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Selecting a Vacuum Cleaner

By Michael Hilton

Vacuum Cleaner selection is among the most important decisions you can make for your new carpet purchase. Many vacuum cleaners can damage the carpet pile fiber, when brush action is too aggressive. Also, vacuum cleaners advertising HEPA filtration may not extract dirt. A vacuum cleaner rating system is now being performed by the carpet industry that sets a pass/fail criteria for soil removal, filtration and damage to carpet fibers.

Selecting a Vacuum Cleaner

The Vacuum Cleaner is the most important tool used in the maintenance of your new carpet. The majority of soil tracked into your home is insoluble dry soil and cannot be removed with wet cleaning. Dry soil is the most damaging type of soil because it cuts carpet fibers like a razor blade. This scarring leaves carpet fiber with a dingy appearance similar to the effects of scratching glass. The primary function of the vacuum cleaner is to remove dry soil.

The primary problem with selecting a vacuum cleaner is it is a blind purchase. In the past, consumers had to rely on the worn path of dubious marketing claims offered by vacuum cleaner manufacturers.

Even the testing performed by consumer groups like Consumer Reports does not rise to the level of good science. In the past, Consumer Reports used a vacuum cleaner test procedure developed by vacuum cleaner manufacturers which had a 65% standard deviation of results, so a vacuum cleaner could remove anywhere from 25 grams to 90 grams of 100 grams of test soil and the results were considered identical. In 1996, when we began work on a Carpet industry test method for rating vacuum cleaners, we visited the Consumer Reports Test Facility in Yonkers NY. We were stunned to find that the environmental chamber they used for vacuum cleaner filtration/particle emissions testing amounted to plastic sheeting draped from the acoustical ceiling tiles in the Consumer reports lunchroom.

The carpet industry recognized that if the vacuum cleaner industry would not initiate a reliable test method for assessing vacuum cleaner performance, the carpet industry would have to initiate it's own test procedure. After all, it the carpet industry's product that was being harmed by improper maintenance equipment.

In working with the vacuum cleaner industry on the ASTM F-11 committee for 2 years, I was appalled that they were more interested in bells and whistles of the unit rather than actual performance. They communicated that consumers wanted cords that automatically rolled up, air fresheners that reduced the odor, and other added features. Soil removal was the last thing they were interested in. While it may be nice that the vacuum cleaner can vacuum the floor by itself and park itself back in its station on its own, but is it really worth pushing the button or reaching for the remote control, if the vacuum cleaner does not remove any dirt?

As a result the carpet industry initiated its own vacuum cleaner testing program in which a pass/fail rating was given. Carpet industry evaluations revealed that vacuum cleaners remove between 18% and 82% of the soil typically found in carpet in four vacuum cleaner passes. It is not necessary to purchase an 82% removal machine, but the 18% machine should be avoided at all costs. The removal % of a vacuum cleaner is not available from any source, but this carpet industry program offered by the Carpet and Rug Institute (Vacuum Cleaner Testing Program) is underway to assist the consumer in making this decision. While this program does not identify the removal percentage of any vacuum cleaner it does establish a standard and recognizes equipment that meets this standard. Approved vacuum Cleaners are listed on the CRI web site. You might note that Eureka Vacuum Cleaners are conspicuously absent from the list of approved Vacuum Cleaners.

Some equipment manufacturers may mislead the consumer by labeling machines with fictitious “cleaning power” ratings or by listing “watts” or other useless titles that actually provide very little insight into the equipment’s actual performance. Other vacuum cleaner manufacturers with slick sales presentations promote gimmicks such as filtration using a water basin (you may not find the Rainbow Vacuum cleaner on the list either), cyclonic action (Eureka), or multiple filters.

Vacuum cleaners have notoriously been guilty of using this type of deceptive practice. Watts, for example, have nothing to do with the amount of soil the equipment is capable of removing. Wattage is simply an indicator of the amount of electricity the unit burns. There may be no difference in the amount of soil a 10-watt machine removes versus a 12-watt machine. Also, ideas such as water filtration sound fascinating and highly believable, but in reality, do not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Vacuum Cleaner Rating

The Vacuum Cleaner Testing Program established a minimum soil removal standard (unknown to the consumer) and assigns a pass/fail rating based on the amount of soil removed.

The second criterion for this vacuum-testing program is damage to the pile fiber by overly-aggressive vacuum brushes. Testing revealed that stiff vacuum cleaner brushes can fray, disentangle, and permanently damage pile fibers. In some instances, a few weeks of vacuum cleaner use with a non-conforming vacuum cleaner can simulate the effects of more than a year of foot traffic.

The final criterion is particulate emissions. It appears as if every vacuum cleaner manufacturer is selling indoor air quality, allergen reduction, and health attributes of their unit, but there was no reliable test method of evaluating these claims. Carpet industry testing revealed that some vacuum cleaners making these filtration claims removed very little soil. In essence a vacuum cleaner that removes no soil, filters every thing that is removed, right? Wow- that's 100% filtration effectiveness , isn't it? This statement may not be very far from the truth for some vacuum cleaners. Also, by placing a high filtration bag on an ordinary unit, filtration may be improved, but soil removal may be negatively affected. In some cases, these high filtration bags reduce airflow (suction) created by the vacuum cleaner motor, reduces soil removal, creates a back flow or resistance on the motor. The backflow resistance on the vacuum cleaner motor can shorten vacuum cleaner motor life. The CRI program established a maximum emission of 65 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air. Current indoor standards have been set somewhere around 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This will help ensure that the vacuum cleaner operator is subjected to less dust than is normally found indoors.

A word of caution about the HEPA word– There is no such thing as a High Efficiency Particle Arrestor (HEPA) vacuum. HEPA refers to a filter that can be placed on any vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner industry has turned HEPA into a buzzword. As mentioned above, a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filtration may not remove as much soil as is necessary to properly clean an environment. To qualify as a HEPA filter it must filter 99.9% of particles .3 micrometers (microns) and smaller. However, respirable particles can be as large as 5 to 10 microns. While you might think that a vacuum cleaner that removes particles larger than .3 microns will also remove particles that are 5 microns in size, you might be surprised. This rating of particle size only, provides no clue as to the mass or number of particles that a vacuum cleaner emits that can be inhaled in the respirable particle size zone. The total mass or number of particles must be considered to anticipate the amount of exposure. You must realize that for (cigarette) smoker, it is not the chemicals in cigarettes that kill them, it is the particles in the smoke that does the most damage. It's the same story for coal miners. One final note, tests show that some HEPA filters on vacuum cleaners claiming HEPA filtration quickly become clogged and the soil bypasses this filter around the edges, greatly diminishing filtration performance. A vacuum cleaner that qualifies as HEPA, when it is first placed into service, may not qualify as a HEPA rated filter, 10 minutes after it has been used.

This vacuum cleaner testing program is a voluntary program. As you might guess, not all vacuum cleaner manufacturers are happy with this program, because it issues a “green label” to products that meet this standard. As a result, many LARGE vacuum cleaner manufacturers have decided not to participate and their units are conspicuously absent from the CRI approved list. This is a disservice to the consumer because a verifiable test method exists for comparing vacuum cleaners and some vacuum manufacturers prefer to continue to market their products using the worn path of dubious marketing and performance claims. For this program to benefit the consumer, the consumer must ask for these products and exclude products that do not meet this standard or refuse to have their products tested. The market place will eventually encourage these manufacturers to participate, if the consumer insists upon the issue. The consumer must assume that any product that does not carry this label, does not meet minimum program requirements and therefore should not be considered for purchase.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.

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Selecting a Vacuum Cleaner
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