How It Works: Vacuum Cleaner

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From cleaning up the cat hair on the living room carpet to sucking up the remnants of the dry cereal which found its way onto the kitchen floor, a vacuum cleaner never remains idle for long. How does this “must-have” home appliance work and what are the reasons why it might not be working properly? That’s the subject of this week’s DIY Repair blog…

An invention that eventually sucked… fortunately

The invention of the vacuum cleaner can be traced all the way back to the turn of the last century when a British engineer named Hubert Cecil Booth pondered a way to improve existing cleaning machines that blew out air to push dust and debris away. Instead of simply dispersing the dirt, wouldn’t it be more efficient if a cleaning machine could pick the dirt up? In 1901, Booth debuted a cumbersome unit he nicknamed the “Puffing Billy”. Horse-powered (meaning horses were used to move the machine from location to location) and requiring trained technicians to operate the fuel-powered engine, the invention used suction to remove dust and dirt from homes or businesses via long hoses. The idea caught on and, two years later, Booth founded the British Vacuum Cleaner Company which eventually began manufacturing smaller, electric devices to suck up dust, dirt, and debris.

What might be considered the true predecessor of the classic vacuum cleaner was developed by an American janitor named James Spangler in 1907. Spangler’s device used an electric motor to turn a fan blade to create suction and it had a long broomstick-like handle with a pillowcase attached to collect dust. As ungainly as the device might have appeared, Spangler was able to sell his design to a man named William Hoover in 1908. Soon after, Hoover began manufacturing the vacuum cleaners in mass and his name is still synonymous with the product.

By the 1930s, all the components of the modern portable vacuum cleaner were in place. While the motors in today’s vacuums may run faster and the products are designed for greater efficiency, the basics of vacuum cleaner operation have generally remained the same for 90 years.

The basics of vacuum cleaner operation

Whether you’re using a classic upright vacuum, a canister vacuum, a central vacuum system, a wet/dry vacuum, or a hand-held model, the basics of how the product works remain relatively consistent. Ultimately, the device needs to suck.

When the vacuum cleaner’s start switch is activated, 120 volts of alternating current is sent to a motor that drives a suction fan and, if applicable to the vacuum model, a brush roll. When the motor is running, an area of low pressure behind the fan creates the suction needed to draw air through the intake port. The air carries dirt, dust, and debris through a hose and into a porous bag or a canister before the clean air exits through an exhaust port.

Vacuum cleaner bags must allow air, but not debris, to pass through in order for the product to function properly. Bagless vacuum cleaner canisters use a particulate filter to allow air to travel through the system while trapping large particles of dirt and debris. Before the air is exhausted, it travels through a fine air filter known as a HEPA filter to clean the air and prevent dust from recirculating back into the room.

From the opening behind the brush roll to the various hose attachments, vacuum cleaner intake ports will vary in size. As the size of the intake port decreases, the speed and strength of the air traveling through that intake port increases. This is why hose attachments with small intake ports can do a better job of picking up heavier debris than ones with large intake ports.

When using a vacuum cleaner on a hard surface such as wood or tile, the vacuum suction alone effectively draws the dirt and debris into the bag or canister. When vacuuming carpeting or rugs, the cleaner’s brush roll will increase efficiency by helping to dislodge the debris particles from the material being vacuumed. The brush roll is usually driven by a belt that is looped on the shaft of the drive motor. Some models allow the user to switch from hard floor care to carpet care by activating a lever that applies tension to the belt. If applicable, the vacuum cleaner will then engage or disengage the brush roll using a tension pulley.

Why isn’t the vacuum cleaner working properly?

Has your vacuum cleaner lost its suction? Does the brush roll refuse to spin? Here are some potential answers to these common vacuum cleaner problems:

Vacuum cleaner has no suction

  • The vacuum cleaner losing suction is often caused by a clogged hose. You should inspect the hose for excessive lint or pet hair and use a thin brush to help clean out the hose. One of the more commonly overlooked objects that clog vacuum cleaner hoses is Christmas tree needles. Yep, those same fir, spruce, or pine needles that always seem to make a mess of the living room by New Year’s can mess up the vacuum cleaner’s ability to suction.
  • The vacuum bag or canister may also be overfilled which can cause the vacuum to lose suction. Emptying the bag or canister every time you use the vacuum is a good habit to get into.
  • Suction problems can also be caused by one or more of the air filters becoming excessively dirty. Refer to the owner’s manual to learn the proper way to clean each of the filters. Old or damaged filters should be replaced with new ones.
  • Of course, suction problems can also be caused by a defective fan motor as well as a damaged fan blade or blower wheel. You should inspect the fan blade or blower wheel for damage and confirm the part rotates freely. If the motor isn’t working at all, you should first use a multimeter to test the on/off switch for electrical continuity to confirm that part is functioning properly. You can also use the multimeter to determine if power is getting to the motor. If power is getting to the motor, and the component turns freely, but won’t run, you’ll probably new to replace the old motor with a new one.

Brush roll won’t spin

  • If the brush roll will not rotate, it’s likely that the drive belt has broken or worn out. If the belt is intact, the brush roll or tension pulley may have seized and will require cleaning or replacement. Hair or string can get twisted around the brush roll during normal use and cause the brush roll to bind. Since this can also put a strain on the belt, you should inspect the brush roll regularly and clear any obstructions.
  • Since the motor drives the belt which, in turn, rotates the brush roll, a defective motor could be the cause of the brush roll not spinning. Again, check to see if the motor is receiving power and if the motor shaft rotates freely. If the motor shaft does not rotate freely, you should replace the motor.

Find genuine manufacturer parts for your vacuum cleaner at Repair Clinic

As your repair partner, Repair stocks genuine vacuum cleaner manufacturer parts from top industry names like Hoover, Eureka, Bissell, Electrolux, Dirt Devil, Oreck, and Panasonic. Enter the full model number of the vacuum cleaner in the Repair Clinic website search bar to see a complete list of compatible parts, including fan blades, blower wheels, brush rolls, drive belts, vacuum cleaner bags, air filters, and more. With a little assistance from Repair Clinic, you’ll have your vacuum cleaner back to sucking up dust and debris in no time.

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