Vacuums

Fancy features and a high price don’t necessarily mean better cleaning. You’ll find plenty of less-flashy performers at a reasonable price.

Which type of vacuum cleaner to buy used to be a no-brainer. Uprights were clearly better for carpets, while canisters were the obvious choice for bare floors. That distinction has blurred somewhat as more upright models clean floors without scattering dust and more canisters do a very good job with carpeting. Central vacuum systems, an increasingly popular third option, add a measure of convenience, along with higher prices.

You’ll also see a growing number of features such as dirt sensors and bagless dirt bins, but some of those features may contribute more to price than to function, while other, more essential features may be missing from the least-expensive models. And while cordless and even robotic vacuums have joined your list of choices, neither have been top performers so far.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Hoover, the oldest and largest vacuum manufacturer, is a division of Maytag and offers roughly 75 models priced from $50 to $400 as well as central vacuum systems priced higher. Many of Hoover’s conventional models are similar, with minor differences in features; the “variety” is mostly in the marketing and retailer distribution. Some Hoover machines are made exclusively for retail chain stores. Kenmore is the biggest name for canister models, accounting for about 25 percent of U.S. sales.

Other players include Dirt Devil, which sells uprights and canisters as well as stick brooms and hand vacuums; Eureka, which offers low-priced models, central vacs, and high-end Electrolux-branded models; Bissell, a mostly mass-marketed brand; Dyson, a British brand, which recently introduced a canister to its brightly colored line up; and brands such as Miele, Panasonic, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, and Simplicity, which are likely to be sold at specialty stores. Higher-priced Aerus (which also makes central vacs) and Oreck models are sold in their own stores and by direct mail, while upscale Kirby and Rainbow models are still sold door-to-door.

Along with a vacuum’s brand, your choices include several types:

Uprights. These tend to be the least expensive. Their one-piece design also makes them easier to store than canister vacs. A top-of-the-line upright might have a wider cleaning path, be self-propelled, and have a HEPA filter, dirt sensor, and full-bag indicator. Price range for most: $50 to $400.

Canister vacuums. These tend to do well on bare floors because they allow you to turn off the brush or use a specialized tool to avoid scattering dirt. Most are quieter than uprights, and their long, flexible hose tends to make them better at cleaning on stairs and in hard-to-reach areas.  The added clutter of the loose hose and wand makes canisters somewhat harder to store, however. While canister vacs still tend to cost the most, you’ll find a growing number of lower-priced models. Price range for most: $150 to $500.

Central vac systems. They clean like a canister vac without your having to push, pull, or carry the motor and body around. They’re also relatively quiet, and require less-frequent emptying. But they’re the most expensive option, and generally require professional installation. The 35-foot hose can be cumbersome, and there’s no place to carry tools while you work. Price range: $500 to $1,250 for the unit including tools, plus $300 to $750 to install.

Stick vacs and hand vacs. Whether corded or cordless, these miniature vacuums typically lack the power of a full-sized vacuum cleaner. But they can be handy for small, quick jobs. Price range: $20 to $100.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Typical attachments include crevice and upholstery tools. Most vacuums also include extension wands for reaching high places. A full-bag alert can be handy, since an overstuffed bag impairs a vacuum’s ability to clean.

Lately, many uprights have adopted a bagless configuration with a see-through dirt bin that replaces the usual bag. Performance has improved for bagless vacs, though emptying their bins can raise enough dust to concern even those without allergies. You’ll also find dirt-collection bins on most stick vacs and hand vacs. Some of these have a revolving brush, which may help remove surface debris from a carpet. Stick vacs can hang on a hook or, if they’re cordless, on a wall-mounted charger base.

Canister vacuums we’ve tested have a power nozzle that cleans carpets more thoroughly than a simple suction nozzle. Look for a suction-control feature; found on most canisters and some uprights, it allows you to reduce airflow for drapes and other delicate fabrics. On uprights, also look for an on/off switch for the brush if you plan to use attachments. Stopping the brush protects the user from injury, the power cord from damage, and your furnishings from undue wear. Some uprights automatically stop the brush when the handle is in the “up” position.

Most canisters and a few uprights have a retractable cord that rewinds with a tug or push of a button--a plus, considering the 20- to 30-foot length for most. Another worthwhile feature is manual pile-height adjustment, which can improve cleaning by letting you match the vacuum’s height to the carpet pile more effectively than machines that adjust automatically. While a self-propelled mode takes the push out of more and more uprights, it can make them heavier and harder to transport.

Midpriced accessory kits for central vacs typically include an electrically powered cleaning head--a must for carpets--as well as a floor brush, crevice tool, upholstery brush, dusting brush, and extension wands. Spending more gets you more tools, a premium powerhead, and a longer hose. A sound-deadening muffler, installed in the exhaust air pipe near the central-vac base unit, comes on some models but can be added to any model for about $10 to $25. Most central vacs have a suction switch at the wand’s handle so you can turn the vacuum unit on and off where you’re standing.

Some vacuums have a dirt sensor that triggers a light indicator when the concentration of dirt particles in the machine’s air stream reaches a certain level. But the sensor signals only that the vacuum is no longer picking up dirt, not whether there’s dirt left in your rug. That can result in your vacuuming longer and working harder with little or no more cleanliness.

You’ll also hear lots of claims about microfiltration, which typically uses a bag with smaller pores or a second, electrostatic filter that supplements the standard motor filter in an attempt to capture fine particles that may pass through the bag or filter and escape into the air through the exhaust. Some vacuums have a HEPA filter, which may benefit someone with asthma. But many models without a HEPA filter have performed just as well in Consumer Reports emissions tests, since the amount of dust emitted depends as much on the design of the entire machine as on its filter.

A vacuum’s design can also affect how long it lasts. With some uprights, for example, dirt sucked into the machine passes through the blower fan before entering the bag--a potential problem because most fans are plastic and vulnerable to damage from hard objects. Better systems filter dirt through the bag before it reaches the fan. While hard objects can lodge in the motorized brush, they’re unlikely to break the fan.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Some of the best vacuums cost $350 or less. But you might be willing to spend more for models with other strengths. Here’s what to think about at the store:

Match the vacuum to your cleaning. Most uprights are still better than canisters for carpets. They also cost less and are easier to store. Canisters tend to be better for cleaning drapes, upholstery, and under furniture, are more stable on stairs.

Consider suction. Look for models that performed well in our airflow tests if you often clean with tools. These maintained more suction through the hose as they filled with dust, reducing the need to change bags and empty bins.

Pick your features. Models with bags tend to hold more than bagless vacs and create less dust when emptying. A brush on/off switch allows you to turn off the brush on floors and delicate rugs, and reduces dust and the risk of thrown objects when using tools. Manual pile-height adjustment can improve carpet cleaning by letting you raise or lower the powerhead. 

Don’t be dazzled by gadgets. Most vacuums include a narrow crevice tool, a small brush for upholstery, and a round one for dusting--enough for most users. Hand tools with powered brushes tend to add little over nonpowered tools when removing pet hair from upholstery.

Try before buying. Weight can be critical if your arms aren’t strong or your home has more than one level. Self-propelled uprights ease pushing and pulling, though their added heft makes lifting and storing more challenging.

Protect your ears and lungs. Vacuums that scored a poor in our noise tests produced the 85 decibels or more at which we recommend ear protection. If you’re sensitive to dust, choose a model that scored well in emissions. Also consider avoiding bagless models or wearing a dust mask when emptying their bins.

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any sponsor or advertiser of BabyCenter. Copyright © 2001-2005 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.