Gretchen McKay

Cleaning sucks: A review of four new vaccums

I’m the first to admit I’m not the best housekeeper in the world (or Pittsburgh, for that matter). But with three teenagers who’ve never once thought to wipe their feet and a messy dog, I do know a thing or two about vacuum cleaners.

The best models are as good at sucking up dirt and potato chip crumbs on carpet as they are at lifting dust bunnies and dried mud off a wood floor. Equally important are attachments that make cleaning hard-to-reach spots such as the tops of your curtains and under the couch less of a pain. If an upright doesn’t come with a stretch hose and wand and upholstery brush, forget about it.

Also, a good vacuum has to stand up to physical abuse. I am always running my much-loved Dyson Animal into door jambs or furniture. Carry it up the stairs to the second floor? I’d rather bump it up step by step by step.

It was with a critical eye and high expectations, then, that I tested four new models (three uprights, and one canister that was too cute to pass up). Or should I say “we”: My kids create such a lion’s share of the mess that I put my 15-year-old twin daughters to work, too. My husband, who shares in much of the household chores, also helped judge.

Our house isn’t a lab, nor have our cleaning skills been certified by Consumer Reports, so I can’t claim this was a scientific undertaking: I only know what we liked. What I can say is that vacuum technology seems improved since I last tested vacuum cleaners for the PG in 2007. When push came to shove (suck?), each unit (all bagless) did a respectable job.

Where they differ is in the details. Some had better “pushability,” as my daughter Olivia called it, or felt sturdier. Some did better on stairs than under the coffee table. All but one could have benefited greatly from a retractable cord or better placement of the on/off buttons and floor-to-carpet switches.

Here’s what my family thought about all four, listed in order of price. Criteria included ease of use, suction power and noise, tools/accessories and weight:

Eureka Airspeed Gold
Eureka AirSpeed Gold ($129.99)

eureka.com

As uprights go, this 12-amp model equipped with “AirSpeed Technology” does a pretty good job. Self-propelled, it moved easily across the carpeting and bare floors, and the plastic dust canister also is extremely easy to remove and empty (you pull a button and the bottom drops out, dumping the contents into the trash can). Also on the plus side: the extended hose, wand and cord stretch 46 feet, allowing you to move between rooms and up stairs without worrying about pulling out the plug, and a HEPA filter catches 99.97 percent of dust and allergens. We also liked its black-and-gold color scheme, perfect for Steelers fans.

What we weren’t so crazy about: You have to bend down to switch a dial to change the setting from floor to carpet, and you also have to manually switch between the vac and tool settings. My husband also thought the wand system was “totally unworkable,” because to use it you have to disassemble the wand, flip the parts around and reassemble it to extend the wand. And when you do, it doesn’t stay together securely.

The biggest design flaw, though, it that the wand attachment is located too high on the body, so if you extend the wand too far — say, to reach a cobweb on the ceiling — the entire vacuum tips over. We also thought the bristles were on the cheap side (too stiff) and therefore weren’t as good at dusting corners and furniture. Also, this is one loud vacuum, so noisy that, as one girl complained, “I won’t be able to sleep when you use it.”

Shark Navigator Lift-Away ($199.80)

sharkclean.com

This was my kids’ favorite vacuum, and not just because it’s a lovely shade of purple and is extremely easy to use. They also liked its funky design: the Lift-Away is the only portable vacuum we’ve ever seen. Exclaimed Olivia when she lifted the detachable canister away from the floor nozzle, ” I feel like a Ghost Buster!”

Shark Navigator

A fully functioning, lightweight upright (it weighs just 12.8 pounds), the Lift-Away switches with the push of a button from brush roll (for carpeting) to bare floors, and it has super-easy swivel steering and a quick-release wand that easily slides out of the body. The cleaning path is a bit narrow at 11 inches, but the 10-amp vac did a surprisingly pretty good (and quiet) job of sucking Easter grass and Cheez-It crumbs out of the carpeting and dried-up stink bugs off the hardwood floors. It’s also easy to push — so easy, one daughter complained it was “too wobbly.” Another plus: the filters are washable, and the system is completely sealed, trapping 99.9 percent of dust and allergens. We didn’t use it long enough to put Shark’s claims of “never loses suction” technology to the test.

