Businesses have caught on to the health benefits that result from maintaining clean facilities though the use of antibacterial products and disinfectants.

But often, what’s in the air can be just as harmful as what lurks on surfaces. Pollen, dust and particulates invisible to the naked eye can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms and lead to a host of other ailments that compromise building occupants’ health.

Daily vacuuming can contribute to better indoor air quality (IAQ), but using the wrong vacuum cleaner — or failing to maintain it properly — can actually do more harm than good.

Distributors weigh in on what separates a traditional vacuum cleaner from a so-called “healthy vac” and what customers can do to make sure theirs helps to “clear the air.”

Filter Test
One of the most important differences between a traditional vacuum and a healthy one is the level of filtration. “You want to make sure your vacuum has an adequate filtration system, so not only is it picking up debris, but it’s capturing it and not letting it exhaust out,” says Keith Schneringer, marketing manager, WAXIE Sanitary Supply, San Diego.

Most healthy vacs have a multistage filtration system to achieve this goal. “HEPA filters are the traditional multiple factor filters,” explains Hank Josephs, president, Spruce Industries Inc., Garwood, N.J. “That’s the best way to keep the air and carpets clean because you get about 99.95 percent of material in the filters and not the atmosphere.”

In addition to proper filtration systems, vacuum cleaners should have internal bags to prevent dust and debris from being expelled into the air.

“When you think of traditional vacuums, you imagine an upright vacuum with a cloth bag that’s exposed,” says Schneringer. “If you’ve ever used one of these vacuums in front of a window when the daylight comes in at a certain angle, you’ll see a lot of dust coming out the back of the bag as you’re vacuuming. People will either breathe that in or it will resettle on the ground or some other horizontal surface.”

Praise For Backpacks
Distributors interviewed for this article agree: backpacks are the most effective type of vacuum cleaner for maintaining a healthy indoor environment.

“We’re a big proponent of backpacks,” says Josephs. “Studies show they’re more efficient than canisters and uprights.”

One manufacturer claims their backpack filtering system picks up twice as much as uprights, he notes.

Backpacks also eliminate a lot of variables associated with traditional vacuums, says Howard Tiedt, president, Pike Systems Inc., Montgomery, Ill.

“We don’t need to worry about whether it’s adjusted properly or if the bristle strips are worn down.”

Backpacks also easily transition from one floor surface type to another, whereas traditional vacuums are typically used on carpeting only.

“We’ll find that people using upright vacuums aren’t doing all the detail work on carpets,” says Tiedt. “The upright doesn’t fit in tight areas or corners and they stay away from computer cables because they don’t want to run over them.”

The backpack’s portability and light weight make it easy to vacuum hard-to-reach areas.

Easy Maintenance
When it comes to maintaining a vacuum cleaner — whether a traditional one or a healthy one — distributors say common sense prevails. “The main thing is to change the vacuum bag on a regular basis,” says Sid Sowers, vice president, Huber Inc., Wichita, Kan. “Don’t wait until it’s full. Three-quarters is as full as you want them to get.”

In addition to changing vacuum bags, distributors recommend cleaning or changing the filters frequently. “Some vacuum cleaners will let you know when the filter needs to be changed,” says Schneringer. “Other vacuums, you’ll notice it’s not picking up properly, which means the bag needs to be changed.”

For vacuum cleaners that don’t indicate when to change the bag or filter, Tiedt suggests looking at how the vacuum is going to be used.

“If we identify what they’re vacuuming, how often they’re vacuuming, and how long it takes, we know when the bag’s going to be full and when bristle strips are going to be worn out,” he says.

For example, if a person vacuums 5,000 square feet per night, management knows the bristle strips will be worn out and should be changed every two weeks, he explains.

A lot of facilities continue to use upright vacuum cleaners that are no longer effective. Tiedt says many cleaning managers compare the vacuums used at work to those used in their own homes — which leads them to believe that commercial vacuums don’t need to be replaced as often as they actually do.

