Expert Buying Guide Vacuum Cleaners

Brutally Honest Expert Vacuum Buying Guide

The Trade Secrets are coming out.....Hi! This piece is something of an experiment so we have just put a load of (hopefully) useful information down on a page. If you like it, then we'll update/make it a little easier to read in the coming weeks- we know its a long read.

Lupe is very confident in the product we made, and the reception from customers and the press speaks to that confidence being well-founded.

Not everybody loves it - because vacuuming can be a personal choice- there isn't a single 'best' machine for everybody. With free 90 days evaluation period, it's really not in Lupe's interests to sell you a machine you aren't going to be happy with, so we thought we'd put a little guide together to talk fundamentally about the pros and cons of the different types and brands of vacuum cleaner- that actually will go across individual products from each manufacturer. (And here's the bit that may be refreshing- at the end of this article we may have helped you realize the Lupe Pure cordless is not for you, and even pointed you to a competitor!)

And why should you listen to me (Pablo, CEO)? Well I've worked in vacuum cleaners development since 2006 and seen an awful lot of ideas- good ones and bad ones, and the reasons why they succeeded or failed. With a tiny team I also developed and manufactured our own better vacuum cleaner from scratch. Our business is still small enough that success year-to-year for us does not mean taking over the world (there are an awful lot of vacuum cleaners sold every year) and I am confident in the product, so believe I can find the customers we want without needing to be anything other than honest. I do also see a lot of simply incorrect information around on blogs which hopefully I can debunk.

Bought in? Lets go....lets talk about some fundamental choices/preferences you may have.

(Opening caveat- I'm not even going to talk about robot vacuums. In my opinion, they are still basically novelty items and if you are serious about vacuuming then you cannot rely on them as your main machine. The time will come- but its not any time soon. Sorry robot vacuum cleaner companies!)

Corded or Cordless?

Probably the most fundamental choice. Cordless has been the trend for a while now and to be honest you don't quite understand how nice it can be till you try it. I remember when Bluetooth headphones came out I was like "Whats wrong with wired headphones when my music device is mostly in my pocket?" and indeed Bluetooth cannot technically match the sound quality of wired headphones- but now I tried them I wouldn't go back! And by the same token- unless someone has actually tried cordless then they can't really pre-judge whether they (or you) would find it better.

The downsides of cordless are primarily:

1) The battery running out at inconvenient times- which regardless of how long your battery lasts from full- will still happen from time to time. Just needs a little planning and then its not a problem. The associated problem is waiting for the battery to charge when you need it- well that's difficult to get-around without having two batteries. (European brand Bosch did make an 'Unlimited' cordless- where the life of the battery was the same as its charge time, and they sold it with two batteries, so in theory you could use it continuously. However the rest of the machine was merely 'okay'.)

2) They fundamentally have less outright electrical power in their motors than corded machines. The largest cordless vacuums may have a main motor that can handle 500W of power, a corded machine can easily be three times that. (The BIG caveat to this consideration is that whats important is really how that power gets used I discuss this in more detail here but the summary is: most vacuum cleaners waste most of that motor power when being used on floors). A big electrical watts number, or indeed "Airwatts" (as was coined by Dyson), or even open hose flowrate (cfm) are not representative of the cleaning experience other really in that open hose or accessory mode. There is a correlation of course- but its not direct.

I genuinely believe there is no advantage in terms of floor cleaning ability with a corded machine. For those who like to slap their palms on the end of hoses to gauge suction (and that's also whats going on when using hose accessories) there is no substitute for corded power from any manufacturer (yes- I said it. Please don't quote me without the context of the previous sentence).

If you read the section above and my link here I think you are probably in a good position to know whether you maybe are, or simply not, on-board with cordless.

Regardless of power source there are more things to consider...

