Vacuum Buying Guide

Carpet Captain’s Vacuum Guide

(the best vacuum and other common questions)

Okay, buying a vacuum isn’t the most thrilling thing you’ll do this week.

BUT it is an important one. The right vacuum extends the life of your carpet or floor, reduces allergies, cleans your air, and just makes your life easier.

I’ve tested more vacuums than I can count, been around a carpet cleaning business my whole life, and helped thousands of readers buy vacuums. Weirdly (or maybe not so weird since I’m the Carpet Captain), I’ve found this somewhat entertaining.

One thing that is sure:

There is no perfect vacuum for everyone. The easiest example being the best vacuum for pets might be $400, but maybe you have a budget of under $200. I did my best below to break vacuums into categories by budget, floor type, and other special cases:

Know anyone headin to college in the next couple of months? Check out the best dorm vacuums.

If those articles don’t speak to you, I’ve done some more specific tests with different kinds of carpet and for people with different needs that you’ll find below.

What besides best vacuums will I find in this guide (table of contents)

Best vacuums for specific cases

Above I covered the best vacuum for the money, for pet hair, for allergies and divided by budget. If that didn’t cover what you need, here are a few specific cases I find important:

If you still haven’t found what you needed, I have other articles and also would be happy to answer your questions. Let me know in the comments below!

What to expect for vacuum in different price ranges

What should you pay for a vacuum? Depends on what you want. Prices can range from $25 to $1,000+. Sometimes the price differences are justified, but sometimes you’re paying extra for a brand name or features you don’t need.

Here is the Captain’s breakdown of price categories:

  • Under $100 (a few diamonds in the rough): Most of these vacuums aren’t going to do much except clean up messes—think visible debris. And even that might be a tough job. However, there are a few diamonds in the rough in this category that we found make serviceable vacuums
  • $125 to $225 (the sweet spot): I’ve been surprised with how high-performance of a few vacuums in this price range. Here’s my theory: manufacturers most marketed vacuums cost more than this, but they still know that there’s a big group of shoppers that are cost conscious. Many of these shoppers don’t want to pay over $300 for a vacuum. Therefore, manufacturers compete in this price range for the “best budget” vacuum. Some of these vacuums have nearly identical performance to the high-end vacuums, just without some bells and whistles.
  • $250 to $400 (the big guns): The highly-marketed vacuums I talked about in the last category? This is those vacuums. This is where many of the best vacuums fall. It’s not all marketing hype. Many in this category provide excellence across the board: vacuum performance, ease of use, extra features. As impressive as many of these vacuums are, there are some lemons so you’ll want to do your research.
  • $450+ (the snob vacuums): You won’t see these at your neighbors home.These are the high-end vacuums where you pay extra for the “little things.”  The vacuum might be made of all metal, manufactured in the United States, have the ability to shampoo carpets, or any other new flashy feature. These vacuums are unique and usually have great performance. However, vacuuming performance usually isn’t any better than the big guns.

Vacuum features you never knew you’d love

You don’t know what you don’t know. This section uncovers all vacuum features I know of, so you can make sure there’s nothing missing in your vacuum that would make your life easier. Check them out:

Add-on tools: Lump these into one category but anything from tools to clean blinds, to stairs, to furniture, to grooming your pet (sucking its excess hair). Most of these tools work well, but here’s what you need to ask yourself: Will I really use this? Many people get excited about the ways they can use a tool but never actually end up using it… like the time you bought the kitchen gadget to make perfect hard-boiled eggs in your microwave. Think hard if you’ll actually use the tool to avoid paying extra.

Bagless: There’s plenty of debate over whether or not your vacuum should have a bag. Enough so, that you should check out our page dedicated to it.

Beater bar (adjustable, and none): Beater bars are a catch 22. Some people tell you not to have one so it doesn’t tear up your carpet, but some people say carpet doesn’t get clean without one. The best of both worlds is a beater bar that can be turned on and off. This allows you to use it when you need to hit a dirty spot, but also turn it off for hard surfaces or carpets that are commonly damaged by beater bars: like frieze or Berber.

Cord features: Not necessary but an important feature for me is an automatic retractable cord. I don’t know what it is, but I hate wrapping the cord. A push-button retractable cord is the only way to go for me, and I bet I vacuum the carpet twice as much because of its convenience. There is also such thing as cordless vacuums, but they currently don’t come in too many models.

Dirt sensor: You can’t always see the dirt, so having a dirt sensor helps you know how long to vacuum a particular area. In my personal experience, you can hear the dirt being pick up and when the sound stops, the sensor goes off, so I’m not sure how useful it is. From what I’ve read, other tests of these sensors tend to agree that they’re cool but not too useful.

Headlight: Easy to find feature in most vacuums and definitely helpful unless everywhere you vacuum has great lighting (under your couch?). You may opt for LED lighting. Not only does this help get your carpet clean, but it helps you avoid sucking up something important… say your wedding ring.

