Vacuum buying guide
Ah, the vacuum. That extremely useful hunk o' plastic that's relegated to a utility closet for most of its life. Yes, I admit it: I have a love-hate relationship with vacuums. Sure, they clean the floor, but these home appliances can also be guilty of a number of offenses that make even the most basic clean-ups a major pain. Some are noisy and heavy and have too few or too many accessories. Others come with bins that are a challenge to empty or bags with hard-to-find replacements -- you get the idea.
Basically, there are a lot of potential annoyances you can run into and it's not like any of us need another excuse not to break out the vacuum. On top of that, today's market has expanded to include a bunch of different vacuum categories. So how do you narrow down your options to find something durable that's easy to use and cleans well? Well, by reading this buying guide, of course.
Vacuums, vacuums everywhere
The beauty of vacuum shopping is that there's almost definitely a machine out there to fit your lifestyle. The problem with vacuum shopping is that there are tons of options and it can be difficult to zero in on that perfect model. I mean, you can find upright, canister, robot, handheld, stick, and even convertible vacuums that can be both upright and canister or both handheld and stick (depending on the configuration). So, here's a rundown of the top vacuum styles, their key features, and details about what type of cleaning is best suited for each one.
Upright vacuums are the most common style found in homes today. As you likely guessed, they sit in an upright position, so they are a great option if you don't want to bend over a lot. Typically, they have a foot lever you press to change the angle of the machine for increased maneuverability. Features can vary a lot, but one decision you will definitely have to make is whether to get a model that collects dust in a bin or in a bag.
Average price: $49-$679
Average weight: 14-17 pounds
Key features: Upright position, bins or bags collect debris, typically comes with accessories, including a wand for corners or stairs. Many can transition between carpet and bare floors.
Takeaway: Best if you have the space to store something tall. They typically weigh more than other models, so an upright stick vacuum might be a good lighter-weight alternative. Bagless vacuums are generally more expensive, reaching average prices near $700, whereas bagged models rarely exceed $300.
Canister vacuums are also popular. They are a bit more versatile than uprights, because you can lift the canister and take it wherever you want to go. They are known for working well on stairs, because you can carry the canister and use the long wand extender to tackle each level with ease.
Average price: $59-$899
Average weight: 8-13 pounds
Key features: Most offer the same or similar cleaning options as uprights, but with increased mobility.
Takeaway: They are lighter than uprights, but you still have to be comfortable lifting at least 8 pounds. You'll also have to bend over to push the canister around the house (or you can use the wand to pull it, but you'll have less control over the movements). The long wands and cords get tangled more easily, and might be a more difficult to store because the hose and wand don't snap to the canister.
Robot vacuums may seem like a novelty, but they actually do a lot to keep your floors clean. Just let 'em go, and they bounce around your carpeted and bare floors to tidy up your messes.
Average price: $89-$599
Average weight: Typically under 10 pounds
Key features: Battery-powered with docking station, cordless, sensor-controlled, automated via scheduling feature, various cleaning modes, many can clean both carpets and bare floors.
Takeaway: This is a great supplement to regular vacuuming. If you hate vacuuming and have the money, use a robot vacuum so you can wait longer between each full-scale vacuum session.
These little mini-vacs are great for smaller jobs. Some are cordless, so they work well for quick and easy cleaning or as compact on-the-go option for RV owners. It's also a great supplement if your main vacuum doesn't offer many attachments or if you'd rather not pull out your whole vacuum every time you spot a mess.
Average price: $17-$199
Average weight: About 5 pounds
Key features: Lightweight and incredibly easy to store. Some are cordless.
Takeaway: Great option for small spaces and easy lifting. Cordless models can also clean your car, boat, and so on.
The Stick vacuum is similar to the upright but without any added attachments or accessories. It's about as streamlined as it gets, and therefore easier to store and lighter weight. These models typically run on batteries, so they can go where corded vacuums can't. They also tend to be less powerful than their upright counterparts.
Average price: $29-$349
Average weight: Typically under 10 pounds
Key features: Lightweight, often cordless and battery-powered, can transition from carpet to hardwood.
Takeaway: Great if you want something that can handle light debris. A good lightweight option for those with limited arm strength.
As if vacuums weren't already confusing enough, some models are convertible. That means that they can do more than one thing. For example, the Eureka vacuum pictured above can work as a stick or a handheld vacuum, and the Shark Rotator Pro Lift-Away model I recently reviewed is an upright vacuum that can convert into a canister vacuum. These models tend to offer a great value since you're getting more options; a two-for-one, if you will.
Average weight: Varies
Key features: Extra accessories and attachments, extremely versatile.
Takeaway:If you know you want an upright, but also want to regularly vacuum stairs, a convertible canister model like the Shark Rotator Pro Lift-Away makes sense rather than buying two separate machines. Or if you think the attachments on an upright won't tackle your detailed dusting, you can get a stick and a handheld model like the Eureka.
In addition to the different types of vacuum models available today, there are a couple of other things you ought to think about before making a final decision.
Bag vs. bagless modelsIf you're buying an upright or a canister vacuum, you will have to opt for disposable bags or a reusable bin. Bags tend to hold more dust, but it's much harder to tell how full the bag is without removing it completely from the vacuum. Bags also release less dust into the air during disposal, but you have to deal with buying replacements fairly regularly.
Dust bin models have been increasing in popularity ever since James Dyson invented the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum in the 1980s. The bins are transparent, making it easier to tell when they're full -- and you can empty and reuse them countless times. You may still have to replace the filter, though, which is more expensive, but less frequent than buying bags. Both bag and bin models are widely available, so it's really a matter of preference here.
Do you really need a HEPA filter?Many vacuums today come with a dedicated HEPA filter. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. That may sound fancy, but it really just means that it removes harmful allergens like mold, smoke, or dust from the air. All filters do that to some extent, but the more expensive HEPA variety must trap at least 99.97 percent of particles to be considered the real deal. Take that, allergens.
If you have asthma or allergies, or are just generally concerned with air quality, a vacuum with a HEPA filter might be worth your consideration. Many of them are removable and can be cleaned with water until they need to be replaced. This might all sound really good, but some non-HEPA models can do just as well as their High Efficiency Particulate Air counterparts. So do your research -- emission reduction can vary a lot.
Vacuum buying can seem daunting. Prices can climb quickly, and there are a ton of different models available. Think about the type of cleaning you do on a regular basis. Have a pet that sheds a lot? You may want a model that offers attachments for dusting and getting hair that's stuck under furniture or in crevices. Hate vacuuming, but want a clean house? A robot vacuum could really lessen your work load. Want something like an upright that's lighter weight? Consider a stick model. It's really all about the job you need to get done. But don't be overwhelmed, there's a good vacuum at every price level and if you think you need an expensive Dyson to get a clean floor, think again.