Budget

Most physical goods you buy will have a ratio between what it costs to manufacture and the retail price you pay from a store. Typically- that ratio will be 3 to 5 times. Which sounds outrageous at first, but actually when you consider items such as marketing, taxes, margin taken by a retailer/platform, percentage of returns, payment processing fees it's possibly more understandable. Vacuum cleaner businesses are generally solid performing businesses, but they do not make huge profits like other businesses (one exception aside of course- Dyson).

So yes- there are some great value machines out there. But also- you DO generally get what you paid for. Lets be real: a machine (especially cordless) costing 100-150 USD/GBP simply cannot be the same quality as one costing 500 USD/GBP.

Especially with cordless, due to the extra cost of the battery, cheaper units really are cutting corners. Mainly around filtration- which is an important point and I will discuss more in a later section.

Bagged or Bagless?

Big topic, and I've used both extensively in my own home, with young kids and pets, recently. The do have key pro's and cons- and despite the market heavily moving to bagless (thanks to Dyson) there is still a cohort of people who LOVE bags and perhaps I can shed some light on why....

Bags are:

- REALLY easy to empty in a fuss-free way with no exposure to any dust. Take the bag out, put it in the trash. Done.

- Don't get anything stuck in them in a way that is annoying- its just a bag filling with dirt. 

- Have superior outright power- when clean. (And lose that power very quickly. This is fundamentally what James Dyson was arguing in the European courts about- that measuring performance of clean machines was wholly unrepresentative of the true experience. I agree. If you look at bagged machines, bear in mind that all their suction claims are true for literally a couple of minutes of cleaning only.).

- Have great capacity- when all that is happening is that dirt is getting pulled into a container- it is basically naturally compressing all the time. The capacity of bagless machines is much larger than their bagless counterparts.

Now the bad:

- You have to keep buying bags and you have ongoing costs. You can also find you are out of clean bags at inconvenient times. Probably more frustrating than batteries running out, but again, solved with a little planning.

- Bags can rip if you pick up sharp objects and when they do it generally causes a lot of problems that are not easy to fix without stripping the machine down.

- As mentioned above- they lose performance from clean very quickly.

- (For me, the big one) Due to the increased capacity, the dirt in the bag stays in there for much longer than it does in a bagless machine. This means about half-way through life of the bag, it develops that musty/funky smell (that you all know) and the exhaust of the vacuum (regardless really of the filter on the exhaust) is pumping out that smell through your space. This just doesn't happen with bagless. This is really not discussed amongst the pro-bag cohort but for me it undermines the hygiene of vacuuming completely- those smells are offensive to humans because they are from things that are not good for us!

Bagless Separator systems are generally:

- Running-cost/consumable-free

- You keep the performance level it starts with (within the filter wash period- up to 3 months on the best machines (more on that below))

- No smell issues (if you use it normally- if you get it wet in there with dust- it will stink!)

But:

- They can block which can be annoying

- You have filters to wash periodically- the cheaper products you will have to do this more frequently as they have more basic cyclonic separators- maybe every couple weeks or 1 month. Lupe and Dyson both have multiple stages of cyclonic separation which mean the wash period is much longer at 3-6 months (depending on how heavy a user you are.). In forums I do see people tarnishing all bagless with the same brush in this respect- which is easy to do, but is simply not true- NOT ALL BAGLESS SYSTEMS ARE EQUAL. This is rarely picked up on, as the difference in filter wash periods is not noticed by press (as they don't use the machine for long enough) nor by the more scientific tests (as it takes a long time to do). But as a user- if you go for a basic system- its going to be very annoying. The key words to look for are: "Multi-stage Cyclonic". Dyson has this. Lupe Has this. Not many others do on their cordless products.

- You have to empty more frequently- this is why bin capacity is important. The vast majority of cordless products do have a bin capacity, that I would personally say, is just too small. Not only that- often the capacities they quote go beyond the full usable volume and are therefore misleadingly high. The Pure Cordless is deliberately large with a usable volume at 1 liter and the Dyson "Outsize" models (the most expensive ones) are in a similar territory.

