Features as the humble vacuum goes high-tech

A rough-and-tumble market is also driving new designs and features as the humble vacuum goes high-tech. But as we’ve found, high-priced, feature-laden machines don’t necessarily deliver better cleaning. You’ll find plenty of strong performers at a reasonable price.

Pet owners, rejoice: Now you can revel in Fido’s and Fluffy’s antics without fretting over their sheddings. Our pet-hair scores show which vacuums were best at whisking away embedded hair and which ones you might want to scratch from your list.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

Hoover, the oldest brand, was recently bought by Techtronic Industries, which also makes Ryobi tools and Dirt Devil vacuums. Other major brands include Bissell; Eureka, which also offers central vacuums and makes high-end Electrolux models; Dyson, a brightly colored British brand; Oreck; and Kenmore (Sears). Brands such as Miele, Panasonic, and Riccar tend to be sold at specialty stores. Higher-priced Aerus (which also makes central vacs) is sold in its own stores and by direct mail; upscale Kirby is still sold door-to-door. You’ll also find Roomba, a robotic vac, and Euro-Pro stick vacs.

Along with the brand, your vacuum choices include several types:

Uprights. These tend to cost the least and account for the most sales. They still tend to do better than canisters on carpets, and their one-piece design makes them easier to store. But many weigh more than 20 pounds, and some are less stable than canisters on stairs. Price: $100 to $500 for most.

Canisters. The best can clean carpets about as well as uprights. Most are quieter and can be easier to maneuver, since you’re moving only the hose and powerhead. And most are better at getting under furniture. But the added clutter of the hose and wand makes canisters bulkier overall and harder to store. Price: $150 to $700 for most.

Central vacuums. These work like a canister vac, letting you move only the hose and powerhead. They’re also relatively quiet and require less-frequent emptying. But they’re pricey and typically require professional installation. Their roughly 35-foot hose can be cumbersome, and there’s no place to carry tools while you work. Price: $500 to $1,250 for most, plus $300 to $750 for professional installation.

Stick vacs and hand vacs. These miniature electric vacs come with and without a cord and can be handy for small, quick jobs. But both types typically lack the power of full-sized models. Price: $20 to $100.

FEATURES THAT COUNT

For uprights and canisters

A top-of-the-line upright might provide a wider cleaning path, have a HEPA filter, and a full-bag indicator.

Typical attachments include crevice and upholstery tools, along with extension wands for reaching high places. A full-bag alert can help prevent an overstuffed bag from reducing cleaning ability. Canister vacs often have a power nozzle that cleans carpets more thoroughly than a simple suction nozzle. Suction-control lets you reduce airflow for drapes and other delicate fabrics. A brush on/off switch helps prevent thrown debris when vacuuming bare floors; some uprights automatically stop the brush when the handle is in the up position. Most canisters and a few uprights have a retractable cord that rewinds with a tug or push of a button. A manual pile-height adjustment can improve cleaning by letting you match the height of the vacuum to the carpet pile better than systems that adjust automatically.

Bagless vacs trade the usual bag for a see-through bin, though emptying them can raise enough dust for concern even if you don’t have allergies. A self-propelled mode takes the push out of some uprights but tends to add weight. Some vacuums have a HEPA filter, which may benefit someone with asthma. But many with conventional filters perform just as well. A dirt sensor tells you when the concentration of dirt particles in the air stream reaches a certain level. But it signals only that the vac is no longer picking up dirt, not whether there’s dirt left in your rug. Some brands also push microfiltration, which typically uses a bag with smaller pores or a second electrostatic filter. But how much dust a vacuum emits depends as much on its overall design as its filter. With some uprights, dirt sucked into the machine passes through the blower fan before entering the bag, which can damage the plastic fan used on most models; others filter dirt through the bag before it reaches the fan.

For central vacs

Midpriced accessory kits typically include an electrically powered cleaning head–a must for carpets–as well as a floor brush, crevice tool, upholstery brush, dusting brush, and extension wands. Spending more buys more tools, a premium powerhead, and a longer hose. Some include a sound-deadening muffler installed in the exhaust air pipe near the base unit (you can add it to others for about $20 or so). Most have a suction switch that lets you turn the vacuum on and off at the wand.

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