We Spent a Weekend With Dozens of Vacuum Enthusiasts. Here’s What We Learned.


If you were going to design the ultimate destination for vacuum enthusiasts, it would probably look a lot like Mid Missouri Vacuum, a store and repair service that doubles as a vacuum museum.

Each Saturday, visitors can tour the museum and gape at more than 600 colorful vacuum cleaners from the last 150 years. The oldest, from 1879, is charmingly named Little Witch. But as is the habit of witches, it didn’t hang around for long.

Mid Missouri Vacuum is also the location of the annual Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club Convention, where dozens of vacuum enthusiasts gather each year to test, compete, talk shop, and marvel.

The museum’s owner, Tom Gasko, is an amiable 61-year-old whose legs and arms are covered in tattoos, including, notably, several artistic interpretations of old vacuum logos. Gasko serves as an expert guide and father figure for a tight-knit group of younger collectors who come from across the country to mingle at the convention.

I spent a fantastic September weekend at the Rolla, Missouri conference, along with senior visual designer Dana Davis, who produced the visuals in this article.

Snapshots from our voyage. Photos: Dana Davis, Sabine Heinlein
A collection of six images detailing our staff's first day voyage and visit to Mid-Missouri Vacuum.
Overview of day one. Photos: Dana Davis, Sabine Heinlein

After losing the electric broom competition to Russ Riddering, who traversed the country for the 10th time to attend the convention, we turned our attention to gathering wisdom from other attendees.

Blue sticky note with a drawing of a checklist on a clipboard next to a pencil.

Know what you need, and ask yourself pertinent questions

A tiny apartment with wood floors and a couple of area rugs might be fine with a stick vacuum, such as the Ryobi 18V One+ HP Cordless Pet Stick Vac or the Dyson V12 Detect Slim.

A 2,000-plus-square-foot house with wall-to-wall carpeting, pets, and children might be better off with a high-end corded machine, such as a model by SEBO or a Miele, both of which make repairable vacuums that will last you a decade or more.

Much also depends on your physical strength, cleanliness standards, and ergonomic preferences. Our guide to upright and canister vacuums provides further guidance on how to choose a model that fits your needs.

Take it from Gregory Palmer, the proprietor of Empire Vac in Syracuse, New York, who is a vacuum enthusiast and expert.

“My parents literally told me situations where I would go after the baby powder to purposely start to force them to get the vacuum cleaner out of the closet,” he said.

Bubbly and eager to educate, Palmer said he peppers customers who enter his store with questions about their floor-care routines. Do they have carpets, bare floors, or both? Do they put padding under their rugs or carpets? Do they have kids or pets? How many floors does their home have?

“Based on those questions, I’m literally computing and calculating in my head what would be the best vacuum for this particular customer,” Palmer said.

Here’s some advice on finding the right vacuum for you:

Deciding on the best vacuum for your cleaning needs

Chart comparing the pros and cons of four of our vacuum picks.
Illustration: Dana Davis
Yellow sticky note with a drawing of a person.

Your grandma’s old machine may be better than what your local big-box store offers

After the collectors blew our minds with a floating vacuum cleaner (video) from the 1970s, they informed us that, unlike other appliances, vacuum cleaners haven’t improved much over the years.

Many of the features of newer machines are gimmicks that have little effect on their cleaning power, they said. And consumers should ask themselves if a bagless stick vac’s colorful digital display, for example, offsets its inferior filtration or efficiency.

Robert Clow, a service specialist at Mid Missouri Vacuum, said that bagless vacuum cleaners can get clogged and lose suction so easily that they require more passes than you would take with an older, bagged machine.

Collage of three snapshots from our visit to Mid-Missouri Vacuum store, repair service, and vacuum museum.
Photos: Dana Davis, Sabine Heinlein

Repairability and the availability of parts are also factors to consider. Clow sees a lot of broken stick vacuums, only some of which can be repaired. But even with high-end machines, “I’d still pick the older Hoover over the newer Miele because of the way it was made and the ease of changing the bags,” he said.

Even brands like Hoover and Bissell, whose cleaners were once made to last a lifetime, aren’t quite what they used to be, the convention’s attendees said. Our latest testing confirmed this assertion. Once made from durable metal with parts that could be repaired or replaced, they are now made almost entirely from plastic, which tends to break more easily. Hoses crack, and replacement parts may not be readily available.

