Last edit: 10/28/15

Shark Rotator NV501 Lift-Away 3-in-1 Vacuum Cleaner Review

Rotator 501 Review

Introduced in October 2012, Shark NV500-series "Rotators," $249.99, superseded the Navigator Lift-Away NV356E.

I can't buy every air purifier or vacuum reviewed here, and especially avoid putting scarce resources into vacuums with excessive particulate emissions.

Sitting around waiting for new products that meet my air quality emission standards for a buy-and-full-test vacuum in the under-$300 price class is frustrating.

It's no secret that I like the clean-running, maneuverable, and versatile Sharks, so I ran out and bought a new Rotator NV501 the day after the news release announced it.

We have used the 500-Series Rotator, alongside our Navigator, for almost five years now.

Shark's Rotator Lift Away 3-in-1 NV501 can be distinguished from earlier Sharks by its white casting with metallic red trim, the name "ROTATOR" on the lower front HEPA filter cover, and the chrome headlight bezels on the power nozzle. nv501 front view

Euro-Pro continues to upscale the Sharks, with sharper looks and improved build quality with each new design.

Shark is reaching for the widest audience possible, offering a general purpose vacuum intended to be a complete solution.

Many vacuums do one thing well, like deep-cleaning carpet or quickly cleaning flights of stairs.

But few focused vacs can perform well across the spectrum of home cleaning tasks.

Shark has done a nice job of improving a vacuum that performs well in almost every house sweeping task, without excessive price creep.

NV500-series Sharks may have different tool packages and model numbers for each retailer or infomercial offer.

There is a panel on the inside top flap of the box with a labeled graphic which tells buyers "What's Inside."

Buyers should be aware of exactly what they are getting.

The vacuum is identical, but accessory packages may be tailored for each retail outlet.

NV500, found at Walmart, has the caddy, 18" flexi-crevice tool, Multi-tool, straight suction nozzle, and standard power brush.

NV501 is the model intended for broad distribution, found at Amazon.com, Lowe's, Kohl's, and Macy's.

NV502 was a special edition for Bed, Bath and Beyond, adding the car detailing kit.

NV503 appeared in Target, cast in blue trim instead of red.

The main infomercial version was NV500W, going for around $200 with minimal tools, a dusting brush, 11" crevice tool, and premium power brush.

NV501, offered with one of three user-selected tool packages, is available at Amazon.com, where 792 buyer reviews average a positive 4.5 stars.

Rotator is a consistent strong seller, holding the number 20 upright vacuum sales spot on Amazon for many months.

I posted a very favorable review of the Rotator's predecessor, Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV356E, which also continues to sell well.

But I found some things that bothered users, notably the Navigator's high center of gravity and tip-over prone personality.

When I unpacked the Rotator NV501, at first I couldn't see what the "canister caddy" was supposed to accomplish.

But just a few minutes later, I discovered the "three-in-one" capability of the Shark Rotator NV501.

This Shark can adapt to any task, morphing into three different vacuums:

1.) a modern version of the traditional upright, with swivel steering maneuverability which, in our opinion, outperforms the Dyson Ball design. caddy view

2.) a free-rolling wheeled canister which follows obediently behind the user, tips over only after extreme hose stretching, and does not need to be carried as the older Lift-Away did, and

3.) the very portable Lift-Away pod vac which is our favorite tool for vacuuming stairs and hard to reach places.

Rotator on Carpets and Floors

NV501 Rotator's, like the Navigators before them, are ten amp vacuums (not 12 amp), but this is misleading.

Shark Pro has a narrow footprint and there is plenty of suction across the 11-inch-wide brush roll, which is powered by a second electric motor.

Vacuums with very strong suction are generally designed to excel on carpet, but most sacrifice general utility.

I find Shark Rotator Lift-Away's suction not overwhelming, but just OK for deep-cleaning dirty tall-pile carpets.

Suction Control

Among the many subtleties of the Shark NV500s is the sliding suction release ring.

While the suction ring is conveniently located on the handle, tight where the operator's fingers can work it, and cast in contrasting dark gray, experience shows us that a large fraction of users, and some pro reviewers, will completely miss this valuable feature.

This simple innovation makes it easy to reduce suction for using tools or vacuuming delicate throw/area rugs in upright mode.

I have found that the index finger of the right hand can be used to "trigger" suction by partially blocking/unblocking this port, allowing infinite control of tools like the turbo brush and crevice tool.

Previous Sharks had suction relief ports on the crevice tools, which we felt were unnecessary.

Instead of one short and one long crevice tool, Shark redesigned the crevice tool to extend and retract with the push of a button, eliminating the tool's suction relief ports in the process.

