Vacuum Cleaners - A Rant

This is really something unrelated to most of the content here, but I have to get something off my chest. You would think that after more than a century of engineering effort vacuums cleaners would be a solved problem. Sadly, that is not the case.

We tend to have to buy a new vacuum cleaner every year or so. We do this because the last one we bought fails - sometimes spectacularly. My wife and I are about the least demanding users I can imagine. We don’t have kids or pets. We don’t do much to drag the outside into the house – just the occasional leaf or grass blade and some sand. We really tend to use them to sweep up dust bunnies. I can’t imagine a less stressful environment for a vacuum cleaner. And yet, phfft…, they blow up regularly. It hasn’t always been this way.

I received my first vacuum cleaner many years ago when I left home. My great grandmother reluctantly donated her old one. She had some trepidation because she wasn’t sure a new one would be as good. Smart lady!

That vacuum, a very old Hoover, lasted me years and never actually failed. I replaced it because it was so ugly. Since then, it’s been pretty much downhill. For the most part, brand name is not a good guide to reliability, at least in America. Even though I had early good luck with Hoover, later models have destroyed that reputation in my mind. Bissel, Dirt Devil, and the others have been just as bad.

Things that Seem to Predict Reliability

But there do seem to be just a couple of things that I’ve noticed that seem to correlate with good reliability.

Cord Doesn’t Heat Up

If you get to try out a vacuum for more that just a few minutes in a store, you will probably notice that the cord heats up. That can’t be a good thing. Heat in an electrical appliance is a sure sign of an early death. That means the motor is not getting the current it needs.  If the manufacturer couldn’t spend a few more cents to supply power to their device, where else have they skimped? (Answer: just about everywhere.) The Oreck and Miele appliances we have used keep their power cords nice and cool.

Location of On/Off Switch

Many of the worst vacuums we have purchased have the on/off switch positioned on the main body of the appliance. These usually require that you do some assembly (another bad sign) to attach the handle to the body. Really, if the manufacturer can’t spend a few cents on wire to a switch in the handle, do you really think they care at all about the experience their customers have with their product?

Things that DON’T Seem to Predict Reliability

These things were counter-intuitive to me, but experience doesn’t lie.


Surprisingly, I have had poor machines that were very heavy as well as very light. Likewise, good machines can be very light. Again, I’m thinking of the Oreck.


I say this reluctantly because I normally consider quiet operation a sign of good design. Quiet operation indicates that energy is not being wasted vibrating air to make noise. I included this because of a single counter-example – a Panasonic that operated well for a few months then went up in sparks and smoke (really!) for no obvious reason.

Do I Like Anything?

Some folks have asked if we have tried any of the Dyson models. No, I haven’t. I have no experience with them but after looking at them in the store, I can’t justify paying a premium on a bunch of plastic that doesn’t appear to be any better constructed than the other junk on the shelf.

We have had a Miele hand vac that has put in good service for a few years now. It weighs a ton (for a hand vac), but is quiet, reliable, and gets the job done.

I’m also getting comfortable with an Oreck that has lasted a few years now. It works well on carpet, rugs, and solid surface floors without having to fiddle with height adjustments and such. But, have you ever noticed that the ads and specials on Orecks tend to feature a smaller hand vac or similar? That’s because the Oreck doesn’t have attachments for doing anything but flat, unobstructed floors. You need something else to get behind furniture, or suck the dust off of moldings, or clean furniture upholstery. Still, so far it does the job it was designed for.

It’s going to be hard for me to trust again.