Last edit: 10/28/15

Indoor Air Quality and Your Vacuum Cleaner

Consumer Alert: read this page before buying your next vacuum cleaner.

For 100 years the vacuum industry has plodded along, with nobody asking too many questions about the vacs or the environment they created.

But recently, increasing awareness of the health effects of indoor air quality is putting a bright spotlight on traditional vacuum cleaner designs and their unhealthy particulate emissions.

In the vernacular of the industry, this is called "filtration."

The marketing assumption of many in the vacuum industry is that only "the small percentage of people who have allergies" need more than basic filtration.

So there were asthma/allergy vacs for the few (and the wealthy), and pollutant-spewing blowers for everyone else.

For those with allergies or asthma, even a short exposure to the vacuum’s contents could have immediate health consequences.

But the reality is, everyone in the home, "allergic" or not, is breathing additional fine particles every time most vacuums run, and for many hours afterwards.

There are many in the vacuum industry who say that poorly-filtered vacuum emissions are not unhealthy.

Not one air quality expert agrees with them.

Including me.

"Unlike what happens in Las Vegas, what happens in a vacuum cleaner
doesn't necessarily stay in the vacuum cleaner.

My recording laser particle counter testing demonstrates that low-filtration vacuum cleaners spike .5 micron and 2.5 micron particle counts when running, and that these particles remain airborne for many hours.

The focus with vacuum cleaning has long been on visible dust, particles sized 18-microns and up, that form the top layer on most carpets.

But fine particulate, the invisible sub-micron sized dirt that penetrates our lungs, enters the bloodstream, and contributes to nearly every serious illness, blows right on through the average vacuum.

This means that air in rooms appearing spotlessly clean, even luxurious, can be loaded with millions of invisible fine particles per cubic foot.

"Not only does this vacuum cleaner miss most of the dirt, but it blows the small amount that was accidentally picked up right back in your face."

Let's Think About Vacuum Cleaners

The household vacuum cleaner is a major purchase that every home must have.

But the typical vac spends most of its short life in the closet.

We tend not to think about our vacuum, or its effect on our lives, until something goes wrong.

Vacuums account for around four billion dollars of U.S. consumer spending annually.

So somebody, somewhere, has plenty of incentive to do considerable thinking about that vacuum in the closet.

At any given time, there are over 1,000 vacuum cleaner models available in the United States, with constant turnover and subtle changes churning inventories.

The great majority are unhealthy.

There are no real standards for evaluating vacuums.

No design criteria, performance standards, or marketing rules effectively govern vacuum cleaner sales.

Competing private groups, headed by rival appliance-maker (AHAM) and carpet industry (CRI) associations, pursue self-interests in the struggle for test standards.

Vacs are also tested and reviewed by a well-known consumer magazine.

Professional online vacuum reviews are almost entirely subjective, many just repeat or rearrange the manufacturer's brochure.

When objective cleaning tests are done they are not standardized, and while they may assume the mantle of high tech science, they rarely duplicate real world conditions.

For example, sprinkling a few particles of dry powder on a medium-pile carpet's top surface, done in almost every review, is NOT a good test of a vacuum's real world carpet cleaning ability. (Carpets hold many layers of ground-in dirt and bound particles.)

The vast majority of independent vac review sites take readers directly through a rushed and superficial vacuum cleaner selection process.

Vacs are for sale everywhere, from ample retail shelf space to online warehouse merchants.

Just grab a brightly decorated box from the shelf or click "buy now" and you're the proud owner of the latest Tornado or Hurricane.

"Y'all come back soon now, y'hear."

This leadership vacuum makes vacuum cleaner marketing a maze of similar-sounding but slightly different product claims that mislead millions of buyers.

Sales Tricks - The Hand is Quicker than the Eye

Lots of ad money is channeled through the video medium today.

Visual media can make strong impressions, allowing vendors to use "magic" tricks to fool buyers.

"As you can see, this vacuum has such amazing suction, it picks up billiard balls, bowling balls, cement blocks, children up to two years old, and full grown cats, be careful where you point it."

Television infomercials for vacuums, pioneered decades ago by the legendary David Oreck, are so convincing they make little children want the product for Christmas.

Little real substance is offered, while "free" extras are added to sweeten the irresistible deal.

Yeah, and millions of people line up to buy lottery tickets, too.

With the advent of Youtube, hundreds of video "expert vacuum cleaner reviews" are available online.

Sure, there are some that feature old-line vacuum repair shop guys trying to share their expertise.

Others are just copies of manufacturer ads.

But many video reviews are created by people who lack the depth to review and recommend a product.

This is especially true when they discuss particle emissions.

Some deploy scientific instruments, like $2,500 .3 micron laser particle counters, without complete expertise in their use.

Sure looks authoritative, yeah.

Some of these videos are posted by children as young as seven, with many by teens.

But marketing studies show that people who view video advertising are much more likely to complete a purchase.

Professional vacuum reviews, including those from both online review sites and a leading consumer organization, are almost always based on very short tests, usually picking up sprinkled-on powder and tufts of hair.

While I also conduct tests and try to measure vacuum performance and emissions objectively, I think long-term reliability and cost effectiveness are equally important.

Then there are the "consumer" reviews.

Like other consumer product review sites, I rely heavily on buyer reviews posted on Amazon, BestBuy, WalMart,, Consumer Reports user reviews, and other sites.

I think the percentage of one and two star reviews is the best indicator of user satisfaction with a given vacuum.

Phony five star reviews, known formally as "deceptive opinion spam," are routinely bought and sold.

There are also a few torpedoes giving fake bad reviews and plugging another product, but most fakes are of the "five stars - just awesome" variety.

