Turn Up Your Suction Power
It doesn't have the glamour of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, but it's hard to imagine life without the vacuum cleaner. The Rodney Dangerfield of home appliances turns 100 in 2007 and has undergone some revolutionary changes that have dramatically improved its efficiency. So if you're still pushing dust around with that ancient Hoover, it may be time for an upgrade.
Invented in 1901, the first vacuum machine was a horse-drawn engine with a hose attached that sucked the grime out of carpets. Society ladies would invite their friends to come watch the spectacle. But the parties ended in 1907 when Murray Spangler invented the first effective "bag on a stick" upright vacuum cleaner for home use.
Dust to dust. More recently, filtering innovations have made vacuums much more effective: The multi-ply micro filter captures more fine dust and allows for greater air flow, which sustains suction. And the high-efficiency particulate air filter sucks up even more dust: 99.97 percent of particles 0.3 microns and larger (most of the stuff we inhale is 10 microns and smaller).
Meanwhile, a cyclonic system invented by British industrial designer James Dyson ditches the bag altogether by using centrifugal force to collect particles in a clear bin, preventing the loss of suction.
"It's a more complicated science than the consumer is led to believe," says Allen Rathey, founder of the Housekeeping Channel. For example, he explains that HEPA works better at capturing dust than a microfilter, but its effectiveness may be lost on a poorly sealed machine or one with low airflow. "If you're not moving air" says Rathey, "it doesn't matter how good your filters are." And while cyclonic vacuums are billed as low maintenance, you still have to wash out a filter. So how to decide between a $90 Wal-Mart special and the $550 Dyson DC 17 Animal?
Ask for performance numbers, Rathey says.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.