It's R&D and Customer Relations Attend any industry convention, and you'll find cleaners standing around gabbing with the vacuum manufacturer representatives, giving them an earful. What do they talk about? What they want in their vacuum. Ask any cleaner you meet at the next convention, and you'll receive a different response from each.
The answers you get are like noses: Everybody has one and they're all different.
So what is taking place deep within the Research and Development sections of your favorite vacuum manufacturer? Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) remains at the forefront of innovative thinking, as does high-filtration filters. Light-weight , compact vacuums are also actively being studied, as is ergonomic design.
Dress Down the Gadgetry
While cleaners continue to ask for bells and whistles - which manufacturers are willing to provide - the move seems to be on offering vacuums that offer less of the spectacular, with more emphasis on durability and reliability.
"Our light-weight machines cater to cleaners," says Tony LaGreca, president and owner of the Commercial Division of New Orleans-based Oreck Corporation (www.Oreck.com/oreck/home.cfm). "People don't want 25-pound vacuums; they want 8- or 10-pounds. That's where the industry is going."
The Eureka Company's Steve Thompson, director of Commercial Accounts and National Sales Training (www.eurekaco.com) believes that lighter machines that are low maintenance and durable are "the most prized aspects of commercial vacuums."
"These are tools of the cleaner's trade; the easier vacuums are to maintain and the longer they last, the better," Thompson says. "Outlandish customer requests are still taken seriously, since many of them are just ahead of their time."
As an example, he points to a two-motor commercial that can clean bare floors and carpet, stores in a broom closet under a shelf (30-inches high) and weighs less than 15 pounds. "At some point in time all these requests were made to us. As a result we have one vacuum that now answers all these requests," Thompson says.
Bob Abrams, business manager-Soft Floor Products for Windsor Industries (www.windsorind.com), Englewood, Colo., acknowledges the move toward lighter machines. But, he says it's important to take that a step further by developing lighter machines that are also simpler in design, "where less can go wrong."
"Lighter weight machines are desirable; typical 12-inch vacuums are in the 14- to 20-pounds," Abrams explains. "If get the weight down, you give up power because most of the weight is in the motor." The R&D dilemma: How to make that smaller motor work more efficiently.
The Ergonomic Equation>
For good or bad, the U.S. Department of Health's Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standards lit a fire in the cleaning industry. OSHA developed the ergonomic standard, which was to have taken affect earlier this year, but Congress repealed it in March following heavy lobbying by business and industries as too costly -- and too ambiguous.
Most vacuum manufacturers had already taken on the ergonomics equation (Oreck Company has had ergonomic grips on its machines for more than 15 years), which continues to play a key role in product development.
"The government"s standards raised the awareness and expectations of customers," explains Chris Fox, communications specialist for the Tennant Company, (www.tennantco.com), Commercial Products, Holland, Mich. "We have been working to make our products more ergonomically friendly for many years, prior to any government (ergonomics) standards."
Ergonomics, manufacturers agree, is playing a greater role in product development as more R&D dollars are being spent on studies and ergonomic component design.
According to Sherri Cadeaux, Marketing/Customer Care Manager for Muskegon, Mich.-based Pacific Steamex (www.nextwaveofclean.com), "Pacific considers the weight of its machines, ease of use in relation to the mechanics of the human body, curvature of surfaces or tools that fit the hand or back."
For example, in making products easy and comfortable to use, most machines now use squeeze grips instead of twist grips as actuators to reduce wrist strain and the possibility of carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive motion injury that causes swelling on the tendons or produces painful, repeated pressure on the median nerve.
"Tools are being mounted on wands to prevent the operator from bending over repeatedly, which could lead to back problems," explains Cadeaux. "These are just some of the ways in which manufacturers are improving their products."
Arguably the Holy Grail of vacuum manufacturing is high-filtration, and its relevance to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), the public catch-phrase for the results of a professionally maintained carpet.
There have been many advancements in filters. For example, some backpack vacuum manufacturers have found a way to get the quality of HEPA filtration without the cost: They use inexpensive high-filtration discs.
"A high-filtration disc operates at almost the same efficiency as HEPA filters," says Rick Coombs, Pro-Team engineering director.
"HEPA filters are certified at 99.97 percent at .3 microns where the discs have an efficiency rate of 99.79 percent at .3 microns."
He adds, "Although the efficiencies are almost identical, there is a big difference in price. HEPA filters may cost $30-$200 each; high-filtration discs for backpacks cost about $8 each retail."
"I think everybody is moving toward high-filtration, which is much easier for everybody to achieve," says Windsor's Abrams. "It used to be that back in the '80s when Windsor put on seminars for IAQ, nobody was listening. Today, everybody is listening. That's a trend that's been building steam over a long period of time, and it's finally become a buzzword."
Modern vacuum filters can be cleaned and reused several times, and vacuum technicians should be encouraged to do this regularly, perhaps as often as every 30 minutes to two hours of vacuum time, depending on the soil conditions. This helps the vacuum maintain suction and prolongs the life of both the filter and the vacuum cleaner, resulting in more effective vacuuming and ensuring a healthier, more comfortable environment.
Pacific Steamex's Cadeaux agrees, saying that high-filtration vacuums are designed to be more efficient at containing dust and debris, which leads to optimum machine performance by preventing the introduction of dust to the motor and improved air quality.
"High filtration vacuums can result in labor savings by eliminating dusting if the dust is spread throughout a room," she says, adding that, "filtration is only as good as the filter used."
Buying that vacuum
It's time to go out and purchase your new commercial grade vacuum. But what do you do? Start out by looking at these manufacturers - and others - and consider the right machine for your needs.
For instance, says John Shanahan, Eastern Zone manager, Minuteman International (www.minutemanintl.com), Addison, Ill., "Schools and educational facilities require a different approach to soil removal. Over the last decade, many schools made the transition from hard floors to carpet. With this transition came the need to be able to vacuum these carpeted surfaces with the ease that a dust mop once did. The need to vacuum around desks and other fixed obstacles also gave birth to the backpack vacuum."
Necessity is the mother of invention? Well, yes. And the professional vacuum manufacturing industry is doing its part to give today's cleaners the tools they need to earn a good living, and to provide their customers with the benefits of IAQ.
The Eureka Company's Thompson summed it up best: "The commercial vacuum industry is headed in the right direction, and responding to the needs of its customers with innovations and solutions. It should continue on this course, addressing the necessary issues, such as indoor air quality, with solutions that work, are durable and inexpensive to maintain.
"New innovations," Thompson says, "will answer the requests of our customers, and at the same time, improve the quality of their work."