner that will perform optimally for you.

These considerations include, the type of fibers used in the carpet and/or rugs; the amount of traffic and the types of soiling in the home; performance, durability, ease of use, filtration, noise level, capacity, storage, features and cost.

The Different Types of Vacuum Cleaners

While there are all sorts of specialty or secondary vacuum cleaners, such as hand vacuums, car vacuums, wet/dry vacuums and so on, this article is focused on choosing the primary vacuum cleaner for a home.

There are two major types of vacuum cleaners, uprights and canisters. There are significant differences between these types. The most obvious is that you push an upright and pull a canister.

Uprights generally have a revolving brush roll to provide agitation and may have one motor that provides the suction and also turns the agitator or it may have two motors, one to provide suction and one to drive the brush. There are a wide variety of different upright designs for many different cleaning situations.

Upright vacuum cleaners excel at cleaning synthetic (nylon, olefin or polyester) carpeting and many also have the ability to turn off the revolving brush for cleaning smooth floors. Recent innovations like on-board attachments and integrated extension hoses have made uprights much more versatile and able to offer many of the features of canisters.

Uprights have traditionally been the favorite type of vacuum cleaner in the U.S. and Great Britain. In Europe and the rest of the world, canisters are the vacuum cleaner of choice.

A canister vacuum cleaner has a base unit that contains the vacuum motor, dust bag and filter system. There are three types of canister vacuum cleaners. All three are used with a hose, wands and attachments. The difference is in the attachments.

Canisters may utilize a revolving brush like uprights in a cleaning tool known as a power head or power nozzle. The first type of canister has no power nozzle of any kind is called a straight suction canister and uses a variety of non-revolving brush floor and carpet tools to clean flooring.

The second type is a canister with a turbo or turbine power nozzle, which is a power nozzle with a revolving brush that is powered by the airflow created by the canister's suction motor.

The third type of canister features a power nozzle where a separate electric motor drives a revolving brush roll. This type of canister is often referred to as a power team.

Canisters are by far the most versatile vacuum cleaner design, offering outstanding performance on carpet and smooth floors as well as above the floor surfaces. Because the cleaning tools are used with a hose and wands, these vacuum cleaners are more maneuverable and easily able to get under most furniture and into tight spaces.

And, because canisters are designed to be used with attachments, they generally have more thoughtfully designed, highly functional attachments that perform a wide variety of above the floor cleaning tasks easily and effectively.

The Cleaning Environment

The next step is to evaluate the surfaces that you will be cleaning, starting with flooring. Is your home primarily wall-to-wall carpeting except for smooth floors (vinyl, wood, tile, marble, etc.) in bathrooms and kitchen? Or do you have large amounts of smooth floors, perhaps with area rugs?

Another important question is whether or not your home has stairs.

Also, are there any special above the floor cleaning requirements that might require specialized attachments? These might include high ceilings, elaborate light fixtures, ceiling fans, special collections and so on.

Choosing the Type of Vacuum Cleaner

With this information you can now decide on the type of vacuum cleaner you're looking for.

If your home has stairs, a canister or power team is the recommended type of vacuum cleaner. An upright is not designed to clean stairs by itself. And, even with attachments, attempting to clean stairs with an upright is awkward and the results are generally poor because you cannot use an upright's revolving brush on the stair treads, an area of high traffic.

If you do not have stairs, and if your home is primarily synthetic fiber (nylon, olefin or polyester) wall-to-wall carpeting, an upright with smooth floor cleaning ability and the necessary attachments to clean above the floor surfaces is a good choice.

However, many homes today feature a combination of smooth floors in a variety of materials, area rugs and some wall-to-wall carpeting. In these homes (or in homes with stairs) a canister or power team will provide the best results.

As mentioned above, there are three types of canister vacuum cleaners. A canister that has no power nozzle of any kind is called a straight suction canister. It is suitable for environments with very little or no carpet at all. If there is any carpet, the soiling conditions will be light to moderate, as this type of machine cannot be expected to do a good job removing soils from carpet pile.

The second type is a canister with a turbo or turbine power nozzle, which is a power nozzle with a revolving brush that is powered by the airflow created by the canister's suction motor. This type of canister is a good choice when soiling conditions are moderate or when the amount of carpet and rugs in the home is either not a large percentage of the flooring or has lower pile (the thickness of the carpet fibers), such as Berbers.

A canister with a turbo nozzle is also an excellent performer on the new woven area rugs made from natural fibers such as sisal, jute, coir, etc.

The third type of canister features a power nozzle where a separate electric motor drives the brush roll. This type of canister is often referred to as a power team and is ideal for homes with large amounts of carpet or rugs and standard to heavy soiling conditions, like pet hair. There are different types of power nozzles that are used for different types of carpet fibers and soiling conditions, which are discussed below.

