Cleaning Lady: Suck it up

So today we’re gonna talk about one of the most important tools in cleaning, the vacuum cleaner. Frankly I’m not sure I’d have ever become a house cleaner if it weren’t for vacuums. I get asked about vacuum cleaners probably more than any other topic besides “do you think you can get that out? Or at least make it look not as bad?”

Well, I suppose I’m going to disappoint a lot of people with this essay. Because I’ve got no recommendations and I’m about to make vacuum cleaners a very intricate subject.

What do I use? I use a Bissell Powerforce bagged vacuum. Retails for around $50 at any Wally world or Tarjay or whatever. Its exactly what I need and its easy to maintain. I love my current vacuum but I wouldn’t recommend it to most people. It’s perfect for my uses, but it has many issues that most people wouldn’t be able to handle. That’s how it is though: vacuum cleaners don’t have a “best” (so stop asking me)

First, let’s go over how a vacuum cleaner works.
Here’s a pretty good overview but if you don’t feel like reading all that, I can sum it up for you: there’s a fan inside that whirls around sooper fast, creating suction which is funnelled via tubes (kind of like the internet) through an area that catches debris (unlike the internet) either via a bag or a series of filters into a cup, and ejects the air all while rolling a brush over the surface to loosen and fling the debris towards the tube where the suction is coming from. That’s pretty much it. The roller has a belt which needs to be replaced every now and then and the cup or bag that needs to be emptied/replaced when its full. All vacuums have filters on them in various places as well.

So, to summarize:

1. Suction power is what makes a vacuum cleaner a vacuum cleaner.
2. The rolling brush is what makes a vacuum cleaner clean carpets and upholstery.
3. Filters are what prevent the vacuum cleaner from ejecting fine particles of dust right back into the atmosphere.

When you are choosing a vacuum cleaner, these are the main issues you need to address. They all have these aspects, but some will have more on one end than another.Obviously the main aspect is suction power. So let’s talk a bit about suction power. Suction power isn’t something you can determine by price or name. Suction power is actually a sum of the fan’s power, the type of cleaner it is and the seal on the cleaner. Within any type and brand you will have variations on both. Some are more powerful than others and some are less powerful but better sealed. “Wait, what’s that?” you say. Well part of the way a vacuum cleaner works is because it is a closed system. Air is sucked into the bag/cup and then emitted out. If there was no seal around the system, it would not be able to create enough power to suction up the dirt. You have no doubt noticed that the smaller the opening for the cleaner, the harder it will suck. This is physics actually. So those ads about cyclone cleaners “never lose their suction” is bunk. They do not lose suction any more or less than a bagged cleaner. What happens is that as the bag/cup gets full, the motor has to work harder because there is more resistance. So you will see that your cleaner is picking up less and harder to maneuver. But the motor cannot create a vacuum without an enclosed system. This is created by the hoses (which gets smaller) and the seal around whatever area holds the debris reservoir. When you open the compartment to retrieve the cup/bag, you are unsealing the cleaner. Some cleaners, especially bagged, seal through the entire front panel. This means that its easy for the cleaner to get less seal over time as the rubber around the panel begins to degrade. Some cleaners, like shop or wet-dry vacs seal around the top of the reservoir which due to the weight of the motor that sits on top creates a very solid seal. If you’re curious about your own machine’s seal, turn it on and then hold a piece of paper around it. Where the seal is, will probably pulls at the paper a little bit. If it pulls a lot, you have a bad or degrading seal.
Now let’s talk about the brush. All I’m going to tell you is, it should roll easily. If it doesn’t roll easily you will be sorry you bought this machine. No one should have to fight their cleaner to clean. Some vacuums are self-propelled (which is seriously nice, I swear its like the cadillac of vacuums) but most are not. IF the brush does not roll easily, if you have to lean on your vacuum to get it to move, either it needs to be cleaned or its for Arnold Schwarzenegger, not you.
So filters. All vacuums have filters. Read your manual. Even bagless have filters both disposible and reusable. You really will be happier with disposible paper filters. Washing a filter is just NOT what you want to be doing when its time to clean the house. If you have allergies, get HEPA filters and a machine that advertises as being HEPA. Hell, get it if you don’t. HEPA filters are very nice.

Now, after suction, brush and filters, there are three more aspects to look at in order to determine which vacuum cleaner you want.

1. The retrieval system (cup, bag) is what determines how much you can do before needing to empty it out.

Cups generally don’t hold a lot but the size of the cleaner is a good indicator of the size of the cup – the bigger the cleaner the bigger the cup. Still, I’ve never used a cup cleaner yet that didn’t need to be emptied at least once during a job. Most times its a constant trip back and forth to the garbage can. This is why I bring my bagged cleaner to cleaning jobs. Bags can hold far more than a cup. If you have allergies, bagged will also be kinder to you. Cups create a huge dust blowback when you are emptying them unless you are supercareful to do it with a plastic bag tightly wrapped around it. Even so, I’ve always had issues with dust blowback using a cup. If you have a really small place, no pets and very little mess, a cup cleaner is fine. If you like having more than one cleaner then a cup cleaner can be fine as well for specific jobs like non-pet hair jobs. But if you have pets and/or several humans living in your space, I suggest you will not want a cup cleaner. Skin detritus is a difficult thing for cup cleaners to handle. Cyclone cleaners advertise that they don’t have disposible filters but the problem with that is that people tend to think the filters they are are forever. I am sorry but if you have a cyclone cleaner, you will need to occasionally open it up, take it apart and clean the filtration system. And let me tell you it is a nasty messy business. The main filters are foam rubber so they must be washed with detergent and water. The rest of the filtration system consists of plastic cones and tubes punctured with tiny holes. Those holes get clogged (REALLY CLOGGED) with detritus that contains sebum and oils. Which means it sticks. I’ve had to use scrub brushes to clean those things out. Overall, cup cleaners are far more hassle than they are worth if you use your cleaner on a regular basis. If you have a one-bedroom apartment that you share with no one, a cup cleaner could last you a long time before you have to clean it out. By then you’ll probably be ready for a new cleaner anyway. I, however, will stick with bagged.

