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Deciding Between Backpack Vacuum Cleaners and Other Designs

Updated on August 9, 2009

There seem to be a lot of sparks and fizzles in the technology universe. Something hot is introduced to (and embraced by) the masses one day, sells like hotcakes for a while and then fizzles out into obscurity. Often, that's a good thing. But every now and again, a good idea comes along and flies either right under the radar completely or sputters out before it really gets off the ground. One such item is the backpack vacuum cleaner.

Consider what backpack vacuum cleaners offer that their canister and upright cousins don't. Their weight is taken up by the strongest parts of your body. They can go anywhere. The only thing you have to push around is the very light nozzle. But do you see them used in homes? I think I could knock on 100 doors in my neighborhood and not find a single person who owns one of these devices.

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Now the strange part is that if you work in a large office building (as I do) and get stuck there late (as I often do) you'll notice that the cleaning crews use nothing but backpack vacuum cleaners. I was watching them work last week as we crunched for a proposal deadline and found myself pondering why a group of professionals elect for one design while us amateurs at home opt for other designs entirely. Surely one of us is wrong, right?!

Well, no. The problem with canister, backpack or upright designs is that they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Why we don't Choose Backpack Vacuums

Upright vacuums such as the Dyson model pictured seem to represent the US standard. These all-in-one units cater to the self contained crowd who want quick access, no assembly and quick use. That just about covers all of us. These things do great for tidying up a room or hallway and only become a nuisance when having to go up or down stairs. Or when having to vacuum stairs, for that matter.

Canister vacuums have the closest in similarities to backpack vacuums. The canister, which houses the motor and collects the dirt, stays on the ground with these models and is dragged around behind the person doing the cleaning. I once considered these to represent the epitome of annoying but purchased one recently for vacuuming stairs and I've never looked back at upright models since. When you consider that the bulk of the vacuum sits on the ground and is pulled around, the weight you actually have to manage when vacuuming (the hose itself) is feather-light. Unfortunately, my opinion of canister vacuum cleaners isn't universally shared in our home.

My wife loathes our canister vacuum. She tends to slam the canister into walls and corners as she drags it around the house. Though I don't have that problem myself, I can see the frustration if you don't take the time to pay attention to where the canister is behind you as you vacuum.

Back to the backpack vacuum, it's only real drawback is that, unlike the previous designs mentioned, you actually have to carry the weight of the vacuum on your back as you do your work. It's that reason (and perhaps the inconvenience of putting the thing on and taking it off) that seems to turn consumers off. But there's a lack of critical thinking at stake here.

Where Backpack Vacuums Shine

Backpack vacuums aren't all that heavy to begin with, but when you consider how you're carrying that weight, it's easy to forget you even have the thing on. I routinely hike with a 60-70 pound backpack through wilderness terrain. Walking around a house with a meager 8-10 pounds for 10-15 minutes is barely noticeable. Furthermore, the inconvenience of strapping on and taking off the vacuum is blown out of proportion. It takes seconds to do. But that still doesn't speak to the strength of backpack vacuums.

Where backpack vacuums shine is on large jobs. That's why professional cleaning companies use these almost exclusively. Once on your back, the only thing you really need worry about is the power cord. A cleaning crew can meticulously clean massive areas while barely breaking a sweat. Try doing that while lugging a stand-up or canister vac around.

At home, backpack vacuums would best be applied to big cleaning efforts. A small apartment or quick one-floor cleanup is probably best served by stand-up or canister vacs. But if you're undertaking a real cleaning effort such as a top-to-bottom cleaning prior to guests coming over to dinner, a backpack vacuum is hands-down the best option. That's particularly true in multi-level homes. Simply do all your dusting and scrubbing in advance, leaving the vacuuming for last. Then strap on the backpack vacuum and move from room to room, level to level and get the work done in one fell swoop without having to man-handle a vacuum up and down flights of stairs.

Speaking of stairs, they're a real breeze with backpack vacuums. We have pets and carpeted stairs so you can imagine we often have to vacuum our steps. It's a nightmare with an upright and a relative pain with the canister vacuum which has, on more than one occasion, slipped from its spot midway up a flight of stairs and gone tumbling down to the bottom. In fact, there's a nice big hole in the drywall at the bottom of our stairs due to the latest such incident.

So before you follow the herd and automatically opt out of backpack vacuums for home use, stop and consider your situation. If you have large areas of carpet or multiple levels to clean and tend to do your cleaning in big sessions rather than spreading the work out over multiple small sections, a backpack vacuum may just be the solution you've been overlooking for years.

Do we love our technology too much?
Do we love our technology too much?

Speaking of vacuum cleaners...

Speaking of vacuum cleaners, this post inspired me to wonder how good all this convenient technology is for us. It does discuss vacuum cleaners but only as a vehicle to make a point about our unhealthy love-affair with technology.

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