The month of May arrived in a downpour in southern Wisconsin with up to 3.25 inches of rain falling in 24 hours across some areas.

Schools closed in order for crews to soak up the rainwater flooding the building. Grocery stores remained open as shoppers navigated around pools of water and workers ran wet/dry vacuums to clean up.

While this example is definitely a worst-case scenario, they are among the reasons facilities need wet/dry vacuums on hand. But which unit is right for each customer?

The savvy distributor looks at a number of things to ensure they spec the appropriate machine for the job.

In a nutshell, distributors need to look at the facility where the machine will be used, consider the size of the space being cleaned, and review the types of situations where custodians might utilize a wet/dry vacuum.

Wet/dry vacs range in size from eight to 20 gallons. It’s important to encourage the purchase of the largest unit clients can afford.

“Normally we suggest a 15- to 20-gallon unit with a push handle,” says Jim Traudt, vice president of sales at Right Choice Janitorial Supply, Milwaukee. “The only reason we would ever get them into something smaller is in a very limited usage situation, such as for a small restroom or entrance way.”

Larger units can save labor and this also should be shared.

“If you have a bigger wet/dry vacuum, you have the ability to do larger pick-up,” Traudt says. “If your building floods, you’ll be able to pick up 15 to 20 gallons of water as opposed to eight gallons. This is important in an industry where 90 percent of all costs involve labor.”

But while a facility with wide-open spaces might benefit from a larger unit, Traudt warns buildings having a smaller footprint or tight spaces, such as an elementary school with many classrooms, might get more use out of a smaller unit that workers can easily maneuver in and out of enclosed areas.

Sometimes facility managers balk at larger units because of limited storage space. Here it’s important to stress the largest wet/dry vacuum doesn’t eat up considerably more storage space than a smaller one.

“If they can store an eight-gallon wet/dry vac they can probably store a 19-gallon one,” says says Randy Bowers, owner of Shreveport, La.-based SMS Distributions. “It’s not like going from a toaster to a refrigerator.”

Durability comparisons between small and large units should also be made.

“Smaller units, for instance, have smaller wheels which can cause them to tip more easily,” says Traudt. “A 20-gallon wet/dry vac will have two sets of larger wheels on the front and on the back, so when it fills up with water it still rolls around nicely.”

Wet/Dry Vacuum Features

Beyond determining the size of machine, distributors need to walk customers through a series of additional features that differentiate the units. An important consideration when determining which wet/dry vac to spec is to look at the places custodians might drain the machine.

Wet/dry vacuums offer three basic dumping methods, says Traudt. Some units feature a drain hose on the back that can be moved to a floor drain or sink. Some have a plug on the back or the bottom, which requires workers to move the unit on top of a floor drain or into a sink before dumping its contents. The third is called a dumper. These units require custodians to back up to a toilet, floor drain or slop sink, lift it up and tilt it to drain.

“Most of the time we spec units with a drain hose,” says Traudt. “However if a facility doesn’t have a floor drain and the hose isn’t long enough to reach to a slop sink, they may need to hand dump it and they would need a dumper. I always look at what’s available for spilling and dumping before I make a recommendation.”

Floor pick-up tool kits and squeegees are other important add-ons, according to Traudt. A squeegee saves labor by quickening water pick-up.

“If they are doing a large area and the unit has a squeegee that is 25 to 30 inches wide, they could move it back and forth to pick up the water as opposed to trying to suck it up with a wand,” he says. “Using a front-mount squeegee in larger areas is a major labor saver.”

HEPA filtration options are available with many wet/dry vacuums and also are recommended. These filters keep harmful contaminants such as lead paint or asbestos out of the air.

“But you need to be sure to tell customers to remove the HEPA filter when picking up water or other spills because you can’t get it wet,” Bowers says. “You can only use a HEPA filter for dry recovery of dust, dirt and larger pieces of material.”

Distributors recommend adding a transport container to carry the hose, wand, squeegee and other tools, says Bowers.

“Then you do not have to carry an extra bag with the tools,” he adds. “It’s a very nice feature.”

Noise levels also should be discussed, as a wet/dry vacuum shouldn’t be so loud that it disturbs building occupants or causes hearing damage in custodians over time. Wet/dry vacuums for commercial or industrial applications should have decibel levels of 70 decibels or less.

“A 68-decibel wet/dry vac is super quiet and counts for LEED credits if they’re going for that certification,” says Bowers.

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.