Buying a "greener" vacuum cleaner

Good design and maintenance can extend the life of your vacuum.

Vacuum cleaner head cleaning up dirt on green carpet.

The Electrolux Pure D9 Hygiene PD91 Green vacuum cleaner is made from 70% recycled plastic. But does that mean it’s really a “greener” cleaner?

That plastic has been saved from becoming landfill. Electrolux claims that by using recycled plastic, each Green vac saves more than 2L of crude oil and uses 90% less energy to manufacture.

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a scientific methodology that calculates the environmental impact of a product. Typically used by product designers and environmental organisations, an LCA shows how much energy and resources are used in manufacturing, using and disposing of a product, as well as how much pollution and carbon it creates.

Published academic LCA studies show 15% of the energy used by a corded, bagged vacuum cleaner is generated by manufacturing and disposal. So choosing a model made from recycled plastic is a good start.

However, 80% of the energy comes from using the vac. This means, to pick a true “greener” cleaner, choosing the most efficient one should be your top priority.

Is more power better?

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance electrolux

The Electrolux Pure D9 vacuum cleaner is a European model sold in New Zealand. Since 2017, European design regulations limit the power output of a vacuum cleaner to 900W. We have no similar rule and it’s common to see models (which aren’t available in Europe) here packing 2000W or more.

More power must mean better cleaning, right? Wrong. We’ve tested 44 standard vacs with power measured between 600W and 1810W. Of nine EU-compliant models, five rated in our top 10 for carpet cleaning performance. Only one model with more than 1600W of power made the top 10. In fact, lower-power models perform more consistently than high-powered ones:

Power vs quick carpet clean


A vacuum’s performance is about how it uses power. Two of those five low-power, top-performing vacs are upright models – a design that has the shortest possible distance from cleaning head to motor, and uses a powered head with a brush bar to scrape dirt from a carpet. However, our other three high-flyers are canister vacs with standard heads, which shows there’s no single formula for good vacuum cleaner design.

At just 600W, the Electrolux Pure D9 is the lowest powered model we’ve tested. It’s not the top performer, but it scores above average for carpet cleaning and has a power-to-cleaning ratio that ranks second overall.

The Pure D9 uses a third of the energy of the highest power model we tested (Miele C3, 1810W). Vacuuming for an hour each week, the Pure D9 would use 60kWh less each year, or about 1% of the electricity used by the average New Zealand household. The savings you make from vacuuming with the Pure D9 would run an electric heater full blast for 30 hours over the winter.

How long should it last?

It’s reasonable to expect a vacuum cleaner will last you 10 years.

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance body

European Union design requirements require the “operational motor lifetime to be greater than or equal to 500 hours”. At an hour of use each week, that’s a decade of sucking up dirt. Electrolux claims the recycled plastic in its Green models is as durable as virgin plastic and all models are developed to withstand 10 years of normal use.

If vacs designed for the European market can run for a decade, you shouldn’t expect less from models here. If your vacuum cleaner suffers a major fault in that time, you’ve used it reasonably and looked after it well, kick up a fuss.

If an hour each week is only the tip of your regular vacuuming iceberg, you may need to replace your cleaner more often. But if that sounds like extreme cleaning to you, you might expect your vac to keep sucking into its second decade.

However, though the motor may still spin, other parts might not last. Plastic becomes more brittle over time. Even if it’s not used regularly, you may find parts of your vac crack and fail.

Spot the difference

Three similar Miele C3 models are available in the EU, USA and New Zealand. All have been tested using similarly rigorous methods and are highly rated by either of our sister organisations, Which? (UK) and Consumer Reports (USA), or ourselves. Yet they have significantly different power outputs. Miele told us that, while both EU and NZ models perform similarly, it thought the NZ version was better at picking up fibres and was easier to push.

Socket to ‘em!

Each year in our appliance reliability survey, some owners tell us the pins on their vacuum cleaner’s plug are bent. That’s not a faulty vacuum – it’s caused by straining to reach too far from the power socket. This can also put stress on the cable inside the vac, causing a power fault or breaking the cable return mechanism. Prevention is easy – move the plug to a socket closer to where you’re cleaning, and don’t use the vac with the cable fully extended.

Maintenance tips

Making your vacuum last as long as possible will always be the best option for the environment. That doesn’t mean you need to strip and overhaul its motor, just following these simple steps to get the best life out of your vac: keep filters clean, unblock the cleaning head, and replace bags when they get full.

Keeping on top of these jobs will make a big difference to the longevity and efficiency of your vacuum cleaner:

Clean the filters
20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance clean filters

One of the most common reasons for a loss of suction, or the motor cutting out intermittently, is clogged filters.

There are two filters on nearly every vacuum cleaner: one pre-filters air before it passes through the motor, and the second cleans the air before it’s exhausted back into your room. One of these is likely to be a HEPA (allergen) filter.

You should clean both filters regularly, usually at least once a month. Check your manual for advice on how to clean them, they could be replaceable or washable.

Empty the dirt

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance empty dirt

If your vac is chock full of dirt, it’s likely to have less cleaning power – tests by Which? show you can lose up to 30% of suction with a full bag or bin. Replacement bag costs add up, a pack of three 2.1L E210S bags for the D9 cost $16, so you'll want to get the most out of each one. But if you're finding suction levels dwindling, check the bag or bin. If it's full, a new bag or empty bin can help restore suction quickly.

