Monday, April 1, 2019
The trials of looking for a shop vac
Miss D. and I needed a simple shop vac to help keep our garage clean, take care of minor spills, and generally back up our indoor vacuum on dirtier, messier jobs. I accordingly went shopping for one at local stores like Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart. Unfortunately, the shop vacs I saw all seemed too big and complex for a relatively small home like ours, and I wasn't happy with the value-for-money equation, either. I therefore decided to devote a couple of hours to online research.
I was surprised to find that very few shop vacs are highly regarded by their owners. Not many were rated at 4 stars or above out of 5 by those who'd bought them. Owner criticisms included flimsy couplings and fasteners, weak wheels, motors and suction, expensive filters, and general unwieldy dimensions and operation. I therefore decided to look for a shop vac rated above 4 out of 5 stars, averaged over at least 50 reviews across multiple vendor Web sites. That cut the field by more than 80%, right away.
The next step was to look at consumer review sites rating shop vacs against each other. This was also a surprise, in that very few appeared to rate the same makes and/or models. One review might cover ten examples, but the next review (on a different site) might report on eight completely different ones. It was very hard to find a head-to-head comparison. I eventually narrowed it down to a few brands or manufacturers that were generally well rated by reviewers, even if the specific models differed. However, I didn't pay much attention to the reviews themselves. Too many seemed like advertisements for the product(s) rather than objective analyses, and/or didn't address issues that I felt were important (such as the cost of accessories and replacement parts).
Finally, I assessed the models offered by those brands in terms of our requirements; a small household, requiring relatively infrequent use on small- to medium-size cleanup tasks. We didn't want or need a huge container, or suction power sufficient to drain a sewage farm, or anything like that; so I looked at models with 4-8 gallon tanks. However, we did want a powerful enough motor to run for up to an hour, if necessary, without overheating. That eliminated almost all the battery-powered models. I ranked the survivors in order of price (lowest to highest) before continuing.
I then looked at the price and availability of accessories. Some shop vacs require specialized (and expensive) filters, needing regular replacement, and/or use bags to contain dust and debris. They typically need those removed, and sometimes replaced with moisture-safe alternatives, before being used on wet cleanup jobs like unclogging a sink or dishwasher. The price of such consumables can add greatly to the cost of a shop vac over time; so I decided to buy a unit that either didn't need them, or used only inexpensive, easily available alternatives. Running down the list I'd already prepared, I picked the first unit that met that condition.
You may wonder why I'm going into so much detail. It's because I'm surprised by how much I learned reading, not just professional reviews, but comments from the machines' owners. Some of them went into a lot of detail about good or bad points, which was very useful. In particular, I found that the prices charged by "walk-in" stores can sometimes be beaten very significantly by shopping online. I typically saw at least a 10% difference in cost, even allowing for shipping, and in many cases it was 25-50%.
I ended up buying a Vacmaster 5 gallon wet/dry vacuum, model VJC507P, shown below. I also bought a low-cost kit of extra vacuum tools that will fit its 1¼" hose.
Its cost (less than $50) is easily the most affordable of those that met my requirements, and it uses a simple, low-cost, washable/reusable cloth bag that slides over the motor housing to filter out debris. If required, an add-on HEPA filter is available to deal with very fine dust. (If I'd wanted a larger, heavier-duty shop vac, it would probably have been the same company's 12 gallon model VBV1210, which is also great value for money when compared to its competition.)
This was an educational shopping experience, and a worthwhile one. I had no idea that a search for a simple shop vac could turn up so many alternatives and additional questions.