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Vacuum Cleaner Testing at Consumer Reports

By Bill Griffin

When Consumer Reports talks, people listen. Consumers Union (CU) was founded in 1936 by a group of striking researchers who decided to go it on their own. Today Consumer Reports (CR), CU's flagship magazine, has 4.5 million paid subscribers. Its Web site: has 3-million paid subscribers and is one of the most visited sites on the Internet.


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CU, a non-profit, works for fairness and just marketing for all consumers. CU has a well earned reputation for fairness, consistency and unbiased testing and reporting on consumer products and is proud of the fact that it has never lost a lawsuit filed by a manufacturer who was unhappy with the results of its testing.

Testing Vacuum Cleaners

When I first entered the parking lot at the CR testing facility in Yonkers, NY I was surprised at how large the building was and even more impressed once I got inside and found the place jam packed with testing labs and offices. The facility has more than 50 labs, and 100 experts who evaluate just about anything you can imagine from food and cars to running shoes and bike helmets, not to mention bathroom cleaners, washing machines and ... vacuum cleaners.


James R. Nanni, P.E., the Manager of the Home Improvement Division at CR, gave me a tour of the testing lab, where the walls are lined with vacuum cleaners and all available floor space is used for various testing equipment and set ups. After the tour we sat down in his closed chamber testing lab and I hit him with a barrage of questions:


Q: What is the standard floor covering material used for the soil removal test?
A: We test the vacuums on carpeting and hard surfaces.


Q: Do you use only new carpeting for your tests?
A: No. We use both new and used carpeting in our tests. In fact, one of the tougher challenges we have is getting the carpet soiled and then clean for the next round of tests. 


Q: What do you use as a benchmark for your tests?
A: Our tests are not pass/fail. We gather data over time. We like to test current models that are on the market and we keep data on our previous tests for comparison with models that are on the market over a period of time. Recently we have been conducting our vacuum cleaner testing more often as consumer interest in the subject has been growing over the last few years.


Q: Do you take into consideration ergonomics and the weight of the vacuum?
A: Yes, both issues are considered and reported on. Ergonomics at this time is a team criteria judgment vs. a scientific test.


Q: Do you take into consideration user friendly features?
A: Yes. The testing team establishes our testing criteria based on previous tests, our experience, industry trends and the feedback we receive from our annual member survey and subscriber feedback.


Q: Do warranty coverage and service center availability factor into the report?
A: We do include and consider information about reliability based on our own testing and feedback regarding repair history from our annual surveys. Service center availability is not factored in at this time.


Q: How do you determine or evaluate the life expectancy of the vacuum cleaners you test?
A: We don’t. We focus on the repair history and identify problems that we encounter when testing the equipment. Again our annual subscriber survey provides real life information in this area. In 2001 we received over 119,000 responses to our survey questions about upright and canister vacuums. 


Q: Are particulate counts part of the testing program?
A: Yes we do closed chamber testing where we monitor the number and size of the particles in the air while we control the temperature and humidity in the room. 


Q: Do you evaluate the filtering systems to see how effective they are and if a HEPA filter really works?
A: Yes we do quite a bit of testing of filtering systems to evaluate their effectiveness. In addition, and I think more importantly, we do our testing in a closed chamber to determine how much and the size of the particulate a machine stirs up from the brush or that may be blowing by the motor, vents or coming out of the vacuum in some other way.


It’s not just an issue of the filter alone. On some machines you have a good filtering system, but dust is blowing by the motor or housing and getting into the air where the person is vacuuming. We test the room, not just the machine. CR’s emissions testing focuses on particles between 0.1 and 1 micron in size. 


Q: Do you test new or used vacuum cleaners?
A: We test new machines, but we do run each vacuum through a break-in procedure before we test them.


Q: How many different tests do you conduct on each vacuum cleaner?
A: We have about 15 different tests that rate half a dozen different factors on a vacuum model. This information is then compiled into a features box about the product.


An Overview of CR’s Vacuum Cleaner Testing and Evaluation Results

  • Dust cups tend to hold less soil and are not as favorable as a bag, as their use requires more steps. Emptying the container tends to expose the user to soil.
  • If a vacuum performs poorly in a test we try to determine if it is a defect with the sample or a design issue with the vacuum.
  • You don’t need a HEPA filter to have a vacuum with low emissions.
  • All HEPA filters tested have done well, as have some vacuums that don’t have HEPA filters.
  • You probably can’t find all you need in one machine. You might need an arsenal: upright for carpet, a canister for kitchen and laundry, a stick vacuum for quick clean ups and a wet vacuum for car, boat and garage.
  • CR suggests ignoring claims about amps and suction. They have little to do with dirt removal ability or cleaning power.
  • Suction power and airflow do have a major bearing on attachment performance.
  • Some brands need repairs two times more frequently than other brands.
  • Some brands, because of high particulate emissions during use are not appropriate for people with respiratory problems or allergies.
  • A quality vacuum cleaner and frequent vacuuming contribute to cleaner air in the home.

What’s it All Mean?

Today’s buyer is much more educated than in the past. They have access to more information other than what is provided by dealers and manufacturers. Consumer Reports does a good and fair job in its evaluation of vacuum cleaners and in providing useful information to the buying public. Manufacturers and dealers would be wise to pay attention to their findings and to produce and sell the best products available to their customers.

The Carpet and Rug Institute and other groups are performing tests that put additional information in the hands of potential buyers allowing them to make a more informed purchase decision.


Access to information improves the industry because the customer drives the market. Over time, good products get better and poor products disappear from the market place. In the long run everyone comes out a winner.

Vacuum Cleaner Testing at Consumer Reports:  Created on August 22nd, 2004.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014