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As many households across the country prepare to transition back to commuting and in-person learning as a result of expanded vaccine eligibility, there’s a continued interest in keeping private spaces free of outside germs and particles. And even if you’ll be stuck at home for a while longer, a powerful vacuum can help keep your home clean and will be an asset throughout spring cleaning season.
SKIP AHEAD Best Vacuums
To most people, cleaning means removing trash and clutter, wiping and mopping visible dirt or dust and getting rid of unpleasant odors. However, the “dirtiest” place in your home may be the invisible air you breathe, explained environmental consultant and building materials specialist Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics. “Particles in the air can not only be a vehicle for the spread of airborne disease but also can be the major cause of many allergic and respiratory reactions,” she said. “Dust may expose us to bacteria, viruses, mold, animal dander, dust mites, insect remains and pollens.”
And that’s where upping your vacuum game comes in handy -- it’s not just up to an air purifier to help keep the air clean. The type of vacuum you invest in can impact both the dirt on your floors as well as the air you breathe.
What are the different types of vacuums?
After deciding to purchase a new vacuum, your next step is to consider what style vacuum is right for your needs. To help you simplify your search for vacuums, we explore the five types available on the market: canister, upright, stick, handheld and robot aka smart vacuums.
This type of vacuum has a separate canister that contains the motor and receptacle with a long hose that can be fitted with interchangeable attachments.
- Kathy Turley, Director of Marketing at Home Clean Heroes, said a canister vacuum is "easy" to carry, making it "ideal for a lot of stairs."
- Turley noted a canister vacuum comes with various attachments, making it practical and "easy to clean" different surfaces, including carpets, hardwood floors, furniture, curtains and your car's interior.
- A canister vacuum is typically lightweight, nimble and can be both more powerful and quieter than an upright vacuum.
- However, canister vacuums can be more challenging to store, empty and move around with compared to their upright counterparts.
Upright vacuums are great for cleaning large areas, according to the pros.
- "The whole vacuum moves with you, making it less cumbersome than a canister model," said Carl Prouty, tech expert at Abt Electronics.
- Another positive attribute of an upright vacuum is that it’s easier to store and empty.
- However, an upright vacuum tends to be heavier, has winding cords, can be difficult to use on stairs and doesn't always easily adjust for different floor types.
An easy way to think of a stick vacuum cleaner is as an upright vacuum on a diet.
- "They are slim, lightweight and battery-powered but shouldn't be substituted for a more powerful full-size vacuum," said Turley.
- She also called a stick vacuum a "great" option for quick clean-ups in your kitchen and bathroom and for picking up pet fur.
- Turley added that a stick vacuum is the vacuum equivalent of a broom and dustpan, and they’re typically not made for carpets.
Cordless aka Handheld
This compact model is similar to a stick vacuum but smaller, so you'll have to bend over to get the crumbs off the floor.
- It's portable and great for vacuuming out your car or spot cleaning.
- "Remember dust busters? That's a great example of a cordless or handheld vacuum, which are designed to grab and go," said Turley.
- She added that cordless vacuums are meant to complement your heavier-duty models like a canister or upright, but not be used instead of.
A "smart" counterpart to the traditional vacuum, robotic options can run anytime, whether you're home or not, and reset themselves to charge.
- Robot vacuums help get forgotten corners and clean under furniture that larger models may not be able to.
- "They are not as powerful as the traditional options, but the consistency in being able to program them to run every day is a nice feature," said Turley.
- She noted that "some level of tidying up is necessary beforehand." If your floor is cluttered, then a smart vacuum will move around the toys and dirty clothes.
Vacuum cleaner features
There are plenty of features to consider before buying a new vacuum, and it may feel overwhelming. The cleaning experts we consulted shared their guidance on the many elements to consider.
- Cordless. This option is typically found in stick models and runs on batteries, so you don't have to worry about a cord getting tangled as you clean.
- Bag. Both upright and canister vacuums offer a bagged option where the dirt goes as it's sucked up. "Bags make emptying the dust and debris you've collected much easier and neater," said Prouty. Plus, bags typically do a better job of filtering particles.
