If you are like us you have battled dust bunnies, sand in the carpet or maybe pet hair that seems to be everywhere.
And if you procrastinate like me, you sometimes wait until the last minute to pull out the HEPA vacuum cleaner before friends or family stop by.
Ever wonder how a HEPA vacuum works? Or what type of vacuum cleaner is best for your home?
Well, we are here to give you the information you need to make an informed decision. And present the boring, techno-babble into a simple and an easy to read format.
What is a HEPA Vacuum Cleaner?
A HEPA vacuum is simply a vacuum cleaner that uses a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. By definition, a true HEPA filter removes 99.97% or more of particles sized 0.3 microns or larger.
So, what this means is HEPA is an air filter that catches nearly all particles. A micron is one millionth of a meter. It’s sometimes called a micrometer. For comparison, a human hair has a diameter in the range of 60 to 100 microns. So, .3 microns is much smaller.
What is interesting (at least to me) is that we are talking about particles. Things like dust, pet hair, animal dander, sand, mold spores, dust mites, etc. This is what we expect a vacuum cleaner to clean up.
But when you go smaller than 0.3 microns in size, you start to get into gases. Think odors. They are too small to catch in the HEPA filter fibers and will pass right through. That’s why a HEPA vacuum will not remove odors.
Why have a HEPA filter?
The reason HEPA vacuums have become more popular is that vacuums kick up the allergens, pollen, dust, and mold spores that are on the floor. Most particles are caught inside the vacuum. To prevent your home from looking like Pig Pen just walked through is with the use of a HEPA filter to keep from pushing out some of the particles into the air.
As an allergy sufferer, I use a HEPA vacuum and while the HEPA filter helps, in my experience they by no means prevent the small particles from being kicked up into the air.
I know this since I can see the airborne particles in the air when the sun shines through the window a certain way.
And, as a nerd and someone who has done extensive testing of air purifiers, I have a laser particle counter and can measure the air quality after vacuuming.
Later this year we plan to show our ranking of the best vacuum cleaners. Similar to our rankings of the best air purifiers.
But for now, I can say a HEPA filter is generally helpful however not a complete solution.
How Vacuum Cleaners Work
The goal of any good vacuum cleaner is to take the dirty stuff on the floor and make it go away.
It’s amazing that electric vacuum cleaners have only been around for 100 years. The principle of how a vacuum cleaner works has not changed much since the beginning. The components are the same but innovations have taken place to improve performance.
To clean the ground, a vacuum needs to create enough suction to lift the particles from the floor. So, in effect the dirt, dust and what-not needs to become airborne. The idea is that then the vacuum is then able to suck in the particles to capture them once they are just off of the floor’s surface.
In the research of vacuum cleaners that we have done the most common explanation is to describe it like drinking through a straw. A vacuum has a motor that pulls air through the tubes of the vacuum cleaner creating a suction that pulls particles from the floor.
The dust, hair and dirt is then collected in a bag or container. So, the bag acts as the filter. It is generally a porous woven material, often made from cloth or paper.
Due to the suction required to remove dust from a carpet as well as the distance to the vacuum bag, a vacuum cleaner requires a strong motor. It’s like drinking through a long, thin straw. This obviously requires more energy than a short or wider straw.
For Allergy Sufferers
Getting back to the concept of making the dust particles airborne, if you suffer from allergies, asthma, COPD or any other respiratory issue this presents a problem. That is, the stuff you want to avoid is now in the air for you to breathe in.
This brings us back to the discussion on the HEPA vacuum filter. The air that is sucked into the vacuum cleaner must exit somewhere. This is where the HEPA vacuum filter comes in. What HEPA filtration does is reduce the number of particles that are sent back into the air from the air that is exiting the vacuum.
However, the HEPA filter does not filter any air that exits the vacuum bag.
In addition, it does nothing to help the dust, mold, pollen spores, etc that are stirred up by the vacuum but not sucked in. As a result, for sensitive people it is good to avoid vacuuming all together.
Bag vs Cyclonic Filtration
Until the 1990’s, the models on the market consisted of bag vacuum cleaners. That all changed when James Dyson introduced the cyclone or bagless vacuum cleaner. He developed this technology after getting frustrated with his bag vacuum not being able to hold the suction to his satisfaction. The concept of cyclonic filtration is based on a centrifugal force that is created by the air spinning, like how a grain cyclone works.
The beauty of this model is that there are no bags to replace. In our opinion it’s also good since you just need a HEPA filter to filter the exiting air to have a good vacuum cleaner.
While we have yet to test HEPA vacuums ourselves, in reading the ratings of vacuum cleaners by the leading review magazine, it is interesting to note that bag vacuum cleaners score higher than the bagless.
This means bag vacuum cleaners are the better choice for the cleanest floors. So, while the cyclonic vacuum may not lose suction it doesn’t seem to vacuum as well.
Testing shows that uprights are better for carpets while canister vacuum cleaners are quieter and better for cleaning stairs.
In our testing of vacuums, we will report how much dust is kicked up and emitted from bags versus bagless vacuums.