That said, vacuum cleaners have become lighter and more convenient to operate thanks to the introduction of plastic, and experts generally agree that today’s higher-end, bagged vacuums have better filtration, leading to improved home air quality. We recommend the upright SEBO Felix Premium and the SEBO Airbelt K3 Premium canister vac. Both come with excellent filtration, are comfortable to use, and feature a 10-year warranty that will help ensure your machine doesn’t end up in a landfill after a couple of years.

The repair specialists told us that many newer machines have brush roll issues, and manufacturers often make it purposefully hard to replace parts. To exchange the roll (video) on a Shark Navigator, for example, you now need a Torx, or star, security bit, and each Shark cleaner head requires a different size of the tool. (We still think the Navigator is the best machine you can find under $200, albeit with caveats.)

“Newer machines—you buy them, you use them … and then you toss them,” said Mike Migliorino, a collector who specializes in canister and robot vacuums. “It’s about how to make a vacuum cleaner that we can sell for high profit. It’ll last just a few years so we can sell you another one. Nobody would ever sell a vacuum cleaner that lasts 100 years.”

Pink sticky note with a drawing of a piggy bank.

It’s worth investing in a good vacuum

Collage of three images of vacuum enthusiasts.
Photos: Dana Davis, Sabine Heinlein

Stefan Norris, a collector and repair specialist from Tennessee—and at 24 years old, one of the youngest experts we spoke to—told us that a $200 machine from a big-box store or Amazon is only a good deal on paper. We agree.

“People don’t know about longevity,” said Norris, adding that for about $600 you can get a great machine that’ll last for years.

Apart from saving money in the long run, investing in a vacuum is better for the environment, said Owen Perkins, the proprietor of Central Vacuum and Dupage Vacuum in Naperville, Illinois. “And a better-quality vacuum cleaner gives you a better user experience,” he explained. “Even if you spend the same amount of money buying one $1,000 vacuum as you do buying ten $100 vacuums, you get to use a much nicer machine the whole time.”

Orange sticky note with a drawing of a pair of gloves and a can of pressurized air.

Prioritize basic maintenance

A major pet peeve among repair specialists is that vacuum owners don’t often maintain their machines adequately.

“They should know how to put the bag in properly and, if it’s a bagless machine, where the filters are,” said Clow. He added that people should familiarize themselves with how to remove and clean the filters, and they should have an idea of when it’s time to replace them. Read your model’s manual, since each manufacturer has slightly different recommendations.

Robert Clow also recommends cleaning your brush roll regularly: The build-up of debris and hair can flatten the bristles and jam the brush roll, making it harder for the motor to operate and reducing its life expectancy.

How to care for your vacuum

Illustration of an upright vacuum detailing four important elements for taking care of a vacuum.
Illustration: Dana Davis

Another unorthodox piece of advice we picked up is to listen to your machine—literally.

“People should know what their vacuum sounds like while it is working,” said Clow. If you’re attuned to your vacuum cleaner’s hum (SEBO) or blare (Shark), you may be able to intercept an issue before it inflicts further damage.

If something sounds off, check for clogs, clean your filters, and make sure the brush roll isn’t blocked.

Purple sticky note with a drawing of a love heart with a vacuum inside.

Love your vacuum

A collection of six images detailing our staff's second day visit to Mid-Missouri Vacuum.
Overview of day two. Photos: Dana Davis, Sabine Heinlein

Can you fall in love with a vacuum? Apparently so!

Before leaving the convention, attendees played our game of Mad Libs vacuum trivia, in which we had participants fill in missing words from our guide to cordless stick vacuums. The winner, who also happened to be the youngest attendee, immediately measured the suction of his trophy: a mini desk vac we had brought from New York. Love was in the air. Again.

Mike Migliorino recently fell for an upright vac. The design of the SEBO Felix Premium (one of our picks in our guide to upright and canister vacuums) is “ingenious,” he said. He brought it with him to the convention, all the way from St. Louis, to show it off, and even offered to introduce us to his new obsession in his hotel room. (We politely declined, and he brought his new love with him the next day instead.)

Tom Gasko, the event’s organizer, took a nostalgic approach when talking about his collection. “I’m just happy to get these machines in beautiful shape where they’ve actually been cared for by somebody,” he said, smiling gleefully. “The scratches and things like that, those are just like wrinkles on an older person.”

Others, too, spoke tenderly about their vacuum cleaners. “Sometimes I put the hose up to my ear so I can hear the grit go through,” Clow confided. “It’s very satisfying because you’re getting stuff off the floor. It’s my zen. It’s relaxing for me to vacuum.”

This article was edited by Ingrid Skjong and Ben Frumin.





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