Two Motor System

Most upright vacuums use a single motor to drive both the fan (for suction) and the brush roll.

Shark NV501 uses a two motor system, with the brush belt running off a separate motor.

The dual motor system has some advantages over the older single motor design:

1.) an electric (not mechanical) switch controls the brush, allowing an electronic clutch to cut brush power when resistance (vacuumed up a sock?) is sensed, extending brush and belt life,

2.) users have convenient control over the brush when transitioning across multiple surfaces, and

3.) when cleaning hard surfaces (brush off), no shaft is turning in the power nozzle to generate heat, wear belts or other parts, collect debris, or wind hair.

Carpet

Shark Rotator NV501s do not have carpet height adjustment. nv501 liftaway

I use very dirty short and medium-pile carpets to test vacuum cleaner suction.

These rugs spend their contented lives outdoors on a covered porch that connects to our busy 1/2 acre garden.

We have no animals, but a haircut every couple weeks leaves human hair on the rug.

I dump a shovel full of dirt from the garden, deliberately chosen to be composed of every possible particle size, including ultra-fine organic stuff as well as cedar needles and tree bark fragments.

I call this "real dirt."

Vacuuming real dirt in direct sunlight allows me to see things, especially coarse sand particles, resisting suction or dancing across the rug.

This is a subjective test, but after doing dozens of these, I have a pretty good method for comparing carpet cleaning and grooming among vacuums.

Shark Rotator, doing the right side of the rug, picked up a dirt bin full of sand and debris in about three minutes, leaving some sand lines behind.

Our Dyson DC33, running the left half of the rug, slightly outperformed the Shark Rotator in pickup and also grooming.

But I find the Shark's carpet cleaning performance very good (not excellent) on low and mid-pile carpets.

Shark Rotator is a general-purpose cleaning tool, not a carpet specialist.

Vacuums with enough suction to really ace this test, like Eureka AirSpeed and Dyson DC28 AirMuscle, fall short in other areas due to their uncontrolled and excessive suction.

I noticed some brush roll rear blowback in our heavy-soil carpet test.

Hard Floor Performance

Shark Rotator, like all Sharks, does very well on hard floors.

With the brush easily shut off, there is little pressure ahead of the NV501's nozzle to scatter dust.

Debris Pickup

NV501's large debris pickup in general is good.

On low-pile kitchen carpets and hardwood floors, I ran the Rotator over uncooked rice grains, unpopped popcorn, pinto beans, pennies, nickels, dimes, and popped popcorn.

Unpopped popcorn pushed ahead some, as was expected from a small low-density target.

I stepped lightly on the popcorn to break it up, and Rotator easily finished it off.

Nickels on hardwood resisted suction alone, but were picked up by starting NV501's brush, making very loud clattering noises in the tubes and bin.

Note that I would never do this outside of a suction test, preferring to bend over and pick up hard objects instead of buying a new vacuum.

I think Shark NV501, with its suction release ring, multiple tool options, and easy on/off brush roll, is the best vacuum I have used for cleaning area rugs.

There is nothing better than a Shark for our entry area throw rug, which must be vacuumed every two days to collect tracked-in sand and cedar needles.

NV501 Rotator Useability

Sharks have adequate documentation, with both written and graphic instructions.

While assembly is intuitive and easy without tools, we suggest all new users take time to learn everything about the very subtle Shark Rotator NV501. nv501 buttons

NV501 Rotator has four red buttons located atop the canister.

One power button activates suction and another lights up to show whether the brush roll is on or off.

A second set of buttons release the Lift Away and wand.

The brushroll is automatically shut off when NV501 locks upright, and a foot touch on the power head combines with a light tug to unlock the handle.

Rotators have extremely good maneuverability, rivaling the Dyson Ball.

The Rotator Lift-Away is a tiny bit heavier, and the weight center lower, than Navigator Lift Away.

I notice a small increase in wrist effort with the Rotator, but the swivel steering is flawless.

There is some brush tractoring, making the back stroke stiffer with a bit of jumping on carpets, but overall push resistance on carpets is very low.

NV501's wheels are inset far enough, and the nozzle low enough, to get under most cabinet overhangs.

Shark relocated Rotator NV501's lower hose in the center of the nozzle's cleaning path, reducing the slightly unbalanced edge cleaning of predecessor Sharks.

Weighing about 16 pounds, Rotator is a middle-weight cleaning tool, but among the lighter uprights.

Carrying the NV501 up stairs is still a chore, but movement between rooms is easy.

