Shopping for vacuum cleaners.

Shopping for vacuum cleaners.

Shopping for vacuum cleaners.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 8 2003 12:58 PM

Suck It! Suck It Good! Suck It All, Baby!

Which vacuum cleaner is best?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

You knew the unavoidable "suck" joke was coming. I'd hoped to hold off until the second paragraph, but, as you see, I couldn't make it past the headline. It sang to me—so base, so facile—and I was weak. Let's just move on.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

To find out which vacuum cleaner is best, I tested eight different models that varied widely in cost and design. Which should you buy? First off, any vacuum purchase requires a few big decisions, which include:

Upright or Canister?

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Uprights are the tall, vertical, one-piece vacuums you push with a handle. Canisters consist of a little module you pull around on wheels behind you. Uprights excel on wide tundras of open carpet. Canisters, with their myriad nozzle attachments, do their best work high up in a jungle of bookshelves and drapes. ("Above-floor cleaning," they call this in the biz.)

Both types will do a fine all-around job. But personally, I'm an upright fan. Dragging around a canister makes me feel like I've been harnessed—like I'm a husky hauling a teeny little sled across my carpet.

Bagged or Bagless?

The current industry schism. Both systems suck air the same way—the difference is just a matter of whether the dirt inside that air gets trapped in a disposable bag or (with bagless) in a reusable container.

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Bags have ruled the market for decades, but their days may be numbered; bagless seems to be rapidly gaining ground. Even Hoover, for years an old-guard bagged stalwart, has recently rushed to meet rising demand with a new line of bagless models. Ultimately, bagged-to-bagless may be among the great consumer paradigm shifts of our age—up there with wired-to-wireless and granny-panties-to-thongs.

So, how to choose? Well, a thong leaves no visible lines under your dress. As for bagless vacuums, the advantages are:

1) The containers are see-through, which means you can easily see when a bagless vacuum has had its fill of dirt and needs to be dumped. With a bag you have to check all the time, opening up the vacuum and kneading the bag with your hands, and you often feel like you're guessing.

2) It's a hassle and an expense (perhaps $50 per year depending on how much you vacuum) to buy new bags, and it's a pain in the bedonkadonk to install them (which, again depending on use, could be every few weeks).

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3) There's the environmental angle, I suppose, what with all that disposable paper.

In the end, I prefer a good bagless. It's just easier. To quote a call to arms I read on one online vacuum chat board: "GET RID OF THE BAG, GET RID OF THE PROBLEM!"

HEPA or Not HEPA

It's an allergies thing. HEPA means high-efficiency particle arrest. A HEPA-certified vacuum filter will trap even very fine dust, preventing it from escaping back out into your house. This is good news if you have allergies. If you don't have any allergies, though, you likely won't notice any difference. And if you've got truly horrid, eye-reddening, snot-pumping allergies, well, you should probably go ahead and splurge for a central vacuum system. (With this system, the motor and filter are installed in one place outside your house, and you plug your vacuum hose into various permanent outlets within.) A central vacuum sucks fine dust out permanently, so there's no chance that it will escape back into the room.

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And Now, on to the Testing

I set myself up in the carpeted conference room of Slate's D.C. bureau, surrounded by my eight test vacuums, and devised the following challenges:

1) I dropped animal crackers on the floor and ground them in with the heel of my shoe, to see which vacs could pry crumbs from the carpet fibers.

2) I collected hair clumps from a friend's shedding dog and mashed them into the carpet with the palm of my hand, to see which vacs could pick up pet hair.

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3) I dropped fistfuls of pennies on the carpet, to see what sort of havoc they might wreak on vacuum innards.

4) I plugged in and ran four vacuums at a time, which a) allowed me to judge their suction power side by side; b) created a roar akin to a midflight RAF jet; c) blew a fuse in the conference room, causing a power outage.

5) I dumped out, and then vacuumed up, piles of Official American Household Dirt that I had ordered. This mix of 90 percent silica and 10 percent talc was determined by the American Society of Testing and Materials to offer a blend of large and small particles, thus accurately capturing the nature of dirt from the typical American household. Samples of this dirt were mailed to me in small plastic baggies, which were in turn packaged in a plain brown envelope. As I opened this package, having forgotten what I ordered, possibilities buzzed through my brain. Anthrax? (That would be quite unlucky.) High-quality cocaine? (That would be quite lucky.) And then the realization that this was, in fact, dirt. (Ah, yes, that seems just about my luck.)

I also spent the past few weeks browsing online vacuum chat boards. People who post on these boards fall fairly neatly into three groups: lonely heartland housewives (whose husbands are invariably in Iraq on active duty); obsessive collectors of rare vacuums, like vintage Rainbows and Electroluxes (who seem to be overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly non-heterosexual); and lastly, people who just like to think and talk about vacuums. This last group fascinates me—I find them equal parts beautiful and sad.

I didn't learn much from these chat boards, as many threads quickly turned into fights over who slept with whom at the vacuum-collectors conference. (Honestly, I saw this happen repeatedly.) But I should note that one vacuum line I neglected to test received universal praise: Everyone was impressed with low-end ($100 or so) Panasonics. I couldn't get Panasonic to loan me one of these, and I couldn't find one in any department stores, so I can make no judgments.

