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The Better Vacuum: Upright or Canister?

Helping You Choose the Right Vacuum for Your Home

By Kris Jensen-Van Heste

Q. What is the difference between an upright and canister vacuum, and how do I know which one is best for me?

A. An upright has both the motor and the suction head in one unit that's pushed in front of the user; a canister comprises a wheeled body that's pulled behind the user, who holds a hose and nozzle. As with politics and religion, though, there's no right or wrong answer to the canister-or-upright question; it's a matter of needs and personal preference. We'll look at the pros and cons of each design and let you decide.

Canister Vacuums

The good:
Maneuverability is at the top of the list for canister proponents, who like the ease of vacuuming under coffee tables and other low-profile furniture - a difficult or impossible task with a traditional upright model.

Canisters are generally compact and lightweight, making them ideal for toting up and down stairs. Because the bulk of the cleaner's weight is in the canister itself, using one is not an arduous chore. A relatively lightweight head - whether motorized or not - at the end of the hose and wand is extremely easy to push across bare floors as well as deep-pile carpet, and because only the head travels, it can go where no upright can go.

Another advantage is that even the tightest quarters can afford storage for the canister vacuum, which can stand on end and take up no more than four cubic feet of space, tucking neatly into a small closet and not impinging on hanging coats. These days, most canisters come with retractable cords, eliminating the tiresome task of wrapping the cord around the unit to store it.

The bad:
Canister critics object to hauling the unit along behind them, claiming it requires more energy to tug the canister along than to glide an upright ahead of them. They also cite the occasional Achilles attack and the dings in furniture legs that come from too vigorous a tug on the hose. Canister vacuums usually include separate heads for carpet and bare floors, requiring a manual change. In general, you'll pay more for a canister vacuum than for an upright vacuum of similar quality.

Upright Vacuums

The good:
Upright proponents love the convenience of sliding the vacuum out of the closet, gliding it over the floors and stowing it away again. Self-propelled models make the job even easier both in forward and in reverse.

You can easily find an upright that incorporates the reach and maneuverability of the canister with a long hose and attachments that clean upholstery, reach under furniture and into corners and even clean bare floors without the traditional upright kickback of dust and debris onto your feet. A good number of uprights available today feature telescoping hoses that reach 15 feet and more - enough for most staircases.

The majority of uprights transition between a beater head for carpets and a static suction for bare floors with just the tap of a foot switch. People who have difficulty bending over to use a canister prefer the ease of emptying an upright, whether it's a bagged model or a newer bagless version. Generally, an upright bag will hold more debris than a canister bag, saving time and money with less frequent bag replacement.

The bad:
Uprights are less able to reach into tight spaces, but the detachable hoses with specialty attachments all but negate this complaint. Also, while it does have a small footprint, the upright vacuum's waist-high handle protrudes into closet hanging space that some folks can't spare.

Perhaps the upright vacuum's greatest flaw is its sheer bulk, making it harder to carry up and down stairs - especially for the frail.

Which One is Right for You?

When deciding between an upright and a canister vacuum, weigh your needs and your preferences. If you'll be carrying the vacuum up and down flights of stairs, a compact canister may be the best choice for you - but don't discount the lightweight uprights if you're unsure. Do you want the vacuum in front of you or behind? Is a retractable cord something you can't do without?

The best way to decide is to try different models yourself and see what suits your physical abilities as well as your cleaning needs. Many stores have demonstration areas set up for customers to do side-by-side comparisons; try them all so the vacuum you choose is right for you.



Read More About Vacuums

Before You Buy a Vacuum
How to Buy a Vacuum Video
Vacuum Power Head Basics
Vacuums & Floor Care Resources & Reviews
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