For those of us allergic to mold and other common allergens, improving our home’s cleanliness, indoor air quality and controlling the flow of contamination into our indoor environments is essential to staying healthy. One of the most important tools to help with these goals is a good-quality vacuum with certified HEPA filtration. I think I actually use mine Every. Single.Day. I also think I have mentioned using it on the blog too many times to count. It really is one of the most important tools I have found to keep dust, mold, allergen, and bacteria counts down to a minimum in our home.
Today, I hope to help take the guesswork out of why having a vacuum with certified HEPA filtration is important, especially when mold is a concern, and to help you know what features you should look for if you are in the market for this type of vacuum. I also hope to impart some not so widely known facts about what a HEPA vacuum can and cannot do from an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) professional to help you make the most of this valuable tool.
Why a HEPA-filtered vacuum and not just a regular vacuum?
Well, first, it is helpful to consider what can be hiding in your air inside of your home.
In any indoor environment there exists an assortment of microscopic allergens, contaminants, and particulates that are known triggers for sickness and inflammation. For example, in most air samples from homes in the US, the following are present at levels with the potential to cause an assortment of illnesses including childhood asthma: pollen, dust, mold spores, dead skin cells, insect parts, VOCs from building materials, cleaning products, fragrance, carpet and rug fibers, and dust mites. These particles can easily become airborne in a variety of ways:
- The air movement from a person simply sitting down or standing up can generate about 2,500,000 particulates per cubic foot;
- The act of walking generates 10,000,000 particulates per cubic foot;
- Kids playing can stir up 30,000,000 particulates per cubic foot;
- And, sweeping and vacuuming can add billions of particulates into the air.
The only way I am aware of that can physically remove and prevent many of these allergens from being recirculated into the atmosphere and into the air we breathe is to suck them up via an air filtration system or unit or via vacuum. Unfortunately, most vacuum cleaners are not specifically designed to capture and trap these tiny particulates. Many commercial upright vacuum cleaners have specific components, such as the roller brush (which agitates the carpet), the airflow, and the lift created by the machine, which are sufficient to draw even the most minute allergens into the vacuum cleaner; however, these vacuums do not have sufficient filtration or airflow seal mechanisms to contain the particulates. Thus, allergens are sucked up, but can still escape and be blown back into the air we breathe. That is, unless the vacuum cleaner has a HEPA air filtration system efficient enough to capture these tiny particulates, and a true-HEPA design, able to keep them trapped within the machine.
What is HEPA-filtration?
HEPA is an acronym for High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance. True HEPA filtration is defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as a filter that can remove 99.97 percent of particulates down to 0.3 microns in size. How small is that? The average human hair is about 100 micrometers in diameter, that’s roughly 300 times the size of what a HEPA filter will trap. Another way to picture it is to think of a filter that can capture a particle about 500 times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Because of their design, HEPA filters are able to filter out all known asthma triggers from pollen grains to dust mite fecal pellets, most of which cannot be seen by the human eye.
Ian Cull, a licensed professional engineer, indoor air quality consultant, and author of over 50 IAQA University classes covering a wide range of topics including HVAC, building science, sampling and remediation and owner of Indoor Science, a training and consulting company specializing in indoor air quality based in Chicago, points out an important fact:
“HEPA must demonstrate a 99.97% efficiency at 0.3 micron particles. Despite the misinformation on the internet, HEPA is actually more than 99.97% efficient at particles smaller than 0.3 microns. 0.3 is selected because it is the hardest particle to remove.”
For most allergens, dust mite, and pollen particles, for example, the particles are bigger than 0.3 micrometers, and you don’t need a HEPA filter, as they are relatively “huge“ Also, any good vacuum cleaner should stop pet hair and dander. But, HEPA filters help contribute to a healthy home environment, even for those without allergies or asthma. A HEPA filter traps most bacteria, pathogens, microbial spores, tracked-in soil particles, combustion soot particles, some construction dust, and some virus particles (that are stuck on larger particles). So, although the level of filtration seems to be more than most of us need, from a health perspective, a HEPA vacuum can yield marked improvements. And more recently, epidemiological studies are even showing that small particles of less than a micron may be causing hypertension.
