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Research report

Vacuum cleaners choosing the right standard vacuum

Working out the right vacuum for you is just a matter of asking the right questions.

We look at a few things to consider when buying a vacuum cleaner.

  • If you're ready to buy a vacuum, see our test results to find out which models we recommend.

1. What shape?

Canister models (which lie parallel to the floor and have a flexible hose connecting the wand to the canister) are much more common here than upright models. Canisters are easier to use on stairs and in awkward places under the furniture. You can also use them for jobs that an upright can't do – like vacuuming the car.

Upright models have a built-in power head, which means they clean carpet well. If your priority is to clean a large area of carpet that's all on the same level, an upright can be a good choice.

2. What’s being vacuumed?

We no longer test for hard-floor performance because experience tells us that all models these days are good at this. But we do test to see whether the cleaning heads scratch the floor: none of the models in our test database have this problem.

Tip: If you’ve got hard floors only, buy on price.

Carpet can be more complex, because of the types of cleaning heads available. But a standard head is all you’ll need – unless you have a problem with pet hair, or carpet that gets especially dirty. A standard head’s also lighter and more manoeuvrable around and under furniture than either a turbo or a power head.

Tip: Unless your carpet needs more vigorous cleaning, choose a model that has a really good carpet-cleaning score (70% or above in our test results).

3. Pet hair in carpet?

If pet hair’s a problem you could need a turbo head, or even a power head. Both use a rotating brush inside the head to sweep up and shake out dirt and pet hair. Power heads have a small electric motor in the head unit to turn the brush; turbo heads use a turbine in the main airflow.

Check the "Pet hair removal" scores in our test results and choose a model with a score of 90% or greater. Note that in some of our recent tests some standard head models have performed well at pet-hair removal. Standard heads are less bulky and easier to manoeuvre than power or turbo head models.

There's another downside here, too. The rotating brush of turbo or power head models can get pet hairs wrapped tightly around it, and the hairs will need to be cleared regularly.

Tip: A good turbo head will remove pet hairs well, but it’s unlikely to be any better than a standard head at getting dirt out of carpet. A good power head will remove pet hairs really well and is likely to get dirt out of carpet better than anything else (see “Especially dirty carpet?”, below). Look for scores of 80% and above in our test results.

4. Especially dirty carpet?

If your carpet often ends up with embedded dirt, choose a model with a power head. This scrubs the carpet cleaner than a standard head can. But power heads have their drawbacks. They're bulky and awkward to use – and having a power head's brush scrubbing away is likely to cause more wear on your carpet than a standard head (which glides over the top).

Tip: A good power head model will give you the best combination of carpet cleaning and pet hair removal.

5. Bag or bin?

Buying disposable bags for a bag model is an ongoing cost you’ll need to factor into your purchase decision.

Bin models usually have a clip-off section that you remove and then empty into a rubbish bin.

We prefer bags for 4 reasons:

  1. Their size varies, but often the bag is larger than a bin. So it needs emptying less often.
  2. A bag is part of the model’s filter system – so when you change the bag, you’re replacing a big part of the filter system. But to keep a bin model working properly you have to clean the main filter regularly, or replace it.
  3. Bags usually have sliding shutters to prevent dust from spilling when the bag’s removed. While some bin models also have well designed dust-disposal systems, we think bags expose you to less dust and fewer allergens during the removal/emptying process. (Also see Asthma and allergens.)
  4. Having a bag helps muffle the noise of the air passing through the cleaner; some bin models have an annoying high-pitched whine.

Tip: Before you buy, always try a vacuum cleaner in the shop.

Other features to consider

Buy a vacuum with these things in mind.

  • Power: Vacuum cleaners are often promoted on the basis that more watts equals better performance. This is not true. Our tests show no relationship between performance and rated watts. More watts mean more power, but other factors also have a big impact on performance. They include the design of the wand, suction tube and head, and the number and type of filters. It’s the design that counts, not the power. That’s not what the salespeople will tell you, of course!
  • Adjustable head height: Allows the height of the cleaning head to be adjusted to match the pile height of your carpet.
  • Variable power: Some cleaners let you vary the motor power. This is useful for reducing the suction when cleaning curtains, cushions and the like. It can also be handy on some floors if the head gets hard to move over the surface. Some cleaners have a bleed valve on the wand which achieves the same result.
  • Swivel head: Some cleaners have a swivelling connection at the point where the hose attaches to the cleaner. This helps mobility and prevents the cleaner catching on corners or tipping over when you’re towing it about.
  • Telescopic wand: Most mid- to high-priced cleaners have a telescopic wand that you can adjust to suit your height and avoid awkward bending. Cheaper cleaners usually have a fixed-length wand that will not suit everybody. A telescopic wand also makes for easier stowing when the cleaner is not in use.
  • Wand storage: Most cleaners have a clip for storing the wand upright while the cleaner is in use or when stowing it away.
  • Accessories: Most cleaners come with a crevice tool for getting into tight spaces, an upholstery brush and a dusting brush. Some or all of these tools can be stored on the body of most cleaners. The more expensive the model, the more tools you should expect.
  • Blower outlet: Invaluable if you want to blow up an airbed or inflatable dinghy.
  • Filters: Modern vacuum cleaners use several filters to clean the air they suck in. A HEPA (also known in Europe as an S-class) filter is often used for the final exhaust, trapping 99.97 percent of particle emissions down to 0.3 microns in size. That’s small enough to remove cigarette smoke and bacteria. See "Asthma and allergens" for more about filters.
  • Weight: Choose a model with a weight that you can manage easily. This is especially important if you have to carry your cleaner up and down stairs, or if you have back problems or a disability.
  • Noise: Listen to the tone of your preferred cleaner in the shop before you buy it. All cleaners are noisy, but some have a high-pitched noise that many people find extremely irritating.
  • Usability: Check its reach, weight, comfort of carrying and ease of emptying the bin. Check the on/off switch or trigger is easy to operate and that the head is easy to manoeuvre and, if applicable, how hard the heads are to switch.
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