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.



Ray - SoCal said...

Thanks Peter - very useful!

I have looked at shopvacs before since I would love a wet vac, but gave up because it got confusing. For just dry vacuuming I use a eureka Sanitaire mighty mite that is great.

SiGraybeard said...

Does this have a replaceable fuse or, even better, a circuit breaker you can reset?

I had to take my Shop Vac (brand) cleaner apart when it died one day, only to find the fuse was piece of solder that melts if the current drain is too high. I replaced it with my own solder and when that melted, I had to toss it. It meant something in the motor was wrong and without some sort of breaker, it's eventually going to melt (or burn).

Old NFO said...

Interesting find, and interesting research to get there. Thanks for the info!

zuk said...

Or buy the cheapest name brand one in the store that uses the generic HEPA filters that are on the shelf in the store, and understand that they are ALL disposable.

Due to their design, any abrasive dust that gets past the filter will destroy the bearings in the motor in time.

You really want the HEPA filter too, not only to keep the motor running longer, but to keep your LUNGS running longer. Unless you are always going to use it exclusively on chunky material, you will sooner or later vacuum drywall dust, or fine sawdust, and the vac exhaust will blow it into your air and throughout the house.

You probably found that the accessories are MUCH more expensive than they should be, so that is a great place to save some money.

Look online for DIY plans for a cyclonic pre-separator if you are going to use it for a lot of sawdust. Lots of bucket based versions, and they'll really help get the most out of your vac.

Bottom line is for infrequent use, most any name brand vac will work and probably outlast you. BTW, running it for an hour at a time IS NOT infrequent use. That is heavy use, and is more consistent with a dust collector than a shop vac. Those are different things, with different designs for good reasons.

Good luck with the one you bought, I hope it lasts as long as you expect.


Keith_Indy said...

ugggh, I clearly think the captcha was of an RV not a bus as it asked...


used to be, you just went to Sears and bought Craftsman.

That shop vac is still going strong at my ex-wifes place, and we bought that pre-1999 when we bought our first home.

No, we have endless quantity with not as much quality...

Eric Wilner said...

In keeping with ancient tradition, it's rated 3 horsepower... and runs on 120V, presumably with a standard 15A plug to fit a common household outlet? (Its big brother claims 5 HP, with no obvious caution that it needs a 240V outlet, so I'm guessing that it, too, is supposed to pull all that power through a skinny cord.)
Yeah, "vacuum cleaner horsepower" is like "market capitalization" - the product of two numbers that can't apply at the same time. Ain't marketing math fun?

Glen said...

Valid advice for those without a wet vac:

Differ said...

My workshop vac was left by the previous owners when we bought the house a decade ago. I had to buy a hose ($14) and built a dolly as it was missing the wheels....but your ears pop when it gets turned on and one of the cats is missing!

Kim said...

Pete, thanks for this. I've been mulling over getting a teeny shop vac for ages, but couldn't be arsed to do the research.
Kim du Toit

MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter;

I bought a small carry Kobolt shop vac and for what I do with it, it works well. I do appreciate the research because I will eventually need to buy a larger one because I will have a shop and a garage:)

Anonymous said...

Part I -

One thing that's a valuable addition is a longer pickup hose. has them, in all sizes (1.25" dia, 1.875", 2", 2.5") up to 50 ft. long. Pro Tip: Anything longer than 25 feet is too long - longer length reduces suction, and you spend as much time wrestling with the hose as you would have spent dragging the vacuum closer. 20 feet seems about right.

A 2" hose would be the nearly-perfect size - the 2.5" is too stiff to use anyplace but a workshop, 1.25" clogs with large debris in the workshop - but 2" accessories are much too few and expensive to consider it. 1.875" would be a good second choice, but you'll have to use a hose-end adapter for 1.25" accessories which chokes down the hose, so just go with 20 ft of 1.25".

Aftermarket accessories are worth a look; a 12-15" hard floor brush is very useful if you have a lot of hardwood or tile. I've come to use my 4HP Shop Vac for everything except carpets. With the right brushes it works well for dusting, etc. Speaking of brushes, HD has a $40 "automotive vacuum accessory kit" that has some quite nice brushes and longer tight-space nozzles. Not worth $40 but last Black Friday it was half price, and it is worth $20.

+1 on the cyclonic dust separator if you're vacuuming up lots of dust. There are how-to-DIY videos online. Pro Tip: if you have a larger vac that uses 2.5" hoses, and you've bought a longer hose for it, use the original 8' hose on the exhaust port and vent it outside through a window or door. That way whatever dust that gets passed through the vac gets vented outside, as does a lot of the noise.

Shop vacs are noisy, I used to keep an old set of shooting muffs clipped to mine. Exhaust mufflers are available for the vacs with a 2.5" hose fitting but they do reduce the air flow somewhat, impacting the suction strength. I have an older 4 HP Shop-Vac that uses 1.25" hoses but the ports on the vac itself will accept 2.5"; the OEM hose has an adapter to connect a 2.5" port to a 1.25 hose (FYI, Shop Vac connections are proprietary, no one else uses them, but "other hoses can be made to fit...."). The 4HP vac doesn't have the snort to maintain good suction in a 2.5" hose, but HD sells the exhaust mufflers as individual items and they fit my 4HP's 2.5" exhaust port.

What kind of wheels it has is important - does it roll easily or does it have to be dragged? Bigger wheels are better, casters that swivel easily are good.