2. The style (cannister, upright, wet-dry, stick, handheld) is what determines how you can maneuver the cleaner around and to some extent, how much suction power you will get.

I hesitate to say the style will definitely determine the suction power because really there are plenty of exceptions to that rule. The fact is, the fan, motor and sealing determine your suction power and you cannot know any of those things until you try it out. An expensive model can have a lousy seal and a cheap model can have a powerful motor. So don’t go by price alone. Expensive models do tend to be better but I am talking about the REALLY expensive models like Oreck and Electrolux and Sanitaire. They are considered to be commercial or industrial cleaners and their price reflects that. The problem is in the middle ground. I have used many many different vacuum cleaners and aside from the high-end ones mentioned, I have not found any consistant quality within any one brand or model.
However, the *type* of cleaner can really make a difference. As mentioned, wet-dry vacs have a heavy-duty motor (for suctioning water) and a very tight seal. But wet-dry vacs are cumbersome to manuever and loud as holy hell. If you seriously need the most massive suction power and don’t care about anything else, a wet-dry vac is the way to go. If you have back issues, a lot of furniture, and stairs, keep your wet-dry in the garage and get a cannister or upright.
Cannister cleaners are nice for low or no carpet. This is because most of them do not have a separately powered head for carpets. So shag or deep pile will essentially clog up the head and get very little done. That is the biggest flaw behind cannisters. Otherwise they are probably my favorite type of vacuum – they maneuver easily, they suction just awesome and the bag is plenty big enough and easy to dispose of. What’s not to like? Sadly, I have deep carpet. So no cannister for me.
One type of upright is the stick or “electric broom”. Its the weakest, most basic vacuum ever. Get one and keep it in your kitchen. Its nice for quick spills that aren’t very big. Much like a handheld. dont’ think you can use it to vacuum anything larger than a 2×2′ area because the receptible for debris is very very tiny. And it wont’ work on dust; the motor simply isn’t powerful enough. Dust clings. Not many vacs can suck up dust actually. Not unless you are wading around in it. I don’t have one because I use a broom. I’m just weird like that. My biggest beef with “quicksticks” is that they start looking grungy over time. I guess its because they’re kept in the kitchen. Nobody cares if a broom looks grungy. But quicksticks kind of look nasty after a while, as do handhelds. I’ve cleaned a lot of handhelds.
Uprights are what most people have whether its bagged or cup. It is easier on your back than a vac with only a hose because even lovely little cannisters will get stuck on the carpet and you’ll be wrenching the head free. Wet-dry’s have no roller brush attachment that is worth a damned so forget those.
I have to tell you, there is no one upright that is “the best”. MY $50 Bissell is fine. The seal around the front panel degrades quickly and the motor isn’t the most powerful BUT its cheap and light to carry. Which is important to me since I carry it a lot in my jobs.
I will give you a secret though: I am a meticulous vacuumer so I do not need a machine with the mostest suction evar.
I bet you remember those commercials where they would “compare” two vacs? THey’d both vacuum up something then show how much was left behind? Then they’d use the advertised vac to suck up whatever the first vac left behind? Those commercials make me laugh. ALL vacuum cleaners leave something behind. ALL vacuum cleaners will suck up whatever they left behind when you pass them a second time. ITs a matter of timing. Some cleaners suction hard enough you can move quickly (but you’ll be fighting the head more) but others suction lighter so you can move slower and with less work. If you adjust to your vacuum, you’ll get pretty much the same performance.
Lastly, there is teh Roomba. Those things are great. So long as you don’t have carpet and you don’t have more than one floor, they are wonderful little machines. They will not substitute for a good washing though and thats the one beef I have with Roombas – people who own them seem to think they don’t ever have to clean their floor again. A Roomba is a tiny vacuum, not a maid.

So far as choosing a vacuum cleaner, that’s all there is to it.
Do you have deep shag carpet? A large brush roller and extra suction is what you’ll look for. Do you have pets? Attachments will be your friend. Do you have allergies? You need to be careful about your filters. Large house? Bagged. Small apartment? Bagless. Do you vacuum water? wet-dry vac. Fine particles? Hepa-equipped. No or low carpet but lots of tracked debris? Cannister. Wood floors only with no stairs? Roomba

Which leads me to the last but probably most important subject about vacuum cleaners and actually the whole reason I wanted to write this piece.
Your vacuum has hoses (they et clogged), roller brush (it gets gummed) and filters (they get nasty). You cannot simply ignore all those parts. ESPECIALLY the roller brush.
Let me share something with you:

2014-06-06 17.45.20

2014-06-06 17.45.48

2014-06-06 17.46.20


See that? that was only two weeks of debris. TWO WEEKS. Imagine what is wrapped around your roller brush. You might have to use scissors. I did. You might have to take the head apart and remove the roller brush (I’ve done this many times for clients)


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