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Are you using the wrong vacuum?

We help you find the right vac for the job. Plus, we help you decide if a robot vac is worth it for your specific situation.

using vacuum to clean rug
Last updated: 28 June 2024

If the thought of lugging out your heavy vacuum for a quick clean fills you with so much dread that you put it off for another day, you might not be using the best tool for the job. 

Or maybe you're sick of having to go over the carpet three times just to get it clean because your old, asthmatic Hoover sucks – but not in a good way.

Perhaps you just got a puppy and you're worried your robot vac might choke on all the fur.

Maybe you'll need a combination of vacuums in your arsenal to keep things clean

For some situations, a stick vac might be all you need. For others, you'll need to bust out the big guns in the form of a traditional vacuum with strong suction. Or maybe you'll need a combination of vacuums in your arsenal to keep things clean.

Our experts will tell you which type of vacuum is right for your household so you can minimise effort while maximising cleanliness.

Do you need a robot vacuum?

Robot vacuums have exploded in popularity in recent years, with their high-tech features and lofty promises to clean your floors while you sit back and relax. 

They have hefty price tags though, and CHOICE testing has found that not only is there a huge difference in the performance of different models but in general, they're not well suited to every cleaning situation. 

Here, we help you decide if a robot vac will be a help or a hindrance in your home.

The situation: You hate cleaning

  • The surface: Hard floors
  • The solution: Robot vacuum

You might be imagining a robot vacuum as The One Vac to Rule Them All – once it's in your possession, you'll never need to touch a vacuum again, right?

Well, yes. And no.

"If you have a small home with only hard floors and your place doesn't see much dirt, a robot vac could significantly cut down on your vacuuming," says CHOICE vacuum expert Adrian Lini.

"You'll probably only need to dig out the stick or barrel vacuum for spills or deep cleaning.

"Robot vacs usually perform quite well on hard floors: almost all models in our current review are rated as "excellent" or "very good" for this test.

robot vacuum on hardwood floor

Will a robot vac save you from vacuuming ever again? Probably not.

But if you have carpets, rugs, or messy kids (or adults) in your house, a robot vac may not be the magic bullet you were hoping for.

It's not all bad news though: you still can use a robot vac, it's just that you'll need another vac as well to finish the job properly. 

Your robot friend can reduce the time you spend cleaning, but it won't completely rid you of this hated task forever.

 "Unfortunately we've found in our testing that robot vacs just aren't as good at cleaning as other vacuum types, especially for specific jobs like carpet," says Adrian.

"In a lot of cases, a robot vac alone won't be sufficient to keep things clean – and in some instances it might not be suitable at all.

"In homes with stairs or a lot of carpet, and very busy homes that have lots of clutter on the floor, the robot vac will miss areas and can even get stuck. And obviously it won't be able to go up or down the stairs."

In a lot of cases, a robot vac alone won't be sufficient to keep things clean

Adrian Lini, CHOICE vacuum expert

Many of the new robot vacs include a mopping function, but the mopping performance varies between models, so make sure you check our reviews to see which ones do a good job.

They're certainly not a replacement for a good old-fashioned mop and bucket, but they're good for top-up cleans in between more thorough floor cleaning. (And be careful if you have rugs or carpets – you don't want the robot vac to mop them as well!)

Just make sure you thoroughly research the best robot vacuums before you buy so you don't end up with a cleaner that you have to clean up after.

The situation: You're short on time and space

  • The surface: Hard floors and some carpet
  • The solution: A stick vac with hard floor head

Quick cleans are where stick vacs really shine: because they're lightweight and compact, you can sling them around the kitchen in a jiffy, then hide them away in a cupboard or corner.

Stick vacs are generally great on hard floors – in fact, just under half the models in our current stick vacuums review are rated as "very good" or "excellent" for hard floor cleaning.

vacuuming up crumbs

A specific hard floor head would make this job easier.

If you want the best clean possible for your hard floors, Adrian recommends getting a vacuum head that's designed specifically for the job.

"Soft, fluffy vacuum heads made specifically for hard floors are great at collecting all the dust and debris that accumulate on hard surfaces," he says.

"The brush heads that come standard with most stick vacuums are better suited to carpets, but aren't great for hard floors.

"Look for a stick vac that comes with a hard floor head as part of the accessories, or go for a brand that has them as optional extras."

What about a robot vac?

When you're stretched for time, anything that will lighten the load is a great idea.

While robot vacuums aren't often great at cleaning corners, edges and carpets, most people would agree that any vacuuming is better than none.

Whatever the robot vac picks up on its journey around your home is less debris that you'll have to vacuum later, right?

A robot vacuum can make life easier, but you'll always need to vacuum up what it's missed

If you can afford a robot vacuum in addition to a stick or corded vac, it can make life easier, but you'll always need to vacuum up what the bot missed. You'll need to weigh up how much your time is worth, and whether it's really going to save much time since you'll be vacuuming anyway.

"I think the best part about having a robot vac is the scheduled cleaning," says Adrian.

"You can set it to run automatically every other day and it'll reduce the amount of dust that builds up. 

"Not all robot vacs have this feature though, so if you think it'd be useful for you, keep it in mind when you're researching which bot to buy."

