Buyer's guide: Vacuum cleaners

justin schamotta
By Justin Schamotta

100 back pocket money

THE average Briton spends 10 years of their lives doing household chores - an average of 26 hours a week - according to a 2014 study conducted for a domestic cleaning service.

Obviously not all of that is spent wielding a vacuum cleaner. Figures from a famous manufacturer suggest that almost 90% of people spend less than an hour at a time doing the vacuuming, and 43% of us do the job in less than half an hour.

But pick the wrong machine for the job and it can take - and feel like it's taking - much longer.

The good news is that modern cleaners are much lighter, more efficient, and can make tackling the dust bunnies almost pleasant.

So for those who fancy becoming one of the 43%, without skimping on cleaning, here's our guide to finding the ideal new vacuum cleaner.

1. Types of vacuum cleaner

What to consider
  • Upright vacuums are good for carpets, cylinder vacuums are good for hard floors
  • Wet and dry cleaners can clean carpets as well as vacuuming them
  • Handheld vacuums are good for quickly cleaning up after children

There are numerous types of cleaner available, each suited to slightly different tasks. However, with the exception of households in need of a specialist cleaner, the choice generally comes down to two types: upright or cylinder.

Upright

Picture a 50s housewife doing the vacuuming, and she's likely to be wielding some kind of upright cleaner. The waist height handle allows the user to push the whole machine around the room. The motor is situated at the bottom of the machine, driving a fan to suck up the dust.

In addition to the machine's suction power, upright cleaners tend to feature a revolving brush for combing the carpet pile. This lifts trodden in dust and dirt, which is then sucked into the bag or cylinder. Some machines also have beater bars to further agitate the pile and loosen ingrained dirt.

This makes upright cleaners great for large areas of carpet, and getting more dirt out, but they're not so good on hard surfaces.

Cylinder

Generally smaller and lighter than uprights, cylinder cleaners are easier to use on stairs, around furniture and in small rooms.

The motor is stored in the body of the machine, again powering a fan to suck dust through the hose and into a bag or removable cylinder.

Unlike uprights, which use revolving brushes to lift dirt, cylinder cleaners rely on suction alone - and over a greater distance. This makes them better at dealing with hard floors, but less effective on carpets.

Handheld

Then there are the lightweight, battery powered handheld machines designed for small jobs. They're useful for removing cobwebs, cleaning car interiors and picking up small spills - such as those caused by pets or children at mealtimes.

Wet and dry cleaners

People who want the option of getting their home carpets even cleaner could always consider a wet and dry cleaner. Powerful machines that can wash the carpet and help remove stains as well as removing dust and debris, they tend to be larger than cylinder cleaners because they need to be able to store water.

Steam cleaners

It's unlikely that most domestic households will ever need to buy a steam cleaner. As their name suggests, they use steam to loosen and remove stains and dirt, and they can be used on carpets and upholstery as well as hard surfaces and windows.

However, the cleaning process is much more involved, and they can be a little over the top for general household duties.

2. Power

What to consider
  • Cylinder cleaners need more power than uprights to perform the same task
  • Machines with variable power are useful when there are different types of surface to clean

Cleaners with the most wattage are generally the most powerful, though since September 2014, all new cleaners in the EU must be less than 1,600 watts.

Cylinder cleaners tend to need more wattage than uprights to get the same suction. This is because the dust has further to travel up the tube before it reaches the bag.

As a rough guide, look for cylinder cleaners with around 1,400 watts and upright cleaners offering around 1,300 watts.

Most machines now have a variable power or suction setting, which is useful when there are lots of different types of surface to clean. Hard floors need less suction than carpets, for example, and they also allow the user to reduce power when cleaning things like curtains.

3. Filters

What to consider
  • A HEPA filtration or S-Class system is good for those with asthma or dust allergies
  • Charcoal filters are good for removing pet smells
  • Dust filtration is graded like energy efficiency - A-rated machines are best

Filters are a necessary part of all cleaners. They help prevent dust from escaping from the cleaner once it's been sucked in, and are particularly important for those with asthma or dust allergies.

HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters - also known as S-Class filters - are specially designed to prevent allergy causing particles from re-entering the atmosphere. They are highly efficient, but anyone who wants a machine with one will pay for the privilege.

Those on a tighter budget will probably find themselves with a machine that filters the air in a series of stages. Most use between three and seven stages, but it's recommended to look for one with at least four.

Some filters are designed to last only a certain length of time. Some can be renewed by being put through the wash; others are meant to be completely replaced.

But top of the range machines come with lifetime filters; that is, they should last as long as the cleaner does, which is typically between seven and 10 years.

4. To bag or not to bag

What to consider
  • Bagless cleaners are more expensive upfront
  • Bagged cleaners are better for allergy sufferers
  • Bagged cleaners lose suction as the bag gets full

Bagged vacuum cleaners suck debris into removable bags, which can be emptied or disposed of when full. By contrast, bagless cleaners suck debris into a cylinder, which can be emptied and used again.

Although bagless cleaners are generally more expensive, the cost of buying bags can quickly add up - and while they may look similar, the bags for one model may not fit another, so finding replacements can sometimes be tricky.

Bagged cleaners are better for allergy sufferers as the dirt is sucked straight into a sealed bag. No matter how much filtering the machine does, the process of emptying a bagless cleaner will inevitably allow some dust to escape.

Aside from the cost of the bags, the biggest drawback with bagged cleaners is that they tend to lose suction as the bag is filled up - which doesn't happen with bagless cleaners.

