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Vacuum Cleaner Buying Guide

A vacuum cleaner is a necessity for keeping your floors tidy, but the variety of models can be confusing. Learn how to find the best vacuum for your home.

Upright Vacuum.

Types of Vacuum Cleaners

There are several common types of vacuum cleaners:

  • Upright
  • Canister
  • Stick
  • Handheld
  • Robotic

Upright Vacuums

Upright Vacuum.

Upright vacuums are full-size models with wide cleaning paths — up to 15 inches — and corded power. The cleaning head is directly attached to the housing for the motor and dustbin. Upright vacuums have a motorized, rotating brush, making them well suited for lifting dirt out of carpets. Most can adapt to hard floors as well. Many uprights come with extensions and attachments to clean under furniture, reach tight crevices, vacuum stairs or dust window treatments. Upright vacuums are more compact than most canister models and, since they store upright, they take up less floor space.

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Canister Vacuums

Canister Vacuum.

Canister vacuums are another type of full-size, corded vacuum. The motor and dirt bin are contained in a wheeled housing — the canister — that connects to the cleaning head with a hose. The design makes them easy to maneuver, since you can vacuum with the cleaning head rather than needing to move the entire machine around a room. Canister vacuums have cleaning paths comparable to those of uprights and similar available attachments. They work well on hard floors and many include a powered, rotating brush that makes them good for vacuuming carpet. They're also effective for vacuuming stairs and reaching underneath furniture.

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Stick Vacuums

Stick Vacuum.

Stick vacuums have a design that is similar to that of uprights, but these models are smaller and have smaller cleaning paths. They're a good choice if you don't want to handle a heavier, full-size vacuum. They can work well for small houses and apartments, or as a quick cleaning option for an upstairs or downstairs. Some stick vacuums use suction alone to clean, making them well suited for hard floors, but some include a motorized brush for cleaning carpets. Attachments — such as tools for dusting or cleaning crevices — are included with some models. They don't have the power or capacity of full-size vacuums, but their compact design makes them easier to handle and store. Most stick vacuums are cordless, but corded models are available, giving you unlimited run time.

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Handheld Vacuums

Handheld Vacuum.

As the name suggests, handheld vacuums are small, lightweight and highly portable. Most are cordless, giving you the freedom to quickly handle spot-cleaning jobs. Handheld vacuums can tackle tasks such as cleaning up dry spills on a countertop, pet hair on upholstery, dust on blinds or dirt on vehicle floor mats. Corded models are also available, giving you long-running power. You can also find some that connect to a vehicle accessory power outlet. Some models can handle wet vacuuming and some have a motorized brush to give you extra cleaning capability.

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Robotic Vacuums

Robotic Vacuum.

Robotic vacuums do the cleaning for you. These small, self-propelled devices are great for quick, daily cleaning. They can keep small living spaces tidy and complement manual vacuuming, lessening your reliance on full-scale cleaning with larger models. Robotic vacuums are cordless and small enough to clean under furniture. Features that allow the devices to dodge obstacles are standard and some models can avoid drop-offs (such as stairs). You can find robotic vacuums designed for hard floors as well as models that have a rotating brush or agitator to clean carpets as well. Look for side brushes that push dirt from edges of the room into the path of the vacuum. Programmable models let you create a cleaning schedule. Some come with a remote control and some have Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you activate or program them from a mobile device. Recharging docks and an auto-recharge function increase convenience. Many self-charging models can resume cleaning after a recharge. Accessories included with some robotic vacuums let you block off areas or allow access to adjoining rooms. Some of these vacuums record visual reference points to help them navigate through your home.

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Good to Know

Some robotic vacuums can handle mopping. You can also find dedicated robotic moppers.

Features and Specifications

Using an Upright Vacuum to Clean Stairs.

Cordless vacuums let you move from room to room without stopping to change electrical outlets. Models with higher volt (V) specifications are more powerful and tend to run longer before needing a recharge. Fast-charging options reduce downtime.

Corded vacuums give you unlimited run time. While they don't have the full portability of cordless models, they tend to offer more cleaning power. Models with higher amperage (amps) ratings are more powerful. Extended cord length lets you clean more floor space without needing to move the plug. A retractable cord winds into the vacuum at the press of a button or foot pedal.

HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filtration efficiently removes allergens like pet dander and dust — 99.97 percent of particles 0.3 microns in diameter and larger — from the vacuum exhaust.

Bagged vacuums tend to hold more dirt and dust. The bag material filters much of the dust from the vacuum exhaust and the vacuum may have additional filters to further clean the air. Since you dispose of the used bags, these models reduce your contact with dirt and dust — especially helpful if allergies are a concern.

