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Healthy Home Basics - How Vacuum Cleaners Work

By HHI Staff

Many people vacuum one or more days a week. But, how many of them actually understand how these familiar machines work? Some vacuums contain rotating brushes or beating agitators which first loosen the surface dirt on the floor. At the same time, a high-speed fan whirls inside the motor’s housing to create a powerful suctioning action. As the air is pulled into the vacuum, it brings along with it the loosened debris, which is deposited into a paper or cloth filter bag, or sometimes into a special self-contained receptacle. The air then flows through the bag or receptacle and quickly back into the room—supposedly leaving the dirt behind. By the way, while one or two swaths across the same section of carpet is how most people use their vacuum, it actually takes a minimum of six to eight swaths for most vacuums to pull up at least some of the debris embedded deep down in the carpet fibers.


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Unfortunately, even if a lot of the debris does get sucked in, many traditional portable vacuum cleaners are ineffective in separating the dirt from the air that returns to the room. As a result, a fairly large percentage of particulate matter is often blown back into the air of the area you’ve just cleaned. (The precise percentage depends on the vacuum model, as well as how full the collection bag or permanent receptacle is.)


It should be noted that particulate matter is made up not only of soil grains, but also lint, human and pet hair, human and pet dander (skin flakes), mold spores, pollen grains, and dust mite fragments and feces, among other unpleasant contaminants. If you operate an inefficient vacuum, you’ll end up breathing this “delightful” concoction continually as it passes through the filter into the room. It should not be surprising to learn that many susceptible persons find that vacuuming actually provokes allergic and asthmatic symptoms rather than preventing them. Therefore, it’s not surprising that some health experts suggest that those with respiratory allergies and asthma not vacuum themselves, if at all possible. Even if someone else does the vacuuming for them, it has been recommended that they not enter the just-cleaned area for at least thirty minutes. Finally, if someone with allergies and asthma has to do the job for themselves, it is further advised that they wear a dust mask.


It should also be mentioned that traditional vacuums (as described above) use a simple straight line airstream though a cloth or paper debris-collection bag. As the bag fills and the interior surfaces get coated with dust, the airflow through the bag becomes increasingly blocked. With use, a vacuum with this design will lose more and more of its suctioning capacity. Therefore, it’s best to only allow the bag to get half full. Whenever you change it, you’ll find that bag replacement is usually a messy, dusty job. So, wearing a dust mask and doing the job outdoors are essential precautions for everyone, even if they’re in good health.


As an improvement, a number of vacuum models now employ cyclonic technology in which a whirlwind airstream is formed. The powerful centrifugal force that is created precipitates (throws out) the particulate matter against the walls of a collection bin. The debris then falls to the bottom of the bin. As a further advance, some vacuum manufacturers design their products to create two or more cyclones. The first precipitates the heavier particulates, the second one, spinning at an even faster speed, precipitates the lighter ones. As in single-cyclonic designs, all the debris falls to the bottom of the reusable collection bin. When the collection bin is full on a cyclonic vacuum, it’s simply removed and dumped out. Of course emptying such a receptacle means you no longer have to buy replacement bags, but you’ll still have to take care to not inhale dust particles when pouring out the receptacle’s accumulated contents. Again, doing this outdoors with a dust mask on is wise. Cyclone vacuums don’t lose their suctioning ability as they fill with debris, although most use a final media filter to catch dust that gets past the cyclone and this will need periodic cleaning or replacing.


Besides differences in suctioning strategy, everyone knows that conventional portable vacuums also come in two basic configurations—upright and canister. Uprights have the vacuum motor and powerhead connected together and they are pushed and pulled (unless they’re self-propelled) across surfaces. For some, this is convenient, for others, not. As a rule, uprights are difficult to maneuver under beds and furniture. Most models require the user to attach a hose for uses where the unit can’t lie flat enough to go under certain objects such as a bed or sofa, and for uses such as vacuuming furniture, cushions, stairs, or draperies. (A few models do have built-in hoses that stretch varying lengths, depending on the manufacturer.)


Canister vacuums are designed with a motor/receptacle unit on casters with a long hose attached. Many come with a power head attachment on the end of the hose for added agitating/suctioning. The long hoses of canister models can go places uprights can’t, but they do require the user to lift or drag the canister unit around the house. Again, some find this advantageous, others do not. Which type is better, is ultimately a personal decision.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing.)



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Healthy Home Basics - How Vacuum Cleaners Work:  Created on April 19th, 2010.  Last Modified on February 27th, 2011


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