Please Note: This article discusses filtration of portable vacuums only. The products, theory and conclusions in this discussion do not include the filtration principles of Central Vacuum Systems (built-in vacuums) which vary greatly from that of portable vacuums. This article is only intended for, and applicable to the filtration methods in todays portable (canister, upright or backpack) vacuums.
That is the question we hear over and over several times each day, and it is a good one deserving its own article. Vacuumed debris collection can be done in many different ways. Bagged collection is generally by way of disposable paper bags, cloth removable bags and cloth shakeout bags. The bagless vacuum, in its current incarnation, is still in its infancy. The cyclonic filtered bagless portable vacuum has been on the domestic market for just about a decade. Electric domestic vacuum cleaners – for history’s sake, have been in production for nearly a century, with an early model using a pillow casing for its bagged collection.
Bagless vacuums have been on a steady rise with only the 2003 year expecting to see a leveling of the market share, somewhere around 23% – 27% depending on whom you ask. The current style of bagless vacuum is generally Filtered Cyclonic, describing both means of separating the dirt and dust from the incoming vacuumed air stream. Also available is a non-cyclonic bagless vacuum called “dirt cup” found most often in commercial vacuums.
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The Filtered cyclonic separation style uses a directional air pattern to spin the vacuumed dirt in a cylinder, forcing the heavy and large particles against the wall of the cylinder where they drop to the bottom of the collection bin. The faster you spin the dirty air the better separation you get, with only small and light particles remaining in the center. These are sent through the airflow system of the vacuum to be later removed by an exhaust filter before exiting the vacuum.
Cyclonic separation is not new; it has been in use for many years in large (room sized) commercial debris collection systems used in manufacturing and also in central cleaning systems from as far back as the 1950’s. It was not until the mid 1990’s that it was adapted to use in portable domestic vacuums, made famous in the USA by the now bankrupt Fantom Company from Canada, utilizing a patented design from Dyson in the UK.
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Another version of Bagless vacuums has been in production and successful use for over 30 years, the “dirt cup”. These vacuums also use no disposable bags, but are not cyclonic. Debris and dust is filtered from the air stream by a cloth upper bag, where it collects and builds on the inner wall and forms a “filtering dirt cake”. Movement and general operation of the machine cause the dirt cake to fall of and drop into the cup. For a short time the Dirt Cup Bagless vacuum was sold in the 1980’s as a residential vacuum under the name “Decade” by Hoover. Until just recently the Dirt Cup Bagless has strictly been a commercial vacuum.
In production now by some manufacturers including Hoover and Eureka (Sanitaire), these vacuums are prized by their commercial end users because that have no filters that require replacement, and no bags to buy – which in the case of commercial cleaning could add up to hundreds of dollars a year in bags alone.
Even more important to commercial users and maid services was the simple fact that that anyone using the machine could see when it was full. A problem that has long plagued most commercial vacuum owners is that the janitor would use the shake-out cloth bag commercial vacuum and just put it back in the closet never emptying the bag because it was hard to do and very messy. The Commercial Dirt Dup vacuum remains a favorite in the service industry, but never gained popularity in residential vacuums. Most of the bagless vacuums on the market today are Cyclonic Filtered. Since its introduction many advancements have been made to the modern bagless vacuum and the filtration system therein. While in the beginning most Bagless vacuums required HEPA filters that could cost upwards of $80.00 annually, now most bagless filters are in the order of $20.00 per replacement. Some Bagless final filters are even water washable, extending their life to 4 or 5 times their normal single use in some cases.
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As with all things in life, there is no free lunch. The two primarily claimed advantages to bagless vacuums were “never buy bags again” (lower operating cost) and “consistent airflow” (better performance). First let’s examine the cost issue. All vacuum cleaners MUST filter the exhausting air they use to carry the dirt into the collection media – otherwise they would simply pick up dirt from the floor and spew it out.
And whether it is a bagless HEPA filter, some other type of Pre-Filter or disposable paper bags, at some point they all must be changed. In the average life of a vacuum cleaner you can expect to spend the same on either collection system for filters, but if you value your time, you can expect to spend much more on a bagless vacuum.
To keep a bagless vacuum operational at peak levels, you will generally need to empty the dirt cup when full and perform some type of maintenance on the filter. The type of filter used will determine how much service the vacuum will require, but most use a pleated HEPA filter.