- The "clean" suction is lower (but as described above, this is somewhat academic).

- Emptying can be a bit difficult sometimes and you can get dust clouds if you are not careful. Dyson finally addressed this (after decades) with some wiper mechanisms which can be a bit fiddly and can jam, but as long as they are working, they do the job quite well.

I would summarize it as if you are REALLY concerned about emptying and capacity- go for a bagged machine. You can find bagged examples of cordless now too. Otherwise bagless is better due to lack of consumables/running costs. (though if you are coming to bagless from a bagged-machine- there will be a period of adjustment for you!)

I would also say if you are planning on using your vacuum in heavily-used workshop or for a DIY/construction project- then you are better off with a bagged machine. Bagless machines do not like large piles of fine dust (like plaster) picked up in a short space of time. If you do that, it is possible to wash the filter and the separators to restore performance, but you will be doing it frequently.

Pick-up Heads/Floor Tools

Another big topic I need to try and summarize. There are a raft of different tools and accessories, parquet, fluffy, carbon, motors, turbines- all sorts. The people in charge of sales at most manufacturers have been working to the belief that customers value more heads and a more-is-better mantra. I get it- you feel like you are getting value for money. But the reality is most people choose one head they prefer and the rest spend most of their lives in a cupboard/drawer- its just a waste of resources and space.

A good carpet pickup head will:

- Have a motorized brushbar (aka "beater bar", "brush roller"). You just don't get hair off of carpets without a brushbar. When people ask the common question 'which vacuum is good for pet hair'- the answer is: "the one with a motorized brushbar". The turbine/air driven ones are generally terrible and unreliable- so watch out if you are looking at a canister/cylinder vacuum as only some of these will have a motorized brushbar. It is quite a big drawback of canisters/cylinders (but not for all of them, so do check)

- Have the ability to alter the power of that brushbar or turn it off for more sensitive surfaces.

- Be a decent width to get around the home quickly.

- Be easy to maintain (yes you do need to maintain these things). Hair will build up over time and dust and dirt can accumulate

- Be able to pick up large debris without 'snowploughing' it.

A good hard floor pickup head will:

- Maximize use of the suction by minimizing bleeds, leaks and openings.

- Be able to pick up large debris without 'snowploughing' it.

- Be able to pick up fine dust.

Now, it IS generally difficult to get a head to do everything optimally. Generally I would say that carpet heads still work pretty well on hard floors, but hard floor heads don't usually work that well on carpet. The main issue they have, is the trade-off between openings and leaks to allow debris in, and those leaks reducing suction. Some of Dyson's floor tools have flaps/openings to manually adjust for this reason.

A lot of other heads have ride height adjustments for the brush bar, air bleeds that can be adjusted- its all rather complicated.

The Pure Cordless head actually surprised me in just how well it works across all surfaces, without settings to change. It is really, really good at everything- genuinely, and you wouldn't feel the need to have a different head, it's just not the BEST at everything- no head is- the BEST ones are specialized to a floor surface and only best for that floor surface. My only real disappointment with how the Pure Cordless head turned out is that its a bit taller than other heads which can sometimes be an issue- and it doesn't have a headlight- which I know some people love, (or indeed a laser).

In summary- if you are looking at a cylinder/canister and have carpets- check it has a brushbar/brush roller and that it is motorized, and consider the range of surfaces you have in your home when considering your pick-up head. I really believe the Pure Cordless head is the best universal/all floor solution. I will concede Shark also make a good all-floor head (I would say not as good as ours) but the rest of the Shark product has some issues to bear in mind.

Filtration

Now this is the area that often gets overlooked- I suspect mainly because its to do with things (tiny dust particles) that you don't see. But when you are considering a vacuum cleaner and its performance, its not just how much is picked-up, it is also how much is kept inside rather than being exhausted back out into the room.