However, just having a vacuum with a HEPA filter will do little good if impurities escape the casing of the machine.
This is precisely why, for example, I don’t advocate for bagless HEPA-filtered vacuums. In order to clean a bagless machine, you must open the canister that contains everything you just sucked up. This releases particles back into the air where it can potentially cause an allergy issue. Honestly, why would you want to spend all of that time vacuuming, if you are just going to release dust to settle back on your floors and furnishings again? It seems like a lot of work for nothing. Thus, it is critically important to use a vacuum cleaner that is completely sealed—all airflow must pass through and be cleaned by the HEPA filter with impurities deposited into the machine’s high-filtration paper bags and not released into the atmosphere. This is a true-HEPA vacuum cleaner.
It is not only the casing of the machine that helps qualify it as a true-HEPA vacuum cleaner. The design of its components must also meet specific criteria. In order to qualify as a true-HEPA vacuum, it must pass inspection and not have faulty seals, tearing, spilling, and gaps in the vacuum cleaner body, hose, and conduit connections, all of which might allow contaminants to flow from the machine into the air, especially with the use and abuse most frequently used and dragged around vacuum cleaners take.
How exactly does a true HEPA-filtered vacuum work differently?
With a regular vacuum, air is sucked in through the cleaning tool. That air carries dust with it. If the vacuum cleaner has a bag, the air passes through the bag but traps the dust. In a bagless vacuum, even if there is a HEPA filter, the dust is trapped in the canister after passing through the filter. It is sort of like a coffee filter, where the water passes through, but the grounds remain trapped, so they don’t get into your coffee cup. Unfortunately, dust particles and mold spores can pass through non-HEPA paper vacuum bags, or non-HEPA sealed canisters. When the dust, mold spores, and allergen particles pass through the bag they go back through the blower and into your home, or leak from the canister, or the canister is opened to be emptied and everything you just vacuumed up is back in the air in your home.
With a certified HEPA vacuum, there is another filter after the blower. This filter allows air to pass through but traps any microscopic particles that escaped the bag.
According to the Healthy House Institute, “The most important features in a HEPA vacuum are the HEPA filter itself and how it is held in place. The filter itself should be made of a pleated, semi-rigid material held in a frame. The frame must be held tightly in place by an airtight gasket. The gasket prevents allergy-laden air from bypassing the filter. Some vacuum cleaners have flimsy, pleated paper filters that look like the material in legitimate HEPA filters; other vacuums have efficient filters in a rigid frame but the filter frame is not held tightly in place, so allergens pass around the filter instead of through it, and escape from the vacuum cleaner. A foam filter is not a HEPA filter.”
IAQ specialist Ian Cull suggests some additional things to consider:
“A HEPA vacuum is different than a vacuum with just a HEPA filter. The whole vacuum cleaner must be designed to prevent bypass. Look for vacuums that are labeled for use with lead, asbestos or mold. Also, a HEPA vacuum can remove any particle that gets sucked in. That includes mold spores, fungal fragments, bacteria, dust mites, pollen, and all other biological and non-biological particles. This makes HEPA vacuums great for deep cleaning, but they only remove what they suck in. If the motor isn’t powerful enough, or the particles are deeply embedded on a surface, they won’t get sucked into the vacuum and therefore won’t be removed. In addition, they don’t remove airborne chemicals. HEPA vacuums only remove solid particles. For example, HEPA vacuuming a surface with a bad odor probably won’t have a beneficial effect.”
Benefits of using a true-HEPA vacuum:
- There will be less dust in your home. Because a HEPA vacuum is able to capture more, fine, indoor dust, dusting cycles are reduced. Since I have started HEPA vacuuming my furniture, instead of dusting with a cloth, the amount of time I have to spend dusting has been significantly reduced. I only dust once a week now, whereas before, I was dusting up to 3 times a week to keep a layer from settling on our things. If you want to do a very non-scientific test for yourself on this, try to the “flashlight test” that I did in my post on dust.
