Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, April 2, 1999


Suck ’em up

More power to ya if you
size up tasks when buying a
vacuum cleaner

Bullet Vacuuming helps clear allergans
Bullet HEPA's the buzzword

By Tim Ryan


IT'S not all about power. According to vacuum guru Barry Schneider, when buying a new vacuum, customers should consider airflow, height and spacing of the cleaning brush, bag volume and whether other "bells and whistles" are really necessary.

"The first thing to consider is the type of surface you want to clean," said Schneider, co-owner with dad Norman, of the Vacuum Cleaner Center at 1120 S. King St. "That's because the two main models of vacuums -- uprights and canisters -- specialize in either hard floors or carpets."

Whether you use an upright or canister, most home vacuum cleaners are true labor-saving workhorses that will perform for years without a serious problem, Schneider said. And both have advantages and disadvantages.

Uprights are the most popular models and Hoover is the best-selling brand in America. Uprights are easy to use, convenient, generally less expensive than a canister and mostly used in cleaning carpets, Schneider said.

But uprights are not very effective on hard floors (though some have height adjusters), have less suction power than a canister, and are not as easy to pull around using the attachments for dusting, he said. Uprights also are harder to get underneath and around furniture.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The HEPA filter is efficient enough to filter cigarrette smoke
but it's only as good as the technology it's used with.

"On hardwood floors an upright might pick up dirt laying on the surface but not the dirt sticking to the floor," Schneider said." "A canister has brush-to-floor contact for dislodging dirt. An upright covers the largest amount of area in least amount of time."

The canister is a two-piece machine with a tank you pull behind,and a hose you push in front. The machines are more powerful than an upright, easier to pull around and under furniture, and cleans hard floors better. They are also more expensive.

Schneider said all the hype and advertising about higher "amps" in vacuums don't necessarily mean it's a better cleaning machine.

"All amps tell you is how much electricity the machine is pulling from your circuit and being used by the motor," he said. "Performance is based on the amount of air flow going through the vacuum."

And that airflow -- except on the highest prices vacuums -- can diminish quickly as the vacuum bag fills with dirt.

"What you want is consistent air flow in and out of the vacuum," Schneider said. "But there is no real measurement for that."

Except a very simple one.

"Airflow is created by suction," Schneider said. "Put your hand over the end of the hose. If it feels like it has good suction then it does; if it doesn't, then it doesn't."

And what makes for good airflow? One factor is the holding capacity of the machine.

"The larger the area of the bag, the more surface area and the longer the air can go through the machine without slowing down," he said. "But if a vacuum really seals down on the carpet, that's preventing airflow and it's not really cleaning."

Schneider suggests first looking at the design of the vacuum for capacity, then the area around the brush to see if it's lowered all the way against the carpet, the size of the fan that moves the air through the machine, how fast it spins, and how many fans the vacuum has.

Bag sizes vary on vacuums. Though some machines with smaller bags may be airflow efficient, these bags must be changed more frequently.

"Ultimately, you want the machine with the largest bag," Schneider said.

As for prices, Schneider says he's rarely seen an upright which deserves to be cost more than $200. His favorite model is a Panasonic -- Model 5237, $199 -- which is light, easy to push over any kind of carpet, uses inexpensive bags, is easy to change, quiet, and comes with several attachments.

A good canister vacuum with a power nozzle and accessories costs between $300 and $400. But his favorite in this category is the legendary -- and expensive -- Filter Queen, selling for about $1,000 before trade-in discounts.

"The dirt comes into machine and hits a big shield rather than the back of the bag so it doesn't fill up fast, has a large capacity, and is very easy to roll around," he said.

As for vacuum industry buzz -- the HEPA filter -- Schneider rarely recommends it. (See accompanying story.)

"Frankly, they usually aren't worth the extra cost," he said. "A HEPA filter in lab conditions maybe very efficient but in most vacuums it's not. And HEPA filters clog faster, decreasing efficiency.

"They're expensive -- usually $40 to $80 -- and must be changed at least annually, sometimes once a month."

Besides, Schneider said, there are new high-efficiency filters on the market at 1/10th the price of HEPAs, which do as good a job.

A machine with all the bells and whistles like an on-and-off switch on the hose, HEPA filters, heavy metal construction, "headlights" and self-propulsion dramatically raise the price of a machine which may need repair more frequently.

His sentiments are echoed by Dr. Stuart Rusnak, an allergist with the Hawaii Asthma & Allergy Disease Management Center, who says the simplest answer to your vacuum cleaner needs is to "get a Sears Wet-Dry Shop Vac."

"Get the cheapest machine you can get. You don't have to spend $1,800 on a vacuum cleaner. That's crazy. You just want to get the dirt out. The Shop Vac will pick up dirt and water."

He said that HEPA filters designed by NASA are highly efficient, to the point where they can filter cigarette smoke from the air. But he said the filter's efficiency is dependent on the engineering of the vacuum machines, and whether they work or not is a matter of scientific doubt.

"Cost has no correlation with how good a vacuum cleaner is," Rusnak said. "You should want to, but you can't get all the stuff out of the air or carpets. You can keep sucking stuff out of a carpet forever."

If the carpet is harboring allergy-causing particles, Rusnak's no-nonsense advice is to get rid of the carpet. If it's cat dander causing problems, get rid of the cat.

He adds that people should see an allergist to be certain they know the cause of their condition. "A lot of people think they're allergic and it turns out they have no allergy at all. Or someone may have a mold allergy instead of a mite allergy; it may be something they don't even suspect."

Buying tips

Here are some tips from the Vacuum Cleaner Center in Honolulu on how to buy a vacuum best for you.

1. A canister vacuum should come equipped with:

(PI) A motorized power head necessary for deep-cleaning carpets. This attachment connects by an electric cord to the canister hose and contains its own motor to turn the revolving brush.

(PI) Four other key tools are: A bare-floor brush; an upholstery nozzle for chair cushions and draperies; a crevice tool for corners, baseboards and window tracks; and a dusting brush with soft bristles for books and lamp shades.

2. Filters: If you're concerned about allergies, check the kind of filters used to trap dust, dirt and other allergens. Most vacuums come with standard paper bags that hold picked-up dirt, but will also work with special microfiltration bags that trap fine particles.

Two additional filters over the exhaust and the motor catch even more of the particles that escape the bag. Look for vacuums with a high-efficiency or "True" HEPA filter and a completely sealed canister that lets nothing leak out.

3. Do more amps mean better cleaning? Models with the highest amps, horsepower and wattage don't necessarily mean these vacuums are better at cleaning. Amp numbers are simply measurements of the electrical current used by the motor.

Remember: A cleaner's performance depends on airflow, the amount of suction it produces and other factors including the overall design and attachments.

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