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.
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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. Typically, they have a foot lever you press to change the angle of the machine for increased maneuverability. Features and prices vary widely in this category -- the $300 Electrolux Precision Brushroll Clean has two attachments, the $700 Dyson Cinetic Big Ball has nine -- but as a general rule, these full-sized vacuums perform better than their smaller counterparts, so uprights are a good fit if you're particular about cleanliness.
Average price: $40-$700
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 and if you want a deep clean of your carpets. They typically weigh more than other models, so an upright stick vacuum might be a good lighter-weight alternative.
Canister vacuums are also popular -- especially in the UK. They are a bit more versatile than uprights, because you can lift the canister and take it wherever you want to go. Canister vacs still tout a full-sized engine, so you gain versatility without losing power. 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: $50-$800
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. You can use the wand to pull it, but you'll have less control over the movements (both Dyson and LG are working to make this problem a thing of the past). The long wands and cords get tangled more easily and might be more difficult to store because the hose and wand don't always 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. Robot vacuums won't clean as well as full-sized models, but at the very least, they do well enough to help you put off your full-scale vacuum session for longer.
Average price: $100-$1,000
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, some even have apps.
Takeaway: Supplement your regular vacuuming with this handy, high-tech gadget. Recent app-enabled models such as the Neato Botvac Connected and the Roomba 980 even let you set schedules remotely and control the vacs like a remote-controlled car.
These little mini-vacs are great for smaller jobs. Some are cordless, so they work well for quick and easy cleaning or as a 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: $20-$200
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.
Halfway between a handheld and an upright, stick vacs offer the former's maneuverability and the cleaning power of the latter. As a streamlined upright, stick vacs are easy to store and lightweight. 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: $25-$600
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 -- the Shark Rocket is only 4.2 pounds.
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.
All-in-one or a combo?
After going over the different types of vacuums, you might find you need more than one model to fit your needs. A full-sized vacuum -- either an upright or canister -- fits a thorough, seasonal cleaning the best. The smaller, more convenient models -- robot vacuums, sticks and handhelds -- could serve as a perfect tool for regular spot cleaning in the meantime.
You also might find a convertible model that takes care of all of your needs in one diverse package. You typically won't find a full-sized that converts to a smaller vac, but the $350 Shark Rotator Powered Liftaway is an upright that converts to a canister. Similarly, the $300 Black & Decker Stick is one of a number of stick vacs that let you pull out a handheld when you need to reach into tight spaces.
Bag or bagless?
If 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.
Corded or battery powered?
If you're buying a stick vac, how it's powered will effect maneuverability. Most stick vacs use batteries, but if you want to clean your whole house and don't want to worry about recharging, consider one with a cord, like the Shark Rocket.
Otherwise, check out the battery life, as it can vary from model to model. Also, check on the battery indicator. I'd find it particularly annoying to be halfway through vacuuming a room when I had to stop for a charge. Not all models are great at keeping you updated about how long you have left to work, but some -- like the Bissell Bolt Ion -- have helpful displays.
Lots of vacuums offer a dearth of attachments and brag of various advanced features. Most, like corner wands, are pretty run-of-the-mill. Here are the ones we've found particularly helpful in our testing. Use these as tie-breakers in your decision making:
- A powered brushroll -- such as the one on the Dyson v6 Motorhead -- helps reduce tangles.
- A pet hair specific attachment -- specifically one with a powered brushroll -- can make it easier to pick up after your furry friend.
- A mop attachment -- like you find on the Dirt Devil Lift & Go -- makes cleaning hardwood floors easier
- Electrolux has a few vacuums with a blade that scrape the tangles off of your brushroll for you. The feature is called the Brushroll clean.
- One of Dyson's most recent uprights -- the Dyson Cinetic -- successfully did away with the need for a filter, reducing regular vacuum maintenance.
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.
Wait, what about performance?
Within each category, a vacuum's cleaning ability can vary wildly. Unfortunately, we've yet to discover a single exterior indicator that correlates reliably with cleaning power. You can find effective cheap models and you'll also find models with great suction power that don't do as well. Cleaning power comes from a strange alchemy of suction power, the shape of the vacuum head and the design of the brushroll. Check out our best list to find our favorite performers.
Ready to clean
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,.