vacuuming illustration
Illustration: Gary Hovland
Sandi Klatt always thought her 94-year-old brick Victorian came close to perfection, but its two flights of stairs made cleaning something of a curse. "I tried for years to find a housekeeper," says Klatt. "But as soon as they realized they'd have to haul a vacuum cleaner up and down all day, they'd head straight out the door." Klatt and her husband, Paul, toyed briefly with the idea of buying a vacuum for each floor of their Denver home, "but the idea of owning three machines seemed ridiculous." So they decided to install a whole-house vacuum, an appliance that sucks dirt through hidden 2-inch pipes down to a 12-gallon canister in the basement. Now, instead of maneuvering a heavy, noisy portable, they simply plug a lightweight, 30-foot hose into special wall outlets, which automatically starts the vac's two motors. The system has a 185-cubic-feet-per-minute capacity-two to three times that of a portable-and no dust-spreading exhaust. "We love it," says Paul Klatt, "and I never expected to say that about a vacuum cleaner." The idea of using in-wall plumbing to clean houses goes back to the 1850s in Sweden, where horse-powered fans created the suction. Eventually, horses were replaced by servants who either pumped giant bellows or, in later years, pedaled stationary bicycles. Even when electric motors arrived at the turn of the century, these systems were only within reach of wealthy magnates like Henry Ford and George Eastman. Then portable vacuum cleaners hit the market in the 1920s, and their whole-house cousins were left in the dust. But central vacuums weren't forgotten entirely. Frank Lloyd Wright, impressed by their clutter-free convenience, specified them in a number of his later designs. The systems became more affordable in the late 1950s when plastic pipe began to replace copper, but they didn't really come into their own until the 1990s, when growing house sizes and concerns about indoor air quality coincided with improved filtration, more powerful motors and more effective vac attachments. In Canada and Scandinavia, most new houses are plumbed for central vacs, yet in this country they remain something of a novelty, in part because of their steep initial cost: The Klatts paid about $1,500 for their system, including installation. On the other hand, it comes with a 6-year warranty; for most portables, it's only one year. "You're dealing with a bigger motor, which lasts a lot longer than the smaller ones in portable machines," says Peter Pavlick of Ametek, which makes most of the central-vacuum motors in this country. But big motors create some unexpected problems. "You have to be careful because things you don't expect will go right down it," says Grant Olewiler of M. D. Manufacturing in Bakersfield, California. "I've had people vacuuming out a bird cage get too close to the bird." In addition to the occasional "shredded tweet," there are numerous tales of kids trying to clean things-water out of a toilet, a broken jar of jelly-that damage the unit. (Their parents should have gotten an optional wet-vac attachment that stops glop from reaching the pipes.) Finally, there's the issue of noise. "If you're standing next to the motor, it can sound like a jet taking off," says Jim Nigg, who installed the Klatts' system. Their model is engineered to be quiet; mufflers can be added to others if necessary. At the nozzle end, however, noise is minimal in all cases. The Klatts' old portable used to send their yellow Lab into hysterics, but now Sandi can vacuum around the sleeping dog without waking it. Most people think central vacs are only for new houses, but they can be retrofitted to older residences, as the Klatts can attest. "With these babies, where there's a wall, there's a way," says Nigg. He and his work crew spent one long workday snaking about 100 feet of PVC pipe through walls, mounting the hose outlet covers, and connecting the low-voltage wires that signal the motors when to start and stop. The canister itself took only 20 minutes to hang on the basement wall. Then Nigg simply plugged its cord into an electric outlet. "I worried about the house being torn apart during the installation, but except in one closet wall where the pipe shows, there really wasn't any damage at all," says Sandi. Now she can clean two flights of stairs at a time. Maintenance on the unit is minimal-Nigg recommends disposing of the paper filter bag every six months and changing the motor brushes every three years. Although she's still looking for domestic help, her new housekeeper won't necessarily have to vacuum: "I'm actually having fun doing it myself," she says. Filter Feeders
In the world of central vacuums, there are three ways to collect the dirt: Spin the air in the canister so that the dirt falls to the bottom and the dust exhausts outside the house (the cyclonic types); put inverted filters at the top of the canister to snag dust but allow dirt to drop down; or suck dirt and dust into a disposable paper bag (right), much like a portable vacuum. Machines with inverted filters or bags can exhaust either outside or in. One place you don't want dirt to collect is inside a central-vac motor; even the so-called filterless cyclonics come with screens or filters to protect their motors from dust. "Before buying any system, take a close look at how easy it is to remove and clean all the filters." says Peter Pavlick of Ametek, a motor manufacturer. "If you don't keep them clean, the motors will burn out sooner."
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