- Bagless. There's also the bagless option for those who don't want to have to worry about buying and changing out bags. This model has a container that the dirt collects in, and it needs to be emptied regularly. "Sometimes, when emptying, you may release more of the dirt and dust back into the air where it will eventually fall to the floor," said Turley.
- Vacuum size. By trying out different vacuums, you'll see that the fit and how it feels to use the vacuum matters. If you are petite or even older, experts suggest looking into something lightweight. "Likewise, if the person using the vacuum is tall, you'll want to ensure that it is tall enough so that the person doesn't have to stoop or bend over too much, which can result in back pain — because cleaning the house is already a pain," said Turley.
- Floor settings. For those who have different types of flooring in their home, you'll want to look for a vacuum that can accommodate them all. And keep in mind, different types of carpets also require different settings, noted Turley.
- Pet-friendly enhancements. Some vacuums are designed to catch pet hair and minimize pet odors. "What separates them from traditional vacuums is their ability to detach and clean the 'beater brush' (the rotating brush under the vacuum) that commonly gets clogged when met with large amounts of pet hair," said Turley. "Pet-friendly vacuums also commonly include upholstery cleaners to help collect pet hair on furniture."
- Attachments. Different models come with a range of accessories, so think about your cleaning needs, especially when it comes to hard floors, upholstery and crevices.
- Filter. Although they can be more expensive, vacuums with a High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) filter can remove 99.7 percent fine dust and airborne particles, according to the pros. However, Nelson said to be aware that "just because a vacuum has a 'HEPA' filter, if it is not properly sealed, it will spew dust back into the air during vacuuming, making the area more contaminated than before."
- Certified "Sealed" HEPA vacuum. These vacuums are air-tight, so all air sucked through the machine passes through the filter and no dust escapes back out at any point, even when emptying it. "Cleaning regularly with a certified sealed HEPA vacuum dramatically improves air quality by reducing the amount of airborne allergens, dust and harmful chemicals in your home," said Nelson. "Your air should be cleaner after you vacuum rather than more polluted."
Overall, our experts tend to agree that one feature matters more than others: a vacuum’s filtration system. “The best vacuum is one that does not contribute contaminants back into the air of the indoor living space. Whether the vacuum is an upright or canister style does not matter as much as its filtration system,” said Lee Ann Billings, co-author of “MOLD: The War Within.” She advised purchasing a vacuum with at least one HEPA filter that is easy to empty to help prevent dirt from filtering into the air (or onto your clothes).
You can use a HEPA vacuum to address dust on virtually any surface, including stuffed animals, books, furniture, walls, ceilings, lampshades, and cars, noted Nelson. “When you begin using a HEPA vacuum, it will start to change the way you clean — you’ll soon discover that vacuuming is not just for floors,” she said.
Which is the best vacuum cleaner to buy?
With our experts' help, we compiled some of the most effective vacuums for keeping the mess out of your home. "The benefits will be worth it — a truly clean home, a reduction in exposure to toxic chemicals, and therefore a safer haven for your family," said Nelson.
Best overall vacuum: Miele
Suppose you're the weekend cleaner who likes to do it all at once or use the same machine for all flooring types. In that case, Denny Rutten of Rutten's Vacuum Center recommends Miele for both its cleaning ability and durability. He appreciates the ease of use and its filtration that removes 99.9 percent of dust and dirt through a HEPA AirClean filter system. From the six different power settings to the ability to perform on a range of flooring, this vacuum gives entire homes a heavy-duty clean.
Best bagless upright vacuum: Dyson
For a deep cleaning machine that attacks carpet dust, allergens, pet hair and ground-in dirt, check out this bagless upright vacuum with HEPA filtration, a 35-foot cord and a convenient ball glide design. "It's easy to maneuver, powerful and comes with plenty of tool accessories to clean almost any surface," said Prouty. "This is a great vacuum for anyone who has pets that shed or messy children."