Rotator's 30 foot manual-wind power cord is long enough for larger rooms, but is slightly stiffer than the Navigator's.

Every vacuum builder says their vac has an "extra long stretch hose," while many in the lower price classes have short, stiff hoses that make vacuuming stairs, overhead, and behind obstructions nearly impossible.

Rotator's hose is long and flexible, with a good quality feel.

And partially due to the suction bleed ring, the hose need not be "fought" as it attempts to recoil when extended.

Our second set of steps, working off the mid-level landing, has nine risers.

With the Rotator's caddy set-up, I am able to reach the hallway floor at the top.

A couple of Dysons have reached further, but cost double and nearly triple the NV500 Rotator's price.

This vacuum was born to vacuum stairs, unlike nearly every upright we have seen.

Attachments

Attachments are NOT interchangeable between NV500's and other Sharks.

My NV501 came equipped with Shark's Straight Suction Nozzle, Premium Power Brush, 18-inch Flexi Crevice tool, and two-in-one Multi-Tool.

I like Shark's Premium Power Brush (turbo tool), which is largely unchanged from its previous generation, save the red adapter to fit the smaller wand aperture.

But the "new" air powered turbo really howls, sounding like a police siren in a Hollywood B-grade cop movie from the 1950s.

The noisier turbo is quite a bit stronger, it does not bog down on our carpeted stair risers.

Fingering the suction release valve while the turbo sings is reminiscent of learning to play a musical instrument.

Rotator's power nozzle reaches pretty far under furniture when NV501 is configured as a standard upright.

Switching to Lift-Away or Caddy mode and attaching the "Straight Suction Nozzle" floor tool, and pulling out the wand allows laying it nearly flat, reaching far under furniture.

Flexi-Crevice is supposed to be an improved crevice tool, with a smoothly curved aperture to apply suction without sticking.

Over time, I have found the Rotator version of the expandable crevice tool a bit annoying, users must press a gray button to expand the tool, and a red button appears in the same spot to contract it.

The aperture is quite narrow and the crevice tool clogs occasionally.

Multi-Tool is a dusting brush which slides off to reveal an upholstery tool. nv500 tools

Users will have a learning curve with this counter-intuitive little brush, it pops off only when pressured at the spot labeled "Press Here."

While the two on-board tools on Shark Navigators would stay on if firmly pushed until set, large numbers of buyers were dissatisfied with the tendency for attached tools to fall off.

NV501's adjustable ("Flexi-Crevice") crevice tool and two-in-one Multi-Tool have strong snap-in caddy mounts, I absolutely cannot shake these tools off.

In the upright configuration, Rotators cannot be tipped over as easily as Navigators because the hose attaches much lower, but it is so convenient to change the configuration that I see no reason to try dragging the upright around by the hose.

Setting the Lift-Away unit atop the Shark's four wheeled Canister Caddy produces a very stable tool platform that follows as well as most dedicated canister vacs.

With millions of users dissatisfied with the performance of their stiff-hosed uprights in tool mode, I think Shark has struck a mother lode here.

Shark Home and Car Detailing Kit

My boxed NV501 also carried the Shark Home and Car Detailing Kit, which is not included with all Shark deals.

Rotators sold with the Steam Mop included don't have the Detail Kit.

The ingenious Shark Detail kit is a set of downsizing adapters, a small reinforced hose, three mini-extension wands, and three tiny "doll house" attachments.

This kit has additional suction control and is perfect for cleaning computer rooms like mine. nv501 lights

The little tools can reach between rat's-nest cord jungles, between keys on laptop keyboards, and other obscure dusty spots, without sucking up every map pin, paper clip, mouse pad, loose post-it note, or other lightweight desk ornament.

Shark says NV501 has an "extra-large capacity dust cup."

I put about .35 gallon of water in the bin, which came up to the "max fill" line, making the dirt bin a bit small for most users.

Even though it is convenient for me to wash out, it seems to fill quite quickly with our tracked-in sand.

Shark has included some clever LED headlamps, which make the nozzle look a bit like a toy car.

But Rotator's lamps are real vacuum headlights which focus four beams right in front where the dirt is.

Many lighted vacuums have diffuse light, better suited to keeping the user from getting lost in the dark than finding debris or dust bunnies to sweep.

Filtration and Emissions

Of course, vacuum cleaner reviews on an indoor air quality website must focus on filtration and emissions.

You'd think it wouldn't cost $1,200 to get a vacuum cleaner that won't kill you.

But before I bought my two Sharks, I would have said only allergy shop premium vacs would have acceptable emissions.

I noticed a mild plastic odor during unpacking, but it was emitted by the packaging materials, not the NV501.