So for many years, before bagless machines, the bag would provide all the filtration and is upstream of the suction motor. The brushes of brushed mains corded motors are made of graphite, and over the life of the motor- that hot graphite comes off in tiny particles. Machines started having basic filters after the motor to catch this graphite (as its not great to be sending it out into the air). As things progressed, Dyson introduced the bagless machine, and also the idea of using HEPA rated allergy filters on the exhaust to capture the finest dust (as well as the motor graphite).

Adding a HEPA level filter does 2 things 1) You separate out all but the finest dust particles 2) In doing so, you add a lot of restriction which loses some outright power. I discuss filtration in more detail in my blog here but the upshot I'd like to you take away from this is that you simply cannot have HEPA allergy grade filtration AND good performance, without the rest of the vacuum cleaner being up-rated to support that in terms of power, and that means cost.

This isn't such a big deal with corded machines due to their power- although HEPA filters are quite expensive to make, and so a HEPA machine will add to the cost significantly. But it is a big deal when it comes to cordless- HEPA filtration demands more power, which means better motors, and more/better batteries to support those motors. What this means is- the cheap cordless machines do not have adequate filtration, because they cannot be made cheap enough for the retail price point to make sense without sacrificing the HEPA filter and the level of motors/batteries to support it. Dyson and Lupe are the main cordless machines with HEPA filters, and guess what- that's part of the reason the price is higher.

The other thing to remember is that HEPA is a legal definition with clearly defined parameters. "HEPPA", "hepaflow" these kind of terms are deliberately trying to mislead the consumer as they avoid the legal definition, but sound similar.

Now you may not care about HEPA- thats fine. But bear in mind some cordless machines actually have really inadequate filtration. And I mean that- like its pumping air that is actually quite dirty out the back (but still not so visible). I won't name and shame but if there isn't a filter after the motor as well as before- its likely that its in this category. These machines will also have a very basic bagless separator that means the filter it does have, will need washing frequently. That's a lot of cheaper cordless machines if not all of them. I don't think I could recommend you to a cordless machine under $200 in good conscience unless it was a supporting machine to another more substantial vacuum. If $200 is all you have budget for- stay corded so you can get more for your money.

I'm not aware of any bagged cordless machines that have an allergy or HEPA filter.

Are you awake at the back there? We're onto my last topic...

Motors

As I mentioned above- brushed motors have brushes that wear. Quite often when a device like an electric lawnmower fails- its just because the brushes have worn (and indeed can be easily replaced). These kinds of motors are everywhere, pretty well understood, and haven't really changed in decades. As such, they are quite cheap for manufacturers to specify and use.

Brushless motors don't have brushes and as such, they can spin a lot faster and are able to generate a lot more power from a physically smaller volume than a brushed motor. To put some context on that- a brushed vacuum motor may spin at 30,000 rpm. A brushless motor will spin more like 100,000 rpm - use all the jet engine and Formula 1 engine comparisons you want- that's a lot. The lack of brushes means they last a very long time. The rare-earth materials used in them (Neodymium) are extremely expensive and so they cost a lot to make and put into a vacuum cleaner.

What does this mean for you as a user? Cheaper cordless vacuums don't produce as much power and have relatively short lifespan on their motor. But the high speed of brushless motors mean they are very noisy and its very hard to reduce that noise. You will probably spot some criticism of the Pure Cordless for its noise- I don't think thats unfair its just noise is one of those things that is very hard to engineer out when you have a small team. Dyson have done a reasonable job with their higher-end/newer machines with making the noise better- but they do have massive amounts of resource to do so.

Now I like quiet things like anyone does- its extremely important for something like a refrigerator or a computer where it may be making that noise for hours/days/weeks on end. With a vacuum- I get the lower noise is better, but there is no getting away from them ALL being kinda noisy, and its relatively short-lived.

Well, we've reached the end- I hope it was helpful and you found it objective. Please feel free to share this, ask more questions and I'll do my best to answer. If I see this is getting read a lot then I'll do some work on the formatting to make it a little easier to digest.

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