ICS Magazine

Vacuum Cleaners-Understanding the Choices

November 11, 2004


On an episode of "I Love Lucy," Lucy Ricardo worked as a door-to-door saleswoman plying vacuum cleaners. She soon found out they were a much harder sell than she had originally thought. There was a lot to know about the product, and her potential customers were becoming more and more bewildered by the new array of features and options vacuum cleaner manufacturers were offering.

In many ways, selling and purchasing vacuum cleaners today is even more difficult. That's because there are many different types of machines now available-uprights, backpacks, wide-area, walk-behinds, and canisters-in a variety of models and options, and with competing manufacturers' claims that can confuse even the most astute industry expert.

Understanding the choices and muddling through the vacuum cleaner maze starts with the buyer. Professional cleaners and building service contractors (BSCs) must fully understand how and where their vacuum cleaner will be used. This makes it easier for the salesperson to focus on the machines, models, and features that will best fit the user's needs.

Some of the variables and issues that cleaning professionals and BSCs may need to consider include:

  • An upright may be the best option for a BSC cleaning in an office setting with a large expanse of carpeting cleaned after business hours.
  • Hotel housekeeping departments usually need vacuum cleaners that are light, ergonomic, and flexible to better facilitate the cleaning of hundreds of guestrooms every day. The same facility may also need a wide-area vacuum cleaner or a walk-behind to vacuum meeting rooms and hallways.
  • A school or health facility may have specific indoor air quality needs, requiring machines with advanced air-filtration systems.

    Price and cost of ownership are additional factors to consider when purchasing a vacuum cleaner, and both will definitely be affected by the needs of the user. A quality commercial vacuum cleaner will typically cost $250 to more than $500, depending on its features, quality of construction and materials, and whether it uses HEPA or an advanced air-filtration system.

    A $100 vacuum cleaner may meet the vacuuming needs of a small office or residence, but will probably not last many years and may require frequent, costly repairs if used in a large commercial setting. Some backpack vacuum cleaners, because of fewer moving parts, may be trouble-free and provide years of excellent service, but require the use of expensive paper filter bags that must be changed frequently under heavy vacuuming situations. Both the expense of the bags and the frequency of changing them can add considerably to the machine's cost of ownership, and must be taken into consideration when deciding on what type of vacuum cleaner to purchase.

    With a better understanding of how and where the vacuum cleaner will be used, the buyer can now look more specifically at the different machines and models available. Alan Bigger, head of facility management for Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., uses a variety of vacuum cleaners to meet the different vacuuming needs of the school's more than 160 buildings. Bigger says that he looks for powerful vacuum cleaners that are lightweight and ergonomically designed to increase productivity and help prevent injuries. He states that backpacks are ideal for vacuuming stairways, edges and corners, multiple floor and surface type areas, and under furniture. However, for many other areas-wide corridors and large carpeted rooms, for example-uprights or larger vacuum cleaners are a better option.

    David Stanislaw, an engineer with Tornado Industries, a company that makes upright, backpack, wide-area, and canister vacuum cleaners, agrees with Bigger on the importance of ergonomics.

    "An ergonomic vacuum cleaner works with the user, not the other way around," Stanislaw says. "Productivity increases with an ergonomically designed vacuum cleaner, and fatigue and injuries decrease."

    Stanislaw adds that an ergonomic vacuum cleaner should have a handle that conforms to the user's hands, is lightweight, and has easy-access controls and accessories. "I think the noise level of the machine should also be considered a part of ergonomics," he says "When a cleaning professional must operate a vacuum cleaner several hours a day, every day, a high-decibel machine can adversely affect work and productivity very quickly. "

    As an engineer, Stanislaw has closely studied the construction and technical aspects of vacuum cleaners and how they relate to the way cleaning professionals use the machines. He states that vacuum cleaners with manually operated adjustable-height controls can better tackle the wide variety of carpets encountered in a commercial setting. He adds that protective soft-rubber bumpers are a must in commercial cleaning, and that built-in wands, a handy feature in some vacuum cleaners, must be strong and reinforced for better longevity.

    Myths and Marketing
    Vacuum cleaners play a vital role in improving the indoor environment.

    "Vacuum cleaners pull air through the carpet fibers, collecting dust, dirt, mite feces, and other contaminants with it," says David Frank, President of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences (AICS), an independent research organization for the professional cleaning industry. "But to effectively remove these contaminants requires a very efficient filter and a sealed vacuum cleaner system."

    Frank says that HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, which trap all particles as small as 0.3 microns in size with an efficiency rating of 99.97 percent, and ULPA (Ultra Low Penetration Air) systems, which can trap particulates down to 0.12 microns at 99.999 percent efficiency, are the best filters now available.

    "However, it is very important to have a completely sealed system so that all airflow passes through the HEPA or ULPA filter," Frank said. "Otherwise, even if the manufacturer brags about the fact that a HEPA or ULPA filter is installed, if contaminants can escape the machine while vacuuming, it is having a negative effect on the indoor environment. "

    Frank also advises being wary of manufacturers that claim their cleaners trap 100 percent of dust mites, pollens, and other contaminants. "Keep in mind that dust mites and pollen particles are actually quite large as compared to other contaminants. A cleaner with this degree of filtration may help some allergy sufferers, but not those who suffer from smaller allergens found in dust or dust mite droppings," he said.

    Frank adds another precaution, this one regarding graduated filtration, the multiple layers of filters manufacturers place in vacuum cleaners to protect the machine and improve air filtration. "Shoppers should take these filters out and hold them to the light," he says. "If you can easily see the holes in it, be assured that it really isn't doing much filtration at all."

    Choosing the right vacuum cleaner can make a major difference in the proper care of carpeting, the effectiveness of the custodian and his or her work, and the health of the indoor environment and the cleaning worker. Frank states that the vacuum cleaner, in many respects, is as important to the cleaning professional as the hammer is to the carpenter. Because of this, professional cleaners and BSCs should take the time to examine their vacuum cleaner needs, evaluate where and how they will be using the vacuum cleaner, assess the features and options of the machines, and evaluate the claims of the manufacturers. The right choice can make the job of cleaning easier and the cleaning worker far more productive.