Shark calls their filtration "Anti-Allergen Complete Seal Technology," and there are decent seals everywhere. nv501 filter

Three filters, foam, felt, and HEPA, are similar to the Shark Navigator NV356E's.

The foam filter has changed to a circular wrap design, and the secondary felt filter is somewhat smaller than the predecessor.

The dustbin has a new bottom-tube exhaust, which eliminates one bin-port and dumps directly into the foam prefilter chamber.

I don't think the redesigned prefitler has improved HEPA filter life, the round seal at the bottom is a bit loose, and the chamber quickly gets coated with dust.

These filters tend to surface-load, and apparently Shark designers wanted to increase filter surface area for longer maintenance intervals.

My laser particle counter shows very low exhaust emissions from the HEPA filter port, running approximately 3,000 to 4,000 .5 micron (micrometer) particles per cubic foot.

Running the NV501 for 15 minutes in my closed small (8 by 10 foot) office, laser counter particulate readings declined steadily throughout the test.

Yes, the Rotator improved the room's air quality by running.

No air purifier was operating during the test.

Stabilized at about 40,000/cu. ft. at the start, the room reading fell to 12,000 .5 micron particles/cu. ft. and was still dropping when I shut down the NV501.

Shark NV501 exhibits "excellent" filtration for a vacuum selling in the mid-$200 price range.

After 15 minutes, the hottest point my infrared thermometer could pinpoint was 52 degrees Celsius, nice and cool.

After the filthy outdoor carpet dirt test, I noticed a coating of brush roll throwback dust on the lower back side of the NV501.

With brush off, I measured 72 Decibels noise at operator ear level.

Starting the brush raised noise to 79 dB.

This is reasonable vacuum noise, but slightly louder than my Shark NV356E Navigator.

Shark Rotator NV501 Lift-Away Maintenance

Rotators have three filters: foam, felt, and HEPA.

Shark has tried to design-in longer maintenance intervals, which most users desire.

Factory recommendations for filter cleaning are very long;
- foam filter washout every three months,
- felt filter (under the foam cartridge) every three months, and
- HEPA filter hand rinse every 12 months.

Shark says to tap loose dirt off filters between washes.

With all due respect to Shark, these wash intervals are too long.

Shark filters are so easy to clean, why allow vacuum performance to degrade just to put off a task that takes two minutes?

Dirty filters lower suction slowly, maybe unnoticed by many users.

Lower suction invites clogs, which make motors run hot.

I have read many thousands of vacuum cleaner buyer reviews.

One thing I know for sure is that a majority (not 100%) of folks who burn up a vac in less than one year are the same people who neglect filter maintenance.

Rotator's foam filter is easily visible in the redesigned cup each time the bin is removed.

I say wash it whenever surface accumulation is visible (discoloration is normal), and at least monthly with routine use.

I wash the Rotator's foam filter aggressively (but gently) at every other bin dump.

Doing the foam filter frequently keeps dirt out of the felt filter, and the HEPA filter remains lily-white after two years of light, but frequent, use.

I am unsure about the Rotator's washable HEPA, but it looks like the new looser foam/felt chamber may let a bit more dirt reach the HEPA, suggesting HEPA checks could be more frequent than annually.

But there have been no issues with my Rotator's HEPA.

There are no fine cyclones to clog (the reason Dyson and other cyclonics cannot be washed out completely), so I advocate using water to empty the dirt bin, with aggressive bin washing.

There is less abrasion of the interior of the clear bin compared to some competing cyclonic models, allowing users who have washed their bins to clearly see what the vacuum has collected.

Shark's electric brush roll has been a weak point in the past, due to the sealed module not being user-repairable.

With some heavier uprights, it is a real chore to wrestle the vacuum upside down to clean the brush.

Shark's detachable power head is among the easiest to clean on the market.

Cutting/pulling hair and yarn off the brush should be done often, without waiting for the brush to drag.

The brush should turn freely (it won't spin like some one motor system brushes) turning the brush motor as it does.

Shark's belt is protected by an overload shut-down circuit, and jam indicator light.

Clog Inspection Ports

Rotator offers improved clean-out ports in several places.

One is under the power nozzle, where red clips release the lower unit hose without the traditional screwdriver, for inspection and clog removal.

A second clog port is revealed by removing the big hose at its bottom clip.

A red release button lets the elbow pop out and back in easily, again without tools.

An overheat shutdown lasts 45 minutes and in most cases is a sign of neglect.

I would never restart an overheated vacuum without a complete clean-and-clear, but many user reviews admit to destroying numerous vacuums in exactly this fashion.