Other Considerations

Once you have identified the type of vacuum cleaner you can begin look at these other considerations, which include the type of fibers used in the carpet or rugs; the amount of traffic and the types of soiling in the home; performance, durability, ease of use, filtration, noise level, capacity, storage, features and cost in order to narrow down your choices even further.

Carpet Fibers

The type of fibers that your carpet or rugs are made with will influence your choice of vacuum cleaner. Most carpeting today is made of synthetic fibers, primarily nylon, though olefin and polyester are also used. Synthetic fibers are very durable and you can use the most aggressive household vacuum cleaner without fear of fiber damage.

Natural fibers, however, must be treated more gently. The most common natural fiber used in wall-to-wall carpeting is wool, but this represents less than 1% of the wall-to-wall carpeting in the U.S. Where wool is very popular, however, is in area and Oriental rugs.

Wool is a very durable fiber and has been used for thousands of years to create rugs around the world, but it must be vacuumed with care. A revolving brush can be used on wool, but the bristles must be flexible and forgiving, perhaps not so densely backed on the brush roll, so as not to fuzz the yarns and prematurely wear the carpet.

Oriental rugs are most often wool but can also be made with silk. These rugs can vary in value from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars and more. Many Oriental rugs are sold for everyday use and can be cleaned with a good household vacuum cleaner with the type of flexible and forgiving bristles just mentioned.

However, if you have high value Oriental rugs, you will need to consider the age and condition of the rug, as well as the soiling conditions. High value rugs such as these often see very little traffic and are protected from heavy soiling. You may want to consider cleaning such rugs using a carpet and rug tool without a revolving brush, one that cleans only by suction.

Other natural fibers are also cropping up more and more, especially in area rugs. Most of these fibers are from plants and include sisal, sea grass, mountain grass, bamboo, coir, cotton, jute, viscose, and even leather! Many of these rugs are woven and quite durable but they will still require softer bristles on the vacuum cleaner used to clean them. Again, a canister with a turbo power nozzle can perform very well on these types of rugs.

If you own specialty rugs like these, check the manufacturer's recommended care instructions before purchasing a new vacuum cleaner.

Therefore, if you have synthetic fiber carpeting and/or rugs, you can select the most aggressive vacuum cleaner, whether upright or canister. If you have wool or other natural fiber carpeting or rugs, you'll need a power team with flexible and forgiving bristles to properly vacuum without damaging the fibers. The option of softer, more flexible bristles is available primarily on power team canisters but there are some uprights available with less aggressive bristles.

Traffic and Carpet Soils

The amount of traffic and the type of carpet soils also influence your choice of vacuum cleaner. Most carpet soils come in on the shoes of people and pets that enter the home. If you have a house full of kids and pets, you will have more carpet soils being brought into the home.

80% of carpet soils are dry soils with sharp edges that, left in the carpet and walked on, act as sandpaper, actually abrading the fibers and changing the light reflection, resulting in the appearance of traffic patterns that cause carpets to “ugly out” long before they actually wear out. This is why it is important to choose the right vacuum cleaner based on the amount of traffic and types of soils encountered.

If you have synthetic fiber carpeting and/or rugs and high traffic and the resulting heavier soil load, choose a vacuum cleaner with aggressive bristles on the revolving brush. Vacuum cleaners with dense, stiff bristles as well as a beater bar function (there are many designs that accomplish this) are excellent to bring these dry soils up from the carpet pile where they can be brushed from the surface of the carpet and vacuumed away.

Another dry soil that won't abrade your fiber but is one of the most pervasive is dog and cat hair. Pet hair is best removed by using a revolving brush with stiff, densely packed brushes.

If your home has low traffic and no special soiling conditions, you can choose a less aggressive vacuum cleaner and maintain your home perfectly well. However, the general rule of thumb is to choose the most aggressive vacuum cleaner that your carpet and rug fibers can safely tolerate.

Vacuum Cleaner Performance

You will certainly want to evaluate the performance, or cleaning ability, of the vacuum cleaners you are considering. Determining performance or cleaning ability requires evaluating a range of vacuum cleaner specifications such as watts, amps, volts, water lift (or sealed suction), horsepower, air watts, and airflow.

You can click here to read an article devoted to understanding these and other vacuum cleaner specifications.

But to summarize, whether you are looking for an upright or canister, look for amp ratings between 10 and 12 amps or wattage ratings between 1200 and 1440 watts. (Most vacuum cleaners are rated in either amps or watts, not usually both. For detailed information about comparing watts and amps, see the article referenced above.)

Even more important than amps and watts ratings are airflow (the most important of all) and sealed suction (listed on vacuum cleaner specifications as “water lift”). On canister vacuum cleaners (with or without power heads) airflow of 100 CFM or more and water lift of 90 inches or more is recommended.

