We live in an advanced consumerist society, which means the vacuum, like all other products, has reached a high level of product differentiation. Which is to say, there are a lot of different kinds of vacuums out there. If you’re not the type to casually read vacuum reviews and cleaning strategies, you might find vacuum shopping to be either stress-inducing or deceptively easy (if it’s the latter, you have almost certainly purchased the wrong one).
So what kind of vacuum should you buy? That depends entirely on your lifestyle, the design and architecture of the house you live in, and your own tolerances and preferences. Vacuums aren’t exactly cheap, so it’s important to pick the right one, especially if you want your house to be clean. Let’s walk through the various kinds of vacuums and what they offer.
The five types of vacuums (yes, five)
There are a lot of vacuums out in the world, but they all fall into five fundamental categories:
Uprights. Uprights are the tanks of the vacuum world. They’re the heaviest, sometimes weighing in at nearly 9 kg. An upright at any price point will give you the most power and suction, making it a great choice if you have a lot of carpet, and its larger size means it offers the largest bin or bag so you don’t have to stop to empty it out. Uprights also typically come with a lot of attachments for cleaning different surfaces or features, many of which will require some research to uncover their purpose. Bottom line: Buy an upright if vacuuming is extremely important to you, if you have a lot of carpeting, or if you have a bad habit of spilling entire boxes of cereal on the floor.
Canisters. A canister vacuum has a suitcase-sized body that sits on the floor, connected to the stick portion of the vacuum by a flexible hose. These tend to be a bit lighter than uprights but offer similar power and suction. They’re ideal for homes with a lot of stairs or different levels because they’re designed to be lifted and carried as you work. The downside is that they can be a pain in the back (literally), as you’ll be constantly leaning down to pick them up, and most models don’t move easily when you pull them along behind you. Bottom line: If your house has a lot of stairs, a canister vacuum is your best bet.
Stick. Stick vacuums are like uprights on diets: They’re designed to be used in a similar way — pushed and pulled as you stand comfortably — but they’re much lighter (typically under 5 kg) with a powerhead at the top. Stick vacuums are good if you’re in a small space, as they’re easier to store and manoeuvre, but they’re also less powerful than an upright. Bottom line: Buy a stick if you’re living space is relatively small and you just need something to suck up the dust.
Robot. The robot vacuum has come a long way. These little machines work by mapping your space, then running automatically, methodically working their way through your rooms before returning to a dock to recharge. Robot vacuums tend to be small and not particularly powerful, you’ll need to empty them out regularly, and they can become confused if you move any furniture (though cats seem to enjoy riding them around, so there’s that). They can’t (yet) go up and down stairs, so you’ll need one for each floor. Bottom line: A robot vacuum is a good supplemental vacuum, but it shouldn’t be your primary vacuuming strategy unless you live in a one-story space and are either incredibly clean or incredibly lazy.
Handhelds. Think of the old-school Dustbuster, though today there are a lot of different brands with different features — but they’re all fundamentally the same, which is to say designed for quick cleanups and navigating smaller spaces. Like robots, a handheld vacuum should be a supplemental choice. Bottom line: Handhelds are great for quick cleanups but won’t clean your whole house.
Are cordless vacuums worth it? Are bags better than bins?
Once you’ve figured out which general type of vacuum is right for you, there are a few other options to sort out.
Bag or bin? Vacuums suck dirt up off your floors and store it for future disposal, either in a bag made of tough paper or in a hard plastic container called a bin. Bins are convenient because you don’t need to buy new vacuum bags all the time — you just empty the bin, pop it back into place, and keep going. But emptying a bin of dust is often a messy process, and your bin will need to be cleaned from time to time, whereas with a bag you simply toss it and replace. Bin models also use filters (see below) so you’re not completely free from buying replacement stuff. Generally speaking, unless you’re very concerned about dispersing dust back into the air when you dump out a bin, they’re the most convenient choice.
Cordless or corded? Cordless, battery-powered vacuums are gaining in popularity because they make it possible to swan about your home without getting tangled in a power cord. On the other hand, vacuums are power-hungry beasts, and even the most expensive cordless models last under an hour on a single battery (though there are some ways to extend that battery life). Cordless models work well in relatively small spaces without carpet. Otherwise, a corded model will generally perform better.
Do you need a HEPA filter? If you choose a canister-style vacuum, it will typically include an air filter. This prevents the swirling dust in the canister from shooting back into the air, and it also removes allergens as you vacuum. Not all filters are the same — you can look for a model that includes a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter, which is a high-end filter that will remove close to 100 per cent of the allergens and other particles the vacuum sucks up. You don’t need a HEPA filter, but if you suffer from allergies or get grossed out at the idea of a tiny amount of dirt escaping your vacuum’s bin, it’s a solid addition.