This article first appeared at Manchester Vacs.
I’ve been in the vacuum business since the mid 1980s, Our shop is the largest independent vacuum shop in the north of England. So I’m probably quite well qualified to opine on vacuum cleaners.
- Bagged or bagless vacuum cleaner?
- Which is the best vacuum cleaner?
- Which vacuum cleaner to buy?
- How to choose the right vacuum cleaner?
- What is the most powerful vacuum cleaner?
- Cylinder or upright vacuum cleaner?
Like any decision you make, you need the facts first. Websites randomly publishing lists of the “ten best vacuum cleaners” as many do is pretty pointless. Best for whom? Against what benchmark? Define best?
We all have different needs. A single person in a bungalow with one cat and Amtico floors has totally different needs to a busy mother in a townhouse full of Axminster, a builder husband with muddy feet, two labradors and three kids who are good at spilling Cheerios on the floor. Those two people’s idea of the best vacuum cleaner will quite rightly be radically different.
“Do people still use vacuum cleaners with bags?” someone asked in our shop recently. Yes they do. And that shows us how effective the marketing of bagless cleaners has been over the last twenty years or so. Bags in vacuum cleaners is not a concept we have ‘moved on from’ though, as some people seem to think.
In fact, with vacuum cleaners at the better end of the market – Sebo and Miele being the most notable examples – they never actually went away.
Let’s take a ramble through the truth and myths about vacuum cleaners with bags and those without bags. Then we can look at choosing a vacuum cleaner that works for you. Corded or cordless vacuum cleaners is another question we will discuss here.
In order for dirt to be collected in your vacuum cleaner, you have two choices as a collection method: Bagless machines or machines with a bag.
Bagless Vacuums – The Pros and Cons
Now let’s be honest. When you think about bagless vacuum cleaners you think of Dyson. They were first to market with a bagless cleaner and have dominated the market ever since with a very large range of models. Nobody else has quite caught them up in the bagless sector of the market and although other manufacturers have sought to emulate them, none have made a notable bagless vacuum we’d seriously consider owning with our own money.
Since bursting onto the market in the mid 1990s with mainstream bagless vacuums, Dyson did a very good job with their marketing convincing many people that bags are somehow old hat, dirty, inefficient and a product of yesteryear.
A bagless machine uses what is known as cyclonic separation to remove dirt from the air flow and deposit it in the bottom of a collection bin. Not all designs are equal though. Well-designed cyclones – as Dyson have mostly made – usually do a decent job of collecting the dirt. Ones made by lesser manufacturers often do a terrible job (I am thinking of Vax and Hoover here among other budget Chinese-made brands).
Cyclonic separation wasn’t a new idea when Dyson began to use it. James Dyson got the idea from sawmills that used the method to collect sawdust. In his own words:
I’d seen an industrial sawmill, which uses something called a cyclonic separator to remove dust from the air. I thought the same principle of separation might work on a vacuum cleaner. I rigged up a quick prototype, and it did.
When such a system is collecting uniform items (like sawdust flakes) it is quite straightforward to set a machine up in such a way to make it very efficient. When a machine has many different items to pick up – as with household dirt – it is quite a design feat to get it to work as intended. Dyson have spent many years honing their cyclone designs and it is a continual work in progress. Dysons cyclonic technology evolves over the years as good engineering does.
Quick bagless filter lesson: bagless machines typically have two filters, one after the cyclone and before the motor (a pre-motor filter – on Dysons they are washable) making sure clean air enters the motor, and one after the motor (a post-motor filter) making sure even cleaner air leaves the motor. Second stage air filtration if you like. A HEPA filter is a more effective filter, usually used post-motor, to control the cleanliness of air entering back into your room.
Not all dirt and dust will be trapped in a a bagless vacuum cleaner though, and for this reason they usually have a pre-motor filter of some description. They tend to be less capable when very fine dust is involved such as plaster dust or fire ash. Dust of this nature will often pass through the cyclone and be caught by the filter.
If the pre-motor filter becomes blocked, dirt can sometimes bypass it and reach the main motor – this significantly shortens the life of the motor. Alternatively, when a filter is blocked, cooling airflow through the motor is reduced, so the motor runs hotter, and again, this significantly shortens the life of the motor. Fire ash and plaster dust (not to mention the odd spilled bottle of talcum powder) kills many bagless vacuum cleaners prematurely.
Some later Dyson machines (known as Cinetic machines) are not fitted with pre-filters at all and these carry warnings about plaster dust and fire ash. Critics of Dyson’s Cinetic machines say they are vacuum cleaners that cannot be used to suck up dust. Dyson say they are not designed for building rubble or cleaning out fireplaces. You can see both sides of that debate.
Most Dyson vacuums are fitted with washable filters which should be cleaned as part of your maintenance schedule (or cleaned/replaced when you take it in for service periodically). On some models such as the DC07, the cyclones can block up making annual servicing not a bad idea.
Dyson often use the claim “no loss of suction” when the machine is full. We’d suggest that is debatable.
Dyson have also occasionally made the claim that “Dysons don’t need servicing” – that is also utter bunkum totally debunked in detail here.
