Canister Vacuums – A Guide for the Rest of Us

What is a Canister Vacuum Cleaner?

When we talk about essential cleaning tools every home or office space should have, most people will include the vacuum cleaner on their list. Along with sponges, dish towels, brooms, and brushes, vacuum cleaners are considered must-haves. Not only do they suck even the smallest particles in seconds, but they can also do so without creating a mess. 

With the convenience they offer, vacuum cleaner manufacturers have created a lucrative market that’s poised to reach $40 billion by 2031. Moreover, vacuum cleaners have evolved into different shapes and sizes. Some of today’s vacuum cleaners come with smart features to adapt to changing times. But if you’re looking for a vacuum cleaner type that’s simple yet dependable, then a canister vacuum cleaner is something to consider. 

Continue reading below for a lowdown on the canister vacuum cleaner, its history, and the reasons to invest in one.

History: Planting the Seeds

Vacuum cleaning has come a long way since the introduction of the first practicable domestic vacuum cleaner in the early 1900s. The concept of vacuuming can be linked to the broom. This simple cleaning tool which dates back to 2,300 B.C. was eventually perfected in 1797 by Massachusetts farmer Levi Dickenson. He noticed his wife was having a hard time cleaning with her broom. The broom’s bristles kept falling out, affecting its sweeping efficiency.

As a result, Dickenson made his own broom with bristles made of sorghum. It is a grain similar to that of corn, which also grows tall. Moreover, it is stronger and stiffer, which solves the problem of the bristles falling out. After seeing the vast improvement, Dickenson created over a dozen more brooms and sold them to his neighbors. Within the next three years, Dickenson was already selling hundreds of his brooms across New England. 

In 1858, a milestone for the broom took place, this time in the United States. Bostoner Hiram Herrick submitted his patent for a “carpet sweeper.” It featured a rolling broom with a dustpan to boot. It would turn out to be the first American patent for the broom. More inventors followed suit over the next couple of years, each one featuring minor tweaks to the broom.

However, the improvements failed to reflect in terms of sales. The brooms’ sales were dismal until Daniel Hess entered the picture. The Iowa-based inventor added an integral element that would serve as the vacuum cleaner’s pillar: air. Hess explained that his invention worked by “drawing fine dust and dirt through the machine by means of a draft of air.” 

To draw in the dirt, Hess’ product used bellows to generate suction. Unfortunately, the bellows limited the product’s efficacy. 

Nine years after, Ives McGaffey of Chicago improved on Hess’ design by incorporating a fan to move the air. He called his product “Whirlwind”, but it still failed to get the job done effectively. Hence, his product eventually met its early end in 1872. 

Hess and McGaffey’s inventions – though had the sincerest ideas – only solved half of the puzzle by moving the air. The other half is the convenience, which the manual pumping of the air made impossible. However, things would drastically change by the late 19th century when John S. Thurman of St. Louis introduced his “pneumatic carpet renovator.” It is a gasoline-powered machine that created an air blast to blow away the dust into a receptacle.

Though the idea was promising, usability remained in question. The device was relatively big – the size of a horse-drawn carriage, to be exact. Over the next several years, other inventors would go on to improve Thurman’s design. One of the most notable ones was Hubert Cecil Booth, a structural engineer from England. 

Booth reverse-engineered Thurman’s patent and named his device the “Puffing Billy.” Powered by gasoline, Booth’s device proudly went around the streets of London sporting a red-colored body on a horse-drawn carriage. The Puffing Billy bagged high-profile cleaning jobs including the task of cleaning Westminster Abbey in preparation for the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902.

The couple was impressed with what the Booth’s creation can do that they bought the machines for their staff at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace to use. Furthermore, the Puffing Billys also played a big part during World War I. About a fleet of the device was used to clean the Crystal Palace after spotted fever plagued London’s reservists. These events paved the way for Booth’s device to conquer buildings, offices, hotels, and the homes of the rich and famous.

The Hoover Effect

However, because of its size, the Puffing Billy’s market was only limited to big homes and spacious buildings. Regular homes still couldn’t accommodate their size. Thankfully, James Murray Spangler, a 60-year-old janitor from Ohio would revolutionize what would become the basic vacuum design. Despite being a seasoned janitor, Spangler would struggle to clean a whole building every night. Not only would the sizes of the buildings make his task challenging, but his asthma also became an obstacle.

Thus, Spangler created his own contraction made up of a pillowcase, a broom, and an electric motor. But the crucial advantage of his device compared to the Puffing Billy was mobility. He designed his cleaner in a way that it stood upright and at the same time, portable. The inner workings featured paddle blades and a ceiling fan motor, which were responsible for generating airflow.

For the sweeping function, Spangler used a rotating brush which he got from a carpet sweeper. He then used a leather belt and connected it to the brush. Upon operation, the machine sucked the dirt and blew it out into an attached pillowcase. With his invention working effectively, Spangler applied for a patent in 1907. He then quit his day job and established the Electric Suction Sweeper Company.

