Buying a vacuum isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and asking your jan/san distributor to send you one. “Everyone wants a one-man band — a vacuum that does it all,” says Larry Byroad, director of operations for the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence, Ala. “But I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

There are dozens of brands, several styles, unlimited features, and a wide range of costs that must be considered in order to select the right piece of equipment. In-house facility managers can make the job of narrowing down the choices easier by tackling each consideration one at a time.

First, ask yourself what type of vacuum you need. Each type of vacuum is best suited for certain types of jobs and each comes with its own set of pros and cons.

• Upright: The most popular type of vacuum is the traditional upright with a cord and bag. A standard upright can be kept on a housekeeping cart and used to vacuum hallways, lobbies, meeting rooms, and other average-size spaces. Attachments can make the vacuum more versatile, allowing it to clean upholstery, corners, and ceilings. Uprights come in a variety of sizes and the wide-area versions, such as a self-propelled 27-inch walk-behind model, are better suited for cleaning very large areas, such as banquet rooms or wide corridors.

Although an upright is not always the most efficient choice, janitors tend to be most comfortable with them because they are the type of vacuums most people use in their own homes.

“Our people like the upright vacuums better,” says J. Wyatt Sasser, director of housekeeping services for the academic buildings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “I think they like machines they are familiar with. It’s a comfort factor.”

• Backpack: Known for their ability to make quick work of detailed tasks, such as baseboards, stairs, and ceilings, backpack vacuums are also very popular. Some facilities use backpacks strictly for finishing work after an upright has done an initial sweep. Others appreciate the flexibility of a backpack, which can sweep large areas and get into hard-to-reach crevices, and use them in place of uprights.

Although backpacks are extremely popular in commercial settings, they are rarely used in the residential market, so newer janitors may be uncomfortable with them. Although many backpacks weigh as little as 10 pounds, they can also be cumbersome depending on the size and configuration.

“Employees appreciate the productivity of a backpack, but extended wear can cause fatigue,” says Brandon L. Baswell, service manager for building services at Michigan State University in Lansing, Mich. “Some body types do not wear a backpack well.”

• Canister: Instead of pushing or carrying their equipment, a janitor can use a canister-type vacuum and pull it “like a puppy on a leash,” Baswell says. Like an upright, canisters work well for routine cleaning but they are typically not the best option for small spaces.

“Canister vacs function well but require room to maneuver,” says John Hillmon Sr., director of custodial operations for San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Danville, Calif.

• Wet/dry: Considered a specialty piece of equipment, wet/dry vacuums can be used to pick up large debris or to clean flooded floors. There are also accessories available to make a wet/dry vac useable for deep cleaning, stripping, and other restorative care. End-users also comment that these machines can be a bit unwieldy and may not be ideal for everyday use.

“It is a shop-grade machine and is not built for sleek maneuverability,” Hillmon says.

Most facilities need more than one type of vacuum, although most rely more heavily on a specific type. Evaluate the size and type of facility you are operating and then consider each cleaning task your staff performs before making a final vacuum selection.

“The nature of the task at hand determines the required tool to address the job,” Hillmon says. “This includes square footage to be covered, frequency of use, allocated personnel to cover said named area, and the principle type of activities that take place.”

After choosing the best mix of styles, consider the features that are most important to you and worth the extra cash outlay. Ranked at the top of the list should be quality of construction. Regardless of style, every vacuum for a commercial application should have industrial-strength durability, lift, and suction.

Common construction preferences include a machine that is housed in high-impact ABS plastic, dual motors (one for the vacuum and one for the beater bar), and a long cord. Another selling point is a beater bar that requires that only the brushes be replaced when worn, not the entire bar. There are also machines that have automatic shut-off functions to prevent overfill of the bag.

“I like them because if the housekeeper doesn’t pay attention to the light, the vacuum will shut off,” says Annabelle Colon, executive housekeeper at Hotel Providence in R.I. “It’s the only way I know the housekeeper is changing the bag often enough. If not, they would mess up the motor in the vacuum.”

Ergonomics is another key component of vacuum construction. Lightweight machines put less stress on the operator’s body. This is particularly important with a backpack vacuum. Additionally, upright vacuums that can adjust to the user’s height will prevent back problems. Soft, comfortable handgrips with easy-to-reach control buttons are also important.

“Most manufacturers take care of the weight distribution and how easy is it to use,” Sasser says. “They realize that even if they have the best product in the world, if it fatigues the operator, no one is going to buy it.”

Choosing a vacuum that provides a host of attachments is another feature that can make cleaning tasks easier. Some examples include telescopic or dusting wands, crevice or upholstery tools, and brushes for cleaning blinds or hard floors. There are even squeegees for wet/dry vacs. The operator will be more efficient with these tools on hand.

“It’s very functional to have the tools on board the machine,” says Colon says. “That way the housekeeper doesn’t lose too much time.”

A relatively newer consideration in vacuum selection is green cleaning. As environmental and health concerns grow, so will the number of vacuums that address these issues. Most new vacuums include high-quality filtration systems, such as HEPA filters, and many have earned Green Label Certification from the Carpet and Rug Institute (

“How well the vacuum cleans is important, but we also look at how well it keeps the dirt from being redistributed,” says Cindy Cecil, director of housekeeping for Best Western Pheasant Hill in Spokane, Wash. “It is not enough to dust or vacuum if the dirt is only circulated back into the air. We want clean air as well as a clean room. We look for a micro filtration system on all of our vacuums.”

Once you’ve identified your vacuum needs, find a brand that addresses them all in one machine. In some cases, there may be several manufacturers that offer what you need. In that situation, narrowing down the choices may be a matter of choosing the brand your distributor recommends. Another solution is to go with your personal preference based on past experiences.

“I worked for a company that had a vacuum I loved,” Colon says. “When I came to this hotel, I changed all the vacuums to that brand.”

Finally, consider the cost of the machine. While the initial cash outlay is important, the “life-cycle” cost also includes maintenance expenses and the cost of parts and bags.

“A cheaper machine in the purchasing phase may not be cheaper at all if it has high maintenance costs or has to be replaced often,” Cecil says.

Sasser agrees. He has vacuums that are 14 years old. The machines cost more up front but quality construction has paid off with lower maintenance costs.

“You pay up front but you get long life out of them,” he says.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Vacs: Breaking in Employees

After purchasing a new line of vacuums, be sure to introduce them to your staff. Employees need to understand how to use the machine in an ergonomically correct manner. They also need to be aware of how the tools work and how to change bags and brushes.

“Safety is obviously a big thing in our business,” Byroad says. “There are financial ramifications for lost time.”

New employees must also be trained to use the machines. Communicate to them that the machine is not the same as what they use at home. Let the newbie shadow a well-trained employee to learn the ropes.

“Our existing staff knows our vacuums very well and they can give out pointers to the new staff,” Sasser says. “That’s another nice thing about having the same model in Building B as in Building A.”