A hotel chain had used its wide-area vacuum cleaner only one month when it called Kevin Thompson, sales manager of Brookmeade Hardware & Supply Co., a jan/san distributor in Nashville, Tenn., to complain that it wasn’t working. Thompson was perplexed.

He went to the hotel and soon discovered the problem: The hotel staff had been using the vacuum cleaner to suck up sand spilled from its ash urns, and in the process they had sucked up a bunch of cigars as well.

“Even though the vacuum says it’s commercial, people think they can pick up anything on the floor, including sugar packs and straws,” says Thompson. “But it’s not designed for that.”

Despite Thompson’s efforts to train customers on proper vacuum maintenance, problems such as this are all too common among customers, he says. Another hotel brings in 25 to 50 vacuums a month for Brookmeade to repair.

“It’s just normal wear and tear, and things that a housekeeper could take care of,” he says.
Like Thompson, Paul Condie, director of operations for KBM Building Services, San Diego, sees neglect as the greatest stumbling block when it comes to prolonging a vacuum’s life.

“Vacuums used to be viewed as a disposable item,” he says. “But now they’re built with better materials and motors, and with proper maintenance you can make them last a very long time.”

In the bag
One of the simplest ways to keep a vacuum cleaner functioning properly is to change the bags and filters regularly, say building service contractors and distributors.

“If you’re using the vacuum cleaner on a daily basis, empty the bags daily, even if it’s only half full,” says Ken Galo, owner, L&K Property Services, Brookfield, Wis.

“[With uprights], there have been instances when I asked [operators] how often they empty the bag, and I get this blank look from them, and they say they’ve never emptied it,” adds Condie. “You grab the bag, and it’s hard as a rock. They’re just stirring up dust and pushing stuff deeper into the carpet.”

Continuing to vacuum with a full bag can also affect the function of the motor.

“If the bag gets full, it doesn’t allow airflow and therefore doesn’t work anymore. The airflow coming in cools the motor,” says Rex O’Neal, equipment division manager for Maintex Inc., a distributor in City of Industry, Calif.

Likewise, filters should be changed or washed on a regular basis. Joseph Jenkins, president and CEO, BearCom Building Services, Salt Lake City, ensures that filters are washed out weekly with water, and micro filter bags are changed every two hours.

“With backpacks, you have to make sure nothing gets through the bag to the motor, because that can damage it,” he notes.

Component checklist
In addition to checking bags and filters, operators should inspect vacuum parts on a regular basis.

“Check brushes to ensure they’re not wearing down,” says Paul Bertenthal, president, D.H. Bertenthal & Sons, Inc., a distributor in Pittsburgh. “When they get to half their length, replace them. Bushes also need to be cleaned periodically with disinfectant.”

Also check the brush roll for objects like string or hair, says O’Neal.

“This can work its way to the end of the brush roll and be dragged down, causing it to break belts or damage the motor,” he says. Belts themselves should be inspected once a week.

Plugs and cords are often overlooked, which can lead to safety hazards.

“Too many times, the final jacket covering the wires gets a hole or cut and it’s taped. That’s an OSHA violation,” says Bertenthal. “It’s unsafe to tape the cord and continue using the vacuum. Ground plugs need to be kept intact so users don’t get electrocuted.”

The magnetic strip on the front of the vacuum cleaner should be kept clear of paper clips and other magnetic objects, while the bottom plate, cover, and other parts that collect dust should be wiped down with disinfectant.

What lies beneath
Another culprit that can affect a vacuum’s ability to function properly and limit its lifespan is moisture.

“Water’s the biggest no-no,” says Condie. “It’s not always something you can see. If there’s a low moisture leak underneath the carpet in a particular area, for example, and you can’t see it, it can get inside the vacuum and erode things.” Operators should also avoid vacuuming wet mats whenever possible.

Moisture can cause dirt and dust to cling to the side of the hose, resulting in clogs and reducing suction, adds Thompson. The presence of moisture inside the vacuum can lead to mold and mildew, which creates odor problems (see sidebar, below).

As with any aspect of vacuum maintenance, it all comes down to training, say BSCs.

“Most of your damage comes from trying to suck up things that shouldn’t be sucked up,” says Galo. Whether it’s wet mats, straws, or cigar butts, vacuum cleaners have their limits.

“Prolonging the life of a vacuum is a three-prong approach,” says Condie. “It’s maintaining the life of the vacuum, protecting the health of the operator and providing a cleaner facility for our customers. By practicing proper vacuum maintenance, we’re doing all three of these.”

Sniffing Out Odor-control Vacuums

Unpleasant smells aren’t commonly associated with vacuum cleaners, but improper or infrequent maintenance could have building service contractors holding their nose the next time they haul out the vacuum cleaner.

“Most odors are caused by mold and bacteria that grow inside a filter bag that is full of dust and debris,” adds Brad Hoare, senior director, Sanitaire & Commercial Products, Electrolux Home Care Products North America, Bloomington, Ill.

These odors get worse when operators don’t empty the vacuum bags as often as they should.

“You may vacuum up debris that doesn’t smell, but after it sits [in the bag] for a while, it does,” says Jeff Fystrom, product manager for Tennant Co., Minneapolis. “The best way to control odors is to change bags frequently, especially if you vacuum anything moist, like food. You also need to clean or replace the filters regularly.”

Some manufacturers make vacuum cleaners specifically designed to reduce odors by adding baking soda crystals in the filter bag material. In addition, vacuum cleaners with a sealed HEPA filtration system can also help control odors by capturing odor-causing bacteria before it escapes back into the air, says Hoare.

“These units filter 99.97 percent of all particles as small as 0.3 microns. They even capture smoke,” he adds.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.