Barrel and upright vacuum cleaner buying guide
All you need to know when buying a traditional vacuum cleaner.
Do I need a barrel or upright vacuum cleaner?
Traditional barrel and upright vacs are still the most common type of vacuum in Australian homes. They are the best option for thorough carpet and floor cleaning.
Barrel or upright?
Don't go by brand alone – first choose the type of vacuum that's suited to your needs.
A barrel vacuum (sometimes called a cylinder or canister vac) is the typical workhorse vacuum you know and love, used for your big household cleans, with the main motor unit pulled behind you as you clean. They are:
- much more popular than upright vacuums
- easier than uprights to use in awkward places, such as stairs, car interiors and behind furniture
- good for thorough cleaning of large areas of floor.
Upright vacuums have the motor situated in the body of the unit, so you don't need to pull the barrel behind you. They are:
- less popular than barrel models as they can be bulkier and harder to store
- good for cleaning large level areas of carpet due to their built-in power heads
- less convenient than barrels for cleaning awkward places such as stairs and behind furniture, but usually have a separate hose extension to help with these tasks.
Both barrel and upright vacs come in bagged (requires a disposable bag that holds the dust/dirt) and bagless varieties (dirt goes directly into a receptacle to be emptied).
Do I need a Dyson?
Dyson is by far the biggest-selling vacuum brand in Australia, bagless models are very popular and most other brands have had to follow up with bagless models of their own. And yet Dyson barrel and upright vacs (priced from $599) are rarely recommended in our vacuum reviews.
They often get good overall scores, but not quite good enough to be recommended: they're usually not so good at picking up dirt from carpet, which is the main job for vacuum cleaners in most homes.
For barrel and upright vacuum cleaners, Dyson models are generally good, but you can find better (and cheaper) options.
How much should I pay?
- The models in our latest barrel and upright vacuums review range in price from $85 to $1999.
- Mid-priced vacuum cleaners usually offer the best combination of performance and value.
- Usually the more expensive models, loaded up with the latest and most powerful technology, give the very best carpet cleaning.
- Some low-cost vacuums compare favourably with pricier models, but generally the cheaper models are better suited to cleaning hard floors.
Bag, bagless or water filter: which is best?
Vacuums are generally bagless (with an on-board bin) or use bags to collect the dust, but there's also a third type to consider: the water filter vacuum cleaner. These have an on-board water container to trap the dirt.
- Bins and reusable cloth bags are messier and harder to empty, while bags are more user-friendly, but have ongoing costs and you may sometimes forget to to buy them.
- You usually need specific bags for a given vacuum cleaner, and you might void your warranty if your machine breaks down and you've been using generic (unbranded) bags rather than the brand's own bags.
- You also need to consider the costs of bags on the environment (in our vacuum reviews we include the price of each bag where applicable and also make note of the company's policy of bag disposal).
- Models that use bags are much less popular than bagless models.
- They tend to be less messy to empty. Bags generally come with sliding shutters to prevent dust from spilling out when removed.
- With a bagged vacuum you can just put the full bag into the rubbish bin, rather than risk letting dust and allergens back into the air as you tip the vacuum bin into the rubbish. This could make a bagged model a better choice in an apartment, or when you don't have a garden into which you can empty the vacuum bin dust.
- Bags aren't necessarily recyclable, but are usually biodegradable. If the bags are completely biodegradable, you can simply put them in your compost – your garden worms will thank you for the tasty snack.
- When you change the disposable bag, you're also changing and refreshing a large part of the filter system. However, the other filters still need replacing from time to time.
- Generally a disposable bag is larger than a bin, so doesn't need to be emptied as frequently.
- This type of vacuum does involve an ongoing cost as you'll need to buy bags from time to time, and it can be inconvenient if you run out.
- Many warranties demand that you use only the manufacturer's branded bags rather than generic replacements. This could apply if your machine breaks down due to dust entering the engine or a similar fault; it shouldn't apply in unrelated cases such as wheels breaking or the power head failing.
- Bagless models are by far the most popular type.
- It's easier to see and retrieve an item that's been accidentally sucked up.
- Disposing of the waste from a bin can release dust and allergens back into the area. But if you have a house with an outside area, this is less of an issue – you could even dump it straight into the garden or compost.
- With a bin model you'll need to either clean the main filter frequently, or replace it – a hidden extra cost.
- Make sure you replace filters when necessary, as the vacuum's performance could deteriorate otherwise.
- Bin models generally involve fewer ongoing costs as you don't need to keep buying bags.
- Find out more about the pros and cons of bag vs bagless.
- The container needs to be emptied after each use, and when finished for the day, you must clean and dry the container and filters to prevent mould growing in the vacuum cleaner. This means a bit more more work but is generally an easy process.
- Water filter models can also usually be used for cleaning up wet spills.
- They claim exceptionally good dust filtration and to be ideal for people with allergies, asthma and dust sensitivity. We haven't tested this aspect, but note that many other bag or bagless models come with HEPA filters and could be just as good if not better for dust filtration.
Features to look for
Power head or turbo head
- A power head has a built-in motor with a rotating brush. They are very good at removing dirt from carpet, as they agitate the carpet pile to release more dirt.
- A turbo head also has a rotating brush but isn't powered; it uses airflow to get the brush spinning. It's usually less effective than a power head.
- These attachments are designed to boost cleaning performance but tend to make the vacuum bulkier and/or heavier. And they may not be as easy to use or manoeuvre.
- The basic hard floor/carpet cleaning head is usually all you'll need for most floors. But when it comes to picking up pet hair from carpet, a model with a turbo brush or power head will often give a more thorough clean.
- Tools such as a crevice nozzle (for narrow corners and around chair cushions), an upholstery brush (for curtains and soft furnishings) and a dusting brush can be very handy. Check whether these tools are supplied with the vacuum cleaner or if they're optional extras.
- This lets you adjust the wand to suit your height, so you can vacuum without bending your back too much. If you're tall, try to test the model in-store to ensure it's long enough for you.
Adjustable head height
- This feature's useful if you have carpets with different pile heights, and also for wooden or tiled floors.
- A control on the wand that allows you to vary the suction for more delicate jobs, such as cleaning curtains.
- This handy feature lets you know when the dust collector is full without having to open the vacuum.
- A vacuum that can reverse the airflow to blow air continuously is a godsend when it's time to blow up the airbed!
Onboard storage for accessories
- Handy when you're cleaning edges and upholstery, and/or dusting furniture whilst vacuuming.
- Allows the wand to be attached neatly to the cleaner when storing. This is useful for keeping all the bits together.
- This is much easier than winding up the cord manually! Upright vacs don't have this feature, but you can wind the cord around two hooks to keep it tidy.
- HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air filtration. It's an international standard for filters that trap minute particles.
- This type of filter can help if you have asthma or a dust allergy or sensitivity, but you have to clean or replace it regularly (about once a year) to ensure it works efficiently – which may mean more ongoing costs.
- If you have asthma, a dust allergy or are simply sensitive to dust, it can help, though for asthma sufferers it's not likely to be the complete answer to house dirt. Find out more about HEPA filters, asthma and allergies.