- The air in your home will be cleaner. Each time you vacuum with HEPA filtration, you are further removing dust, dirt, mold and particulates from your indoor environment. Thus, you should see a reduction in allergy symptoms and a boost in overall health.
- Vacuuming will create less of an allergen disturbance and allergic issue in your home. Because a true HEPA vacuum not only sucks up dirt and dust, but also completely traps it, so that it cannot enter back into the air, the physical act of vacuuming will not create as much of an allergen disturbance, causing dust and particles to become airborne and fly around. Many people with mold-related and chronic illness have a difficult time cleaning, because the allergic reaction brought on by the cleaning itself overwhelms their bodies. Using a HEPA vacuum will lessen this effect, which makes for a healthier home.
- Your AC filter will do a better job of filtering allergens and pollutants from the air in your home and your ducts will stay cleaner. While your AC filter is capable of filtering all sorts of particulates from your air, it isn’t capable of removing settled dust from your floors and surfaces where it collects over time. Using your HEPA vacuum regularly to remove non-airborne dust and allergens is helpful, because what is not sucked up, is disturbed and lifted into the air, where it can be quickly and efficiently filtered by your HVAC system. Also, the sheer volume of dust in your home is reduced, so there is much less organic matter being sucked into your ductwork, where it can create future problems and indoor air quality issues.
How you vacuum can be just as important as the product you use. Carelessly attacking carpets can result in more dust being sent into the air than is collected by the vacuum cleaner. If you’re going to spend the money to buy a HEPA-filtered vacuum, you need to vacuum slowly and methodically.
- Cover each piece of carpet in an overlapping pattern.
- Start in the far corner of the room. Work the vacuum from one side to the other making sure that each piece of carpet is covered twice. The Healthy House Institute advocates for covering floors twice in this overlapping pattern, because in extensive studies done of vacuuming and the mechanism by which the vacuum works, the first pass draws dirt, dust, and particles upwards, and the second pass ensue that they are completely sucked up by the vacuum.
- Pay particular attention to corners and edges, using your vacuums attachments to get into your side-boards at least once a month. Dust and dirt congregates in the corners, edges, and “dead spaces” in rooms, because those areas get the least amount of foot traffic and air disturbance. Making sure to vacuum these spaces prevents this.
- Ideally vacuuming should be done twice a week but vacuum no less than once per week to keep your air as clean as possible. If someone in your family suffers from asthma, to reduce asthma symptoms you may need to do it more often.
When you begin using a HEPA-filtered vacuum, it will start to change the way you clean. You will soon discover that vacuuming is not just for floors. I’ve actually started using mine for just about everything and find that vacuuming, in conjunction with fogging or spraying surfaces with the EC3 Mold Solution Spray or EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate has all but eliminated my family’s allergy symptoms as soon as we step in the door of our home. Here are other ways I use my vacuum:
- Although you may not consider vacuuming the walls and ceiling of your home as routine housecleaning, you can actually significantly reduce the airborne toxins and chemicals in your environment with a deep clean by vacuuming them a couple of times a year.
- You can use a HEPA vacuum to address dust on virtually any surface, including stuffed animals, books, furniture, walls, ceilings, lampshades, cars, etc. In fact, using your vacuum to take care of “dusting” will ensure that the dust doesn’t continue to circulate the way it does if you use a rag to wipe surfaces.
My HEPA Vacuum recommendations:
- (Note: All of these recommendations are based on my research and use of the products. I have not been sponsored by or paid by any of these companies to mention or suggest their products. Any decision you make to purchase is your own. All vacuums I suggest are with bagged filtration systems. I have not had good experiences with any bagless vacuums I have tried. Also, the vacuums I suggest here are built to last, so they are an investment. I only selected vacuums that come with extensive warranties from companies with a history of customer service and that honor warranties, some for the entire “life” of the vacuum. Please do all of your own homework prior to purchase, nonetheless.)
- Miele Vacuum Cleaners – These vacuums are usually the top of the top as far as quality, bells and whistles, and performance is concerned. Miele vacuums are usually one of the most expensive, but useful HEPA vacuums on the market. Their vacuums have a completely sealed system but are relatively lightweight and easy to maneuver and operate. They offer both canister and upright vacuums.