5. Attachments

What to consider
  • Attachments can make cleaning awkward spaces much easier
  • Some additional attachments can be bought separately

Attachments are great for getting into awkward spaces or cleaning different types of materials. Most cleaners come with at least one or two attachments.

A crevice tool is usually bundled in with the machine and consists of a tapered plastic tube with an angled head that is designed to reach into crevices. Some are flexible to allow a greater range of movement.

The other frequently included tool is the dusting brush. These circular attachments have soft bristles that pick up dust and "wipe" surfaces at the same time.

While these two tools alone are good enough to take care of most jobs, there are a host of other attachments available. These tend to be a little more specialist and used for things like picking up ground in pet hair or cleaning Venetian blinds.

People whose homes have high ceilings will find it worthwhile to invest in a machine with telescopic attachments, allowing them to extend or shorten their reach as necessary.

Fabrics are best cleaned with a wide, thin nozzle. This helps prevent fabrics from being sucked too viciously into the machine, while still managing to clean a relatively large area.

6. Manoeuvrability, size and storage

What to consider
  • Large capacity cleaners need less emptying, but can be awkward to move and store
  • Is the cable long enough to deal with large rooms or a lack of plug sockets?

The most efficient machine can be rendered useless if the cord's too short, or it's a struggle to lift it up the stairs.

Those who live in large houses or homes where there are few free electrical sockets really need to consider the length of the cable. They generally range from between five to ten metres.

As a rough guide, there'll need to be a socket in every room when using a machine with a 5m cable.

Most cleaners these days come with a cord rewind feature - so tidying the cable away afterwards can be as simple as touching a button.

Also bear in mind the weight of the machine. Cylinders and uprights typically range from between 4.5kg to around 7kg, while handheld machines can weigh as little as 1.2kg.

It goes without saying that cylinder cleaners are shorter and squatter than their upright counterparts, but dimensions can still vary tremendously - and people who want the neatness of a cylinder cleaner must also remember to take the hose and head into account when finding somewhere to store it.

The height of upright cleaners, as they can vary quite a lot - from around 75cm to 122cm. Shorter people will find taller cleaners awkward to use, and taller people may find the bending required to use a shorter cleaner inconvenient at best and painful at worst.

Taller cleaners can also be difficult to find homes for when they're not being used.

The final thing to consider is the dust storing capacity. This can vary from 0.4 litres to 20 litres and more. up. Larger capacity machines are useful for people who need to clean large areas, as they don't need emptying so often - but expect the extra capacity to affect manoeuvrability.

7. Energy labelling

What to consider
  • A-rated machines are most efficient
  • Label also explains dust pick up (on hard floors and carpets), dust re-emission, and noise level
  • Upright cleaners are noisier than cylinder cleaners

The energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners must be displayed on a label, along with various other pieces of information. Efficiency ratings range from A (the most efficient) through to G (the least efficient).

Closely related to this will be the energy consumption of the machine. This is based annual use of 50 cleaning tasks a year for an average household with 87 square metres of floor, and is measured in kilowatts per hour, per year.

The energy consumption of new cleaners must be less than 62kWH; the most efficient tend to be between 20 and 30kWH.

As mentioned above, people with allergies will want to pay close attention to the information on the label regarding dust pick up and re-emission.

Each machine should have two dust pick up ratings - one for carpets and one for hard floors. Those rated A are the most efficient. It's wise to avoid anything below C.

In terms of dust re-emission, an A rating indicates that the machine has good quality filters and effective seals.

One final piece of information on the energy efficiency label is how noisy the cleaner is, measured in Decibels (dB).

As a rough guide, the noise for a passenger travelling in a car on the motorway is around 77dB; the quietest vacuum cleaners tend to be somewhere between 61 and 69dB.

As a general rule, upright cleaners are noisier than cylinder cleaners.

In summary

We know that budget will come into the decision making process - but it's really important to choose a vacuum cleaner based on what it needs to do rather than price. There's little point, for example, getting a cheap cylinder cleaner for a house full of deep carpets.

But that doesn't mean it's not possible to find something to fit most budgets.

It's possible to get a decent 'A' rated upright, cylinder, or wet and dry cleaner for no more than £100, and a really good handheld cleaner for around half that - and it's entirely possible to get a serviceable cleaner for tens of pounds.

Use the information we've provided to narrow down the search - and if you find yourself in a muddle, use the energy labels to compare like with like.

Quick considerations
Type of cleanerUpright vacuums are good for carpets, cylinder vacuums are good for hard floors
Wet and dry cleaners can clean carpets as well as vacuuming them
Handheld vacuums are good for quickly cleaning up after children
PowerCylinder cleaners need more power than uprights to perform the same task
Machines with variable power are useful when there are different types of surface to clean
FiltersA HEPA filtration or S-Class system is good for those with asthma or dust allergies
Charcoal filters are good for removing pet smells
Dust filtration is graded like energy efficiency - A-rated machines are best
To bag or not? Bagless cleaners are more expensive upfront
Bagged cleaners are better for allergy sufferers
Bagged cleaners lose suction as the bag gets full
AttachmentsA crevice tool and dusting brush are usually included
Some additional attachments can be bought separately
Manoeuvrability, size and storage Large capacity cleaners need less emptying
Bigger cleaners more difficult to move and store
Is the cable long enough to deal with large rooms or few plug sockets?
The Energy label A-rated machines are most efficient
Go for at least a C rated machine for dust pick up on both hard floors and carpets
Label also explains noise level; upright cleaners are noisier than cylinder cleaners