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Vacuum cleaners

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Standard, hand-held and stick vacuums.

We've tested standard, hand-held and stick vacs. An expensive or top-scoring model isn't necessarily the best one for you – we explain why, and take you through the steps to choosing the right model.

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Which type?

Hand-held vacuums

Handhelds aren't designed to replace a conventional vacuum cleaner. They're for tidying up spills. They’re surprisingly good – as long as you use them for what they’re intended. That means cleaning up dirt and spills on hard floors or the surface of carpets, and picking up pet hairs. They're not for getting ingrained dirt out of carpet.

Stick vacuums

Stick vacs are lightweight battery-powered cleaners in the shape of a broom. A rotary brush sweeps dirt into a dust container. The brush is powered by a small electric motor or a turbine ("turbo") in the cleaner’s airstream. Dirt dislodged by the rotary brush is puffed away by the suction’s draft and deposited in the dust container.

Pros

  • Much lighter than a standard vacuum cleaner.
  • Easy to store.
  • Ideal for quick cleaning jobs and awkward places.
  • Some let you detach the power unit from the handle and use the vac as a hand-held.
  • Good for hard floors, removing pet hair and sweeping dirt off carpet.

Cons

  • They don’t have the suction of a mains-powered vacuum cleaner.
  • Most don't get dirt out of carpet very well.
  • Running time is limited - generally just enough for a quick clean.

Standard vacuum cleaners

Traditional vacuum cleaners are still the best option if you want a deep clean on all surfaces throughout your home. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and prices, and many have multiple head options and other features.

Pros

  • Better cleaning power for getting dirt out of carpets.
  • Available with a variety of features such as variable power, adjustable head height, swivel heads and HEPA filters.
  • Bag or bin options.
  • Connect to the mains - so no limit to the amount of vacuuming you can do.
  • For the money you would spend on a good stick vacuum you can get one of the best traditional models.

Cons

  • Bulkier to store.
  • Heavier than a stick vacuum.
  • More difficult to manoeuvre in tight spaces.

Choosing the right standard vacuum

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

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 (7.0 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 9.0 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 8.0 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.

Features to consider

Need a new vacuum cleaner? Consider these features.

  • 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!
  • 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.
  • Adjustable head height: Allows the height of the cleaning head to be adjusted to match the pile height of your carpet.
  • 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.
  • For disabled users: Items to check are the reach, weight, comfort of the carrying handle and ease of changing the dust bag and filters. The on/off switch and cord retractor should be easy to operate and the head should not be difficult to move over the floor surface.

Hand-held vac pointers

In the market for a hand-held vac? Consider these points.

  • Docking: A wall-mounted docking station keeps the cleaner readily available yet out of the way - but you need to have wall space that's close to a power outlet. The alternative is to leave it sitting on a flat surface (again with a power outlet nearby).
  • Balance and comfort: Try the cleaner in the store. Choose a model with a weight you can manage easily. Make sure it feels comfortable and that its weight doesn't put too much strain on your wrist. See how easy it is to take out from its docking station - and put back.
  • Filter: This should be easy to remove and clean.
  • Accessories: An upholstery brush and crevice nozzle can be handy for cleaning furniture and car seats. It's even handier if the tools are clipped to the cleaner (rather than the docking station).
  • Switch: An On/Off switch is easier for continuous operation than a trigger that needs to be held down.
  • Fallout flap: This prevents dirt falling back out of the vacuum when you carry it with the nozzle facing downwards, such as when moving between cleaning tasks.
  • Charging time: The shorter the charging time, the sooner you can reuse the cleaner.

About our test

Our tests of standard and stick vacuum cleaners use the same test method.

Carpet cleaning
We rub a precisely measured quantity of dirt into a test swatch of carpet. The vacuum’s cleaning head (we use the turbo or power head, if there is one) goes over the test swatch a set number of times and the dirt it picks up is weighed.

Corners-and-edges cleaning
This test is done along the same lines as the carpet-cleaning test … but to test how well each model gets into corners and edges, we put the dirtied carpet swatch in a corner.

Pet-hair removal
Again, this is done on carpet. The lab distributes a precisely measured quantity of cat hair on a carpet swatch. The vacuum’s cleaning head (we use the turbo or power head, if there is one) goes over the test swatch a set number of times and the hair it picks up is measured. We also inspect the cleaning head to see how much hair became tangled in the brush.

Ease of use
Here we assess the movement of the cleaning head, the vacuum’s ability to clean under low furniture, the on-board tools and their versatility, mobility, the ease of emptying the dust bin or bag, and how easy the controls are to use.

Hard floors
Because all modern vacuum cleaners do a good job on hard floors, we no longer test for this. But we do test to make sure the cleaning head doesn’t scratch hard floors.

Reliability

As well as performing well in our tests, products we recommend must also have acceptable brand reliability in our annual reliability surveys (as long as this information is available).

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Asthma and allergens

The biggest single cause of an asthma attack is the faeces of house dust mites.

There are several things you can do that may control dust mites. Whether they are relevant to you will depend on the causes of your allergy and the severity of the attacks.

  • Buy allergen-barrier bedding covers which can be damp dusted. These are available from some local Asthma Societies or Air-Flow Products.
  • Have a carpet-free bedroom - or even a carpet-free home - and regularly wet-mop the floors.
  • Damp dust every week. Alternatively, use the vacuum cleaner's dusting brush. Avoid feather dusters, which create a cloud of dust.
  • Choose a cleaner with a sealable and disposable dustbag.
  • Vacuum carpets and soft furnishings at least once a week with a cleaner that has a good filtration system such as HEPA, S-class or replaceable micro-filters (see below). The vacuuming probably won't remove the live mites, as they are very good at clinging to soft surfaces, but it does remove the faeces.
  • If possible, get someone else to vacuum. If not, open the windows and wear a mask, then leave the room and let the air settle for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Ensure the cleaner's dust compartment is emptied regularly (by someone else).
  • Steam-cleaning carpets and upholstery may reduce the levels of dust mites for a short period, but the residual water left from the cleaning may promote fungal growth, which can also trigger asthma.
  • If you or someone in your household is asthmatic, your doctor can organise an allergy test.

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