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Vacuum cleaners

Vacuum cleaner buying guide

Last updated: July 2014

Getting started

Sleek shapes and trendy colors such as sienna, taupe, and goldenrod are turning some of the latest vacuums into fashion statements. Our tough tests of more than 100 models show that when it comes to cleaning, beauty can be more than skin-deep.

Our tests using more than 16 miles of carpet and floors also show that some pricey vacuums deliver less than their price tag suggests, and some of the lightest models are light on performance or features.

How to choose

Start by matching the type to your cleaning. Uprights, especially with a bag, do best overall on carpets. Canisters are easier to maneuver, particularly on stairs. Here's what else to consider before you buy:

Check the features. A brush on/off switch helps protect the finish of bare floors and avoid scattered debris. A motorized brush cleans carpets better than only suction. Also helpful: manual pile-height adjustment, which can be matched to carpets better than with automatic, and suction control for cleaning draperies and other delicate fabrics with tools.

Consider bagless carefully. Bagless vacuums save on the cost of bags but still require filters and need periodic cleaning and--for HEPA filter--replacing. And the dust and mess of emptying their bins is a concern if you have asthma or allergies, though even bags much be handled gently.

Try it out. Even if you'll order online, go to a store first. Push, pull, turn, and lift models you're considering. Check out the controls and features. If an online price is low, see if the store will match it.

Know about the noise. The noisiest vacuums we tested still don't produce 85 decibels, the level at which we recommend hearing protection, but any vacuum will seem louder in a room with a lot of echo, such as a tiled bathroom. Canister vacuums as a group tend to be quieter.

Types

Before you buy a new vacuum, learn about the different types of vacuums on the market. While one type might have features that appeal to you, it might not fit your budget or your lifestyle.

Upright vacuums


This traditional design is still the most popular. Uprights tend to cost less than canister vacuums.

Pros:

Uprights generally provide a wider cleaning swath than canisters, and they tend to be better at deep-cleaning carpets--particularly bagged models. Most are also easier to store.

Cons:

You must drag the entire machine back and forth for most floor and carpet cleaning. Some top performers weigh 20 pounds or more, although many competent machines are much lighter. Uprights also tend to be noisier than canisters overall.

Canister vacuums


The best ones clean carpets just about as well as uprights. (Pet owners note: The uprights and canisters that did best at regular cleaning also tended to excel at picking up pet hair.)

Pros:

Canisters tend to be better than uprights for cleaning bare floors, drapes, upholstery, and under furniture, and they're easier to handle on stairs. Most are quieter, and you mostly need to move only the hose and powerhead, not the entire machine.

Cons:

The entire vacuum tends to be heavier and bulkier than an upright, and the hose and wand make a canister harder to store.

Central vacuums


Although they're convenient, central vacuums are pricey, and they typically require professional installation.

Pros:

They're even easier to use than a canister. You carry only the hose and powerhead, and there's no vacuum body to pull along. Central vacuums tend to be relatively quiet, and they don't need to be emptied frequently.

Cons:

Their 30-foot hose can be cumbersome and takes up storage space. And there's no place to store cleaning tools while you work.

Hand vacuums

These miniature electric models come with or without a power cord.

Pros:

They're handy for light, quick surface cleaning on short-pile carpets and bare floors; some can handle pet hair on upholstery. They're also useful for cleaning up your car's interior.

Cons:

They lack the power and capacity of full-sized models.

Robotic vacuums


Earlier models we tested were more expensive novelties than practical appliances, but the category is growing up, with smarter circuitry and more flexibility. A few of the newest models can also be controlled by an app on your smartphone.

Pros:

Do the grunge work while you relax. In uncluttered rooms, a robotic vacuum can fill in between regular vacuuming sessions. The better models can find their way out of tight spots and around extension cords. And all can now be programmed not to run when guests or small children are around.

Cons:

No robotic vacuum can match the deep cleaning you'll get from the best uprights and canisters. We also suggest you think twice about any robotic vacuum if you have shag carpeting or area rugs.

Stick vacuums


Stick vacuums generally provide smaller capacities than upright models but they do weigh much less. Like uprights, they have long bodies and handles, and foot nozzles. Many are battery powered. They are mainly for picking up surface litter and not a replacement for a good performing deep cleaning conventional vacuum.

Pros:

They're convenient when you need to quickly clean up a mess. Plus, they eliminate your having to bend to clean up a dirty floor.