- SEBO Vacuum Cleaners – These vacuums have a 3-step, hospital-grade filtration system. They offer both upright and cannister vacuums and a variety of attachments and add-ons for each model. The exhaust filters on these vacuums clean the air emitted by the vacuum itself. Their filtration systems are lab tested and have won awards world-wide.
- Cirrus Canister Vacuums – These vacuums are very lightweight and come at a much lower price point. One of their smaller canister vacuums retails for $99. It has HEPA filtration and is good for both hard floors and carpets/rugs. It also comes with lots of tools for crevices and upholstery. The company is smaller and not as well-known, though, so warranty issues are the only complaint I have heard from customers.
- Aerus Vacuums – This company makes a whole portfolio of products designed to clear the air, water, and floors of your home. They offer upright and cannister vacuums with completely sealed HEPA filtration systems. Their products have a great, modern look, cyclonic suction, and high-efficiency filters. You have to go through an authorized dealer, but their customer service is phenomenal.
Do you have a HEPA-filtered vacuum? Are you looking to get one for your home? I really think it worth the expense. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you have a topic you would like for me to address on the blog.
Hello Catherine- thank you for all your content. I wish I had discovered your blog sooner! Have you seen any of the new robo vacs that mop also? Ecovacs Deepot X1 Omni has a HEPA filter, auto-clean (via hot water… which means I could add mold EC3 concentrate) and auto-empty features. What are your thoughts on that to keep daily dust/debris at a minimum, and then also use a traditional HEPA vacuum 1-2x per week? We were out of our home for remediation and just moved back so I want to make sure we are doing all the ideal tasks to keep mold away… Thanks in advance!
I have not used a robo vac/mop combo before, but I don’t see anything wrong with using one, especially if you are going to use a seperate bagged HEPA vacuum for “dry” vacuuming. I also think the fact that you can add something like EC3 to it for wet cleaning is a big plus. Let me know how it goes. I would be interested in hearing if you like it and if you think it works well for cleaning.
Do you recommend that Miele vacuums used in a contaminated home not be brought back into the remediated space, even though they are sealed systems? We have two of them and hate to have to replace both.
You should be able to adequately clean it and bring it with you. All filters, bags, and possibly hoses will need to be replaced. The outside and inside of the vacuum will need to be wiped down with EC3 or peroxide.
I am grateful to have come across your blog. What are your thoughts on Shark Rotator Life-Away Professional, the NV501 model? One of the dual filters is HEPA. It seems to work fine to eliminate most of the dust and moldy spores attached to to surfaces. Would it be sufficient to trap mycotoxins and for vacuuming after fogging?
I don’t recommend any bagless vacuums. It must be bagged in order to truly seal dust and debris and to not risk re-exposure.
I have a question about saving a HEPA vacuum. If I have one in a mold contaminated home, can I save it by taking it apart and cleaning it with ammonia? All parts are metal or plastic and the hepa filter can be changed.
You can try. I wouldn’t use ammonia, though. I would use hydrogen peroxide or EC3 Mold Solution. The difficult thing is cleaning the parts you cannot reach like the hoses and attachments. If you clean it, make sure to experiment by using it outside in a garage or something to make sure you are not reacting to it before bringing it into your home.
I loved my Rainbow water vacuum before I ruined it with a scented oil in the pan that won’t come out years later.
What do you think of the Rainbow vacuums that use water to “tap allergens”?
I have not used one. I was told about them, but never sprung for one despite them being touted as great for allergies and here is why: Some studies have shown that opening the filtration compartment when you want to replace the water allows some of the bacteria collected from the airflow to be released back to the breathable air, and that countervails the whole point of having a 100% filtration efficiency rate. The experts I consulted suggested that HEPA filters are more efficient and more effective in the cleansing of the air. There was also the issue of emptying and cleaning it after each use which is problematic for me. I am so happy you asked, though. I had forgotten about water vacuums. 🙂