And at Last, on to My Findings (From Worst to First)

Oreck XL Deluxe,  $369.95 (plus shipping).
Worst by far. Orecks get no love from the chat boards; "95% promotion and 5% product," said one vacuum-store owner I spoke with. (Orecks are available at some retailers but are sold mostly through telephone orders and promotional mailings. The Oreck company boasts about the XL's light weight (only 8 pounds—other vacs can be double or triple that), but it's horribly underpowered. It couldn't even suck pennies off the carpet because they were too heavy. No other vacuum had this problem. Plus, the Oreck's vacuum bags are unwieldy, and its tubes are known (says a vac-store manager) for getting clogged because they're too narrow. Finally, don't believe the ad where the Oreck lifts a bowling ball—that's a physics trick performed with a special funnel. Despite its hefty price, the Oreck just feels cheaply made.

Euro-Pro Shark Sweeper, $79.80.
You may have seen infomercials for this vacuum. It's a cordless, rechargeable, battery-powered sweeper, and it's actually not horrible. It's feather-light, and going cordless is incredibly convenient. The problem: It just doesn't clean well enough on carpets. It has no suction mechanism—just a spinning brush roll—so while it sweeps up the surface shmutz into its little dirt cup, it fails to suck out the dirt that's deeper down in the carpet. On hard floors, of course, it works great, utterly replacing a broom and dustpan. I can recommend the Shark if you live in a very small apartment or have very little carpeting.

Hoover Self-Propelled Bagless Upright, $379.95.
One of Hoover's new bagless offerings. This thing is a beast—by far the heaviest vacuum I tried and tough to maneuver around. It's "self-propelled," but for me this mostly meant it didn't want to go where I wanted it to. It has very aggressive brush-roll spinning (or agitation, as they say in the biz). Some Hoovers have been known to melt through carpets if left agitating in one place for too long, so watch out for that. Overall, a decent vac, but just too heavy and nothing to write home about. (Although it does have a headlight, which I like because it's ridiculous. I mean really, a headlight? On a vacuum? What's up with that?)

Miele Silver Moon, $1,129.95.
If you're like me, you have no immediate plans to buy an $1,100 vacuum. (An $1,100 car, maybe.) What kind of vacuum do you get for that kind of scratch? A regular old vacuum, as far as I can tell. Yes, it's well-constructed, with high-quality plastic and a sleek, minimalist look. The chat-boarders say it will last 15-20 years. (You'll need to replace your cheap-o vacuum four times over in that time span.) And it's very quiet, which is a huge plus. But it's still just a vacuum. It's got bags you have to throw out and replace. You still have to drag it around (it's a canister). What's more, it had the shortest cord of any vacuum I tested (a giant negative in my book—nobody likes to unplug and resituate mid-vacuuming) and also the shortest hose. For this much lettuce, I expected miracles. All I got was a pretty good vacuum.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Roomba Intelligent FloorVac, $199.99. This is the little robot vacuum that purports to clean your carpets all on its own. You set it in the middle of a room, turn it on, and it self-navigates around until it's covered every nook and cranny. I loved this adorable droid, despite its flaws. The navigation program is good, and in the two rooms I tried it in, the Roomba didn't miss a spot. I kept thinking, "No way you're getting under that desk chair, little dude!" and yet it always did. The drawback: Like the Shark Sweeper, the Roomba has no suction—just agitation—so it gets the visible stuff but leaves deeper dirt behind. On hard floors, though, this thing is an absolute monster. Set it up in your tiled kitchen and go run some errands. (I'm betting within the next few years, they'll perfect the Roomba for carpets, too. And so vacuums requiring human effort will go the way of the granny panty.)

Hoover WindTunnel Bagless Canister,  $399.95.
Another new Hoover bagless, but this time a canister. A really solid entry, I thought, as it performed well at all tasks. To my eyes, not much different from the Miele canister. Except the Hoover is bagless, which I prefer. It's easy to use, compact and light; it also has cute retro styling with a sort of PT Cruiser look. The only time it failed me was on the pennies test: Its brush roll once stuck and jammed when a coin got wedged in it.

Dyson DC07, $419.94.
British inventor James Dyson created thousands of vacuum prototypes (a sucker born every minute, I suppose) before arriving at his cyclone bagless system. It's complicated, and you should go to www.dyson.com for the full explanation, but the upshot is that everyone, from vac-store folks to chat-boarders, seems to agree that the Dyson system creates and sustains incredibly powerful suction. And indeed, according to my nonscientific test (I held my palm against the open hose), it tied with the Miele for strongest suck. For me, though, what makes this upright bagless the winner is its superior design. Longest cord by far. Longest hose, too. Attractive styling. All of which make it just a joy to push around the carpet. And I love the big, clear dust container. You can see exactly what you've picked up (providing a sense of accomplishment), and, of all the bagless vacs, it's the easiest to dump out, requiring only the pull of a plastic trigger for a trapdoor to open and all the dirt inside to vacate. Dyson claims the filters never need changing—just an occasional washing. These Dysons are new to the marketplace, and it remains to be seen how durable they'll be, but they're already causing a sensation on vacuum chat boards. If you're willing to spend 400 bucks on a vacuum, this is the vacuum I'd buy.