Bagless vacuums collect debris in a bin or cup, relying on filters to clean dust from the exhaust. To empty the vacuum, you dump the debris out of the bin. You don't need to find or purchase bags for these models, but they usually have more filters to clean or replace.

Bagless vacuums with cyclonic action force air into a cylindrical or cone-shaped chamber — the cyclone — to spin dirt and dust particles into the collection bin. The process helps maintain suction by reducing the debris that clog the filters (or the filter material of a vacuum bag) and decrease airflow. Multi-cyclonic models use additional, smaller cyclones to keep finer particles out of the filters. Some models improve the cyclones to separate even more debris from the air.

Cleaning head height options let you configure the vacuum to different floor types. Manual adjustment allows you to raise or lower the cleaning head as needed for hard floors and different types of carpet. Vacuums with automatic height adjustment detect the surface and adjust the cleaning head accordingly.

A roller brush on / off feature lets you disengage the motorized brush on hard floors to prevent scattering the dirt and dust. This feature can also help prevent rugs from getting tangled in the vacuum.

Variable suction lets you adjust the vacuum to clean more delicate furnishings such as upholstery and window treatments.

Included tools and attachments, such as dusting brushes, handheld roller brushes, crevice tools and extension pieces, let you take on a variety of cleaning tasks.

A headlight illuminates the area you're vacuuming — helpful for cleaning under a couch, in a dark corner or in a hallway.

Edge-cleaning features help you get rid of dirt and dust in the hard-to-reach areas along walls.

Self-propelled models reduce the effort of vacuuming.

Convertible models — such as uprights, which can function as canister vacuums, and stick vacuums, which can operate as handhelds — let you transform the vacuum to fit the cleaning task.

Indicator lights let you know when it's time to empty the vacuum.

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Good to Know

Cordless vacuum battery types include nickel cadmium (NiCd or NiCad), nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium ion (Li-ion). A NiCd battery holds a charge longer in storage and can take more charge and discharge cycles than a NiMH battery, but a NiMH battery is lighter and holds a greater charge than a NiCd battery of the same size. A Li-ion battery is smaller and lighter than a similar voltage battery of either type. It also holds a charge longer than either type in storage.


Vacuuming Uphostery.

When looking at available models and features, consider these factors and tips:

  • Room and home size: A full-size upright or canister vacuum can help you clean large areas more quickly.
  • Multiple levels: Consider keeping a full-size vacuum on your main floor and using a stick vacuum for regular, light cleaning on other levels, reducing the number trips up and down the stairs with the larger vacuum.
  • Floor types: Make sure the vacuum you choose can easily and effectively handle all of the types of flooring in your home.
  • Furniture: Consider a model designed to simplify steering and maneuvering around obstacles.
  • Pets: Look for tools and features designed to collect pet hair without clogging the vacuum.
  • Allergies: Look for vacuums designed to better contain dust, pollen, pet dander and other allergens.
  • Cleaning schedule: A stick vacuum or robotic vacuum handles daily cleaning with little effort, but if you don't have time to vacuum regularly, consider a more powerful upright or canister vacuum to make the most of your efforts.

Other Floor Care and Vacuuming Options

Carpet Shampooer.

Shampooers are for deep carpet cleaning. They heat water and mix it with detergent, creating a solution you spray on the carpet. Brushes dislodge dirt and the machine vacuums up the dirty water. Models similar in appearance to an upright or canister vacuum are effective for cleaning entire rooms and often include handheld tools for upholstery or carpeted stairs. Smaller models are designed for spot cleaning carpets or upholstery.

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Steam mops are similar in design to a stick vacuum. They use steam and a mopping pad to clean and sanitize hard floors. Some include tools and accessories to clean carpets or countertops and you can configure some to steam drapes or garments. You can also find steam cleaners that clean and sanitize windows and other surfaces in addition to floors.

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Floor sweepers are good for quick, light jobs. Many models work on both carpet and hard floors. They don't have the cleaning or collection capabilities of a vacuum, but they're much lighter and smaller. You can find cordless models with motor-driven brushes or manual models with brushes that turn as you push the device.

Shop for Floor Sweepers

Shop vacuums are designed for use in garages or workshops and also work well for vacuuming vehicle interiors. Most feature a wheeled canister for collecting debris and hose-end tools. Handheld models are also available for quick cleanups. Shop vacuums typically have wet and dry cleaning capabilities and some can operate as a blower. Some benchtop power tools have ports that allow you to use a shop vacuum for dust collection.

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Good to Know

Follow the vacuum or floor-cleaning tool manufacturer's instructions for use, maintenance and safety. Make sure the machine is appropriate for the type of cleaning you need to do.