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How to Pick the Best Cordless Wet/Dry Vacuum

Friday February 21, 2020
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Whether you're new to tool ownership or you're an old hand, it's a great time to shop for a new wet/dry vacuum. We're in the midst of a power tool revolution, and almost every corded tool is getting revamped with lithium batteries. This improvement makes tools easier to use and more convenient to store. Wet/dry vacs have been swept up in this movement, and many manufacturers have taken the opportunity to rework the classic barrel design. On the whole, the results have been pretty awesome, making it nearly painless to clean a workspace or keep it from getting messy in the first place.

Quick and convenient clean-ups of both domestic and professional messes are the wheelhouse of these machines.
Quick and convenient clean-ups of both domestic and professional messes are the wheelhouse of these machines.

Background


Cordless wet/dry vacuums fulfill the age-old dream of making unwanted debris magically disappear. Well, almost. These vacuums are simple in design. They are basically a storage bin with a fastened lid. The bin has an air intake and an outtake. A filter and fan separate the intake and outtake, allowing dirty air to move into the bin and clean air depart, leaving the particulate matter behind. While this basic design is common to all shop vacuums, models vary in size, shape, suction, airflow, and hose dimensions. The attachment tools differ, too. While wet/dry vacs vary in design, the following article lays out all the reasons why one would pick a certain style of vacuum over another.

Step 1: Is a Cordless Wet/Dry Vacuum Right for You?


The first question we want to answer when looking at cordless shop vacuums is whether they match your needs. These units are fairly similar to one another in terms of runtime, capacity, and suction power. As a result, there is a somewhat narrow range in which these products will perform at a satisfactory level. What some might criticize as the limitations of cordless vacs are, in fact, a boon when used in the right context. The lightweight and small size of these machines make them well suited for cleaning tight areas such as cars, boats, trailers, closets, and shelving.

These machines thrive in tight spots and on the move cleaning.
These machines thrive in tight spots and on the move cleaning.

Cordless shop vacuums are also great for small construction or carpentry projects such as remodels where managing power tool dust is essential. Additionally, the ability to suck-up liquids makes cleaning spills as easy as flipping a switch. As such, these units are an excellent addition to a home cleaning arsenal. If space is an issue, the toolbox shape that most of these machines share makes them easier than ever to store.

Easy storage is a significant part of the convenience offered by the revamped shop vacuum design.
Easy storage is a significant part of the convenience offered by the revamped shop vacuum design.

If you intend to use one of these machines for large-scale construction clean-up or dedicated dust collection in a workshop, you will likely find them to be unsuited to the task. The convenience of the batteries will turn into a burden because they have a limited runtime. As an added annoyance, the small bin will require regular emptying. In such cases, a traditional plug-in shop vac will better satisfy your needs. Finally, these machines are no substitute for an upright vacuum cleaner. Most lack rigid extension tubes that will allow you to stand-up while working, and none have an agitator attachment.

Step 2: Compatibility


The next consideration with any battery-powered tool purchase is whether the new tool matches your existing battery tools. A workbench cluttered with a tangle of battery chargers from different manufacturers is at best annoying. Worse still is when, amidst the clutter, you can't find the right battery for the tool you need to use. It's better to match all your tools to one system, even if a few of the tools in your kit are not the top model in their particular tool category.

Committing to a battery system simplifies life significantly. All the tools seen here run off the same power source.
Committing to a battery system simplifies life significantly. All the tools seen here run off the same power source.

Committing to a matched tool system will not only save you time but also money as many tools can be purchased without chargers and batteries. With the money you save, you can get yourself a big battery charging bank that will ensure that you're never broken-down in the middle of a job. The key things to check before making a purchase are that the manufacturer and the battery voltage match what you already own.

Sawdust Collection
Many of the wet/dry vacuums on the market have adapters available for purchase that will match the hose up to other tools from the manufacturers. This option means you won't have to jerry-rig the vacuum hose to the tool with duct tape.