Best cordless vacuum: Dyson
Three words sum up this cordless stick vacuum, according to Prouty: powerful, lightweight and long-lasting. "It has a run time of up to 60 minutes on a single charge and the time remaining is displayed on an LCD screen at the top," he said. "It also comes with tools for cleaning almost any surface found in most homes." However, bigger families might want to check out the larger version, the V11 Outsize. This new model's bin is 150 percent bigger and has up to 120 minutes of run time.
Best affordable vacuum: Shark
This budget-friendly vacuum comes with a detachable canister and is both powerful and lightweight at 12.5 pounds. But more importantly, its anti-allergen technology traps over 99.99 percent of dust and allergens. "It offers excellent allergy protection for an affordable price," added Prouty. "It comes with a HEPA filter to clean the air and an anti-allergen seal around the dustbin to keep all the allergens you vacuum up inside."
Best splurge vacuum: Miele
If you're looking to invest in a long-lasting and powerful vacuum, this bagged canister with a HEPA AirClean Filter is Prouty's top pick. "This is the Rolls Royce of vacuums," he said. "With hand-mounted controls, an ultra-quiet motor and LED lighting on the canister as well as the vacuum head, you'll be able to clean in style." Plus, there's a velvet bumper strip around the canister to avoid scuffing anything you may bump into and an auto mode that automatically adjusts the power based on what floor type you're cleaning.
Best heavy-duty vacuum: Nilfisk
Nelson called this vacuum the Cadillac of HEPA vacuums. "It's rated for abatement-level cleanups and can be used to clean up lead, mold and asbestos," she said. With its compact size, this high-performance 13-pound canister is ideal for cleaning up everything from industrial to heavy-duty residential messes. Plus, the robust four-stage filtration system ensures that exhausted air remains clean.
Best bagged upright vacuum: Riccar
Rutten's go-to is the Radiance R40 with a HEPA sealed filtration system and 40-inch extra-long cord for deep-cleaning carpets. The brushstrips with three rows and belt never wear out, he said, but shoppers also get a lifetime guarantee just in case. "I also love the dirt sensor which tells me exactly where the dirt is with amber lights that illuminate. This assures me that my carpet is indeed as clean as it can be and I don't move onto the next section until the amber lights go off," he said. "If the grandkids and furry friends have visited, you'll find their favorite spots in a hurry."
Best robot vacuum: iRobot
This robotic vacuum is the smartest vacuum available, according to Prouty. This model maps out an entire floor of your home to clean it more efficiently. Owners can also set boundaries from their smartphones to prevent the vacuum from going into specific areas. "It can also empty its canister, return to its base when it knows it needs a charge and can stay current with software updates to add features in the future," he said. The Roomba is compatible with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Best wet dry vacuum: Nilfisk
Billings noted this is her everyday household vacuum and she has "zero regrets" thanks to the HEPA filtration and how lightweight yet efficient it is. "The added plus is that it dual functions as a wet vac, so water spills can be quickly sucked up," she said. "Every household should have a wet vac on hand to facilitate quick cleanup of any water leaks, because mold can start to form on water-damaged building materials within 24-48 hours."
Best vacuum for pets: Dyson
This cordless vacuum has three powerful modes for different flooring types and does an impressive job cleaning up after pets. "It's powerful, lightweight and comes with a pet hair attachment that makes cleaning up after a shedding pet extremely easy," said Prouty. "And because it's so compact, it's also the perfect way to keep your car clean if your furry friend likes to go for rides with you."
Best multi-purpose vacuum: Miele
This new 3-in-1 cordless stick model is ideal for the shopper looking for flexibility in their next vacuum. It boasts a rechargeable battery that gives up to 120 minutes of run time and a bright light that illuminates dirt under furniture. Plus, it automatically adjusts as you change from floor types and you can easily configure it from a handheld to a traditional stick or upright for the ultimate in versatility. Miele claims its HEPA AirClean lifetime filter captures 99.999 percent of fine airborne particles.