Cons:

Most don't perform as well on carpet as handheld vacuums, the capacity of their dirt bin is typically small, and most are fairly noisy. And while some can double as hand vacuums, these models had mostly unimpressive results.

Features


Some vacuum cleaner features improve performance or take some of the drudgery out of cleaning. But don't be dazzled by gadgets. Here are the vacuum features to consider.

Add-on cleaning tools


Think twice about splurging on extra cleaning tools. Most vacuums come with a narrow tool for crevices, a small upholstery brush, and a round brush for dusting. On canister vacuums, a power nozzle cleans carpets more thoroughly than a simple suction nozzle. These basic tools should suffice for most cleaning jobs. Others may include: tools that combine features of two tools, such as upholstery tools and dusting brushes; bare-floor tools and wall brushes to clean hard surfaces; and wands and stretch hoses to extend the reach of attachments.

Attachment reach

This is the manufacturer's estimate of the combined length of the suction hose and all the hose-extension attachments provided with the machine.

Bags vs. bagless


Some upright vacuums and canisters use bags, some collect dirt in a bin. Bag-type vacuums tend to hold more dirt, and emptying them releases less dust into the air. An indicator that tells you when the bag or bin is full reminds you to empty the dirt before it impairs cleaning. With bagless vacuums you can save money by not having to buy bags, but they still use filters (such as HEPA filters) that need to be periodically cleaned or replaced. Replacement filters tend to be significantly more expensive than bags. Another caveat: Emptying the dustbin and cleaning a filter can be messy, and handling it can expose you to dust and other allergens.

Bare-floor options

These include equipment and features that can help when cleaning hardwood, vinyl, and other uncarpeted floor surfaces. Most common are an on/off switch for the vacuum's brush; other options include a bare-floor setting, which is usually a very low-height setting for uncovered floors.

Brush agitator

Also known as the roller brush, it is found underneath the machine. This roller has bristles attached to it and spans the width of the base. It spins when the machine is on and dislodges dirt, dust, and grit from the carpet so that the airflow can pick it up easily. Some models have a switch to turn the brush agitator off when cleaning bare floors; a rotating brush on a bare floor can move dirt and debris around before it can be sucked up. The switch also makes it less likely that throw rugs, bedspreads, and the like will inadvertently become tangled in the roller brush. And it eliminates any hazard should the vacuum tip over while you have the hose extended.

Carpet-height adjustment

This feature adjusts the height of the machine's brush roll to a carpet's pile height to allow for easy movement and thorough cleaning. Adjustments are automatic on some models, but we've found manual control more precise.

Dirt sensor

Found on only a few models, this feature can detect when the vacuum is no longer picking up dirt. As our tests have demonstrated, however, that doesn't necessarily mean there's no dirt or debris left to be picked up.

Easy on/off

A switch that's located on the handle or where your foot can activate it is more convenient than one on the body of the vacuum.

Filter


A growing number of vacuums are claimed to do a better-than-standard job of filtering out fine particles that may pass through the machine and escape into the air through the exhaust, either through the bag or a separate filter. Micron filters can provide a higher level of filtration than standard models, but possibly not as high as high-efficiency particulate-air (HEPA) filtration. HEPA filtration might benefit someone with asthma. It provides the highest level of vacuum-cleaner filtration. In our tests, models with a HEPA filter have been very effective at reducing emissions. Some models that don't have HEPA filters, however, have performed just as well in our tests, and such vacuums may cost less than HEPA models.

Edge cleaner

Models with this feature, including most uprights and some canisters, can pick up debris under the entire area of the cleaning head. That's useful when cleaning wall-to-wall carpeting--the vacuum can clean right up to where the carpet meets the wall.

Full-container indicator

Some models have a feature that alerts the user when the dust bag or container is full, which impairs the vacuum's ability to clean. Some bagless models simply have a clear bin, letting you see when the vacuum is full. Other models have an electronic or mechanical indicator.

Headlight

A headlight (or headlamp) improves visibility under furniture or in rooms without direct light. It's all but standard on most upright models and is positioned on the power head of some canister vacuums.

Motor protection system

This serves to protect a vacuum's blower motor from overheating or electrically overloading, particularly when jammed.

Retractable cord

A feature more common in canisters, it lets you rewind the cord with a slight tug or the push of a button. Most machines have an electrical cord of at least 20 feet; some cords are longer than 30 feet, which we think is a plus. A cord-release clip, found mostly on upright models, allows the entire cord to be released at once, rather than one wrap at a time.

