Woman excited about her cool vacuum

When customers come into our stores in Eastern Idaho, I do my best to educate them. Well-informed customers can look through marketing hype to understand what really matters in the making of incredible vacuums.

As this is a subject that most of us didn’t learn about in school, it’s easy to make decisions during your purchase that might give more weight to something that doesn’t matter, while completely ignoring other important information.

Before going into what characteristics you should look for when purchasing a vacuum, let’s take a moment to go over how vacuums actually work. Then you’ll be prepared to understand why some areas matter more than others.

How it works

diagram explaining vacuum cleaners

Picture courtesy of http://www.discoveryexpresskids.com/blog/nature-abhors-a-vacuum-how-to-put-an-egg-in-a-bottle

A vacuum can be best related to drinking out of a straw. When you seal your mouth around the straw and inhale, you move the air particles from inside the straw to inside your mouth. This means the air pressure in the room is greater than the air pressure inside the straw, so the air pushes your beverage up through the straw.

All vacuums work in the same way. The action starts with a motor, which is best envisioned as an airplane propeller. The spinning blades of the fan force air to move up. Inside the environment of our vacuum cleaner, everything below the fan will then have lower pressure than the ambient environment (your house).

Air from your house will then push air into the intake of your vacuum cleaner, sucking up any debris in its immediate path. Vacuums use brushes to help knock some of the debris loose so that more gets picked up.

Depending on the type of vacuum we are talking about, this dirt-filled air is handled in a couple of different ways.

Most bagged vacuums just direct all of this straight into the bag. The material of the bag essentially acts as a filter, as most of the dirt is trapped in the bag, but the bag itself allows the air to pass through and exit the machine.

Other vacuums, such as canisters, will be set up differently. The dirt-filled air will hit the storage bin, which will have an exit filter to trap the dirt and dust in the bin, before finally pushing the exhaust out of the unit. There are a few ways of integrating this concept into the design, but that is generally how they work.

With the basics covered, what characteristics do you think are most important in a vacuum cleaner?

Primary Characteristics

Riccar vacuum cleaner

The Motor

It’s easy to see that the motor is the heart of the vacuum. Without understanding all the other considerations, it’s easy for a customer to believe that the power of the motor is the most important consideration.

It is important, but specifications for vacuum motors can be hard to interpret, and a more powerful motor doesn’t necessarily mean a better vacuum, nor does it indicate the performance of the rest of the vacuum.

Most ordinary vacuums have motors operating in the 500-1000 watt range, but it’s not about how much you have, it’s how you use it. For instance, there are many vacuums that are reaching the 2,000 watt range. More power means more suction, right? Nope.

You’ll see these power-hungry motors on vacuums with HEPA filters, which add some in-line resistance to airflow. These hogs are simply compensating for the lack of airflow, so it’s quite possible to see a vacuum with half the wattage of a HEPA-filtered unit actually have better airflow.


Airflow is an important factor on our list of considerations, but it should never be the only factor.

We measure airflow in cubic feet per minute (CFM), using it to indicate the force of the airflow that is picking up all the dirt and depositing it in the container. More airflow generally means a better vacuum cleaner.

We like airflow because it indicates the working result, i.e. the power of the motor versus the resistance the air must pass through. The thing to watch for is that there are several things that can affect airflow, so just because the number looks great on the box it doesn’t mean you’ll be getting that in practice.

For instance, bagless vacuums might quickly have a drop in airflow when their filters become dirty. Turbulence in the lines, debris in the hose, and dirty brushes/attachments can all decrease the working airflow. In general, bagless vacuums lose air flow much faster than bagged vacuums. There are always exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good rule of thumb to remember.


The main brush head should be an effective agitator. Some might have a “power head”, using a separate motor to improve dirt and hair removal from carpets, and others might have a “turbo head”, which uses air to power the brush.
Unless you are vacuuming hardwood or tile, brush agitation is one of the most important factors in properly cleaning floors. After all, if you don’t get the deep-down dirt, it will stay in your carpet no matter how high the air flow or suction may be.


Waterlift measures the sealed suction power of the vacuum, or the ability of the vacuum cleaner to lift debris. The actual metric we are considering is how many inches the motor will lift a one inch column of water.

Besides being a general indicator of how well the vacuum sucks, it also tells us how the unit operates in less than ideal conditions, such as when there is more resistance. This is another indicator where more is usually better.

Secondary characteristics

box of vacuum accessories


Filtration is an interesting topic because of the balancing that it requires. Early bagged models of vacuums came with a problem – they just moved dirt around.

While the bags would capture large debris, the finer particles of dust and allergens are small enough to pass right through the bag, blowing fine layers of dust into the air of your home. Most of your cheap department store models still have this problem.

Filtration was part of the solution to this problem, as was better design and materials. But filtration also increases resistance – requiring the whole vacuum to be engineered to overcome this problem, and driving up the cost of the unit itself.

While many people might desire the advanced filtration of a HEPA filter, it should be part of an overall design that really makes that filter count. Many cheap models are on the market that will put in a “HEPA” filter to cash in on it, while the unit might be so poorly engineered it ends up not being helpful. You can read more about what I have to say regarding HEPA filters here.


Quality might be a bit of an ambiguous term, but it’s vital consideration to avoid being a disappointed customer. You can’t just throw in a big motor and a fancy HEPA-like filter into a pretty container and call it a day — good-on-paper specifications mean absolutely nothing if the vacuum is poorly constructed.

There are a few things to consider when assessing the quality of a vacuum. Is the unit durable, or do the parts seem cheaply made and feel as though they will break easily? Just how air-tight is the vacuum, what’s the size of the container/bag, and what kind of warranty does it come with?

Cheaply-made vacuum cleaners are designed to get you with flash, but will perform poorly and likely break down in a year or two. The question you should ask yourself is this: how many vacuums do you want to buy in the next 15 years?

Cleaning Tools

The vacuum’s primary function is to move air, carrying dirt and dust with it along the way. The tools can be a great help in directing the efforts of your vacuum’s motor.

The other accessories with the vacuum can help you deal with areas other than large swathes of carpet. Make sure you can cover the basics: the crevice nozzle (for small spaces), the upholstery brush (curtains and furniture), and dusting brush are usually standard.


What can your vacuum do? Your own home might have particular needs, such as a low profile for getting under furniture, incredible maneuverability, or the ability to adjust head height as you move between rooms.

Other features to look for headlights, variable power (for more delicate jobs), or indicators to remind you to change bags and filters. We often find customers to be absolutely delighted by the little things, after having worked around simple issues for years.

Take it for a test drive

vacuum cleaner test

While assessing primary considerations such as the motor, air flow, and water lift during your vacuum shopping, nothing will beat the effectiveness of simply taking our vacuum for a spin.

At Jones Sew & Vac, our vacuums are test-ready. You can even bring your current vacuum in for a side-by-side trial by combat against a model of your choice.

You don’t have to be in the dark when you purchase your next vacuum cleaner. Our knowledgeable team can help you narrow down the choices based on your needs, and then give you the chance to try before you buy.


For the love of vacuums!

Jones Sew & Vac Team