His new business attracted investors like department store owners. Though money was coming in, it wasn’t enough to consistently fund production. And after buying a factory space and 75 pieces of motors, Spangler found himself low on funds. As a result, he was forced to leverage his house as collateral. 

Feeling desperate at losing his home, Spangler revisited his old customers and turned to one of the satisfied ones: Susan Hoover, who was also his cousin. Hoover’s husband, William, was in the leather goods industry. Though he was initially reluctant, Mr. Hoover ultimately decided to buy Spangler’s patent in 1908. 

Realizing that for the machine to make a lot of noise to make it big, Hoover invested in marketing, research, and development. He also hired some hardworking salesmen who would go door-to-door peddling the machine. Fast-forward to a hundred years, Hoover turned Spangler’s design into a rousing success. The Hoover vacuum cleaner became a household name and the designs have become sleeker and quieter. 

They’ve also performed cleaner since the 1930s, thanks to the introduction of less porous cloth bags. In recent years,  HEPA filters and bags were also added to vacuums. They help improve air quality by forcing air through a fine mesh. In turn, the mesh filters the air and traps the harmful particles. Interestingly, HEPA filters can capture up to 99.97% of air particles including dust, smoke, and pet dander, to name a few. 

By the mid-1970s, vacuum cleaners became smaller and more portable. The cordless vacuum cleaner was patented by Black & Decker in 1975 and different iterations of the vacuum cleaner from various manufacturers followed suit.

The Essential Components

Though vacuum cleaners come in different types, there are essential components that are present in almost if not all kinds of vacuum cleaners including the canister type. Here are the six essential ones:

  1. Intake Port – This part ensures a steady stream of air which is crucial for the vacuum cleaner to sustain its suction power.
  2. Exhaust Port – If the intake port facilitates the air stream into the unit, the exhaust port does the opposite. It facilitates the stream of air to flow back out. This function complements that of the intake port.
  3. Electric Motor – The electric motor keeps the vacuum running and prevents it from losing power during operation. Most modern-day vacuum cleaners function on 1,800 watts while the lower-end models often run on 1,600 watts.
  4. Fan – The fan or blades, which are normally designed at an angle creates the suction power. They also help keep the air moving steadily.
  5. Porous Bag – Some vacuum cleaners come with a porous dust bag that helps filter air particles, dirt, and dust. 
  6. Housing Unit – This is where you’ll find all the other components.

How do Vacuum Cleaners Work?

To get a better appreciation for canister vacuum cleaners, it’s important to understand how they work. Let us look at four elements that make up the science behind vacuum cleaners.

  1. Negative Pressure – This is the secret behind the vacuum cleaner’s ability to suck up dust and debris. Negative air pressure is the pressure that’s lower than that of the surrounding atmosphere. Using a simple analogy, we can take the idea behind the straw wherein negative air pressure is created whenever you take a sip of your drink. Another example, which we see in the movies is when aircraft or spaceships sustain a hole in their hull and the breach sucks out the people. 


  1. The Motor – The electric motor is the second important element that makes vacuum cleaners work. Canister vacuum cleaners and their modern contemporaries feature an electric motor inside. The motor is the one responsible for spinning a fan that in turn, sucks the air in together with all the tiny particles. From there, the fan pushes the air out to the other side and into the vacuum’s canister or bag. The motor will continue to work, thanks to the vacuum’s exhaust port that directs the air out. 


  1. The Filter – With all the dirt and dust your vacuum sucks, you can only imagine how harmful they can be to your health. Thankfully, vacuums come with a filter to keep those ultra-fine particles that are harmful to the lungs away from you while you’re cleaning. Today, a good number of canister vacuum cleaners come with a  HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filter that effectively removes virtually all of the dust.

The Pros of Using a Canister Vacuum

As we mentioned earlier, the canister vacuum cleaner is arguably the simplest and most dependable option out there. But aside from its simplicity and reliability, what other advantages make the canister vacuum stand out? Let’s find out below.

  1. Ease of use – Perhaps the most appealing advantage of canister vacuum cleaners is their simplicity. For starters, they are roughly as powerful as upright vacuum cleaners. They also accommodate a large motor because their weight is evenly distributed on the wheels. Because of their larger motors, canister vacuums can drive air through larger filters. In turn, you get to enjoy more robust filtering.

They also have fewer moving parts, making them easier to maintain. They don’t use any belts and are capable of picking up larger objects without the scare of having them stuck in any belts or hoses. They also have less downtime and the cost of repairs is more manageable. The filters are also easy to maintain. Canister vacuums often feature a lid that opens up for easy filter replacements. 


  1. The ergonomic option – Canister vacuums can help reduce fatigue through their ergonomic design. These vacuums feature a simple wand and an attachment that doesn’t put a lot of weight on the wand’s end. You also don’t need to wear them like a backpack, which means your back can get a sigh of relief.


