Smart Shopping: Vacuums

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Getting Started l Types l Features l Brands

Got a cramped closet? Some of the latest vacuum cleaners fold for compact storage, while others combine upright and canister features into one machine. Our most recent tests of upright and canister models included vacuums that claim to kill germs and clean their own filters, among other promises.

GETTING STARTED

A rough-and-tumble market is driving new designs and features as the once humble vacuum cleaner goes high-tech. But we've found that high-priced, feature-laden machines don't necessarily clean better. You'll find many strong performers for $400 or less. Use our vacuum cleaner guide to find the best model for your home.

The right vacuum for the job
Carpets top the list of critical cleaning chores, an area where upright models have traditionally excelled. But you may prefer a canister or a central vacuum for other cleaning. Within types, check our Ratings of canister (available to subscribers) and upright (available to subscribers) models for a powerful model, one that performed well in our airflow tests. Here's what else to go by when shopping:

Try before you buy
Some vacuums are easier than others to push, pull, and carry. See which feels best at the store. Many of the heavier upright vacuums do not score well in our handling tests.

Protect your ears
The noisiest vacuums we tested produced 85 decibels or more, the level at which we recommend hearing protection. Canister vacuums as a group tend to be quieter.

TYPES

Before you buy a new vacuum, learn about the different types 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. Most are also easier to store.
Cons: You must drag the entire machine back and forth for most floor and carpet cleaning. The top performers we tested 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 cat and dog fur.)

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.

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

Robotic vacuums
Think of these more as expensive novelties than practical appliances.

Pros: do the grunge work while you relax. In uncluttered rooms, a robotic vacuum can fill in between regular vacuuming sessions.
Cons: They're time-consuming to set up and run, and they tended to miss edges and corners in our tests. Some also tended to close doors behind them, locking themselves in a room.

FEATURES

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

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 that need to be periodically cleaned and replaced. And to capture the fine-dirt particles, these models must use a filter (such as a HEPA filter), which can need regular cleaning or replacement. 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 (see below); 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 to a carpet's pile height to allow for easy movement and thorough cleaning. Adjustments are automatic on some models, but we prefer manual control.

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

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

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.

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 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. However, some models that don't have HEPA filters have performed just as well in our tests, and such vacuums may cost less than HEPA models.

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 on some canister vacuums.

Motor Protection System
This serves to protect a vacuum's blower motor from jamming, overheating, or electrically overloading.

Retractable cord
A feature common in canisters, not uprights, you can rewind a retractable 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, not canisters, 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. However, 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

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 positions its upright vacuums to meet specific consumer preferences and needs. Healthy Home models target consumers who want to "breathe easy" by reducing allergens; the Pet Hair Eraser is meant to appeal to dog and cat owners. Bissell products are available at a wide variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart. Upright models range in price from $40 to $270. Bissell also makes hand and stick vacuums, canisters, compact hand extractors, upright deep cleaners, and bare-floor cleaners, and makes carpet-care products under the Woolite brand.
Bissell focuses less on canisters and has just two models, priced at $50 and $230. Bissell canisters are sold through the same retail stores as their other vacuum products.

Dirt Devil
Dirt Devil is positioned for the when-I-can-get-to-it consumer who can accept surface cleaning. Marketing efforts focus on ease of use and convenience to make cleaning quick and effortless. Dirt Devil is available at a wide variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart. Upright models range in price from $40 to $250. Dirt Devil also makes hand and stick vacuums, canister models, deep cleaners, and central vacuums. Dirt Devil has been focusing on design lately, teaming up with designer Karim Rashid to produce elegant, stylish cordless hand and stick vacuums.
Dirt Devil has just two entry-level compact canister models, priced at $80 and $150. They are sold through the same retail stores as their other vacuum products.

Dyson
Dyson is a relatively new brand in the U.S. market. With a very effective advertising campaign featuring its namesake owner and designer, Dyson entered the U.S. with a bang, quickly garnering a competitive share of sales. Ranging in price from $300 to $600, Dyson vacuums single-handedly increased the average price paid for uprights and created a new top-pricing tier in the mass market. Dyson focuses on innovation, technology, and design, and has connected with status-seeking consumers, making it the "It" brand of vacuums. Originally producing only uprights, Dyson has recently introduced a canister and a hand vacuum. The brand is available nationwide through major mass merchants such as Target, Best Buy, and Sears.

Eureka
Eureka takes a situational approach to making vacuums and sells a wide variety of models. Uprights range in price from $50 to $200. Eureka is a national brand available in a wide variety of discount stores and mass merchants, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart. It also makes hand and stick vacuums, canister models, deep cleaners, and central vacuums.
Eureka has about a half dozen canister models, ranging in price from $60 to $260, available through a more targeted selection of retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Lowe's.

Hoover
Hoover is positioned for the consumer who vacuums regularly and appreciates a deep clean. It introduced its first vacuum in 1907 and has established itself as one of the most recognizable brands in this country. More recently, Hoover was bought by TTI Floor Care, the owners of Dirt Devil, from Whirlpool. Hoover sells a wide variety of uprights in mass-market retailers, with models ranging in price from $50 to $300. It also makes hand and stick vacuums, canister models, deep cleaners, central vacuums, bare-floor cleaners, and an outdoor sweeper.
Hoover has a more established presence in canister vacuums and makes about a dozen models, priced from $80 to $300.

Kenmore
Kenmore is a trusted brand in appliances, including vacuums. Once exclusive to Sears, Kenmore uprights are now available in Kmart stores as a result of a merger of the retailers. Kenmore uprights range in price from $80 to $300. Kenmore also offers canister models, hard-surface cleaners, and a carpet shampooer.

Kenmore is the brand leader in canister models and sells a wide range of models from $50 to $600 at Sears as well as Kmart. The best-selling canisters are priced between $250 and $500.
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