The Pleated filter will usually need to be removed and dusted, brushed, tapped, blown out, or carefully washed with water in some cases. Generally you will need to perform some type of cleaning maintenance every time you empty a full collection bin, with a detailed cleaning or washing every three or four cleaning sessions to maintain performance.
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And the claim of “consistent airflow performance”? While it is true that in the short term Bagless vacuums offer better airflow through the vacuum, over the life of the vacuum you will get the same, or better, performance in a bagged filter system. It is theorized that paper bags can become embedded with fine dust and build up a cake on the inner bag wall that prevents airflow through the vacuum and reduces cleaning power.
It was once marketed that filtered cyclonic bagless vacuums did not suffer the same problem, having done away with the vacuum bag. Remembering again that ALL vacuums use some type of filter, even the bagless filtration systems become embedded with fine particulate and will eventually choke off your vacuum’s performance. The difference becomes How Long Between Peak Airflow Levels do you use the vacuum?
With a bagged vacuum performance starts at 100% with each new bag and slowly degrades as the bag fills. How quickly performance degrades depends on how the bag is constructed. In the average vacuum with average bag, you may replace the disposable bag every 3 or 4 weeks with 90% or better performance the first week, 70% or better in weeks 2 and 3 and 50% or better in week 4.
This short cycle insures you get a 100% peak cleaning every 3 or 4 weeks from the vacuum. Filtered cyclonic machines have filters designed to last 6 months, 12 months and up to 18 months before replacement. On a 12 month filter replacement cycle, perhaps for the last 3 or 4 months you could be using a vacuum that has only 50% or less of its efficiency left. This long degraded airflow cycle means you either will spend more time vacuuming the floors to achieve the same level of cleaning, or you will spend the same amount of time but remove less soil.
Leaving more dirt and dust in the carpet can make cleaning longer, even with 100% airflow and a new filter, but more importantly leaving more debris in the carpet can aggravate allergies and lead to premature wear in the carpet. So the question again; Can a bagless vacuum outperform a bagged vacuum? Yes, in the short term it will have better airflow. Will a bagless vacuum continue to outperform a bagged vacuum? No, the longer you use the same filter in a bagless vacuum the less air will pass thorough it, even with regular maintenance. On the other hand, in a bagged vacuum every time you throw away your full bag and install a new one, you rejuvenate your vacuums airflow performance beyond that of bagless vacuums that have been used for the same period of time.
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Got pups and kitties who leave their fur behind? Whether you see it or not, almost all domestic animals shed their fur continuously throughout their life – just another reason to love them so much.
Besides the bagless question, our other most often asked is “Which Vacuum Will Clean Pet Fur?” This is also a good question because pet fur, unlike human hair, is hard to remove from carpeting. A healthy animal’s fur is just coated with oils that literally glue its shed fur to your carpet. The cleaner the carpet and dirtier your pet (5 minutes after their bath, yes, we have dogs too) the stronger this bond becomes.
For the same reasons that their fur sticks to the carpet, it also sticks to your bagless vacuum’s pleated cartridge filter. The fur reduces airflow performance, is a real pain to clean off the filter and this is just the start. Over time the fiber media that makes up the filter can retain odors from our pets, even with regular cleaning. If your filter only requires replacement once a year – you may end up with a vacuum that spews odors that even send fido running (or loving on your vacuum) for 5 or 6 months before you “have to” replace the filter. In most cases you end up spending more money to replace the filter early because you just want to get rid of that smell.
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If bagless vacuums do not cost less to operate and do not have better cleaning than bagged vacuums, why are they so popular? The simple answer: you asked for it. The production of bagless vacuums is a direct result of consumer demand. After all the whole idea does sound neat, and for some a Bagless vacuum is the way to go – not to mention another 90’s innovation, the infamous Infomercial.
In the mid 90’s Fantom revolutionized vacuum sales in North America with its original Thunder model bagless cyclonic and 30 minute spot on millions of TV’s across America. Later, the Fantom vacuum quickly became a number one seller on Home Shopping Network and eventually made its way to department stores and discounters. Once laughed off by the big boys in floorcare, Bagless became a serious matter in just a few short years. Unfortunately for Fantom- the original marketer of bagless cyclonic, the old “400lb gorilla” of floorcare soon targeted bagless vacuums and dropped a cheap direct-air bagless vacuum into Wal-Mart at $188.00, about 35% less than the Fantom product – and that was just the beginning.
