clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustration by Harry Campbell

A central vacuum does for housework what central air-conditioning does for cooling: It eliminates the hassle of storing and schlepping heavy equipment, it's quieter to use than a portable unit, and it just plain works better. And in the same way that central air has become a necessity for many homeowners, central vacs are becoming standard features in new houses and a common retrofit in existing ones.

Central vacuums work essentially the same way as port­able versions, with one big advantage: Because the motor doesn't need to be lightweight, it can be more powerful, able to generate ferocious suction up to five times greater than that of an average upright. It also makes a good deal of noise, but because the unit is typically housed out of earshot in the garage or basement, you can vacuum without fear of waking the baby or missing a phone call.

To use the system, you simply plug a portable hose into one of the wall- or floor-mounted inlets, which is connected to the motor via a network of PVC pipes snaking through the walls and floors. That signals the vacuum to turn on. Captured dirt zips through the pipes to the motor housing, where it's filtered out of the airstream and dumped into a bag or canister (see "The Dirt on Collection," page 64). There's no exhaust air blowing dust around the room like there is with a typical vac, so you get a more thorough cleaning job and a substantial improvement in indoor air quality. "They're much healthier than the non-HEPA vacuums in most people's closets," says Kevin Kennedy, program manager in the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Department at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

For many people, that's reason enough to make the switch. For others, it's about the convenience: no cords to plug in or trip over, no heavy canisters to lug or store. Almost any standard attachment is available, including crevice tools, upholstery brushes, even heads for cleaning ceiling fans or car
interiors. One popular option in kitchens is a floor-level "dustpan" that you sweep debris right into. It's the perfect marriage of the oldest housecleaning tool—the broom—with the latest vacuuming technolgy.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

Explaining Central Vacuums

What it is
A stationary vacuum, usually parked in a remote part of the house, that sucks up dirt through a system of pipes in the walls.

Why You'd Want One
More powerful than a portable vacuum, these do a better job of cleaning,
aren't as noisy, and won't stir up the dust in a room like portable vacuums do.

What to Look For

Sufficient power. Vacuuming power is measured in air watts at the motor. Suction decreases the farther the nozzle end is from the motor, so systems should be sized based on the longest
run of pipe. Manufacturers generally recommend a 400- to 500-air-watt system for a 2,200-square-foot house. Vacs that size run on 120 volts; more powerful, two-motor models require a dedicated 220-volt connection.

Enough inlets. Before starting the installation, run a 30-foot string from each proposed inlet location to make sure all areas in the house are within easy reach of a standard 30-foot
central-vac hose. Locate inlets within 6 feet of electrical receptacles (to
power attachments), and in frequently cleaned areas such as the garage.

HEPA filtration. No matter what type of vacuum you have, it should be equipped with a HEPA filter or bag. By definition, HEPA captures at least 98 percent of airborne particles with a
0.3-micron diameter, a size that
easily lodges in the lungs.

Canister-full indicator. Lights on the inlets or the power attachments tell you when the system needs to be emptied. The best ones gauge how much debris is actually in the bag or canister; others illuminate after a certain number of operating hours have elapsed.

What it costs
$1,000 to $2,000, installed, for a newly built 2,200-square-foot house. Retrofitting typically adds another $200 to $500.

The Dirt on Collection

Central vacs collect dirt in one of two ways. They're both equally effective; the choice comes down to whether you'd rather clean canisters and filters or buy and change replacement bags.

Cyclonic: Incoming air spins around the canister, creating a swirling vortex that drops debris into a bagless collection chamber. Fine particles that remain airborne are captured by a HEPA filter, the gold standard in air filtration. (A few models have no filters at all and simply blow the suspended dirt outdoors.) The big advantage of cyclonics is that there are no bags to buy, but about twice a year, you'll have to empty the canister and clean the filter, both dusty jobs.

Bagged: These systems collect dirt the old-fashioned way, in a disposable bag, which generally provides HEPA-quality filtration. When the bag is full (about once every six months), you simply remove it and throw it away. Suction goes down a bit as the bag fills up, and you have to keep a stock of replacement bags handy, but that'll cost you less than $10 annually.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

Old-House Retrofit

The best time to install a central vacuum system is when the house is being built, right after the plumbers and electricians have finished their rough-in work. Then it's easy to run the pipes and wires up through stud bays. But a system can also be added to an existing house for a few hundred extra dollars in labor costs.

For the first floor, installers drill holes for the 2-inch PVC pipes up from the basement into open stud bays and cut inlet holes in the walls. To reach the second floor (or anywhere in a house built on a slab), they must snake pipes into the attic through closets or plumbing chases and then down through the walls. The tricky part is making sure the stud bay is free of wires or plumbing.