  1. Lightweight – With fewer moving parts, canister vacuums are lightweight and more maneuverable.


  1. Helps people with allergies – Canister vacuum cleaners use advanced filtration systems that help reduce and eliminate allergens floating in the air.


  1. Friendly on hard flooring – If you have hard flooring at home, you’ll find canister vacuum cleaners friendly to your floor. They come with adjustable suction that you can decrease to prevent scratches and damage when cleaning hardwood.

The Disadvantages to Consider

Vacuum canister cleaners are not perfect, hence, they have their fair share of cons. Below are some of the most notable ones.

  1. Limited reach – Its wand and head may be more maneuverable, but taking the entire unit in cramped areas can be a chore. Compared to other vacuums, the canister type requires you to carry the wand and the canister, which can be challenging when cleaning small spaces. Mover, you may get tired easily if you need to vacuum a big house since you need to carry two pieces wherever you go.


  1. A little bit of bending – Because of the canister vacuum cleaner’s design of being lower to the ground, you may need to do a little bending when cleaning the floor. 


  1. Storage concerns – Since canister vacuum cleaners are larger and have a bulkier design, they require more storage room. 


  1. The price tag – Compared to upright vacuum cleaners, the canister vacuum cleaner is more expensive. Hence, not all consumers can afford one.

Canister vs Upright

Canister Vacuum

In a head-to-head comparison between the canister type and the upright type of vacuum, which one is better? To answer this question, it is best to look at upright vacuum cleaners’ pros and cons.

The Pros:

  • Easy to use – They require minor assembly out of the box.
  • Easy to store – They’re relatively smaller than canister vacuum cleaners. You can also stand them easily in an empty space or inside a closet.
  • Large vacuum head – Having a bigger vacuum head, the upright type can cover a larger area.
  • Low-maintenance – Because they don’t come with any bags, they’re easy to clean. 

The Cons:

  • They’re heavier compared to canister vacuum cleaners.
  • They have a higher noise level.
  • Cords may not be retractable, causing a trip hazard.
  • Can be hard to maneuver, especially when cleaning certain corners and crevices.

Bagged vs Bagless 

Another common question about vacuum cleaners is which one is better: bagged, bagless, or the ones with auto-seal bags? Let’s try to break down each one.

Bagged vacuum cleaners – These vacuum cleaners are some of the oldest options available. They work by suctioning the dust and other particles before directing them into a disposable bag. When the bag is full, you can remove it and dispose of the dust, dirt, and debris without getting into contact with them.

Though they’re easy to use, they can be heavy and bulky, with some models weighing as much as 16 pounds.

Bagless vacuum cleaners – As their name implies, these vacuum cleaners don’t use any bags for collecting dirt. Instead, they have a transparent compartment the dust particles end up. Thus, they’re lighter and easy to use. 

Floor Type

One of the keys to maximizing the cleaning prowess of vacuum cleaners is to match them with the type of floor you’re cleaning. In the case of canister vacuums, they’re perfect for cleaning hard floors, stairs, and carpets. Expect them to take out dirt, dust, and crumbs.


Typically, canister vacuum cleaners from leading brands come with HEPA filters. These are high-efficient filters that can capture smaller particulates that the vacuum bags may miss. Interestingly, these particulates are the ones that cause acute allergies and asthma attacks. As we mentioned earlier, HEPA filters can capture up to 99.97% of these impurities. 

Noise levels

Though indeed, all vacuum cleaners generally make noise, canister vacuum cleaners can tone down the noise levels a little bit. The quietest upright vacuum cleaners run at around 70 decibels while canister vacuum cleaners can operate in the 60 to 65-the decibel range.


The main purpose of attachments is to make the vacuum cleaning process more efficient and to create more sterling results. Some of the basic attachments you’ll find in a vacuum cleaner include the following:

  • Upholstery tool –  Used for catching lint from sofas, chairs, and mattresses. 
  • Crevice tool –  Helps vacuum corners, vents, and spaces between sofas through its skinny and angled tip.
  • Dusting brush – 
  • Extension wand – Provides more reach for cleaning ceilings and spaces behind appliances.
  • Dusting brush – A round brush with soft bristles perfect for cleaning blinds, lampshades, windowsills, and picture frames. 

Canister-specific tools:

  • Bare floor brush – A narrow tool with soft bristles used for cleaning tile and hardwoods.
  • Motorized brush head – A.K.A. the “power nozzle,” this tool features a rotating brush for cleaning carpets.
  • Ceiling fan attachments – Used for cleaning the top of the fan blades and between the blinds.
  • Pet groomers – A special comb that lets you vacuum your pet dog.

Performance and Reliability

Because of their powerful motors, durability, and multiple attachments, canister vacuum cleaners are generally good and reliable performers. They also feature top-notch filtration systems that benefit families and people who are sensitive to different kinds of allergens. However, since not all vacuum cleaners are created equal, it is best to check the track record of the brand you’re looking to buy. 

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