Anyone with a bagless cleaner will be familiar with the mushroom cloud that can emanate from your bin as you empty it. It is not recommended to do that indoors especially if you have allergies.
So bagless vacuums are not perfect as we have seen. But if you are going to have one, Dyson is the best of the lot in our opinion. Many Dysons are extremely capable machines, but like any product, they have their limitations and one should seek expert advice (which isn’t a spotty teenager in Currys) before buying to be sure you are getting a machine that suits your needs. And be aware of the maintenance they will need.
Bagged Vacuums – The Pros and Cons
With bagged machines, the air passes through a bag and the bag catches the dirt and the dust free air is expelled. For this reason, many bagged machines don’t have a pre-motor filter. They don’t need one because the bag is the main filter. The better end of bagged machines often have a pre-motor and a post-motor filter, but you dont need to think about them very much as you would with a bagless machine.
Sebo for example sell a service box you can buy every year or two. Along with 8 bags come two clip in filters. Apart from removing hair from the brushroll as with any vacuum, that is all the maintenance a Sebo will need. No washable filters to contend with on bagged machines.
The earliest commercially available vacuum cleaners that actually worked properly used bags. From the 1920s through to mid century, cloth bags were common.
Washing and emptying cloth bags was cumbersome and design soon progressed into disposable paper bags located inside the cloth bags, often secured by a rubber ring that doubled up as a spare belt. Many of us will remember Hoover and similar machines from the 60s, 70s and 80s that used paper bags (many people still use and love machines from that era).
Some early bags filled from the bottom so changing the bag was a dirty and messy affair. This is the mental image and childhood memory many people will have of bagged vacuum cleaners and an image Dyson were always keen to talk about to sell their bagless products.
However, modern vacuum cleaners and their bags have moved on. There has been half a century of design evolution since the machines pictured above. They fill from above nowadays and often self-seal as you remove them to empty. Modern vacuum bags are usually made out of multi-layer micro-fibre and are designed to maximise the performance, longevity and reliability of your machine.
Sebo bags for example, use multi-layer, micro-fibre construction which harnesses electrostatic attraction to combine high filtration and fade-free performance. The high filtration design enables longer life by preventing fine dust and other contaminants from entering the machine and causing unseen damage to bearings and motors.
Bagged vacuum cleaners often last many, many years due to the very high filtration that vacuum bags offer. And of course there are no filters to wash.
The only downside to using a bagged machine is that as the bag nears full, performance on some models can reduce slightly till the bag is changed. But again, with the top end manufacturers like Sebo and Miele, good design reduces this trait to less noticeable levels. Bag full warning lights usually give you time to change the bag before performance takes a noticeable hit.
The Cost of Bags Argument
Dyson and other bagless manufacturers have always made a big deal about “not having to buy bags” with their products. Their marketing worked as some people still have a blanket “I dont want to buy bags” attitude without even listening to the common sense behind bags.
A recent survey by Sebo shows that 83% of us change our vacuum bags monthly (we find many Sebo owners use a box of 8 a year on average but 12 isn’t unreasonable). This equates to 12 bags a year if you are in the 83%. A typical genuine manufacturer-made bag costs about £1.25, and non-genuine aftermarket ones cost less.
This means a typical user running a vacuum cleaner with a genuine manufacturer-made bag will spend a maximum of £15 a year in bags. Or four pence a day.
Bagless cleaners often cost more to buy. At the time of writing, a full size Dyson ball machine costs typically £100 more than a comparable Sebo. That £100 buys you 80 Sebo bags, which if an average user will last you around seven years.
When coupled with more hygienic disposal that bags offer, no mushroom cloud and no filters to buy or wash, the net cost differential is negligible. Don’t believe marketing nonsense from manufacturers that bags are prohibitively expensive and buying bagless costs less – it’s not true.
So Which is Best – Bagged or Bagless?
There is no definitive answer to this because our needs go beyond simply bagged or bagless. We have said in the past it’s like red wine -v- white wine, lager -v- bitter or Brexit -v- Remain. Everyone has their own opinion and one option doesn’t suit everyone.
It remains a fact that for those with allergies, asthma or a preference for clean air, bagged machines tend to be a better choice. The magazine Which? recently announced that the Sebo K1 Releases Less Dust than Dyson Cinetic on Emptying.
In an online poll you can find >>here<<, when asked to choose between Sebo and Dyson, at the time of writing, 48% to 16% of vacuum owners preferred Sebo.
Most vacuum specialists, collectors and experts will tell you bags are better.
What About Cordless and Robots?
Dyson have recently courted controversy by claiming they are no longer developing corded vacuum cleaners.
They seem to feel that the new Dyson Cyclone V10 negates the need for corded vacuums and their marketing is shouting these claims.
We have tested the battery life of the Dyson V10 live on video and we got seven and a half minutes on full power with the floor head spinning. We dont think that is enough to say a Dyson V10 can replace your corded machine.
In our view, Dyson make the best cordless machines out there in the V7, V8 and V10, but we tend to recommend them as secondary machines for most people and never as a main family machine. If you have kids, dogs and a need for a family machine, you need a proper vacuum as well – a cordless just won’t cut it alone.
