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Don't be uptight about uprights

September 19, 2010
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Upright vacuums, like cars, vary in quality, features and performance.

Like automobiles, some uprights are reliable; others may be problematic, while some become a problem as a result of neglect or improper use.

How do you make an informed choice and, having done so, ensure your upright vacuum goes the distance?

While a “road test” with a loaner unit makes sense, you’ll want to consider “under-the-hood” facts and long-term issues such as:

  • Soil removal
  • Filtration testing
  • Motor configuration
  • Construction and design factors
  • Durability
  • Upkeep
  • Manufacturer service and support
  • Overall cost of ownership.

Soil removal testing
How well does it clean?

Since soil removal directly affects a carpet’s longevity, appearance and related long-term expenses, and indirectly affects the health of building occupants, it’s a vital part of overall “cost.”

The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) tests vacuums for soil removal as part of its voluntary Green Label Vacuum (GLV) Program, and soon will apply NASA Space Shuttle technology called XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) to determine even more precisely how much soil (and what type) remains in cleaned carpet, and thus how well a vacuum performs under various conditions.

For a list of Green Label vacuums, visit

Filtration testing
How well does the vacuum filter?

Again CRI’s GLV standard is a helpful benchmark.

CRI states: “The vacuum must not release more than 100 micrograms of dust particles per cubic meter of air. This protocol evaluates the total amount of dust particles released by the brush rolls, through the filtration bag and via any air leaks from the system.”

Has the vacuum been tested in a chamber to determine overall emissions from the entire machine?

As CRI indicates, regardless of whether the vacuum has HEPA, microfilter or other media, filtration should be measured by overall dust capture from all possible escape points (filters, body seams, vacuum tools, point of contact with cleanable surface) rather than just at the filter.

Is more than one type of filter bag available?

Microfilter bags greatly surpass single-ply generic filter bags in dust capture.

One study reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed quality microfilters can remove nearly 2,400 percent more dust than generic single-ply bags.

Of course, in addition to providing health protections, better filtration reduces residual dust accumulation and the time it takes to dust, which is an important benefit in an industry whose primary investment (and expense) is labor.

One motor or two?
Two-motor uprights generally clean better than single-motor uprights because one dedicated motor creates suction, while the other drives the rotating brush, increasing productivity and decreasing labor costs.

According to the ISSA’s “447 Cleaning Times” booklet, a dual-motor, 14-inch upright can clean 1,000 square feet in 18.5 minutes compared to 21 minutes for a 14-inch single-motor upright — that’s 3,243 vs. 2,857 square feet per hour — or a productivity difference of 386 square feet per hour.

Construction and design factors
Examine the base plate that frames the beater brush. Is it little more than a flat metal or plastic panel, or is it engineered to enhance airflow?

Some models have a base plate with integrated conduits to accelerate airflow for more effective cleaning.

Are you aware of your options in beater brushes?

Finished hardwood beater brush dowels can reduce the build-up of static electricity vs. plastic rollers, and are less likely to damage carpet than rigid steel dowels.

Have you checked the body integrity and seals?

Is the vacuum engineered using close tolerances and good seals to prevent dust from escaping where it shouldn’t?

Also, for getting under furniture and around carpet edges, the vacuum’s footprint, edge and airflow design should enable it to get deep under furniture and close to walls and corners.

Are body materials reinforced?

High quality vacuum cleaner bodies are often reinforced with “ribs” or struts similar to the way car doors are reinforced to make them strong and lightweight.

One way to check: Open the filter bag housing and look for reinforcing ribbing.

Handle design and construction are crucial to durability and ergonomics.

Newer high-strength synthetic materials enable molded one-piece vacuum handles that are strong, flexible and lightweight.

How about belts?

Are they the “rubber-band” type that stretches over time lowering brush performance, and needing frequent replacement?

Or are the belts designed like automotive timing belts, geared or sprocketed with woven fibers running their length to ensure toughness and durability in the same way steel belts strengthen radial tires?

As with an automobile, upkeep (e.g., filter changing, motor maintenance) is critical to an upright vacuum.

Change vacuum filters regularly (when bags are half-full or before).

Fresh bags clean better and optimize labor, keep air moving freely to prevent motors from overheating, and lighten/reduce the push-pull effort required by the operator.

Check beater brushes and replace bristles periodically to ensure maximum sweeping/cleaning effectiveness.

Other brushes need regular attention too, especially motor brushes.

Not “brushes” in the usual sense, these small blocks of carbon lightly press or brush against the rotating part of the vacuum’s electric motor transferring electricity. They eventually wear out.

Why bother to replace these? It can make the difference between 1,400 or more hours of motor life and 900 hours or less, extending the operating cycle of the vacuum motor by 50 percent or more.

How to keep up?

Determine how many hours the vacuum is used daily, and then create a schedule for motor brush replacement — a task best handled by a qualified service department, a local distributor or mechanically inclined user.

Service and support
Questions to ask:

  • How easy is the vacuum to repair?
  • How accessible are the parts that wear out?
  • What type of warranty does the manufacturer provide?
  • Are parts and labor included in the warranty?
  • What does the fine print say?

Call the manufacturer’s customer service department to “test drive” the support provided. Ask about turnaround time and cost for repairs or part replacements and the availability of high-wear parts.

Cost of ownership
Cost of ownership plainly involves more than a vacuum’s sticker price. Consider performance, durability and downtime, and other issues described above.

Keeping costs in line also involves properly scheduling and workloading the cleaning.

Plan your route through a building to minimize the need to plug/unplug as well as the need to backtrack and your upright will serve you well.

Allen Rathey is president of Boise, ID-based InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc. He can be reached at

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