Vacuum cleaners: high-priced, feature-laden machines don’t necessarily deliver better cleaning

Which type of vacuum cleaner to buy used to be a no-brainer. Uprights were clearly better for carpets, while canisters were the obvious choice for bare floors. That distinction has blurred somewhat as more upright models clean floors without scattering dust and more canisters do a very good job with carpeting. Central vacuum systems, a third option, add a measure of convenience but at higher prices.

You’ll also see a growing number of features such as dirt sensors and bagless dirt bins, but some of those features may contribute more to price than to function, while other, more essential features may be missing from the least-expensive models. And while cordless and even robotic vacuums have joined your list of choices, neither have been top performers so far.


Hoover, the oldest and largest vacuum manufacturer, has experienced declining sales of late. Other players include Dirt Devil, which sells uprights and canisters as well as stick brooms and hand vacuums; Bissell, a mostly mass-marketed brand; Eureka, which offers low-priced models, central vacs, and high-end Electrolux-branded models; Dyson, a high-priced British brand with a brightly colored lineup; Oreck models, which are sold in their own stores and directly by the company; and Kenmore, the biggest name in canister models, accounting for about 20 percent of U.S. sales.

Additional brands such as Miele, Panasonic, and Riccar are likely to be sold at specialty stores. Higher-priced Aerus (which also makes central vacs) is sold in its own stores and by direct mail; upscale Kirby is still sold door-to-door. You’ll also find Roomba, the robotic vac, and Euro-Pro stick vacs.

Along with the brand of vacuum, your choices include several types:

Uprights. These models, which account for the majority of vacuum sales, tend to be the least expensive. Their one-piece design also makes them easier to store than canister vacs. A top-of-the-line upright might provide a wider cleaning path, be self-propelled, and have a HEPA filter, dirt sensor, and full-bag indicator. Price range for most: $50 to $400, with the highest-priced models priced at more than $1,300.

Canister vacuums. These types tend to do well on bare floors because they allow you to turn off the brush or use a specialized tool to avoid scattering dirt. Most are quieter than uprights, and their long, flexible hose tends to make them better at cleaning stairs and in hard-to-reach areas. The added clutter of the loose hose and wand makes canisters somewhat harder to store, however. While canister vacs still tend to cost the most, you’ll find a growing number of lower-priced models. Price range for most: $150 to $500, with the most-expensive ones costing $1,000 to $1,500.

Central vac systems. These models clean like a canister vac without your having to push, pull, or carry the motor and body around. They’re also relatively quiet and require less-frequent emptying. But they’re the most expensive option, and generally require professional installation. The typical 35-foot-long hose can be cumbersome, and you don’t have a place to carry tools while you work. Price range: $500 to $1,250 for the unit including tools, plus $300 to $750 to install.

Stick vacs and hand vacs. Whether corded or cordless, these miniature vacuums typically lack the power of a full-sized unit. But they can be handy for small, quick jobs.

Price: $20 to $100.


Typical attachments include crevice and upholstery tools. Most vacuums also include extension wands for reaching high places. A full-bag alert can be handy, since an overstuffed bag impairs the cleaning ability of a vacuum.

Many uprights now feature a bagless configuration with a see-through dirt bin that replaces the usual bag. Performance has improved for bagless vacs, though emptying their bins can raise enough dust to cause concern even if you don’t have allergies. You’ll also find dirt-collection bins on most stick vacs and hand vacs. Some of these have a revolving brush, which might help remove surface debris from a carpet. Stick vacs can hang on a hook or, if they’re cordless, on a wall-mounted charger base.

Canister vacuums we’ve tested have a power nozzle that cleans carpets more thoroughly than a simple suction nozzle. Look for a suction-control feature. Found on most canisters and some uprights, it allows you to reduce airflow for drapes and other delicate fabrics. On uprights, also look for an on/off switch for the brush if you plan to use attachments. Stopping the brush protects you from injury, the power cord from damage, and your furnishings from undue wear. Some uprights automatically stop the brush when the handle is in the up position.

Most canisters and a few uprights have a retractable cord that rewinds with a tug or push of a button–a plus, considering the 20-to 30-foot length for most. Another worthwhile feature is manual pile-height adjustment, which can improve cleaning by letting you match the height of the vacuum to the carpet pile more effectively than machines that adjust automatically. While a self-propelled mode takes the push out of more and more uprights, it can make them heavier and harder to transport.

Midpriced accessory kits for central vacs typically include an electrically powered cleaning head–a must for carpets–as well as a floor brush, crevice tool, upholstery brush, dusting brush, and extension wands. Spending more gets you more tools, a premium powerhead, and a longer hose. A sound-deadening muffler, installed in the exhaust air pipe near the central-vac base unit, comes on some models; it can be added to any model for about $10 to $25. Most central vacs have a suction switch at the wand handle so you can turn the vacuum unit on and off where you’re standing.

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