If you have the space, and the need - think carpentry stuff, sawdust, wood chips, etc. - a bigger vac saves a lot of frustration, and it's useful for those jobs that would overwhelm a smaller vac. Home Despot usually puts their 16 gallon 6.5 HP on Black Friday sale for $99 (it's regularly $159) and the performance ratings on it are good. Comes with a roll-around cart, although the cart handles aren't as useful as they look. The wheels are good, though.

Anonymous said...

Part II -

Options I'd like: built-in whole-house vacuum systems use 120 volt power rotating brush heads that are powered through connections on the hose. I'd like to see an auxiliary 120 volt receptacle on the top of a big medium and/or large shop vac that could be used to power a power head. From a contractor's position, a high-HP shop vac with a 20 ft hose AND a powered brush-equipped head would be great - cleaning a customer's carpet for drywall dust (no amount of plastic sheeting will control all of it) would be easier and get the carpet cleaner. Regular household vacs don't have the suction of a large shop vac, but they have the rotating brush. Large shop vacs have the suction, but not the rotating brush.

Couple of woodworking places - Woodcraft, Rockler, et al - have adapters and Y fittings to attach a shop vac (or two) to a 4" dust collection system. Useful for job sites because the collection hoods that attach to miter saws, etc. usually have 4" connections, and the Y adapters allow coupling a pair of 2.5" hose shop vacs to a 4" hose connection. It's much easier to work a little more at not making a mess to begin with than cleaning it up later, even if you have a high-HP vac to clean with.

C. S. P. Schofield said...

There was a period, back in the 20th Century, when Consumer Reports could be trusted to not junk up their reviews with political ideology. Sadly, that started to erode in the last years of the century, and while I do check on their picks from time to time, I can't rely on them anymore. For me the final straw was when then jumped on the 'front loading washer' bandwagon, in spite of the mounting evidence that consumer level models weren't up to snuff.

Will said...

I've been looking for a replacement for my tiny Shop-Vac "All Around" model that has finally reached the end of usefulness. About TWO GALLON size. I think I bought it 20 years ago. Rated 7 amps. I measured it, and it pulled a bit more vacuum than my 6-8 gal Dirt Devil shop vacuum. Which is so noisy it requires muffs.

It has a bearing and bushing for the motor. I tried a new bearing, but it was the bushing that was going bad. Lube just gets spit out the exhaust ports.

I used this HARD. Lots of carpet cleaning and general cleaning. Might run for hours doing a carpet rinse. Light, but very sturdy, with excellent double wheel casters and a twenty ft cord. I'm bummed they no longer make this. If I could find a replacement motor I'd be happy.

BTW, years ago I stumbled on the info that vacuums are designed to be noisy here in the US. The perception is that noise=power.

clark myers said...

"It was very hard to find a head-to-head comparison. " I've noticed that often goods sold by big box stores are almost but not quite the exact same model across stores. I believe this is a ploy to hinder price comparison and make price matching impossible and so irrelevant because the stores sell different models - that are all the same but not quite.

Assuming the objective is to buy quality without spending a lot of time at it my own practice is to go to a vendor I trust to make the selection.

Consumer Reports and their competition are likely enough honest but they seem to apply criteria appropriate to a Connecticut housewife not to me.

For a wet/dry vacuum I'd go to Grainger and such and I'd expect to pay more. I've noticed that the big box stores that claim to be contractor's supply may once have been but are no longer as they p...ed in the soup long enough to leave it thoroughly diluted. There are still contractor's supply vendors and in a world of one step above Harbor Freight the trustworthy vendors are worth seeking out and supporting.

In the alternative I'd look at the full on line selection from WalMart as a large sample almost if not quite a census of the market place and buy whatever caught my eye for store delivery if not stocked locally.

Agreed I'd go with HEPA at least available in all cases though wetting down the debris and using a wet/dry vac keeps dust down.

Parklake guy said...

Bought a shop vac "Hand Uo Pro" lo these many years ago. I do wood turning, and one of the charms of the hobby is the mess it makes. The vac came with an 18 ft. hose, and that is the deal maker. Far handier that the normal shop vac. Filters are pricey but a stiff brush and an occasional treatment with a leaf blower can extend the life of the filter quite a bit. I have found that all vac models subscribe to the time honored tradition of hiding the on/off switch so one has to stop in the middle of trying to clean and find the darn thing.
The leaf blower thingy is best done outside...

jon spencer said...

I have 4 Shop Vac's, none of which were purchased new. A were garage, rummage, estate sale pick. ups.
One very large one and three smaller, all needed new filters.
One is in the garage, large one is in the basement, one by the back entry and one is at camp.
None were over $20, so if one fails, I will hit the used market again.

Mrs. S. said...

For my house I have used a big Rigid Vac with pre-filter bags and the hepa filter for cleaning the pellet stove. As with any shop type vac it is noisy. Hearing protection muffs are necessary.

Since the house is an old 2 story with narrow doorways (some as narrow as 22"), I have found the shop vac Hang Up Pro model to be very good for general cleaning. It fits where it needs to go and the hose is long enough to reach up and down stairwells. It is very powerful, but also very loud. Hearing protection is required. Thankfully, they have improved the model by making pre-filter bags. Unfortunately, so far they do not manufacture a hepa filter for this model. The hose end also fits over the exhaust port on my orbital sander, which reduces sanding messes considerably. I have also used the vet vac option to unclog shower and sink drains. It breaks up soap skum clogs and pulls back hair clogs enough that they can be reached with a short snake.