Self-propelled

This feature typically uses a transmission and drive system to assist the pushing and pulling of the vacuum, thereby requiring little effort by the user. The down side: It typically adds weight that can make some vacuums very heavy and difficult to carry or use on stairs.

Suction control

Lets you reduce the flow of air through the hose, which can be helpful when cleaning upholstery and curtains.

Brands

Bissell arrow  |  Dirt Devil arrow  |  Dyson arrow  |  Eureka arrow  |  Hoover arrow  |  Kenmore arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Miele arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Sebo arrow

Sometimes you might decide to buy a vacuum based on brand as opposed to a specific model. Here is information that will help you compare vacuums by brand.

Bissell

Bissell vacuums are available at a wide variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Walmart, Target, and Kmart. Upright models tend to be moderately priced, typically ranging from about $40 to $270. Bissell also makes hand and stick vacuums, canisters, upright deep cleaners, and bare-floor cleaners, among other products, and carpet-care products under the Woolite brand. Bissell canisters cost about $50 to $230. But upright vacuums are this company's focus, with many more models available.

Dirt Devil

Dirt Devil floor-care products focus on affordability and convenience. Part of TTI Floor Care, the Dirt Devil brand is available at a wide variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Walmart, Target, and Kmart. Upright models typically range from $40 to $250. Some of the brand's upright vacuums are among the lighter models sold. Dirt Devil also makes canister vacuums, hand and stick models, deep cleaners, and central vacuums. Canister models typically range from $80 to $150. But uprights are clearly its focus, with many more models available.

Dyson

Colorful styling, innovative features, and a splashy advertising campaign featuring its namesake owner and designer have helped Dyson quickly become a major player in the U.S. Ranging in price from about $300 to $600, Dyson vacuums have helped increase the average price paid for uprights. Canisters have joined that lineup. Hand vacs are also part of the mix. The brand is available nationwide through major mass merchants such as Target, Best Buy, and Sears.

Eureka

Eureka sells a wide array of models marketed to address different needs, including pesky pet hair. Uprights typically range from $50 to $200. You'll find this national brand in a variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Walmart, Target, and Kmart. Eureka also makes hand and stick vacuums, canister models, deep cleaners, and central vacuums. Canister models typically range from about $60 to $260 and are available through a more-targeted selection of retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Lowe's.

Hoover

Hoover introduced its first vacuum in 1907 and has established itself as one of the most recognizable brands in America. More recently, Hoover was bought from Whirlpool by TTI Floor Care, the owners of Dirt Devil. Hoover sells a wide variety of uprights at mass-market retailers, with models ranging from as little as $50 to $300. It also makes hand and stick vacuums, canister models (about $80 to $300), deep cleaners, central vacuums, bare-floor cleaners, and an outdoor sweeper, though the company is best known for its uprights.

Kenmore

Once exclusive to Sears, Kenmore uprights are now available in Kmart stores as a result of a merger of the retailers. Kenmore uprights typically range in price from about $80 to $300. Kenmore is the best-selling canister brand, with a wide array of models ranging from as little as $50 to $600 or so. It also offers canister hard-surface cleaners and a carpet shampooer.

LG

An established name in electronics, LG has also become a major brand in vacuums and other appliances in a relatively short time. LG focuses its uprights and canisters on bagless technology. LG vacuums are priced from about $250 to $550 and are sold at leading national retailers, such as Sears, Best Buy, and Amazon.

Miele

This German appliance manufacturer is family-owned and run, and has been making vacuum cleaners since the late 1920s. In the U.S., Miele vacuums are primarily sold through small, independent vacuum retailers, though the brand's retail distribution now includes Bed, Bath & Beyond and Amazon. Miele focuses on high-end, well-featured upright and canister models, with prices typically ranging from about $300 to $1,000.

Panasonic

Established in Japan almost a century ago, Panasonic has been making home appliances since the 1920s. Panasonic has been in the U.S. for more than 50 years, focusing on electronics and appliances, including vacuums. Panasonic makes uprights and canisters priced from about $150 to $500. They're sold at small, independent vacuum dealers, and national chain stores such as Sears and Walmart.

Sebo

Founded in the 1970s, this German company began selling commercial vacuums in the U. S. in 1979 before entering the consumer market. Its high-end vacuums are available through the company's national distributor network of independent vacuum retailers and online. Sebo uprights and canisters typically range from about $400 to $1,000.

   

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