Step 3: Intended Use


The issue of intended use was touched on in Step 1. However, if you made it past that step, then you probably know that you are a good fit for a cordless wet/dry vacuum, and you want to get into the nitty-gritty details that separate one model from another. We discussed ideal uses for these machines, tasks like cleaning vehicles, smaller construction or remodel projects, dust collection, and cleaning up moderate-sized wet messes. However, we have yet to explain why some models perform better than others in these task categories.

Extension tubes are a rare accessory with cordless vacuums. If you need reach or want to stand-up while working  look for a model with this accessory.
Extension tubes are a rare accessory with cordless vacuums. If you need reach or want to stand-up while working, look for a model with this accessory.

Of chief concern is frequency and duration of use. If you intend to put one of these machines to work regularly, consider a model that has a larger capacity canister (models range from 2 - 3 gal), a long runtime, and a washable filter. These features will keep you on task because you won't have to replace filters, and the bin won't need to be emptied as often. Longer runtimes will mean less battery swapping as well.

The compact size and self-retracting hose make quick clean-ups in tight spaces a breeze. The PORTER-CABLE putting its crevice tool to work.
The compact size and self-retracting hose make quick clean-ups in tight spaces a breeze. The PORTER-CABLE putting its crevice tool to work.

If you are going to use your shop vacuum for cleaning between car seats, couch cushions, or in tight spaces in general, you should hone in on models that have high rates of suction and airflow, as well as those models that have narrow, elongated crevice attachments. Similarly, if you think that you'll be doing a lot of floor work, especially wet floor work — make sure the model you select has a proper floor nozzle that has grooves in the contact surface of the tool that allows air to flow when on a hard surface. Having extension tubes for this kind of work is nice, too, because it will enable you to stand up while working.

A Note on Vacuum Power:
Suction alone does not make for an effective vacuum. It's the combination of suction and airflow that makes a machine good at cleaning. Suction is measured in cubic inches of water lift and airflow in cubic feet per minute (cfm). It might seem counterintuitive, but a clogged machine will maintain its suction power, but with the airflow obstructed, it won't move debris from the floor up the hose and into the canister. When assessing a machine for vacuuming power, check both water lift and cfm.

Additional features of interest on cordless wet/dry vacuums are the blower function and auxiliary power cord. Several models offer an attachment for the hose on the air output of the unit, effectively turning the vacuum into a blower. If you don't need a compressor, it's an excellent option for pushing air in a pinch. Also, there is at least one model on the market that offers an auxiliary power cord that allows the unit to be powered from an AC outlet if needed. The power cord is an excellent option if you'll occasionally run the machine for prolonged periods.

Many of the vacuums can be turned into blowers by simply transferring the hose from the intake port to the outtake port.
Many of the vacuums can be turned into blowers by simply transferring the hose from the intake port to the outtake port.

Step 4: Health and Safety


Cordless wet/dry vacuums are generally considered safe power tools. However, the high-efficency particulate air filter is not standard on every vacuum model. Commonly referred to as HEPA filters, these devices are designed to remove particulates from the air that contribute to respiratory illnesses and allergies. If you are sensitive to dust or you will be working with the vacuum indoors, it pays to seek out a machine with a HEPA filter.

The Makita has an exceptional filtration system. The prefilter (light blue cloth and black foam) grabs much of the large debris  while the HEPA filter (white) captures the most harmful particulates.
The Makita has an exceptional filtration system. The prefilter (light blue cloth and black foam) grabs much of the large debris, while the HEPA filter (white) captures the most harmful particulates.

Conclusion


When shopping for a cordless wet/dry vacuum, it is important first to ask if the machine will fit your needs because they are best suited to smaller jobs. The next consideration is vac's compatible with your existing battery-powered tool kit. Better to have a matched system if you can as it saves time and money. Next, dig into intended use. The main factors here are canister size, vacuum power, and runtime. As the difficulty of the intended task increases, so too does the importance of these three factors. Last in order, but not in importance, is health and safety. If you are sensitive to dust or have allergies, it's a good idea to select a model with a HEPA filter as they are the best at removing particulates from the air. If you follow these four simple steps when shopping for a cordless wet/dry vacuum, you're sure to get the best fit for your needs.


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