Vacuum cleaners aren’t the most expensive line item on a janitorial budget and they aren’t the biggest or flashiest item in the closet. Every in-house cleaning specialist knows that a vacuum is a critical and frequently used housekeeping mainstay.

“Vacuums are probably the most under-appreciated tool we use,” says Steven Mack, M.Ed., director of buildings and grounds at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. “They aren’t as glamorous as autoscrubbers, but they are just as important.”

Given the vacuum’s significance in the cleaning business, it’s not surprising in-house cleaning specialists take the purchase seriously. Sanitary Maintenance spoke with several in-house cleaning specialists to find out their “top 10” concerns when buying a vacuum. Whether the user is in the market for a traditional upright or a backpack unit, general preferences tend to be the same.

The following categories list, in order, the top considerations for in-house cleaning specialists when purchasing a vacuum.

• Cost
As is the case with most jan/san product categories, the bottom line is the top priority when purchasing a vacuum.

“We all have a budget and have to live within our means,” says John Vogelsang, director of facilities services at Illinois Central College, Peoria, Ill. “I buy the cheapest vacuum that qualifies with the specifications.”

When dollars and cents are a motivating factor in a purchasing decision, it can create a dilemma. In-house cleaning specialists who must adhere to a budget have to walk a tightrope — weighing a vacuum’s features and benefits against its price tag.

“That’s the struggle,” says Dennis Miller, operations manager-setup and housekeeping for the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore. “You want to make certain that whatever decision you make is economically feasible. What’s going to give you the best bang for your buck? If you can buy a cheaper vacuum — of course, it has to be durable enough, provide adequate lift, and so forth — then it’s better to spend a little less money.”

While price is paramount for many buyers, it is certainly not their only consideration.

• Durability
In the residential marketplace, how well a vacuum stands up to a beating would likely rank pretty low on a “top 10” list. In the rough-and-tumble world of commercial cleaning, however, durability is a crucial factor.

“In many instances they are used everyday and if they are not durable enough to withstand daily, long-term use, productivity is lost,” Mack says.

A commercial vacuum must be able to withstand regular bumps against walls and doors or a fall from a cleaning cart. In-house cleaning specialists look for a thick plastic shell or an even more durable steel casing. One caveat: The vacuum needs to be not only durable, but also lightweight, which can be a tall order.

• Weight
A cleaning person must be able to lift the vacuum off a cleaning cart, over thresholds, and up and down stairs. Plus, they have to push the machine up and down hallways, in large entryways, or around dozens of hotel rooms.

“Each of our people cleans 18 rooms a day, so they need to have something they can move quickly throughout the day,” says Tamika Norris, executive housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency, Boston. “My vacuum at home is so heavy that I wouldn’t be able to use it all day.”

Lifting and pushing a vacuum all day can create aches and pains for anyone, but it can be particularly challenging for women and the elderly — demographic groups that dominate housekeeping staffs.

“We had vacuums with good suction, but they were so heavy that the female cleaner was worn out,” says Barbara Murray, housekeeping floor supervisor for Harrah’s in Atlantic City, N.J. “Weight is very important because they have to use this vacuum all day in at least 14 rooms.”

Before purchasing new cleaning equipment for Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., the janitorial crews test them out.

After trying out two-motor upright vacuums recently, the complaints about excessive weight were unanimous. And a test of backpack vacs led to the purchase of the most comfortable, lightweight version.

“We choose what is most comfortable and preferred by our employees,” says Tom Parrish, Washington State University’s custodial manager.

• Ergonomics
Vacuum ergonomics is a concern for in-house cleaning specialists. Ergonomically correct equipment is designed to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort.

“Sweeping is a repetitive motion and vacuums need to be ergonomically friendly to avoid injury,” Mack says.

Avoiding injury also means improving productivity and reducing costly worker’s compensation claims.

In-house cleaning specialists must evaluate a vacuum’s overall design. They look for handles made from soft materials, such as foam or rubber. Handles should also have finger grooves and be angled so they are easy to grip and maneuver.

Controls should be large and easily accessible. For a backpack vacuum, there should be a good harness that helps support the unit.

“You can buy the best vacuum in the world and if it is not ergonomically comfortable for the operator, then it won’t get used and you’ll find it sitting in the storage room,” Miller says.

• Power
In the commercial arena, vacuums must do more than sweep up crumbs and dog hair. They clean up littered offices, gravel-strewn entryways, and more. To pick up everything in their paths, they need plenty of suction.

Some in-house cleaning specialists prefer dual motors: “Two motors do a better job than one,” Vogelsang says. Others feel that one motor provides enough power.

The in-house cleaning specialist might throw down a sampling of the debris commonly found in the facility and do a trial run. If it clogs, it’s not the right choice.

“You can pick up washers and small bolts with our machines,” Parrish says. “Not that we want our people to do that, but they can without sustaining any damage.”

• Filtration
Like ergonomics, indoor air quality (IAQ) is a growing trend in the cleaning industry. A vacuum’s filtration system can play a role in improving IAQ.

Many in-house cleaning specialists, particularly those at green facilities, want vacuums with HEPA filters. These filters are composed of a mat of fibers, which remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and other airborne particles from the air.

“We want to keep as much dust and allergens out of the air as possible,” Norris says. “Our hypoallergenic bags are stronger and hold everything in. The dust doesn’t come out when you push on it.”

• Accessories
Budget constraints limit the amount of bells and whistles that most managers can afford on a vacuum. Whether those extras fall within budget parameters or not, most custodians have an extensive wish list of accessories they’d choose.

The in-house cleaning specialists SM interviewed mentioned wish-list items such as beater bars, retractable cords and magnets to catch paper clips and pennies. But the one thing they all agreed on was a desire for attachment hoses.

Most facilities have backpack vacuums with wands to clean in corners or other tight spaces. Many tasks are simplified, and time spent switching machines is reduced when the upright vacuum offers a retractable wand option.

“If I had to change one thing I would like to see our uprights have a bit more flexibility with onboard hoses and attachments,” Mack says. “Then employees who have issues with wearing backpacks could easily achieve the same level of detail work.”

Of course, cost for accessories — let alone, the machine itself — is critical. In-house cleaning specialists want attachments to be included in the base price, not as additional charges.

• Dependability
Although price is the No. 1 concern for many in-house cleaning specialists, they are not willing to settle for an inferior machine.

They want a cost-effective — not cheap — vacuum.

“We need something that doesn’t fall apart — and we’ve had vacuums fall apart,” Murray says.

• Noise
The perfect vacuum cleaner has plenty of strength but not so much horsepower that it sounds like a semi-truck barreling down the hallway. Noise level is important for most cleaning crews. It is not acceptable to have a vacuum that disrupts workers or wakes sleeping guests or patients.

“We daytime clean so we need a vacuum that works great and is as quiet as possible,” Vogelsang says.

• Repairs
The repurchase time on vacuums isn’t as short as several other jan/san products. Most facilities hold on to their machines for five to seven years. And because it is a bigger-ticket item, most managers invest in repairs several times before replacement.

To keep costs in check, many in-house cleaning specialists streamline their equipment by sticking to one brand and model. They also look for a local supplier who can respond quickly with parts or repairs.

Vogelsang reiterates a common sentiment of in-house cleaning specialists: “There’s nothing worse than down time.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.