Know Your Tools: Vacuum Cleaner Care and Feeding

The one thing in your life that should suck

A faithful servant standing at the ready to help sweep away life's messy edges--that's how most of us view our vacuum cleaners. For the most part, it's true. The vacuum cleaner doesn't ask too much of you in order to clean up spills, pet hair, house dust, and general dirt. However, you can enhance how well your vacuum performs its work, keep it running smoothly and extend its life, saving you money and time.

Basic maintenance
First, there is maintenance for the vacuum itself. Whether canister or upright, vacuums share some features in common.

If you have a carpet beater--the part which goes round and round on the floor side--check that to make sure the brushes aren't worn and no thread is caught around it. Every so often, you'll have to replace it.Since the brush is belt driven, periodically check for proper belt tension. Some models have vents that have to be clear for proper air flow. While it's easy to forget to read it, the manufacturer's manual will tell you how to change belts, when to take the part or machine in to service, and special tips for best efficiency.

Before each vacuum excursion, give the bag a check to see if there's room to put more dirt in it. A full bag compromises the suction power of the vacuum, so you'll do yourself and your floors a favor if you change bags often.

There are micro-particle bags available, which claim to turn any vacuum into one that prevents dirt from escaping the vacuum system. If you notice any difference using them, they may be worth the extra cost. [Note: If you're worried about the high cost of some bags, there's always the Complete Tightwad Gazette method: carefully undo one end of the bag, empty it, restaple/duct tape it shut and re-use it. Your Mileage May Vary.--Ed]

In practice
Carpet manufacturers suggest that wall-to-wall carpet be vacuumed every day; our experience shows that you may wish to keep that to just high-traffic areas. Areas receiving little traffic should get a going-over once a week or so to remove dust. This may seem like a daunting schedule, but it's designed to prevent dirt from being ground in so that industrial-strength shampooers need to be used less frequently.

Hard floor surfaces, such as wood or linoleum, should be done on an as-needed basis. Hard floors, of course, need a different nozzle than the carpet beater.

Most people naturally pick up chunky dirt such as small objects before vacuuming, but properly vacuuming wall-to-wall carpet takes more preparation than you might think. Major carpet makers suggest that each section of carpet receive twenty seconds of vacuuming. If you count "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi," while making pass after pass, you'll soon see most of us don't spend that much time on any one section. Perhaps this could be the new meditation time for harried homemakers. Hard floors need less going over; simply vacuum until dirt is gone.

Choosing your tool
There are at least four types of vacuum cleaners to choose from. Small, hand-held vacuums ("Dust-Busters") are useful for high-spill areas such as shops, kitchens, and to pick up things like potting soil. They're also easy to move from area to area in a house. "Stick" vacuums are basically large "dust-busters"; they have cups instead of bags and while they are very well-suited for hard floors (better than a broom), they're not so good with carpet.

Upright vacuums are popular. They are especially easy to use on carpet, but less convenient if you need to vacuum many different floor types. Canister vacuums can be used on both carpet and hard floors, since they usually have both a beater attachment and small nozzles to choose from.

Whole-house ("central vac") systems are quite nice, and quite expensive. If you don't have one now, the only thing keeping you from one is a few thousand dollars.

All the machines vary in power and claims about how little dust they release while you vacuum. Reading reviews such as those published in Consumer Reports can help you match your needs to the right kind of vacuum. Nothing really beats a test run, though. Consider only buying a vacuum after going to a shop and really running one through its paces.

If you have a fussy baby, consider using vacuum time as a calming exercise. Some babies love the sound, and most would enjoy being worn in a sling while you move about. Take that time to do your twenty-second meditation and pat the baby.

Contributing Editor Stefani Leto writes and parents in the Bay Area. Mother of an almost-five year old and an infant, she says nothing challenges her mind like parenting. Her work also appears at and

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