Portability vs. Power: Which is More Important For a Vacuum?

There is a nearly perfect inverted relationship between power and portability when it comes to vacuum cleaners.

By this I mean that if you want more power, you are likely to give up some portability, and if you want a more portable vacuum you will have to sacrifice on the power.

The hard part about this relationship is determining what you need most.

Advantages of Powerful Suction

Suction power seems like the obvious choice, mainly because it will determine how easily and how well you can clean.

If you have weak suction you might have to go over the same spot multiple times before you are satisfied that it’s clean. Of course, if your suction is too strong, you may run into difficulties when vacuuming rugs, mats, or sensitive floor surfaces.

The trick is to find that sweet spot based on your particular home needs.

Another important fact to mention is that if your suction is too weak, it will only get worse as your bag or dirt collection cup becomes more full.

The way a vacuum bag works is that the air is pushed through the sides of the bag, and filtered air flows back out the vacuum on the other side. Dirt cups work in a similar sense, so if you neglect the suction power on your vacuum, you may find that you have to empty the bag or cup a lot more often to maintain a high-powered machine.

When is it Most Useful?

Suction power is useful on any permanent surface:

  • When cleaning carpets, it’s equally as important to look for motorized brush rolls that will agitate the dirt so the suction can work effectively. Unless you are very patient and willing to vacuum the same spot over and over, you will want to have more power especially if you have thicker carpets.
  • When vacuuming hard floors, straight suction is great for making sure no dirt escapes. You don’t necessarily need the strongest suction for hard surface floors, but it won’t hurt to have, and could make it a quicker job.

When is it Less Useful?

When you’re looking to do small clean-up jobs, or to vacuum movable surfaces, an overly powerful suction can become your enemy:

  • Area rugs, mats, and delicate carpets, oh my! These three surfaces don’t do well under heavy suction. Area rugs and small mats tend to lift up under your vacuum if it is too strong. It can become very frustrating and difficult to clean without a hose attachment. Delicate carpets are those that will lose fibers with high powered vacuums. Over time you may find you have accidentally thinned out your carpet if you continue to expose it to such intensity.
  • Spot cleaning does not usually require such a strong suction. If you spill some dirt on the floor from a potted plant, or accidentally drop bread crumbs all around, power isn’t really required. These messes don’t have time to get deep into your floors if you clean them right away, so there’s no use in bringing out the big guns.

Advantages of Portability

It’s hard to argue that vacuuming can literally be a pain. For those that are used to dragging around a heavy upright vacuum, you may be looking for a break before you break!

A highly portable vacuum can be used for all manner of cleaning such as dusting blinds, ceiling fans, vacuuming the stairs, or even spider webs from the corners. It’s not limited to just basic floor cleaning.

Additionally, being able to maneuver around furniture and other obstacles can make vacuuming less of a chore.

When is it Most Useful?

Take out the small vacuum when you have a small job to do, or when time is not on your side:

  • Small, portable vacuums are great to have when you need to touch-up a “basically clean” surface. Rather than dragging out the unnecessarily high-powered vacuum, grab your lightweight and save yourself from wasting time and energy on a tiny job. Additionally, if you’re doing something other than whole-house cleaning, then you will probably do better with a more portable vacuum that will allow you to move around and complete the job with less strain.
  • If you’re going for a quick clean rather than a deep and thorough cleaning, you should look for more user-friendly and mobile vacuums. A heavy vacuum will most likely take longer to cover a room than a smaller one, and you may have to stop and move obstacles out of the way in order to vacuum around them, something you would not have to do with a small handheld machine.

When is it Less Useful?

If you’re planning on declaring World War 3 against the dirt in your home, don’t get too attached to your lightweight/handheld vacuums:

  • There’s not a lot more obnoxious than being able to see dirt on the floor without being able to make your vacuum cleaner pick it up. Sometimes, it can take multiple sweeps over the same area before it starts to even remotely look clean. Portability can mean sacrificing your brush roll head, making carpets nearly impossible to clean thoroughly; or, it can mean minimizing the power, which will cause you to work harder when there’s a large mess.

Which Type of Vacuum Do You Really Need?

So now that we have a good idea about what works best in each situation, let’s talk about how you can get what you need in a vacuum.

There are four types of vacuum cleaners, each one with it’s own advantages in the power versus portability arena. Here are the vacuum types to look out for, and their general characteristics:

  • Uprights: This is the traditional vacuum cleaner. The motor and suction head are all attached to the central body of the vacuum. Uprights are usually powerful vacuums with brush roll heads to clean carpets. They tend to come with a hose with wand and attachments to clean hard surfaces. Some of the recent models have become more maneuverable, but it is difficult to make one that will fit under furniture, or wheel around obstacles because of the need for everything to be on the body. Ideal for use on any carpets, these heavy vacuums make for easy storage and deep cleaning if you’re up for the task.
  • Canisters: A more recent development in the vacuum cleaner world, canisters vacuums have the engine and filters on a separate piece than the attached cleaning head, making them a lot easier to move around. Because of the separate engine design, you can get high powered suction from these vacuums to rival even the best uprights. While impressive for their capabilities, they can be a bit hard to drag behind you as you walk around the house. Additionally, they do not all come with brush roll heads, so you may have to have a separate attachment for this if you have carpets to clean. Ideal for use on hard surface floors and low pile carpets, but you may need to invest in the proper attachments to get full functionality.
  • Stick Vacuums: These are similar in design to upright vacuums, only much smaller and less powerful. You get the advantages of easy movement as well as flexibility of use, but you will have to deal with the lower suction power. Choosing a stick vacuum is great if you don’t have thick carpets in your house, as it will usually have all the suction you need for hard surfaces and small carpeting. Some models come with brush roll heads, but it’s not as common to find. You can buy these as cordless or corded too depending on what you plan to use them for.
  • Hand-held Vacuums: Since you’ll be carrying this around, the motor is not designed to be very powerful (although some of the top rated models these days pack quite the punch). Stronger motors cause machines to be heavier, so you probably don’t want to trade in your full-sized vacuum for a hand held model unless you have a small house or apartment to clean. Hand held vacuums are extremely convenient as an addition to your cleaning arsenal. They are easy to store and very easy to take out for small jobs. Most models are cordless, so you will also avoid the hassle of re-plugging for each room that needs cleaning.


Your need for power or portability changes depending on the type of house you live in and your current situation. Make sure you get what’s necessary to clean your house properly, and don’t get too caught up on giving up one for the other if it doesn’t suit your purpose. It’ll make your life a bit easier.

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