The situation: You want the rugs done right 

  • The surface: Carpet
  • The solution: A barrel or upright vac

The idea of a minimalist, lightweight stick vac for all your vacuuming needs sounds lovely – no more long cords and lugging heavy vacuums up the stairs. Just a quick whip around with the stick vac and you're done, right?

It's a lovely dream, but if you live in a heavily-carpeted or large house, it could quickly turn into a nightmare. 

Some high-end stick vacuums are carpet-cleaning aces, but you'll need to drop $1000+ on them. 

Unfortunately the more affordable stick vacuums often struggle on carpets: they lack the grunt to extract dirt that's embedded in the fibres, so you'd need to go over the carpet more times to remove the same amount of dirt as a corded vacuum would.

And then there's the battery issue: of the stick vacs we've tested, the batteries only last on average 13 minutes at full power, which isn't long enough to get much of the vacuuming done. 

Over time, the batteries will lose their ability to hold a charge and eventually you'll have to replace them. And a single battery can sometimes cost as much as an entire barrel vacuum! 

You're far better off with a traditional vac if your house is mostly or entirely carpeted

Adrian Lini, CHOICE vacuum expert

"You're far better off going back to basics with a traditional barrel or upright vac if your house is mostly or entirely carpeted," says Adrian. 

"They're the only vacuum type that can operate at high power for a long period of time, which is what you need to get your carpets clean. Stick vacs can run at high power too, but they'll run out of battery before you're finished."

Traditional vacuums can be far cheaper than high-end stick vacs, too. Four CHOICE Recommended vacuums in our latest review cost less than $500, whereas prices for a good stick vacuum start at $500.

This is why a CHOICE membership can help you shop smarter and save money: our detailed reviews show you which affordable appliances aced our tests, and which premium-priced products just aren't worth your money.

vacuuming rug

Not all vacuum types are good at cleaning carpet.

What about a robot vac? 

Robot vacuums only have small motors, so they just can't generate as much suction as full-sized vacuums, making it harder for them to extract dirt from carpets. 

And because they're so small, they naturally don't have the heft to put any force on the carpet, which can really make a difference when it comes to removing embedded dirt.

A robot vac's 'best' efforts on carpet aren't especially impressive: the highest score a robot vac garnered for cleaning carpets in our tests was just 59%. 

By comparison, the worst barrel vacuum scored 52% – so even the most basic barrel vacuum will probably do a better job on your carpets than a robot vac.

The situation: Hairy housemates

  • The surface: Carpet and hard floors
  • The solution: A high-scoring stick or barrel vacuum

If you have furry friends at home, you've probably already accepted the relentless tide of pet hair on just about every surface – it's inevitable.

So should you buy a specific 'animal' vacuum? Not necessarily. 

Ironically, some vacuums with the word 'pet' or 'animal' in the name are actually less effective at picking up pet hair than regular vacuums. You can't always believe what you read.

Some vacuums with the word 'pet' or 'animal' in the name are actually less effective than regular vacuums

"The best type of vacuum to handle the hair is a bagged (as opposed to bagless) style, with a powered head," says Adrian.

"We test each vacuum's ability to remove cat hair embedded in carpet and rate it based on how much hair is left behind.

"The best vacuums score a perfect 100% on this test, but some score as low as 20%."

To help you win the fight against fur, we've compiled a list of the best vacuums for pet hair.

What about a robot vac?

A robot vac can help, but it's unlikely to manage all of Fido's fur, so you'll still probably have to pull out another vacuum to pick up what the robot missed. 

And not all robovacs are created equal in the fur-busting stakes: some score as high as 90% on our pet hair removal test, but others only manage 20%. 

vacuuming near cat

Pets in your home mean you need a vac that can handle the hair.

The situation: Allergies in the house

  • The surface: Carpet and hard floors
  • The solution: A bagged vacuum with a HEPA filter

Vacuuming is a big part of managing dust mite and pet dander allergies, so it's important to choose the right kind of vacuum so all your hoovering won't be in vain.

"A HEPA filter is a must-have for keeping allergens at bay," says Adrian. 

"They can trap even very fine particles such as dust, pollen and pet dander that can set off allergies and asthma."

A HEPA filter is a must-have for keeping allergens at bay 

Adrian Lini, CHOICE vacuum expert

A filter is a huge help, but it's also important to have the right kind of vacuum. 

"A bagged vacuum is usually the best option because you can just close up the bag and throw it away when it's full," says Adrian. 

"Whereas emptying bagless vacuums can send dust flying, which will undo all your hard work.

"Plus, the bag helps keep your vacuum much cleaner over time, which can extend its life. It can be really hard to remove all the dust from bagless vacuums' bins unless you give them a thorough clean, but a bag keeps the dust contained."

If you'd prefer not to have the ongoing costs of buying vacuum bags, you can use our reviews to see which bagless models our experts rate as easy to empty. 

What about a robot vacuum?

A robot vac can help you keep on top of dust and other allergens on hard floors in between more thorough cleans, so it's not a bad idea for these areas. 

But remember that robot vacs aren't very effective on carpet, so don't expect them to do much in carpeted areas of your house. 

Not all robot vacuums have HEPA filters, however, so that can limit your options. 

An air purifier can also help improve the air quality inside your home. These are the best air purifiers for dust and pollen allergies

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.