Height adjustment: Any decent vacuum has a height adjustment, but it’s an important feature so make sure yours does. Some luxury vacuums take it a step further and automatically adjust based on the height of your carpet or hardwood. Not necessary but cool and makes your life easier.

Filters: Vacuum filters can be misleading because different filters serve different purposes, and sometimes the airflow system is more important the filter. Here’s what I mean: Bagless vacuums require a filter, but bagged vacuums have the bag which acts as a very effective filter. If you have allergies, you want a secondary filter that makes sure the air that comes out of the vacuum is clean. HEPA filters clear out 99.97% of particles, but you don’t necessarily need HEPA to do a great job. To make it more confusing, just because you have a HEPA filter, doesn’t mean that the air coming out of your vacuum is clean. This is because HEPA only rates the air going through the filter but some vacuums air leaks outside of the filter. A sealed system may be more important than the vacuum itself (I make note of vacuums that have sealed systems in my guides).

Power: I’m talking about suction power, and like filters, this can be more confusing than it seems. Power can be rated in amps, watts or many other specifications. These measure how powerful the motor is, but it doesn’t tell you how much suction the vacuum has (even though many cases a more powerful motor = more suction, that’s not always true). A better measure is CFM (cubic feet per minute) of airflow. This tells you exactly how much air the vacuum sucks up. This doesn’t tell the whole story on how clean your carpet will get (many other features matter), but it is one of the best measurements.

Self-propelled: A useful feature for some, but I’m not a big fan. A self-propelled vacuum will generally be heavier, so if there are times you aren’t using the feature, it’s more difficult to use the vacuum. Especially in smaller rooms, it’s often better to move the vacuum back and forth on your own. But if you feel pushing a vacuum is too much of a workout, self-propelled could be a nice feature.

Suction control: Some vacuums let you control the amount of suction. Typically you want it maxed out for carpet, but if you want to clean other household items such as blinds, turning it down might be a useful feature.

UV light: This feature is intended to kill more allergens, dust mites, etc. It shows a lot of promise. Currently, there aren’t many vacuums out there that have UV cleaning (Oreck used to make one but discontinued it). The feature shows promise, especially with improvements, to potentially kill dust mites. However, you’ll probably only find it in handheld vacuums at the moment.

How often should you vacuum

Many good sources recommend vacuuming once a week. Where do they come up with this answer? Don’t ask me. And I doubt they have an answer either. It just sounds good.

It just sounds good.

The truth is there’s no good research on how often you should vacuum carpet. One week was probably picked because every day just sounds crazy but every month isn’t enough. One week it is.

So how often should you vacuum?

You first have to answer: what are your goals for vacuuming? Most people its to extend the life of their carpet, remove allergens, and eliminate the food and other debris that could grow bacteria.

“Extending the life of their carpet” is the one I want to talk about. I don’t think vacuuming weekly is in the best interest of your carpet. Mostly because the beater bar will, well, beat up the carpet. At the same time, I do think allergens and other debris will build up over a week.

So here’s my non-scientific (maybe I’ll study it some day) answer on how often to vacuum:

Captain’s brush-on brush-off vacuum strategy: Vacuum once a week with the brush roll off, and one a month with the brush roll on. You can increase this to daily for brush-off and every 2 weeks for brush-on in high-traffic areas.

Here are a few frequently asked questions on the brush-on brush-off vacuum strategy:

  • What if my beater bar doesn’t turn off? In this case, you have no option but to use the brush. However, raising the vacuum height will reduce the amount the beater bar digs into the carpet.
  • My dog sheds. Won’t I need to use the brush roll more often? Maybe. Try with the beater off first and see how it does. You might be surprised especially with a powerful vacuum. As a second option, try an upholstery tool in the area your dog lies. It can be effective and gentler.
  • What about hard flooring? The beater bar should be turned off anyway. To take it a step further, I’d vacuum these areas as much as possible to keep the debris from floating around the home.

Captain’s warning! Certain types of carpet will be damaged with a brush roll. This is particularly true with Berber carpet but can also be true with frieze carpet. In these cases, you’ll only want to vacuum without the brush roll. Since you’ll never get the deep clean of a brush, I’d increase your vacuum frequency to at least twice a week in high-traffic areas.

Why you’re vacuuming wrong

There’s not a perfect technique to vacuuming carpet, but many people don’t get the most out of their vacuum because of a few common mistakes. Here are tips for vacuuming the right way:

