What is a vacuum cleaner?

Vacuum cleaners pick up dirt and debris left on carpets. They use an air pump to create a vacuum, which sucks up dirt, dust and debris. Vacuum cleaners work on other surfaces too, such as wood floors or countertops.

Vacuum cleaners collect and store debris in disposable bags or plastic storage containers. Failure to change the vacuum bag or empty the container can cause a vacuum cleaner to work less efficiently or clog.

The first vacuum cleaners appeared in the mid-1800s and utilized bellows, which are devices that create intense air gusts. Motorized vacuum cleaners began to appear in the early 1900s. Today, consumers can choose from a wide range of vacuum cleaners, such as electric, battery-powered and even vacuums that clean swimming pools.

Related: Carpet Cleaning

upright vacuum cleaner

Upright vacuum cleaners are the most popular in the United States. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Types of vacuum cleaners

Upright vacuum cleaner: These push vacuums have a cleaning component with a handle and dirt container attached to them. They generally have a rolling brush that picks up the dirt and debris. Many come equipped with a detachable, hand-held option for vacuuming tight spaces.

Wet/dry vacuum cleaner: These vacuums work in any environment, inside or out. They roll on wheels and the items they pick up go into a drum-like container. You'll likely see them in garages, since they are able to pick up solids and liquids.

Backpack vacuum cleaner: Cleaning companies strap these vacuums to their workers' backs because they're ideal for cleaning large spaces quickly.

Hand-held vacuum cleaner: Hand-held units tackle smaller messes. These vacuums come in electric and battery-powered models.

Robotic vacuum cleaner: Robotic vacuums do the work for you. They move on their own and navigate around furniture and other obstacles. Robotic vacuums run on batteries.

Central vacuum system: A central vacuum system utilizes a systems of ducts behind a homes' walls. There are outlets in the wall in various areas where vacuum attachments connect. A large, central unit creates the suction and transports the debris via the duct system.

How a central vacuum system works

With a central vacuum system, also known as a whole-house vacuum, you can vacuum your home with just a lightweight hose and power brush unit, instead of having to cart a large unit from room to room. Much like with a central HVAC system, most of the work is done in ducts or pipes behind the walls. All the dirt and debris you vacuum up is sent through piping in the walls to a receptacle, typically located in an out-of-the-way location (such as in a basement or garage). This avoids a lot of problems associated with traditional movable vacuums, including hauling the unit around, recycling dust and dirt through the air, and having to frequently dump out debris or change bags.

To use the system, simply plug the hose and lightweight unit into the inlets located throughout your home. You can typically turn on the system with a power button located on the hose (so you won't have to go to the power unit to turn it on). Then, just start vacuuming. The system will suck all the dirt and debris out of the room and through the piping to the main receptacle unit, usually a box or vacuum bag. You'll need to empty this receptacle just once every few months.

How is a central vacuum installed?

While many people choose to install a central vacuum cleaning system in new construction as the home is built, central vacuums can also be retrofitted into an existing home. You can hire a professional installer for this job, or you can perform it yourself. However, approaching it as a DIY job will require a little know how.

In either case, you'll first need to find a location for a central power unit. Typically, you'll want to place this in a basement or garage.

Then, you'll need to choose locations for wall inlet valves throughout your house. How many inlets you need is up to you. Typically you'll need one inlet for every 650 feet in your home. You will definitely need at least one inlet per story of your home.

Your installer will connect these valves to the power unit through piping throughout the house. You can run the piping through the walls, in the ceiling or under the floor. Central vacuum piping is usually about 2 inches wide. Although historically central vacuum tubes have been built from a variety of materials, including plumbing pipe and flexible vacuum hose, manufacturers strongly recommend using PVC piping specially designed for central vacuum use. Vacuum tubing is built to specific thickness and rigidity standards for maximum air flow. Using this industry-standard piping also makes repair much more smooth, since everything is built to the same specifications and a contractor can replace parts easily. 

When hiring a central vacuum installer, make sure they are bonded and insured, and that they carry whatever licensing is required by your local laws for this kind of work. 

Central vacuum system: What is it?

Pros and cons of central vacuum systems

A central vacuum cleaning system has several advantages over regular vacuum cleaners:

  • Decreased allergens. Central vacuum systems are practically dust-free. With a traditional vacuum cleaner, you collect dirt and debris into a container, which you need to empty often. With this system, debris and allergens are let back into the air. But with a central vac system, dirt does not recirculate. Instead of recycling through the air, allergens and asthma triggers stay in a receptacle, far away from the normal living area of your home.

  • Powerful suction. Central vac systems feature a very powerful motor that produces much more suction than typical vacuum cleaners. A typical central vacuum can give you three to five times the power of a traditional vacuum.

  • Longer life. Central vacuums offer a much longer lifespan than typical vacuum cleaners. Typically, a central vacuum can last twenty years or more. A typical hand-held vacuum only lasts between two and five years.

  • Increased value of your home. Compared to many other home improvements, central vacuums really pay off. Installing a central vac system is a good investment. It can add thousands of dollars to your home's value. Homeowners typically recoup the cost of installation (if not more) when they sell their home. Central vacuums can also add points to environmentally friendly certifications, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program or the National Green Building Standard of the National Association of Home Builders.  

However, the system does include some drawbacks:

  • High cost. Central vacuums aren't cheap to install. Typically a central vac system will cost $1,000 and up if you opt for a professional installation. If you do the installation yourself, you can save as much as $500. A traditional vacuum cleaner is far more budget-friendly if cost is a concern. 

  • Installation difficulties. It isn't easy installing a central vacuum in a home. If you have a home without a basement or attic, it can be difficult to find the space for the receptacle/power unit. If you're not already familiar with working behind your walls, getting the pipe into place can be very difficult and time-consuming, which is why it's best to hire a professional. 

  • Maintenance. The system will need regular maintenance throughout its life. You will need new attachments every five years or so, costing between $200 and $500 each. You will also need to replace the carbon brushes, at a cost of $15-$20 a pop.

vacuum brush

Some vacuums use rolling brushes to aid in collecting dirt. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Vacuum cleaner prices

As with many other home appliances, vacuum cleaner prices vary widely, and most brands come in high- and low-end models.

Average cost for different types of vacuum cleaners:

  • Upright vacuums: $100 to $250

  • Wet/dry vacuums: $100

  • Backpack vacuums: $150 to $500

  • Hand-held vacuums: $25 to $100

  • Robotic vacuums: $150 to $500

  • Central vacuum system unit (not including installation): $500

How to buy a vacuum cleaner

Most major retailers, online stores and specialty vacuum shops all sell vacuum cleaners.

  • Compare prices and functionality before you make your purchase to ensure the vacuum cleaner fulfills your needs.

  • Check the manufacturer's website for in-depth descriptions and specifications.

  • Research the features of each vacuum you may buy, and if possible, test each model before you make a purchase.

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