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Pros and Cons of a Whole House Vacuum System

Wondering if installing a central vacuum system is worth it? Here’s one homeowner’s experience.

Whole house vacuum system filter diagram.

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.

How Does a Whole House Vacuum Work?

A whole house vacuum, or a central vacuum system, is an appliance that sucks dirt through hidden 2-inch pipes down to a 12-gallon canister in the basement. Instead of maneuvering a heavy, noisy portable, they simply plug a lightweight, 30-foot hose into special wall outlets, which automatically starts the vacuum'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."

How Much Does a Whole House Vacuum Cost?

A whole house vacuum is about $1,500 for a system, including installation. In Canada and Scandinavia, most new houses are plumbed for central vacuums, yet in this country they remain something of a novelty, in part because of the steep initial cost.

Benefits of a Central Vacuum System

  • Maintenance on the unit is minimal. Jim Nigg, who installed the Klatts’ system, recommends disposing of the paper filter bag every six months and changing the motor brushes every three years.
  • It comes with a 6-year warranty. Central vacuum systems come with a longer warranty, whereas with 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.
  • They can be retrofitted to old houses. Most people think central vacuums 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.
  • Installation takes only a day and doesn’t damage the house. Nigg 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.
  • Cleaning is easier and quicker to do. Sandi can now easily clean two flights of stairs at a time. 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.

Drawbacks of a Central Vacuum System

  • Big motors can 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."
  • Accidental unit damage. In addition to the occasional "shredded tweet," there are numerous tales of kids trying to clean thing—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.)
  • There's the issue of noise. "If you're standing next to the motor, it can sound like a jet taking off," says Nigg. 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.
Person vacuuming under a sofa. Illustration by Gary Hovland

Central Vacuum System Parts: Filter Feeders

In the world of central vacuums, there are three ways to collect the dirt:

  1. Spin the air in the canister so that the dirt falls to the bottom and the dust exhausts outside the house (the cyclonic types)
  2. Put inverted filters at the top of the canister to snag dust but allow dirt to drop down
  3. 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.

Where and When Central Vacuum Systems Became Popular

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.