Floor Plans: Vacuum Cleaners That Deliver

Almost three times as many light vacuum cleaners (15 pounds or less) exist than were available 2 years ago. The reduced weight and new weight-shifting designs also make vacuum cleaners easier to maneuver than ever before.

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Whether we push a vacuum cleaner across the floor, lift it over stray obstacles or haul it up a staircase, a heavy model makes a simple errand seem like a workout.

Fortunately, things are changing for the better. In 2011, 21 upright vacuum cleaners existed that weighed 15 pounds or less. Now, 61 such models are on the market. What’s even better is that the median price of one of these vacuum cleaners is $80, which is down from $190 in 2011.

Furthermore, the lightest upright vacuum cleaner in 2011 weighed 9 pounds. Now, nine models weigh 8 pounds. Shedding that 1 pound will cost you, because the least expensive model of those ultralightweight vacuum cleaners costs $250. However, five of the nine 9-pound models now cost less than $100.

PUSH IT AROUND. Reducing the weight isn’t the only way that manufacturers made vacuum cleaners easier to maneuver, says Alan Hedge, who studies the ergonomics of household tasks as the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University.

In the latest version of its unique ball-like apparatus, which is on vacuum cleaners that start at $450, Dyson placed more components, including the motor, inside of the apparatus. Dyson tells us that this design puts the vacuum cleaner’s center of gravity as close to the floor as possible, which decreases the weight of the unit at the handle and makes it easier to maneuver. Indeed, in our evaluations of these models, we noticed that less weight than ever before is in the handle, which results in less stress on the arm, hand and shoulder during use.

Unfortunately, the mere act of steering a mechanism that’s to the side of you rather than directly in front of you can create asymmetrical stress on your back and shoulders, says Carolyn M. Sommerich, who is an associate professor in the Engineering Laboratory for Human Factors/Ergonomics/Safety at The Ohio State University.

Like us, she’s a proponent of swivel steering, which means that you rotate the brush head through a twist of your wrist to maneuver the vacuum cleaner around corners or into tight spots. Two years ago, we found swivel steering only in models that cost at least $190. Now, swivel steering is in vacuum cleaners that are in all price ranges.

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“Anytime you can move a handle side-to-side rather than lifting the whole unit up to get it into the position you need it in is a big help to the back and shoulders,” Sommerich says.

At least one manufacturer is addressing a vacuum cleaner’s maneuverability when it comes to hauling it up and down stairs. We found that Shark’s Lift-Away technology, which is on models that start at $180, decreased the amount of stress on our back and shoulders by allowing us to remove the base of the upright vacuum cleaner and tote it around like a canister vacuum cleaner while we vacuumed stairs. In October 2012, Shark added an optional caddy ($90) that allows you to set down the base and roll it around like you would a canister model. No other manufacturer has a similar feature.

Outside of lifting and maneuvering, one of the biggest physical hassles that we run into while we vacuum is bending down to remove any tangles of hair, thread or other material that jam the brushroll. That’s why we like Electrolux’s brushroll-clearing technology, which was introduced in March 2012 and is found on models that start at $190. The brushroll-clearing technology allows you to press a foot pedal while the vacuum cleaner runs, which triggers a mechanism that sucks anything that’s caught in the brushroll into the dust cap. We found that this technology worked as advertised.

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