Tip: Fit the bag properly, or you may find suction is reduced and a dirty mess causing havoc inside your vac. If you have a bagless model, empty the bin after every use. Check where the max fill line is – you might be surprised to find it only about a third of the way up. So when your vac's bin looks visibly full, it almost certainly is well overdue to be emptied.

Clean the head

If your vacuum cleaner has a turbo or power head, it’ll contain a spinning brush bar. It’s likely that bar is covered in hair and fibres, especially if you have pets, which affects how well it sucks.

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance clean head

To clean it, you need to carefully cut along the brush bar and pull the hair out with your hands (if your vacuum has a removable brush bar, take it out and then cut away hair and fluff before reinserting). While you’re there, check the airway for blockages.

If your vacuum has a powered head, and the brush bar doesn’t spin, first make sure it’s clean and free of tangled hair and fluff. Then check the electrical connection to the head. If that doesn’t fix it, you might need to replace the drive belt – these are commonly available, and the repair is usually quite simple.

Check the hose

It's worth occasionally checking your vacuum cleaner hose and extension tube for obstructions, particularly if you think your vac’s not sucking as well as it should. Stray socks, clumps of hair and fluff, or debris such as bottle caps could have been inadvertently sucked up and got lodged somewhere.

Use a torch to look inside the tube, and separate it from the floor head and vacuum body, if possible, to see if you can spot any obstructions. Poke a broom handle through the hose to push out anything.

Don't suck...

  • fine powders (such as flour, talcum or plaster dust). These can quickly clog filters and potentially cause mayhem with the motor.
  • anything wet or moist. Unless it’s a wet/dry model, your vacuum cleaner isn’t designed to suck up moisture and could go out with a bang!
  • fireplace ashes. They may still be warm and contain very fine particles that’ll clog the filters.
  • coins, paper clips or pieces of broken glass. Larger items may get stuck in the cleaning head. Pieces of glass could puncture the bag.

What if it breaks?

Some faults are catastrophic: a dead motor means a dead vacuum cleaner. However, other failures shouldn’t result in a premature trip to your local e-waste recycler.

So what could break? Since 2006 we’ve asked our members about the faults their vacuum cleaners have suffered in the first five years of use. The good news is a corded cleaner you buy today is more reliable than one from a decade ago. The bad news is 10% of them still develop a fault in the first five years.

Reliability of vacuum cleaners up to five years old


Faults in vacuum cleaners up to five years old (2006-2019)


Many common faults reported by owners can be repaired.

Electrolux said most of the required parts for its D9 model are available in New Zealand. It will supply them to a repairer (authorized or independent) or directly to the consumer. However, it didn’t provide us with a price list, so we’ve pulled together prices for the parts available from sellers on TradeMe or from Electrolux in the UK (where all of the parts can be ordered online).

Attachments and accessories
20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance attachment

  • Parketto hard floor nozzle $30/£35
  • Combination nozzle £30
  • 3 in 1 brush £14

Faults could include: a loose fit to the hose, broken height adjustment mechanism, or broken plastic parts.

Turbo head

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance turbo
  • Turbo head $100/£48
  • Brush bar £22

Faults could include: brush bar bristles wearing out, the brush bar not spinning and a loose fit to the wand. The head of the D9 isn’t easily disassembled, so it’s not feasible for a consumer to replace the brush bar, even though the part is available.

Hose

  • Hose kit $50/£22
    20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance hose
  • Handle £18
  • Extension tube $50/£44

Faults could include: a split hose, leaking seals, a faulty extending mechanism, broken handle or air-bleed cover, and failure of the clips holding parts together.

Tip: A split hose can also be sealed with duct tape.

Filters and bags
20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance filters

The bag, motor filter and HEPA exhaust filter on the D9 are all user replaceable – available individually or as a filter and bag kit ($50). The vacuum bag is held in place by a plastic holder that seals the bag to the hose.

Cable and power

20feb vacuum cleaner maintenance cable

Faults could include: a broken cable retract mechanism or operating button, bent power plug pins (through user error), or a power failure.

Replacing the cable mechanism is a difficult repair in a corded vac, not a task for a typical consumer.

Power failure could also mean a dead motor. The time and skill needed to replace a motor means it’s not a viable repair. If the motor fails, the vacuum cleaner is e-waste.

E-waste

A dead vacuum cleaner should be recycled, not dumped into landfill. It contains valuable raw materials that can be recovered. It can also contain toxic materials that can leach into landfill.

However, disposing of e-waste, which includes vacuum cleaners, isn’t always easy. For recycling options, contact your council. If your nearest transfer station doesn’t accept e-waste, you may have to visit an independent recycler. You may also have to pay to recycle e-waste. Some councils and community organisations run free collection days, so it may be worth hanging on to your old vac and keeping an eye out for one.

Unlike other countries (such as those in the EU), we have no mandatory product stewardship schemes. However, that could change soon. In August, the Ministry for the Environment consulted on options for regulating product stewardship for six “priority products”, which included e-waste.

Regulation would force those who make and sell a product to be responsible for it at the end of its life – they’d contribute to the waste management costs. This means they’d be incentivised to minimise the waste they produce and make their products last longer.

Currently, it’s consumers who foot the bill for dead appliances and bear the burden of doing the right thing to recycle e-waste. That’s not fair. We think action on product stewardship is long overdue – manufacturers, distributors and retailers need to share responsibility for the waste their products create.

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Tell us about your broken vac

Broken and repaired vacuum cleaner.

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