The biggest plus is the detachable canister, which allows you to carry the unit with you up and down stairs or into a room or space where you don’t need the floor nozzle.

What we didn’t like: The 3-quart dust canister is on the small side, and you have to lift two latches up and out to release it, which could be a problem if you have arthritic hands; most other units feature a release button on the handle. It also has an extremely short wand, so if you want to use the brush attachment on the ceiling or crown molding, you’re out of luck. Also, the wand attachments hang awkwardly off the handle of the vacuum (you almost have remove them to use the wand at all) and not all the tools fit on board, which in our house guarantees they’ll get lost.

Electrolux Nimble ($299.99, electrolux.com/nimble)

Electrolux Nimble

Electrolux calls this sleek and sexy 12-amp vac the “ultimate cleaning machine.” We’re inclined to agree. We did, however, get off to a bad start with the upright, in that the brush roll stopped working within minutes of us plugging it in. (A red warning light went on.) A friendly tech at customer service walked me through removing the plastic panel on the bottom for a look-see but couldn’t explain why the roller wasn’t turning (nothing was clogged or caught) — or why it started again after waiting a few minutes to plug it back in. We hope it was a fluke.

Once it got rolling, though, the Nimble did a fantastic job. Made with nice, solid components, it feels — and sounds — like an expensive vacuum. The canister is very easy to remove when it needs to be emptied, and we also liked the swivel head, which allows you to go around furniture and get into corners. The telescopic wand was ready to go at the push of a button, and easily extends a whopping 14 feet to the ceiling.

We also liked the fact the on/off button and the carpet/bare floor switch is up high, where it’s kind to backs. The accessories are higher-end, too: A three-in-one “versatool” folds into a nozzle to suck dirt out of corners, opens like a mouth half-way to vacuum the ends of stairs and opens flat to clean upholstery.

This 18-pound vacuum also has a wonderfully stretchy, extremely long hose that allowed me to vacuum up 13 steps to a second floor landing without it tipping over. And it’s powerful, easily sucking up a guitar pick my son left on the floor. The LED headlights also are amazingly bright … which is how I knew I was about to run over a guitar pick.

What wasn’t so great: You have to open the bare floor wand attachment by hand because it also doubles as the crevice attachment. I also kept getting tangled in the cord because it’s not retractable, and really, really long. In addition, the Nimble isn’t self-propelled, so it could be heavy for elderly users. But those are quibbles.

Probably the biggest drawback is the cost: It’s more than twice the price of the Eureka.

Dyson DC 26

Dyson City (DC 26)

($399.99, dyson.com

This is actually a canister vacuum, so I realize I’m not comparing apples to apples. As I previously mentioned, I absolutely adore my Dyson Animal and thought it would be fun to try this latest “multi-floor” vac, the company’s smallest and lightest canister.

What we liked: It’s so darn cute! Or as Catherine cooed: “Awwww, a baby vac!”

Just 10 1/2 inches tall and less than 9 inches wide, the DC 26 may in fact be the tiniest vac on the market. That makes it perfect for small spaces — say, a first apartment, condo or dorm room. It’s also easy to store and carry from room to room or up stairs, weighing just 12 pounds. A retractable cord and washable filters are two more pluses, and the turbine head swiveled easily into corners and tight spaces.

Because it’s a Dyson, we expected the DC 26 to have great suction. And on our hardwood floors, its beater brushes — crafted from anti-static, ultra-fine carbon fibers — very nicely sucked up two days’ worth of dirt and debris. But, alas, our house (and I’m guessing your house, too) also has rugs and carpeting, and here’s where the vac failed.

Dyson claims the DC 26, equipped with its patented “concentrated root cyclone technology,” works like a full-size machine. If only. The brushes are air-driven instead of electrically powered, which means they stop even on medium pile carpet. The cord also is extremely short (just 161/2 feet). And the .15 gallon canister? It’s so small, you may have to empty it after every single use. Definitely not the same animal as my Animal!

Final call: Steer clear if you’re looking for a vac that can tackle big rooms or will give carpeting more than a cursory cleaning. But if your main aim is to polish wood floors and you’ve got the budget, you’ll probably be happy with the Dyson DC 26.