We are in the market for a vacuum cleaner. Our current vacuum was purchased the year we first moved in together nearly a decade ago. And even with the move to our starter home a year later, and now two kids many years after that, it is more than sufficient to clean the minimal carpet square footage we have now. But we want something that works on hardwood floors and will keep the new house sparkling, without having to drag a big vacuum out of the closet!
I posted the question to friends and family on Facebook and got over 40 different recommendations. Everyone loves their Dysons, Sharks, Kirbys, and Bissels – and then within those brands – there are tons of different lines. Before shelling out $500 or more on an appliance we will be using regularly hopefully for the next decade or so, I decided to go back to the research process I used for hedge fund investing: do some background reading online, define my relevant market, brainstorm my list of key questions, pose them to experts, and make an informed decision. So without further ado… here are 12 questions to ask BEFORE buying a vacuum.
12 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Vacuum
There’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to vacuums. Every house has different surfaces to clean, different kinds of messes to clean up, and every cleaner has different preferences and frequencies with which they clean. Those individual specifics will help narrow the vacuum universe and define your market. These are the questions you have to answer for yourself, before you can effectively pose vacuum specific questions to experts.
Define Your Market
1. What type of floor surfaces do you have?
Are you looking to vacuum mostly heavy, thick wall-to-wall carpeting or does your home primarily consist of tile and hardwood floors with a few area rugs? Or maybe you have a good mixture of both. Some vacuums easily adjust how high their heads sit from the floor, and whether a spinning brush touches the floor, to make the transition between surfaces seamless. Others may require attachment packages to be most effective on hard surfaces. Amazon has compiled an awesome list of vacuums, ranked by thousands of customer reviews for Carpets, Hardwood Floors and Pet Hair.
2. What kind of mess do you make?
For some, you are trying to tame the shedding of indoor dogs and cats. For others (like me), I’m trying to tame the trail of Cheerios, crumbs and dirt left behind by two young children, no matter the rules about food never leaving the table. For a lucky few, maybe you are just trying to keep dust and allergens at bay with a weekly light vacuum run. The frequency and location of use, as well as necessary suction power, and canister or bag size will all influence which vacuum is the right fit for you.
3. How large is your home?
Are you vacuuming 800 sq. ft. in your studio apartment in NYC? Sucking up dog hair in your raised ranch? Or chasing dust bunnies in your sprawling McMansion? A small space may do well with a cordless, stick vacuum that holds 10 minutes of cleaning power, while that might not do in a multi-thousand square foot space.
Ask the Experts
With your market defining questions now answered, it’s time to get out and ask the experts. Who might these experts be? The salesmen at your local appliance store. You may scoff at this, thinking: those guys are just looking to make a sale, and likely will steer me towards the most expensive option there is, regardless of quality and value. While that may be true, that’s why you don’t just ask one.
Go to multiple stores – Lowe’s and Home Depot sell vacuums, as do Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target. Some department stores sell them too. Ask the same questions over and over, even if you think you already know the answer. The more people you talk to, the more clear a consensus you will form. Another great source for experts? A local appliance repair shop. Those guys have seen it all – they are the ones you call when your $500 vacuum breaks. If they can’t answer your questions on durability and quality, I don’t know who can.
4. What are the primary metrics I should be comparing across vacuums?
Power, suction and edge cleaning abilities are key to comparing across vacuums. Additionally, you may want to examine filtration as well, as this determines how much of the debris that is sucked up stays inside, instead of entering the air again. Amps will tell you how much power it has, while airwatts will give the best indication of suction power. More airwatts means stronger suction, and the ability to pick up more difficult to clean debris, like pet hair and sand.
5. How much suction power do I need?
This again depends on what your intended usage characteristics are… You do not need a lot of suction to pick up debris off hard surfaces, and you don’t even need heavy suction to pick up small debris off of soft surfaces. How many have had the experience of trying to clean a small area rug or floor mat, and the vacuum sucks so hard it tries to suck up the entire rug instead of just cleaning it? Cleaning is created from a combination of agitation of the dirt (so the brush kicking it up) and the air flow system then pulling it into the vacuum.
While many manufacturers may advertize the amps (the amount of electricity used) of their vacuums, the more important metric to focus on is airwatts. Airwatts is the measure of actual suction; experts say anything over 200 airwatts is indicative of powerful suction.