  • The toothbrush strategy for vacuuming: Switch it up. When you make a habit of brushing with the same hand and starting the same spot, you miss the same spots in your mouth every time. This is the same with vacuuming. Change the angles you vacuum at and the direction you start, and where you move furniture to greatly reduce chances of missed spots. Some vacuum experts recommend going in the horizontal and vertical angle every time you vacuum. I think that’s overkill. Just switch it up (horizontal one time and vertical the next).
  • Check the filter regularly: Your manual will give you guidance on how often to change or clean your filter, and like an oil change, it’s important to stick to. Vacuum power can be severely limited by a worn out filter
  • Maximize your vacuum’s potential: Newer vacuums come with different height settings and extra tools. Figure out what setting is best (it takes work at first but pays off), and how to best use the extra tools. Many people ignore these features, but if you get it right once, you won’t have to think about it again.
  • Don’t over-focus on the carpet: Yes, you want your carpet clean, but if you clean it, and then the air conditioning comes on and blows dust out of the vent, or someone walks in and kicks up debris from a dirty mat, your carpet is immediately dirty again. Many vacuums make it easy to clean vents, mats, etc.
  • Check the beater bar: Tangled strings and hair can reduce the beater bar performance, and it’s important part of getting the carpet clean.
  • Turn off the beater bar: Okay, so I just said the beater bar is important. It is, but certain carpets it can damage. Berber or looped carpets are prime victims of the beater bar, but frieze and longer carpets can also be damaged. If you’re unsure, check with your carpet manufacturer.
  • Pick up the pennies: Little objects like pennies, paper clips, and buttons are tempting to suck up. Vacuum experts advise against it. It can clog and damage your vacuum.
  • Avoid whipping up the cord: You don’t have to coddle your cord, but if you have a self-retracting cord, make sure to guide it slightly when you hit the button. Otherwise, this can cause damage to the cord over time.
  • Tips for rugs: The best way to clean rugs is with an upholstery attachment. If that’s not an option, just make sure to turn off the beater bar (unless you don’t care about the rug).
  • Being cheap on bags will cost you: Most vacuums need to be emptied when 75% full or performance degrades (I put this last because high-end vacuums (bag and bagless) claim they don’t lose suction no matter how full the container)

Vacuuming and allergies

You can’t mention vacuuming without allergies. Allergies are becoming more and more of a problem and vacuums are one of our best friends when it comes to indoor air quality. Carpet gets a bad reputation for allergies, but it can actually be a good thing of allergy sufferers.

That is only if you clean it on schedule and effectively. Think of it like this:

Yes, there are dust mites and other allergens trapped in your carpet, but if it weren’t in your carpet, they would be floating in your air. It’s like your carpet acts as a giant filter.

Now that the allergens are trapped in the carpet, they’re easy pickings for a good vacuum cleaner. Notice I said “good” vacuum. There are two ways your vacuum you can fail you:

  • It’s not powerful enough to pick up the allergens at the base of the carpet.
  • It sucks up allergens, but then they leak back out into the air.

#1 is straightforward. Check out our articles on the best vacuums (check out the top of this article for which “best vacuum” articles are best for you to read).

#2 is one people often get wrong. More specifically, more people get the second part of #2 wrong. And that’s because the marketing of vacuums can be pretty misleading. Let me explain:

You’ll see a lot of vacuums with a HEPA filter. HEPA filters are the gold standard for filtering allergens. These filters make sure that air that is blown out of the vacuum first goes through the filter.

But here’s the secret in why they fail:

HEPA filter cause reduced airflow, and this pressure can cause air and dust to leak out of the vacuum. In other words, allergens bypass the filter and back into your air. Many vacuums with HEPA filter have this problem.

You want to check out vacuums with a sealed system. Our best vacuum cleaners for allergies will help you out more. If none of those vacuums are for your, most of my lists on best vacuums will include mentions of allergies.

Where to buy your vacuum

You have 3 options on where to buy your vacuum:

  • big box store
  • online
  • vacuum specialty store

I won’t spend much time on the first two because you’re probably familiar with their main benefit: price. If you know the vacuum that you want, you’ll likely find your best price online or in a big box store.

Captain’s warning! Buying online can be convenient and the lowest price, which is why many times I recommend it if you know the vacuum you want. However, some online sellers are not authorized retailers of the vacuum. This voids your warranty with most vacuum manufacturers.

Vacuum specialty stores are also worth checking into, especially if you’re investing in a high-performing vacuum or are unsure what you want. Why? Because you can often test the vacuums out, not just hold them, but actually use them in the store. This lets you get a feel for the vacuum, see first-hand how effective it is, and if you like the accessories. It’s like test driving a car before you buy it.

My first thought was, “Yeah, I bet they give great service, but they’re also probably expensive.” And yes, you may pay a little for service, but I was shocked to find in my area a local vacuum store that would go as far as to match any price. Most realize there’s a lot of competition and are pretty competitive on price.

Captain’s parting words!

The intent of this guide is to give you a customized starting point on where to go next on our site in shopping for vacuums.

Hopefully, you got your questions answered. If you have any questions that we haven’t answered, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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Brian Dodd

I would be interested in your take on Roombas. Ours seems to do a great job vacuuming, but I hate the tracks it leaves around the edges and furniture. Is there a carpet type (other than industrial) that would minimize the tracks?

Derek Dewitt

My wife and I want to get a new vacuum soon, so thanks for this guide. I like your point about how a dirt sensor can help you find areas that were missed. We’ll definitely consider getting a model like this so we never miss any dirt. [link removed]