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Vacuum Cleaner

Bio Statement

If you can believe a recent poll by Yankelovich Partners, many Americans find a spotless house more satisfying than sex. That seems pretty far-fetched, but there's no doubt we're willing to spend big to banish dust balls from our homes: Vacuum cleaner sales are at record levels, up about 12 percent last year over a banner year in 1999.

One reason is that more consumers are buying a new vacuum even though they already have a working one. In fact, 60 percent of all U.S. households now own two or more full-sized models. Some of these users may want a vacuum on each level of the house so they don't have to lug one up and down the stairs. Others may have discovered what our tests prove: It's virtually impossible to find one vacuum that does everything well.

At the same time, manufacturers are advertising heavily to convince buyers it's time for a new machine. They're focusing largely on models that work without dust-collection bags or drive belts, as well as lightweights with only half the heft of more traditional vacuums.

For this Update, we tested four new vacuums illustrating some of these trends. Three are uprights, which far outsell canisters. Our Ratings compare the four new vacs with 37 models tested for our last full report in May 2000. (Some of those vacuums have been discontinued since then, but we list similar models that have enough in common that they should offer comparable performance, although features may vary.) Here's a look at some of the current trends and new models:

* Bagless vacuums. There's plenty of interest in bagless vacuums, a growing category. Market leader Hoover's first entry in this niche, the Bagless U5280-900, $180, joins a handful of other models already on the market. Until now, the bagless vacuums we've tested haven't performed as well as those with bags, but the technology seems to be improving. The U5280-900 upright is the best bagless model we have tested so far, just a step behind the top units with bags. With replacement bags often going for $2 to $3 each, a bagless vac could save you about $10 a year if you change bags four times. It also eliminates the need to scour the stores for the right bags, or to remember where you stashed them when it's time for a change. One caveat: Emptying the dust bin can be messy if you're not careful, and handling it may expose you to dust and other allergens.

* Beltless drives. Replacing a broken belt is a common vacuum repair, so there's an obvious advantage to direct-drive models that have no belts. A new upright, the Panasonic Beltless Drive MCV7400D, $400, was one of the best models we tested, as was a previously tested beltless vac, the Kenmore Progressive with Direct Drive 39912 (now discontinued, replaced by the 30912, $400).

* Lightweight vacs. Most vacuums weigh around 20 pounds, and some are heavier. But there are lighter alternatives for those who don't want a workout when they clean up. The Bissell ProLite 3560-3 upright, $280,weighs in at only 9 pounds, roughly the same as the Oreck XL Xtended Life XL2600HH, $380. The Bissell was one of the better performers in our tests, outdoing the Oreck at cleaning carpets. Neither is designed for use with tools, but each comes with a separate compact canister vac that has attachments.

* Euro styling. Sleek, curved lines and translucent plastic are among the hallmarks of Euro styling, which is showing up on more vacuums. That includes the Dirt Devil Vision Canister 082600, $200. We found it to be good overall, but the lowest scoring of the canisters we tested.

* Higher-efficiency filtration. More models have high-efficiency particulate-air (HEPA) filters designed to reduce dust emissions--a big concern for allergy sufferers--including the new Hoover and Panasonic vacs. All the vacuums with HEPA filters that we've tested do an excellent job at keeping dust to a minimum, but many non-HEPA models are just as effective and often cost less.

Many vacs have additional features. Suction control lets you adjust the airflow in the hose, which can be handy when cleaning drapes, for example. An on/off switch for the rotating brush lets you turn off the brush when using tools or cleaning bare floors. That eliminates any hazard should the vac tip over while you've got the hose extended. A manual pile-height adjustment is useful for deep-cleaning carpets.

We've found dirt sensors to be less helpful. Manufacturers suggest they tell you when an area is clean, but these sensors actually indicate only that the vacuum can't pick up any more dirt in that area. That might encourage you to vacuum past the point of diminishing returns, which could be needlessly tiring and time-consuming.


No vacuum cleaner is perfect in every respect. To determine which type suits you best, figure out how you'll be using your vac and which attributes are most important to you. Then look for a model with the best performance, features, and price.

Generally speaking, uprights have the edge over canisters for deep-cleaning carpeting. Most also do a fine job on bare floors. If you want a vacuum that weighs less than the typical 20 pounds or more, you'll find more choices among the uprights than canisters. However, you may sacrifice some cleaning power in opting for a lighter vac. Also, uprights are often cheaper and easier to store than canisters.

Canisters tend to do an excellent job cleaning bare wood or tile floors, but are not as effective on carpets. To get the best performance on carpets, be sure to get a canister with a power nozzle. All the canister vacs we tested have power nozzles. Canisters are generally better than uprights for cleaning drapes and upholstery because they're more stable with the hose extended and are more likely to have suction control. Another plus: Most canisters have better clearance for cleaning under furniture and in tight spaces.