When shopping for a new vacuum, it can be hard to know what type to get, let alone how much to pay.
Barrel? Robot? Stick? Upright?
Don't go by brand alone – first choose the type of vacuum that's suited to your needs. The main types include:
- Barrel/canister vacuums and upright vacuums: A barrel vac is the typical workhorse vacuum you know and love, used for your big household cleans, with the main motor pulled behind you as you clean. Upright vacs have the motor situated in the body of the unit, so you don't need to pull the barrel behind you. Both types come in bagged (requires a disposable bag that holds the dust/dirt) and bagless varieties (dirt goes directly into a receptacle to be emptied).
- Robot vacuum: For busy households that need constant upkeep, robot vacs are ideal for day-to-day maintenance as they are left to crawl floors with minimal human intervention – but they aren't brilliant performers, with members complaining that they don't fully cover the room. Robot vacuums are tested differently to barrels and uprights, so we review them separately.
- Stick vacuum: These battery-operated, lightweight and handheld vacuums (like the Dyson V8) are a fast-growing floor care category and, like robot vacs, are rated separately to our regular vacuum reviews as they are subjected to a hard floor test. Stick vacuums make it a breeze to clean up day-to-day dust and dirt, or the constant trails of crumbs left by small children.
How much should I pay?
When shopping for a new vacuum, it can be hard to know what you're actually paying for, let alone what you should be spending, with price points ranging from under $100 to over $1500. Mid-priced vacuum cleaners usually offer the best combination of performance and value, although it's the more expensive models, loaded up with the latest and most powerful technology, which give the very best carpet cleaning. Some low-cost vacuums compare favourably with pricier models, but generally the cheaper models are better suited to cleaning hard floors.
The task at hand
When buying a vacuum cleaner, keep in mind the type of cleaning that's required.
Barrel models are easier to carry up stairs and use in awkward places, such as a car or behind furniture.
Upright models suit large areas of carpet cleaning, on a level surface, as they have built-in power heads.
A conventional cleaning head is usually all you'll need to vacuum carpet. But when it comes to picking up pet hair, a model with a turbo brush or power head will often give a more thorough clean.
The Big Question
Bag or bin?
Vacuums are either bagless (with an on-board bin) or use bags to collect the dust, and both systems have their pros and cons. Bins and reusable cloth bags are messier and harder to empty, while bags are more user-friendly, but have ongoing costs and you may sometimes forget to to buy them. You usually need specific bags for a given vacuum cleaner, and you might void your warranty if your machine breaks down and you've been using generic (unbranded) bags rather than the brand's own bags. You also need to consider the costs of bags on the environment.
There's also a third type to consider: the water filter vacuum cleaner. These have an on-board water container to trap the dirt.
- They tend to be less messy to empty. Bags generally come with sliding shutters to prevent dust from spilling out when removed.
- With a bagged vacuum you can just put the full bag into the rubbish bin, rather than risk letting dust and allergens back into the air as you tip the vacuum bin into the rubbish. This could make a bagged model a better choice in an apartment, or when you don't have a garden into which you can empty the vacuum bin dust.
- Bags aren't necessarily recyclable, but are usually biodegradable. If the bags are completely biodegradable, you can simply put them in your compost - your garden worms will thank you for the tasty snack.
- When you change the disposable bag, you're also changing and refreshing a large part of the filter system. However, the other filters still need replacing from time to time.
- Generally a disposable bag is larger than a bin, so doesn't need to be emptied as frequently.
- This type of vacuum does involve an ongoing cost as you'll need to buy bags from time to time, and it can be inconvenient if you run out.
- Many warranties demand that you use only the manufacturer's branded bags rather than generic replacements. This could apply if your machine breaks down due to dust entering the engine or a similar fault; it shouldn't apply in unrelated cases such as wheels breaking or the power head failing.
- It's easier to see and retrieve an item that's been accidentally sucked up.
- Disposing of the waste from a bin can release dust and allergens back into the area. But if you have a house with an outside area, this is less of an issue - you could even dump it straight into the garden or compost.
- With a bin model you'll need to either clean the main filter frequently, or replace it – a hidden extra cost.
- Make sure you replace filters when necessary, as the vacuum's performance could deteriorate otherwise.
- Bin models generally involve fewer ongoing costs as you don't need to keep buying bags.
- The container needs to be emptied after each use, and when finished for the day, you must clean and dry the container and filters to prevent mould growing in the vacuum cleaner. This means a bit more more work but is generally an easy process.
- Water filter models can also usually be used for cleaning up wet spills.
- They claim exceptionally good dust filtration and to be ideal for people with allergies, asthma and dust sensitivity. We haven't tested this aspect, but note that many other bag or bagless models come with HEPA filters and could be just as good if not better for dust filtration.
Check out this list to decide which features or functions are must-haves for your new vacuum.
- Power head or turbo head: A power head replaces the standard cleaning head and has a built-in motor that operates the brush. Using one generally improves dirt removal from carpets, whereas a turbo head (which uses airflow to operate the extra brush) is usually less effective. These attachments are designed to boost cleaning performance but tend to make vacuums bulkier and/or heavier and they may not be as easy to use or manoeuvre.
- Tools: Tools such as a crevice nozzle (for narrow corners and around chair cushions), an upholstery brush (for curtains and soft furnishings) and a dusting brush can be very handy. Check whether these tools are supplied with the vacuum cleaner or if they're optional extras.
- Telescopic wan: This lets you adjust the wand to suit your height, so you can vacuum without bending your back too much. If you're tall, try to test the model in-store to ensure it's long enough for you.
- Adjustable head height: This feature's useful if you have carpets with different pile heights, and also for wooden or tiled floors.
- Variable suction/power: A control on the wand that allows you to vary the suction for more delicate jobs, such as cleaning curtains.
- Dustbag-full indicator: This handy feature lets you know when the dust collector is full without having to open the vacuum.
- Blower: A vacuum that can reverse the airflow to blow air continuously is a godsend when it's time to blow up the airbed!
- Onboard storage for accessories: Handy when you are cleaning edges and upholstery, and/or dusting furniture whilst vacuuming.
- Wand storage: Allows the wand to be attached neatly to the cleaner when storing. This is useful for keeping all the bits together.
- Retractable cord: This is much easier than winding up the cord manually! Uprights don't have this feature, but you can wind the cord around two hooks to keep it tidy.
- HEPA filter: This stands for high-efficiency particulate air filtration. It's an international standard for filters that trap minute particles. This type of filter can help if you have asthma or a dust allergy or sensitivity, but you have to clean or replace it regularly (about once a year) to ensure it works efficiently - which may mean more ongoing costs. Given that vacuums with a HEPA filter are usually more expensive, do you really need one? If you have asthma, a dust allergy or are simply sensitive to dust, it can help, though for asthma sufferers it's not likely to be the complete answer to house dirt. Read more about HEPA filters, asthma and allergies.