Upright vacuum cleaners come in a wide variety of configurations, but there are two basic designs. The first is the “Direct Air” or “Dirty Air” design where the dirt passes through the motor prior to any filtration en route to the dust bag. Dirty air uprights are only rated in amps.

The second basic design is one that features a by-pass motor where unfiltered air does not go through the motor. In uprights with this design, only filtered or completely clean room air passes through the motor in order to cool it. By-pass uprights will usually provide airflow but not water lift specifications and a high performing upright will offer 60 CFM or better.

There is no need for water lift ratings on both types of uprights, because there is so little distance for the air and soil to travel. CFM ratings do not have to be as high as canisters for the same reason.

Many uprights will not offer airflow ratings at all and will only rate the motor in terms of amps. This only measures the electrical consumption of the motor, which is not a measure of cleaning ability. Still, when comparing different vacuum cleaners of this type, amp ratings are better than nothing.

When you choose a vacuum cleaner with excellent airflow and water lift specifications, you are well on your way to a machine with outstanding cleaning ability.

You will also want to select the appropriate attachments or cleaning tools that will easily remove the soils from the carpeting, smooth floors and above the floor surfaces in your home.

Filtration

An important, but often overlooked, element of cleaning ability is the capability of the vacuum cleaner to retain the soils, and especially the fine particulates, that it picks up.

If a vacuum cleaner does not offer high levels of filtration, these fine particles can simply go right through the vacuum cleaner and are returned to the room air, where they settle as dust.

And, if anyone in your home suffers from allergies, asthma or any other health condition that is impacted by fine particles or allergens in the indoor air, a high filtration or HEPA filtration vacuum cleaner is strongly recommended.

Click here to learn all about selecting HEPA filtration vacuum cleaners.

Quality and Durability

The quality of your vacuum cleaner is also important and will determine whether your vacuum cleaner will be replaced in a year or two or will last for many years and even decades.

When evaluating durability, evaluate the quality of the construction. Look for solid components of good quality as opposed to flimsy or brittle appearing materials. Look for good fit and finish without rough edges. The seals should be heavy duty and components that open and close should do so with a nice solid feel.

Generally, mass-market, low-priced products are not designed for long-term use. Once you compare a mass-market vacuum cleaner to those made by companies specializing in high-quality, long lasting ones, the differences will be obvious.

Another indication of quality and durability can also be partially determined by the length and specifics of the warranty.

Ease of Use

No matter how great a vacuum cleaner might be in terms of specifications, it must also be easy to use. Think about what you don't like about your current vacuum cleaner and look for a new one that eliminates those problems.

Consider whether you have any specific issues concerning weight or personal preferences concerning uprights versus canister vacuum cleaners. If there are specific reasons for buying a new vacuum cleaner, remember to be sure that your new one provides solutions to these cleaning challenges.

But, regardless of the specifics of your situation, the vacuum cleaner you choose should feel good in your hand and not be fatiguing to use. It should maneuver easily and be able to get under your furniture.

Noise Level

Noise is also a significant consideration. Some vacuum cleaners can be so noisy that they're almost unbearable to use. Many good vacuum cleaners can operate at levels that are quite comfortable and will allow you to hear the phone or doorbell ring quite easily.

The amount of noise a vacuum makes while operating is rated in decibels (dB). To give you some idea, a conversation at home is rated at 50dB, a garbage disposal at 80 dB and a motorcycle or lawnmower at 100 dB. Extremely quiet vacuum cleaners can operate at decibel levels in the mid-sixties while cleaners in the 70-77 dB range are still very quiet compared to the vacuum cleaner you grew up with.

Capacity

The capacity of a vacuum cleaner relates to the size of the dust bag. The bigger the dust bag, the less often it needs to be changed.

If you have a large home and/or lots of traffic (think kids and pets) this means that you will have larger amounts of soil to remove. In this case, consider a full-sized vacuum cleaner. This way, you won't have the inconvenience and additional cost of constantly changing the paper bag.

Storage

Some homes have plenty of storage space and some don't have an inch to spare. If storage space is at a premium in your home, be sure to give some thought to where you will store your new vacuum cleaner. Will it fit in the space where you stored your last one?

There are a wide variety of sizes of vacuum cleaners, both uprights and canisters, and you can find the right one that will fit in the storage space you have available.

Features

You will also need to decide whether the vacuum cleaner you're considering has all or most of the features that you need for effective and pleasant cleaning.

Be sure that the vacuum cleaner you choose gives you everything to make the chore of vacuuming as easy as possible. Does it feature a cord rewind, variable speed controls, on-board tool storage, height adjustable wands, an adequate cleaning radius, the proper tools for your flooring such as a soft brush for your slate entry tiles and so on.

Cost

And, last but not least, you need a vacuum cleaner that represents the very best value. If you follow the information listed here, you will get the right vacuum cleaner for your home and family regardless of the price point. As with everything, better quality usually costs a bit more, but is often worth it in the long run.

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