“We try to get them to understand they have to throw it away in four years and budget for a new one,” says Tiedt. “The efficiency goes down, and indoor air quality suffers at that point.”

Making Sense Of Signs
Faulty vacuum cleaners won’t do much to clean carpets or contribute to a healthier environment, so customers should be on the lookout for signs indicating their vacuum cleaner may be in trouble. Common sense — and four of the five senses — will help customers pinpoint problems.

• Smell. The smell of something burning — typically rubber — may indicate trouble with the motor or belts, or it could be a sign that your vacuum sucked up something it shouldn’t have.
• Sight. If you see a lot of dust coming out of the vacuum cleaner, or it’s not picking up debris, the solution could be addressed by something as simple as a bag change, or it could be something more complex that requires servicing.
• Sound. People will often know something is wrong just by listening to the vacuum cleaner. “I can walk into a facility and say ‘shut your vacuum off’ because I can tell by the sound of it that the brush isn’t hitting the carpet,” says Tiedt. “The customer has spent the whole night vacuuming, and they haven’t achieved anything.”
• Touch. “Check the suction of the hose with your hand,” says Sowers. “You may have an obstruction that can be easily loosened by running something sturdy through it.”

In many respects, any vacuum that receives maintenance on a regular basis can be considered a “healthy vac,” because it contributes to the overall improvement of indoor air quality.

If your goal is to reduce indoor air pollutants, distributors say daily vacuuming is wisest. “It won’t hurt to vacuum every day,” says Sowers. “But it will hurt if you don’t get the dirt out. It wears on your fibers and wears out your carpet.”

Daily vacuuming of any kind is probably the first and best thing to do for any kind of carpet,” agrees Josephs. When it comes to carpet care, “vacuuming is the first defense against germs and the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Vacuum Cleaners Get The Green Light
Still not sure whether your vacuum cleaner is helping or hindering indoor air quality (IAQ)? The folks at the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), Dalton, Ga., help consumers and businesses take the guesswork out of choosing the vacuum cleaner that promotes a healthier environment and gets the job done.

In 2000, CRI began offering a Green Label vacuum testing program that tests both residential and commercial vacuum cleaners for three key performance factors:
• Soil Removal. The vacuum must remove a set quantity of soil from the carpet in four passes.
• Dust Containment. The vacuum must not release more than 100 micrograms of dust particles per cubic meter of air. This test evaluates the total amount of dust particles released by the brush rolls, through the filtration bag, and via any air leaks in the system.
• Carpet Appearance Retention. The vacuum should not affect the appearance of the carpet based on one year of normal vacuum use.

If a vacuum cleaner passes all three criteria, it’s awarded the CRI Green Label seal and listed on CRI’s Web site. Manufacturers are also free to display the green label on their boxes or vacuum cleaners.

Before helping an end user purchase a vacuum cleaner, Werner Braun, president of CRI, suggests distributors — or anyone looking to become more knowledgeable on Green Label-certified vacuums — visit CRI’s Web site,

“Whether you’re a school superintendent or a housewife concerned with good indoor air quality, you can find the make of vacuum you like as well as the model that’s been tested,” he says.

“The environment the carpet is in can be radically different from one location to another,” admits Braun, “but as a rule of thumb, you should vacuum at least once a week. In high-traffic areas, more frequent vacuuming may be needed.”

But maintaining good IAQ and clean carpets doesn’t stop with vacuum cleaners. CRI also offers a Seal of Approval program that tests three types of cleaning products: spot removers/pre-spray and in-tank solutions, deep cleaning extractors, and deep cleaning systems.

“When we first started testing [spot removers], we bought products off the shelf, and only 25 percent of them cleaned as well as water,” says Braun.

Likewise, CRI found that some extractors left the carpet so soggy it could be wet for up to two or three days.

Just as vacuums trap and remove allergens and particles that can pollute the air, extractors that effectively recover water and cleaning detergents from the carpet minimize mold growth and are necessary for keeping the air the way we like it: breathable.

— K.K.