The work of a housekeeper doesn’t often demand highly specialized vacuum cleaners, such as the machines designed for use in laboratory cleanrooms or in potentially explosive environments. But advances in technology and design have yielded customized improvements in work-a-day vacuums, too, making much quicker and easier work of traditional vacuuming tasks.

In fact, compared to the dinosaurs of years past, the sleek machines currently used in hotels, hospitals and schools across the country seem positively space-age: feather-light, whisper-quiet and almost maintenance-free. It’s easy to understand their increasing popularity within the housekeeping industry.

“The new vacuums are definitely here to stay,” says Fritz Gast, executive vice president of P.B. Gast & Sons, a distributor of janitorial and sanitary equipment and supplies based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Sounds of Silence
“Shh, I’m vacuuming.”

Steve Hanson hasn’t actually said that to anyone, but he could have.

“There have been times when I’ll go in to clean an office or a call center, places where people are working on the telephone, and they won’t even know I’m vacuuming,” he says. “I’ve had people ask me if the vacuum is even turned on.”

Hanson owns Brainerd Lakes Cleaning and Supply in Brainerd, Minn., and is the co-founder of

“The vacuums we use now have a dual switch,” Hanson explains, “so we can flip the switch to a normal-use setting or flip it to a silent mode.”

Hanson notes that suction strength is lessened a bit when the machine is “running silent” but reports that in his experience the difference has been negligible. “The machines still work very well on ‘silent,’” he says, “so the reduction in power is not even close to the level where you wouldn’t be doing a quality job.”

Housekeeping supervisors know that quiet is more than an amenity for building occupants. It’s also a health benefit for the workers who clean those buildings. Occupational Safety & Health Administration rules dictate that workers who are continuously exposed to intense sound — generally, above 80 decibels — must don protective ear-gear. The exact decibel-level can vary among machines and work sites, but the average sound intensity of today’s low-decibel machines is well below the OSHA threshold: uprights can emit as low as 70 decibels, backpacks emit as low as 66 decibels, and quiet canister and backpack vacuums emit as low as 50 decibels. The corresponding reduction in noise pollution contributes to green-cleaning efforts, too — especially when contrasted with some of the old-fashioned vacuum cleaners, which were known to generate 90 decibels or more.

One reason many of the specialty vacuums are quieter is that they don’t have beater bars. This results in a two-fold benefit in noise reduction. First, the noise that a bar makes when it turns, shakes or otherwise agitates carpet fibers, is eliminated. And second, a smaller — and therefore, quieter — motor can both operate the machine and provide suction power. In addition, the absence of a beater bar eliminates any repair or replacement costs associated with the bar itself, and the belt or parts used to make it move.

“Because the motor itself is operating the vacuum,” explains Hanson, “these machines are easy to repair and maintain. I have some that have lasted for years and I’m still using them.”

Backpack to the Future
Carolyn Tiedt, director of marketing for Pike Systems Inc., a commercial- and institutional-level distributor in Mongomery, Ill., agrees that quieter vacuums are gaining in popularity. But Tiedt says she sees even more enthusiasm within the cleaning industry about that fact that many of these low-decibel machines are also backpack vacuums.

“They’re really gaining steam,” she notes, “largely because people are interested in the labor savings they can provide in addition to air quality and sound reduction.”

Backpack machines are exactly what they sound like — vacuums attached to straps and worn pack-style by the employee when in use. Tiedt says these types of vacuums are ideal for housekeeping tasks involved in cleaning schools and hospitals, as well as offices and a variety of other environments involving close-quarters cleaning.

“It’s difficult to get [traditional] vacuums around desks and computer cords,” she explains. “With backpacks you can go right over cords. They can be used on airplanes to get into areas between the seats and down the aisles, or in tight areas where cleaners need high-powered suction.”

The machines are manufactured in a variety of styles and weights, so they accommodate a wide range of physical capabilities. There are also models designed to be worn on the hip instead of the back. These designs may work particularly well for workers with smaller frames.

“We’ll model our backpacks to the end user,” explains Hanson, “so if we have a technician who is a smaller person and a hip-vac works better, that’s what we’ll set them up with.”

Tiedt cautions, though, that the hip-pack models weigh only slightly less than backpack styles and need to fit the body of the employee just as accurately and comfortably as the backpacks do.

“They’re commonly worn incorrectly,” she notes, “so you miss out on the ergonomic benefits.” The most important aspect of wearing this style of vacuum? Make sure the weight of the machine is placed directly on the hip, she advises.

The act of wearing a vacuum instead of pushing or dragging one seems to win converts daily.

“When we first started 23 years ago, we were primarily using upright vacuum cleaners,” recalls Hanson. “But then the new backpacks came out and they were just more productive. The majority of our people like the ease of usability of the backpacks and hip-packs, and most of them have switched from the uprights.”

In addition, Hanson says he’s seen a reduction in repetitive-stress injuries since the changeover.

“We don’t have the issues of carpel tunnel that we used to have with the uprights because those machines are heavier and required a grasping motion,” he says.

With a pack-style vacuum, a housekeeper’s repetitive cleaning motion can incorporate side-to-side strokes as well as back-and-forth ones, yielding even more ergonomic benefits.

A variety of design enhancements boost both the ergonomics and efficiency of backpack vacuums. Hanson’s favorite is the carpet-glider attachment that fits on the floor tool of the wand and is accommodated by most manufacturers’ models.

“We clean all types of floor surfaces with it, from carpet to granite to wood,” he says. “You don’t have to bend or stop to change an attachment, and you can go from surface to surface; it makes gliding over carpet much easier and you don’t have to worry about scratching wood floors.”

Cleaner and Greener
Gast says consumer demand for cleaner air has hastened the industry’s switch to better vacuums.

“The customer is driving these decisions. Green cleaning and indoor air quality are considerations now,” he says. “The building occupant is more aware than they’ve ever been about indoor air quality.”

As a result, today’s uprights often have dual- and even triple-filtration systems designed to capture and hold smaller-micron dust and dirt. And many of the most popular backpack styles feature four-level filtration systems that involve a filter within a filter, in addition to a cap-style filter and an exhaust filter.

Gast and other experts note, though, that even the most high-tech vacuums are only effective if they’re used as part of a comprehensive cleaning strategy.

“Carpet cleaning is the red-headed stepchild of cleaning,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s the last thing to get done. Carpet hides the most dirt so it’s not as visible.”

But it’s there. And an old-fashioned assessment of cleaning needs, coupled with attentive maintenance will make the most of the cleaning power that newer vacuums offer. Cleaners should evaluate the soil load of a carpet, for example, and determine if a beater-brush style of vacuum will be necessary to loosen dirt or whether a simple brush attachment will do the job. Vacuuming early and often is another recommended strategy, especially as a preventive measure to avoid a build-up of dust on the carpet and in the air.

“Quite frankly,” says Gast, “you can solve most of your cleaning problems with pretty frequent vacuuming.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.