6. Lightweight vs. heavyweight?
Depending on the job you want a vacuum to do, and how it moves, will help you determine whether a lightweight or heavyweight model is right for you. An 8 pound stick vacuum sounds lightweight, until you pick it up and realize all the weight is at the top, being held by your arm the entire time you vacuum instead of in the vacuum head on the floor, resting on wheels. Similarly, a 25 pound vacuum may sound heavy, but its suction power may help drive it along.
7. Cord vs. cordless?
The convenience of cordless is obvious – vacuum from room to room without having to unplug and replug, or drag a cord along behind you as you work. The downside is cordless vacuums have limited power time (ranging from 15 to 45 minutes) and must be charged (charge times range from 4 to 24 hours). Some experts argue a battery powered vacuum will never have as much suction as a corded one, but again, serious suction is not always what you are after.
8. Bagged vs. bagless?
Most experts today will tout bagless over bagged models all day. Bagless models do require their canisters to be emptied, and you want to make sure a) this is relatively easy to do and b) a filtration system helps keep dirt trapped inside the canister both during cleaning and once you remove it, so all the dirt doesn’t come flying out. Some will argue that cleaning, replacing the filters on bagless vacuums may require as much expense as buying and replacing bags.
9. Upright vs. Canister?
An upright vacuum is the model you probably imagine in your head, most often used for cleaning carpets (although today, they do many jobs!). A canister typically has a hose that attaches it to the head, and can be removed and become portable. Some vacuums now combine the two, like the Shark Navigator Lift-Away Professional Upright. It looks and operates like an upright, but the bagless canister can detach from the center handle, and it can be used like a canister vacuum for cleaning spaces like stairs.
10. What attachments, accessories will I need?
Some vacuums come with accessories and attachments, and some accessory packages must be purchased separately. Often, upright or canister vacuums have accessories to make them useful on hard surfaces. For models with accessories, make sure there is a an easy accessory storage system, either on the unit itself or for separate storage. All those loose pieces can be cumbersome and are just an invitation to get lost.
11. What offers the best value?
You can buy vacuums for as little as $20-50, and as much as $600+. That’s a wide range of price points, and depending on the job you need it to do, it is not always necessary to buy the most expensive unit out there. Make sure you know what you are getting by spending more money, and ask yourself if you really need it. After a few excursions myself, I am fully convinced I definitely do not need a $500+ Dyson Animal to clean my wall to wall hardwood floors when we have no pets.
12. Where to buy?
This may be a different question, than the more important one which is – where to shop? I highly recommend going to multiple stores to a) price compare, b) interview multiple ‘experts’, and c) physically test-drive products. On my first shopping trip, I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond. All the vacuums were up at eye-level, making them totally inaccessible for test driving.
Conversely, on my next venture out, I went to Lowe’s – while there were fewer models, they were all set up on the bottom shelf just asking to be test driven. And all the cordless models were charged so you could actually turn them on and check them out! Not as fancy a display by any means, but far more practical. This is also, by the way, where I figured out that the Shark Rocket Ultralight Upright, which the salesman at Bed, Bath and Beyond “highly recommended for hardwood,” and which may be ultralight at less than 8 pounds, but as all the reviews on Amazon point out – all the weight is at the top, instead of resting on the floor, so your arm bears the full brunt of it. I lift and carry two kids all day long – weighing in at 35 pounds and 25 pounds each – and I pulled this one out to try for 30 seconds and determined it was not for me.
So back to where to buy? Once you find the model you want, buy it wherever you can find the best price. Know that it may be online, and it may not. I noticed that sometimes the online store for a retailer had a lower price (and free shipping) than the store itself. But you may be able to use a coupon in-store, but check the fine print to be sure your vacuum brand is not excluded.
So after defining our market, reading lots of online reviews, taking into account the consensus of the experts, and last but not least, going on a few test drives, I have decided I want a cordless stick vacuum. And I am convinced I don’t need the Dyson ($300+), and I definitely don’t want the Shark Rocket ($200). I’m leaning towards the Bissell Bolt, and now just trying to determine which model I need. They start at $90 and go as high as $230, with the primary difference in price being driven by the battery voltage, and thus, the available power between charges (15 to 40 minutes).
It’s basically a super-charged hand vacuum that attaches to a stick with a brush head. The brush feature can be toggled on or off for use on different surfaces. And the hand vacuum is removable from the stick for use in your car or smaller messes. And with the money I save not buying a $500+ vacuum, I think I’m going to get a Shark Pro Steam Mop! Big M likes that idea too!