Wheels

Without a carpet-height-adjustment undercarriage (these generally have wheels) the two tiny wheels on a Rotator's front underside carry lots of weight.

User reviews of older Shark models note that these wheels can bind and fail if hair is left subtly wound around the axles.

When these little wheels fail, the powerhead will begin to drag across, and maybe scratch, hard floors.

Turbo Tool

Because the Rotator's "Premium" turbo tool gets lots of use, it should be maintained just like any brush roll. nv501 buttons

A red button releases the cap, allowing access to the air-wheel bushings and toothed belt.

Hair tends to wind the shaft and accelerate wear.

The turbo's rectangular bearing mounts are a little difficult to line up at first, but after a few cleanings reinserting these is a learned skill.

The main brush roll and its drive motor are NOT user serviceable.

When this powerhead quits (as a small percentage will), the lower unit must be replaced as a whole.

While Shark generally will replace warranted powerheads, backorder delays and substantial shipping charges draw user review mention.

I have had no issues, the electric clutch performs well, shutting off the roller whenever too much resistance is met.

After 50 years of fighting with slipping, stretching, and broken vacuum belts, I strongly prefer this Shark design.

Shark does not publish exploded parts diagrams, further discouraging do-it-yourself maintenance.

Euro-Pro Shark Corporate and Warranty

Customer Service is NOT Shark's strong suit.

But the same is true of most big box retail vacuums, the margins just aren't there to support buyer hand-holding and fat warranty payouts.

Buyers who want hot-button support must go to a Dyson (and bring $600) or buy an allergy-shop premium vac.

Shark does a lot of switching on the warranty front.

Infomercial products may have longer warranties, and lower shipping costs, than retail-outlet Rotators.

My retail-shelf Rotator came with a 5-year warranty, which does not cover wearable parts, including filters, brushes, and electrical parts.

Users must ship or deliver the Rotator to Shark, and pay about $20 for return shipping.

Euro-Pro recommends owners purchase insurance, since transport damage is not covered by warranty.

Shark's outsourced customer service is helpful, doing some troubleshooting over the phone.

Parts availability has been spotty, as when Navigator power nozzles were "on backorder."

Rotator NV501's construction quality is above average, with a solid feel.

I especially like the solid attachment of the dirt bin to the chassis.

Dirt bin security is the weakest part of most bagless designs, with latches failing and ports leaking due to poor alignment.

I think Shark has done a very good job of designing, and executing Chinese manufacture of, a solid product with the NV501 Lift-Aways.

Rotator has fewer of the backbone flexing, latch stretching, seal separation, and dirt bin misalignment issues that plague many big-box vacuums.

Outboard bin latches that secured the Navigator's dirt cup, and were subject to breakage with tip-overs, have been removed.

Rotator's handle/wand is metal, and attaches with none of the insecurity found almost everywhere in vacuum cleaners, even in some Dysons.

I think build quality of NV501 as somewhere between Hoover and Dyson, a good compromise between durability and cost.

But a small percentage of customer reviews express frustration with faults, including burnt-out brush roll motors.

Conclusions

NV501 Pros

Rotator is an equal to very good Shark Navigator
pretty good $250 price point vacuum
very good budget allergy/asthma vacuum
three-in-one all purpose versatility
acceptable suction
and exceptional suction control
swivel handling, steers very easily
low maintenance costs and effort
no belt replacement hassles

NV501 Cons

parts sometimes on backorder
not a great deep-cleaner for high-pile carpet
cleaning path too narrow for large carpet jobs
cheesy infomercial marketing
power head is a tossout if broken

Best Applications

tight spaces with furniture where full-sized uprights are inefficient
hard floors nv501 box
lots of stairs
buyers that formerly had to choose between a canister vacuum and an upright

Judgment: NV501

In my opinion, despite the stunt-laden infomercials, the extremely versatile Shark Lift Away NV501 is a very good $250-class general-purpose vacuum, still competitive after four years on the market.

Most vacuum cleaner builders are making only modest improvements to each new model.

Even those who are actually trying to make bigger improvements, like Dyson, are hitting obstacles.

Shark has ambition, and it shows in their continuous product improvement.

Rotator NV501 is a mass-market product sold alongside cheap Hoovers and Eurekas, the fact that everyone keeps trying to compare it to the high-priced Dysons segregated in their own premium-priced marketing niche speaks for itself.

In my opinion, these Sharks are the lowest-priced vacs buyers with health issues should even be considering.

And, also my opinion, ALL the particle-spewing department store junk selling below here is a health hazard to everyone using it.

You can check out the

Shark Rotator NV501 at Amazon.com.

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