Vacs have been sold for one hundred years, much of that time by door-to-door salesmen.

That history has provided fertile ground for testing every sales trick imaginable.

Salesmen (they were almost entirely males) of the past evolved the "last vacuum wins" trick, still popular today.

The old vacuum, often with worn brushroll, slipping belt, half-full bag, or partial clogs, is run across the carpet.

Next, the new model vacuums the same spot, running at a cross angle, picking up material the first pass missed.

Viewers are suitably impressed, despite the fact that the original vacuum, even with its weakened suction and/or agitation, would also have picked up considerable dirt on a second pass.

Other sales gags run the full gamut.

"I love my vacuum cleaner so much
I keep watching the infomercial to make sure I haven't missed something

Bait and switch, where the infomercial or ad shows product features that are mysteriously absent from the retail shelf product, is alive and well.

And bought by folks way-too-smart to go for an infomercial offer, who then race to a big box retailer to safely grab the dumbed-down version, which is short a tool or two, and a $28 true-HEPA filter, for ten bucks less than they saw on TV.

This is why I emphasize the exact model number in every vacuum review.

Even without an infomercial, it is very common for a vacuum to be sold in one guise at a lower-priced big box retailer, for maybe ten bucks less, but with $20 worth of features subtly left off compared to the identical appearing vac sold elsewhere.

And then there's ol' tried and true easy credit ripoff - just make five low payments (with $50 additional shipping and 24% interest) - still working its magic.

Rise of the Globally-Sourced Disposable Vacuum

The stodgy vacuum industry, where the name Hoover was once used as a verb synonymous with vacuuming ("We hoovered the front room"), is being turned inside out by the forces of globalization.
"My old Hoover lasted longer than my sister's third marriage."

In decades past, the industry evolved slowly.

The household vac was a semi-permanent fixture.

Repaired and re-repaired, it was rarely thrown away.

Consumers remained loyal to the brand Mom used, because her cleaner lasted 30 years.

Thousands of independent local mom and pop vacuum stores sold, and professionally repaired, vacuums.

Replacement parts were kept in inventory or available on the next truck.

Today, the bricks-and-mortar vacuum shop business is vanishing.

Shoppers cruise big-box retail aisles and browse the internet for a new model whenever the current vac's suction begins to falter, the belt breaks, or the brushroll wears.

But the "new" vacuums aren't made of the same DNA that used to last all those years.

"William Hoover is rolling over in his grave"
Amazon buyer review

Now it is possible for international investors to buy a well-established but overbuilt American brand, close facilities and slash jobs, offshore production, cut quality to the point of building disposable appliances, stop warranty payouts, outsource customer service, and then put the brand name up for sale ("in play").

Brand acquisitions are being flipped for very fat profits in as little as five years.

Increasingly, design studios are all that remain of the old "American" brands.

These studios use computers to create marketing models.

The specs are exported overseas for re-engineering to fit precise price points and offshore manufacturing techniques. global marketing

This is a world of intense competition.

Vacs built in China, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, and other developing nations are struggling for market share.

A growing global middle class, with product quality and support expectations much lower than in the US, is changing the consumer goods market.

For us the important result is that, in the heat of battle, many vacuums are created with serious design flaws which won't be revealed by limited product beta-testing, or by ordinary vacuum cleaner reviews.

One model from a given brand may have a serious durability issue, while a near-identical model may last much longer.

A recent example is the Hoover T-Series Uprights, where the consumer-demanded cord-rewind feature caused thousands of best-selling vacs to overheat and fail, while the near-identical T-Series vacuum with no cord rewind sold slower but had better reliability.

Precise price-point engineering is really quite difficult.

So U.S. consumers, confused by brand names which are themselves freely bought and sold, are frustrated by declining product quality, customer service, warranty reputability, and product support.

Vacs are turning into a disposable good, with annual turnover of over twenty million units.

A whole lot of vacuums are living less than one year before crossing over to the light.

Warranty service, almost universally farmed out to the disappearing mom n' pop vacuum shops, is fast becoming a shadow of its former self.

"I called customer service, where somebody from a foreign country said I would be in my 80s before I ever saw my vacuum cleaner again."

Now some makes are importing modular assemblies which cannot be taken apart, even to replace the belt or brushbar.

Many new vacs are designed without customer-accessible repair ports.

These vacuums are dumpster-bait as soon as the first part malfunctions.

Choosing a Low Emissions Vacuum

Investing in quality equipment that produces little to no dirty exhaust air and learning how to properly maintain it are among the first steps to a healthier home.

Air purifier power vacuum cleaner reviews focus on indoor air quality and emissions.

And maintenance issues that impact air quality and vacuum lifespan.

We now live in a world where we recycle aluminum cans with quasi-religious fervor, but ten million vacuums load the landfills every six months.

Just because the contaminants are invisible, there is no need for mystery.

A $350 laser particle counter can easily quantify and record the particle density, providing proof of any vacuum's filtration efficiency.

There are plenty of affordable low emissions vacuums, spending $1000 is not necessary.

Builders are rushing to fill demand, with sealed system true-HEPA filtration now available in some under-$200 vacuums. woman vacuuming

One very important feature is seals on every part of the vac where air could escape.

Consumers should be aware that just slapping a "HEPA" sticker on the dust bin does not necessarily qualify a vacuum as low-emissions.

A common trick is to use the "HEPA" label while allowing unfiltered air to exhaust from the hose port while tools are in use.

Smart consumers will be early adopters of low and zero-emissions vacuums, will avoid short-lived products, poor customer and warranty service, and untested technologies.

Educated consumers can achieve both cleaner/healthier living and greater product satisfaction.

Sealed HEPA vacuums at

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