If you happen to live in one of these sterile environments Dyson use in their advertising…………
……… then you may get away with one as a main vacuum cleaner. But for everyone else, you’ll need a real vacuum cleaner as well.
Robotic vacuums are in the same category. The £800 Dyson robot we tested was fun, but too tall to get under furniture and seemed to suffer software issues in that it spent ten minutes trying to climb a barstool.
Robotic machines are alright if you have a lot of hard floor and can leave them to collect dust bunnies on their own while you are out at work. You’ll still need a real vacuum too of course. If you want a robotic vacuum cleaner, the iRobot Roomba is the best one we have encountered.
So About the Most Powerful Vacuum?
“Most powerful” is a misnomer – I could write an article on that subject alone. I spend much of my working day explaining to people that motor wattage is not the same as air watts and what role brushroll design and carpet agitation play in effective cleaning. Big watts does not equal power and suction. It can, but not necessarily.
Buy a well made vacuum cleaner from a company that makes vacuum cleaners (rather than a company that puts its name on anything it can find in China) that is designed properly and dont obsess about power. Good design will always trump bad design and more motor watts. One reason the old Vax machines with their 2200w motors were still dreadful machines.
I Want Lightweight and Powerful
Lightweight and powerful are mutually exclusive in my opinion; subjective at best. A machine I may find quite light you may think is heavy. Many people think a 7.5kg Sebo or an 8kg Dyson is heavy. I find them alright but think a big Miele or a Kirby are heavy. Many older people get drawn towards what are essentially motorised Ewbanks like Gtech because of the weight and persuasive marketing (please don’t buy a Gtech folks).
Lightweight often means very small motors which usually means less power. It can also mean cheap construction which means poor performance.
I have yet to find a very lightweight and powerful machine that ticks all the boxes. It’s the holy grail of vacuuming every manufacturer is trying to create.
If you really need lightweight, see if a cylinder machine will suit you, and if not see if your usage is light enough a cordless Dyson will suffice.
Upright or Cylinder?
Cylinder machines are like Marmite.
You love them or hate them.
In mainland europe, cylinder machines are the norm. In the UK, we tend to prefer uprights. Upright machines tend to be better on carpet and we British typically have more carpet than those in mainland europe. We have found a north south difference: in Scotland a cylinder machine is an unusual thing. In the north of England, you see some but not many. The further south you go the more you are likely to find people who choose cylinder machines over uprights.
It is entirely personal preference, though.
In with cylinder machines we should probably mention Numatic and Henry type machines. We are lukewarm about Numatic and Henry type tub machines in that they lack any type of design or technology and are cumbersome to use. They are just a plastic bucket, a motor and some hose – about as basic as a vacuum gets. If you really want that type of machine, >>these<< are cheaper and reliable.
What Do You Have at Home?
We as vacuum experts are often asked what we have at home. I can tell you we have both a bagged Sebo X series (for the serious work) and a Dyson bagless cordless V8 (for the quick zip round stuff) at home. The two machines do different jobs and compliment each other well.
Where to Buy?
Buying a vacuum cleaner is a big decision. A good vacuum will cost a few hundred pounds and you’ll own it quite a few years if you choose wisely. Taking advice from a specialist who should ask about your floor types and usage will help you make the right decision.
Independent vacuum shops are a better place to look at your options than chain stores. In an independent shop you are more likely to encounter experienced staff who use the products and know what they are talking about. Online research has its limits and nothing beats discussing your needs with a vacuum cleaner expert to get a recommendation, and trying a couple of products on a shop floor before you buy. You can’t do that in Argos or online with AO.
Remember an independent store should always be cheaper than eBay or Amazon as if you deal direct they are not paying the selling fees it costs to sell on those platforms when you deal directly.
What Brand to Buy
It’s just a vacuum cleaner, isnt it? Wrong. Have you ever wondered why those “budget” vacuum cleaners are sold next to the toilet rolls in the supermarket? It’s because they’re just as disposable. When it comes to picking a vacuum cleaner from a myriad of choices, dont just go for the cheapest. Spending £99 on a vacuum cleaner may seem like a great idea at the time, but year after year you’ll find yourself needing a replacement. In the end, you will spend more money buying a cheap vacuum year after year than you would buying a decent one in the first place.
We’d suggest you avoid Gtech, Vax, Hoover, Bissell, Shark, Zanussi, Beko, Argos, Bush, Hotpoint, H.Koenig, Russell Hobbs, Duronic, Samsung and anything cheap that you have never heard of in the supermarket.
For cordless vacuum cleaners we recommend Dyson.
For corded full size vacuum cleaners we recommend Sebo. Sebo were voted Which? magazine’s “most reliable brand” and are still made in Germany. You can buy a Sebo from us >>here<<. If you don’t fancy a Sebo, look at a reconditioned Dyson instead.
For more individual or specific advice, feel free to make a free account on the vacuum cleaner advice forums and ask advice there. But if you have read this far, you now know more about vacuum cleaners than most other people you know.