HEPA Vacuums Compared to HEPA Air Filters
It’s interesting that HEPA vacuums and HEPA air purifiers work with similar principles. That is, they pull in air through a filter to remove particles.
They differ however in three areas.
- Air Filtration ability
- Big particles vs small airborne particles
The HEPA filter in a vacuum is small as the air is traveling through a tube. A vacuum filter therefore has less filter media. In contrast, an air purifier pulls air through a larger opening and tends to have much larger filters.
As a result, the vacuum and air purifier serve different functions. Vacuums are only meant to clean the ground of big particles like dirt or large dust particles. Air purifiers are only set up to clean what is in the air and that means the smaller particles that you are likely to breathe in. A true HEPA or better air cleaner will achieve the high efficiency that is needed.
If an air purifier has enough activated carbon or other gas media it can also remove odors while a vacuum cleaner cannot.
Because vacuums need to create such a strong suction, they produce a lot of noise. Often 70dB or louder. Air cleaners are often run 24/7 and in bedrooms and do not have to create as much suction so they are quieter. However, this is only the case with filter air purifiers. If you created a cyclonic air purifier like Dyson uses in their vacuums, it would have the same noise level issues.
So, the best way to think of HEPA vacuums and air cleaners are as complementary to each other. They both make for good dust extractors but in different ways.
Maybe an extreme example, but in the clean-up of lead-based paint both are needed. A HEPA vacuum can remove the paint flakes from the floor while limiting what is sent back into the air. And a HEPA air cleaner can remove the fine lead particles and gases assuming it is outfitted with the proper filters.
Wet Dry Vacuum
A wet dry vacuum cleaner does not have a bag or filter. Rather, it collects both dry and wet particles in a holding chamber that can later be emptied.
Wet-dry vacs tend to be more durable than household vacuums and are used more commonly in commercial applications or in rooms like a basement or garage. This is sometimes called a shop vac.
The suction hose tends to be shorter and wider so it can pull in larger debris as well as to be able to pull in some water.
Wet dry vacuums use a float ball in the chamber to limit the amount of water that is pulled in. If the water level reaches a certain height the vacuum will stop operating.
You typically will not find a HEPA filter in wet/dry vacs since the purpose is to clean up large debris. Furthermore, HEPA filters are not meant to get wet and do not work in an environment where water is pulled through the vacuum. A HEPA filter works best in a dry vacuum.
A leader in the market is the Nilfisk Attix. The Attix 30 series is their compact and all-purpose wet and dry vacuum cleaners.
Central Vacuum System or Commercial Vacuums
Some homes use a central vacuum system. In this type of commercial vacuum, the motor and vacuum bag reside in a fixed location and then you can plug a vacuum hose into one or more locations in the home.
An advantage of this system is that there is no vacuum to pull other than the vacuum hoses. And it is quieter since you are not standing next to the motor.
If you have a high quality central vacuum you can get very strong suction and if there is any off-dusting of particles at the vacuum bag it is contained in one place rather than throughout your home with a standard vacuum.
- Beater bar – This is the rotating brush on the bottom of the vacuum. The beater bar helps to remove dust and dirt from carpeting so it can be sucked into the vacuum. It also can contribute to dust particles being sent into the room’s air especially when used on hardwood floors.
- Attachments – Allow you to modify the suction and cleaning ability. For example, a shorter attachment will give you stronger suction to get dirt out of carpets or a car interior.
- UV-C light – UV-C lights are used in air ducts to prevent mold growth and some vacuums have incorporated a UV lamp. There are fewer models with this technology than a few years ago so this is not something we see hitting the mainstream.
Popular HEPA Vacuums
To make it easier for you to find the best HEPA vacuum cleaner we have listed here links to the top rated products at Amazon.
Shark Rotator Slim-Lite Lift-Away
Bissell CleanView Bagless
Dyson Ball Multi Floor Upright Corded Vacuum
Miele Complete C3 Calima Canister Vacuum
Miele S2121 Olympus Canister Vacuum Cleaner
Vacmaster 8 Gallon HEPA Vac with 2 Stage Motor
Here we have covered what a HEPA vacuum cleaner is and how it compares to HEPA filtration in an air cleaner. In short, any vacuum cleaner is designed to remove dirt, pet dander and other large particles from the floor. Whereas an air purifier cleans the smaller sized particles from the air.
So, in effect they work well together in making your home cleaner with fresh air.
A vacuum will kick up dust so while the floors may be cleaner it could reduce the indoor air quality. To overcome this, some vacuum have a HEPA filter to push out cleaner air into your room.
While this helps, it does not filter out any dust that is pushed through the bag in a bag vacuum cleaner. Another consideration is even if the filter is a true HEPA the seal has to be tight. Otherwise the small airborne particles can by-pass the filter. And then you have an indoor air quality problem especially if you suffer from asthma or allergies.
We discussed bag versus cyclonic vacuum technologies as well as wet/dry vac, also known as shop vacs. A true HEPA filter is meant to be used only with a dry vacuum as moisture will damage the filter fibers.