Today’s hand vacuum has its origins in the Apollo space mission. Black & Decker engineered a small battery-powered model for the shuttles, then eventually brought the technology to the masses as a small machine for the workshop, called the Spot Vac. It was moderately successful, but soon reworked by the company’s legendary industrial designer Carroll Gantz and reintroduced in 1979 for the home as the Dustbuster. The small appliance revolutionized everyday cleaning and led to the birth of an entire category of small, hand-held machines that suck up dust and dirt.
Take a look below at helpful buying advice when purchasing your own handheld vacuum, then scroll down for more in-depth reviews of the top performers.
Features and Specs to Consider
All the vacs here are cordless, battery-powered models; the industry is definitely tilting in that direction. They’re fast and convenient. Leave them on the charger and they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice when something spills or you get the urge for a quick cleanup. Still, if you need more power for heavy-duty cleaning, generally a corded model will offer more motor torque (twist), which helps move more air and creates more suction. If you’ve got a lot of pet hair to cleanup or you need that extra power for professional cleaning, it’s an option you should consider. Otherwise, a bit more battery voltage is good, but you don’t need brute force. In general terms, 7 to 12 volts will pick up dust, it just depends on how quickly. Go with a 20-volt machine if you want cleaning speed or something to cross from the home into the shop and garage.
How We Tested
When we set out to test these vacuums, we cast a wide net and considered their capability in the workshop or garage as much as for what the various models can do around the house. So we called in products by power tool companies and we called in those by home appliance manufacturers. It was one of the more surprising tests we’ve run recently.
Our initial impression was that hand vacuums by power tool companies have a distinct edge because of their large and powerful motors (and their comparatively big batteries). But we learned that the functional advantage of that is actually quite small, especially when you consider that the bigger the motor and battery, the heavier the vacuum. And the dirt-carrying capacity of all these vacuums is rather small. Their container fills up so quickly that a few seconds more or less doesn’t amount to much more cleaning effectiveness.
After some experimentation, we devised a test material consisting of sawdust, wood shavings, floor sweeping compound, small machine screw nuts and washers, with a handful of dried kidney beans thrown in for good measure. We made up one pound of this concoction and poured it into a five-gallon plastic bucket. Next, we stuck the nozzle of the vacuum into the test debris and let the appliance go to work as we timed how quickly it filled up. (Small vacuums typically reached capacity in about eight seconds, while those with larger debris containers took about 20.)
Then, starting in our workroom and shop area, we vacuumed the floor, shelves, drawers, and various nooks and crannies. If the vacuum was equipped with accessories like a nozzle extension and a floor tube, we tried those out, too. We also tested every vacuum on carpet and hard surfaces. Here are the results.
Black & Decker Dustbuster HHVK515J
Weight: 2.6 lb. | Built-in Battery: Yes | Volts: 20 | Accessories: Nozzle slides out, but no accessories
Light, easy-handling, and plenty of power. Those were the three characteristics that helped this 20-volt Dustbuster ride to victory. It’s true that the Ridgid and Milwaukee vacs will outpower it, but the Dustbuster has more than enough oomph to get the job done. In fact, we think it’s an excellent product to cross among jobs in the home, the shop, or cleaning out the car’s interior. Its nozzle extends an additional 7.5 inches—all you have to do is pull it forward. Although we did notice that the sliding action of the extension is a bit sticky and coarser particles left scratches on it, it’s still a very helpful feature. Like its smaller 12-volt colleague below, the HHVK515J is also easy to empty and has low and high speed settings.
Black & Decker Dustbuster HHVK320J
Weight: 2.4 lb. | Built-in Battery: Yes | Volts: 12 | Accessories: Nozzle slides out, but no accessories
This may be only a 12-volt tool, but it has a surprising amount of power. The HHVK320J has two speed settings: normal and high (which will drain the battery more quickly, of course). Both provided the machine with enough power to handle our test debris or do the more typical tasks of cleaning out corners, picking up hair and dust and little tidbits of whatever fell on the floor. To clean it out, open the back latch and dump out the canister. It’s fast, and you’ll probably be surprised at what was in there. We thought that being a lower-voltage tool, it might have missed the metal in our debris mixture. It didn’t. Even if it works more slowly than the 20-volt HHVK515J, it seems to be about as thorough.
―GOOD FOR MINOR TASKS―
Weight: 1.8 lb. | Built-in Battery: Yes | Volts: 7.2 | Accessories: None
As we mentioned, this test proved battery voltage isn’t everything. Still, the Eureka clearly represents an earlier era in the development of handheld vacuums. Sure, it has enough power to pick up dust and tidbits, but that’s about all it can handle. It’s not effective beyond that. Yes, it sucked up the sawdust–slowly. It picked up some of the kidney beans but not any of the nuts, bolts, or washers. Clearly that strained the machine and that part of the test protocol was asking too much of it. You would turn to the NEH100 for modest cleaning and its light weight and low noise; this was the quietest of the vacuums tested. But if your cleaning needs are heavier in the home, shop, or garage, you need a more aggressive vac.
Weight: 5.6 lb. (with 3-AH battery, not included) | Built-in Battery: No | Volts: 18 | Accessories: extension tubes, hose, floor tool, crevice tool
Clearly the Milwaukee was the test’s outlier. It doesn’t look or feel like a hand vac. Really, it’s a power tool suited to hoovering up both wet and dry material. That shouldn’t be surprising, since Milwaukee builds tools for industrial and commercial users. This is a monster of a vac that whipped up our sawdust mixture, filling its big bin in 25 seconds–to the point that the debris in it was so compacted we had to scrape it out with a screwdriver. The big red 0882-20 comes with two slide-on extension tubes, a floor head, a hose, and a crevice tool, further boosting its utility. Our only beef with the tool is that it could use another trip through the industrial design department. Its large teapot shape gives it an unpleasing forward-weighted bias.
―SUITED FOR THE WOODSHOP―
Weight: 4.4 lb. (with 2-AH battery, not included) | Built-in Battery: No | Volts: 18 | Accessories: Extension tubes, floor head
The Ridgid is another powerful vac clearly intended for the workshop given it’s rated for both wet and dry debris. Yes, it can do double duty around the house, since an extension tube and floor attachment come with it. But it’s loud and powerful and kind of heavy, more at home with other power tools. And about its heaviness: Fortunately, that’s mitigated with a well-designed handle, which is covered with textured rubber that increases your grip. You’ll find it particularly useful if you use the R86090 to get the sawdust off overhead light fixtures.
Weight: 3.2 lb. (with 2-AH battery, not included) | Built-in Battery: No | Volts: 18 | Accessories: None
Ryobi’s version of the hand vac is slightly heavier than a Dustbuster but not as much as the Ridgid—we see it as a mid-duty hand vacuum that’s positioned and performs between those two. It’s suitable for work in the shop, in the garage, or vacuuming under the sofa cushions. Like the company’s power tools, this vacuum has excellent ergonomics. The textured grip surface,, balance, and proportions are all excellent. So there’s no sense that you’re handling a clumsy cleaning device here. Given that you can find one of these for about 30 bucks, that’s a fair amount of cleaning capability for your dollar.
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