Though the competition was a huge problem for Fantom, it was not their only one. Until 2001, Fantom was still paying Royalties to Dyson UK for licensing of the unique “Dual Cyclone” design. They had also taken on a design project to build a counter-top water filter which ended up costing them millions and was never released. As it turned out Fantom was just a one trick pony. They tried to release new vacuum products to recapture market share but to no avail and they went bankrupt in late 2001. The current “Fantom” vacuums on the market are owned by another company who bought up the name from the bankruptcy auction block and imports various Asian made products and sells them here under the Fantom nameplate.
[symple_accordion_section title=”Bagless and Allergies – The Puff Back Story“]
In the original marketing of bagless vacuums, they were claimed to be appropriate for allergy sufferers because of the HEPA final filter used to keep the dirt within the vacuum. While the vacuum itself was not a sealed system, the final filters were almost always HEPA, something not found on vacuum cleaners of that time. Of course fine particulate that leaked around the filter, or other seals inside the vacuum, was not captured and was sent back into the room.
Even if the vacuum was capable of retaining all the dust you vacuumed up, at some point and usually quite often, you still must dump out the collection bin. Dumping out a cup of fine dust into a garbage bag is not a pleasurable experience for anyone, sensitive to allergens or not. Most times you are sent outside so at worst only one person is affected. Even trying to gently coax the debris from the dustbin into a garbage pail will send millions upon millions of fine particles back into the air where they may float for hours before settling down again to be vacuumed up and to start the whole process all over again.
Oddly enough, most bagless vacuums are promoted as a good product for allergy or asthma sufferers because they must use a high filtration device somewhere in the system, usually a HEPA filter. If you look at the brands and models of products long known to provide quality filtration systems such as MIELE or RICCAR, you might quickly notice none of the vacuums are bagless.
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Vacuums that use bags often provide for neat disposal of a full vacuum cleaner bag. Some brands such as MIELE actually engineer bag disposal into the system. With MIELE canister vacuums bag replacement is a single dustless step. MIELE’s new gags have a built in closure system that upon removal slide shut trapping the dirt and debris inside the bag for easy, hygienic disposal.
There have also been many advances in disposable bags since the day of using a pillow case to collect dust. New high filtration bags, including the DVC Brand Micro-Lined filter bags utilize a double layer filtering system to trap fine particles. The inside of the filter bag is sprayed with a special melt-blow liner that provides high filtration. The outer paper shell hold the delicate inner bag and provides support and puncture resistance. In the detail picture here you can see the dirt and dust inside the bag trapped by the first micro layer, but the second outer bag is virtually free of dirt.
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Who buys all the bagless vacuums? Considering that nearly all bagless vacuums are deemed the “lower end” of the vacuum range and most retail for $179.00 or less, it is this high turnover “disposable” vacuum that makes up the 23% – 27% of total bagless vacuum sales.
On the other hand, quality vacuums that provide true allergen filtration and good construction that we would expect to last for many years often sell in the range of $300 – $1200. This segment of the market makes up a very small percentage of the vacuums sold in North America, and very few of these products are bagless. So while 95% of the vacuums sold are less than $200 (some 90% are less than $129.99!) and 50% of those are bagless, it seems as though Bagless Vacuums are sweeping the nation. In reality there is a high turnover in bagless vacuums because either they are cheaply built and fail quickly, or their owners quickly become frustrated with bagless and quickly seek to have them replaced.
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Still, many people love bagless machines. They will continue, albeit at a slower pace, to gain market share, and we will continue to offer them for sale. And for many a Bagless vacuum can be just the right vacuum to have. With a little more time and effort bagless vacuums work the same as their bagged counterparts, and you really do not have to buy bags which can be a plus for some.
For the rest of us, we too will marvel at the spinning dirt in the see-through collection bin – “just look at everything this vacuum has picked up!” Quickly though the spinning dirt will lose its appeal and you are left with a bin full of dust and a dirty filter that needs to be cleaned, and you will soon realize – “My bagged vacuum picked up the same dirt as this bagless one, I just did not have to look at it.”