Space abhors a vacuum, but I still want one that works
December 14, 2013 7:47 PM   Subscribe

Please explain to me some things about central vacuum systems and/or steer me towards some good reference materials. I can find tons of websites by googling, but having a really hard time wading through thinly veiled advertising for real unbiased info. Especially concerning replacing the vacuum unit of a pre-installed system.

Our house includes all the piping and inlets for a central vac system, but the vacuum unit itself is still the original that was installed in 1969. We've never really used it. For one thing, a previous owner has made some notes on it that its wiring is dubious.

So. We're thinking about replacing the unit and getting the system up and running, but everytime I sit down to shop for one, I realize how clueless I am about this whole sort of thing.

First, concerning the pipes and inlets, my relatives have a system that is always on (?) and activates whenever they open an inlet. Would it be impractical for us to make our already installed ports work like this (are the inlets wired or do they work remotely somehow?)

Second, how do we choose a unit? Is there a go-to brand? I searched AskMe for other central vac questions, and Sears came up as a good brand but for older systems. Are they still the leader in this area? It seems from the other questions that it matters where the unit would be -- we have a good sized unfinished basement where the current unit lives now - it looks like the old unit just exhausted into the basement, but it would not be a big deal to have it exhaust from where it is to the outside.

Third, is this something that we can just buy and plug in to an electrical outlet? I am confused as to what the previous owner was doing with the wiring of the current unit, since there is an outlet right near where the unit is. Also, how complicated is it to integrate the unit with the air pipes? We are intermediate DIYers; we change light switches and futz with the plumbing so we're not clueless but we also try to stay away from things that could veer into DANGERLAND.
posted by Tandem Affinity to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have had one experience with these things, not positive.

The unit was in a small office building... 9,000 square feet. The company built machines. It had electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, pump and construction expertise. How it worked has nothing to do with a lack of in-house capability. This was a mechanical engineering outfit.

It had a multi-horsepower motor. At best, the system was mediocre and still required the movement of a hose system from room to room. It was no more convenient than a canister vac, and arguably less so due to having to go to the basement and change filters when that became necessary. Of all the things I would add to a residence, this is close to the bottom. The bottom would be an indoor pool. (Which I also once owned. Ick.)

If you get a clog in the system, it is a bitch to clear. The twists and turns and angles and interior surfaces beg to get hairpins, paper clips, fiber, etc. stuck. All of the non-used outlets have to seal properly for the one in use to work well. Then there is power distribution for accessories, like powered brushes. On paper, it's a good idea, but you couldn't give me one. The closest I can come to these is the vacuum at the car wash. Big, yes. Effective? Meh.

Ask yourself... in this age of wealth, when people can have nearly anything they want, why is this not an item that everyone has?

My fave device is a back pack vac. When i want to do serious vacuuming, it's my go to machine. Headphone/earplugs required, but they do suck, they do. And well.

If you are thinking about spending money on a centralized system, even just restoring it to operational status, and you need outside expertise, you'll spend more than the $500 a good back pack vac will cost.
posted by FauxScot at 3:22 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have to chime in and say that I agree with FauxScot. It's a total PITA to lug around the hose and attachments- it's just like lugging around a regular vacuum. Back in the day they were nice because they generally exhausted outside and that helped with dust control/allergies versus regular vacuums. Today, vacuum/filter technology is so good that there's no point in the central vacuum (my opinion anyway).

The only place in my house that I would want one is the kitchen as a 'toe kick vacuum' to handle the debris from sweeping, but you can find free standing ones on Amazon for about $100.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:17 AM on December 15, 2013

My experience is with woodshop dust collection systems rather than built-in home vacuums, but it's got to be basically the same thing. Having learned enough about it to design a woodshop system, the whole idea of doing this in a home seems nuts to me. Overcoming friction and turbulence in the pipes between the vacuum unit and the end of the hose consumes a lot of energy, necessitating a bigger blower motor and creating more noise (albeit in a different part of the house) than a standard vacuum. Flexible hose is the worst for this, because its interior surfaces are so bumpy, and of course you have to use enough flexible hose to reach from the outlet to every corner of the room, i.e. a lot of hose and a lot of wasted energy and extra noise. If the system isn't powerful enough then air velocity will be too low, the vacuum won't be able to pick up larger particles, and things it does pick up will be prone to drop out of the airstream in slower spots along the way, creating regular clogging problems. I'm as sure as I can be, without having direct experience in precisely this area, that an in-home vacuum system is one of the dumbest ideas ever.
posted by jon1270 at 6:19 AM on December 15, 2013

We have a new-ish system, and, as you can imagine reading the above responses, it has both its virtues (well, one virtue) and its flaws. In terms of your questions:

1. It's not really always-on. At least on ours, there is a circle of metal on the...uh...plug-into-the-wall bit, and the system won't come on unless that is firmly seated, correctly oriented into the outlet in the wall. So no worries about the cat accidentally getting pulled through.

2. I'm not sure how you choose a unit...Consumer Reports? We have a local vacuum store that sells several different brands, so they're not wedded to selling any one particular line, so they often can offer us good advice. Maybe you have something similar in your area?

3. The unit itself plugs into the wall (if it's anything like ours), but there is wiring that goes along the tubes to the vacuum outlets to tell the unit to come on.

Just to second something jon1270 said above, we have an issue where our living room outlet doesn't really work, and the way the piping is set up, all the dirt goes to that outlet, and kind of sits there. You can go pop the outlet open and all the dirt is sucked away...but if you pop the outlet open when there's no suction, you just get a huge pile of dirt on the floor.

Also, our unit empties into a bucket, which seals onto the unit really well, but there is no clean way of emptying the bucket. Just the act of unbuckling it from the unit causes it to drop dust everywhere, and...well, it's just kind of nasty, and I'm glad it's in the utility room.

It is no more portable than a good canister vac. I've sworn by our Miele for years...and it was much easier to cart around the house, than this hefty 25 feet of tubing, cords, and attachments.

On the upside, it's really, really good at the actual vacuuming. We have no complaints there. Actually, that's probably the only positive about it. Good vacuums are not hard to find, without having to get some big expensive unit installed.
posted by mittens at 7:03 AM on December 15, 2013

We installed a central vac as part of a remodel. The central unit just plugs into a wall outlet in the basement, with a regular 3 prong outlet, and there are pairs of low-voltage wires that are part of each of the vacuum outlets in the house that run back to the central vac unit.

The central unit is a model 560, H-P Products.

The low voltage wires serve two purposes: They allow the central unit to be switched on and off from each outlet, usually with a switch on the vacuuming head, and they allow low power operation of indicators and illumination. Since it's low voltage wiring, you can almost do no wrong with it: no permits are needed.

In terms of retrofitting your ports to automatic operation, it may be possible. I would certainly investigate it. If you replace the hose inlets in the house with something that support the low-voltage wiring signalling, and then provide the low voltage wiring, then the system shouldn't care what conveys the actual vacuum from the central unit to the hose inlets. This work involves a splice between existing vacuum line and the new fixture that you see on your wall.

The cost of retrofitting the hose inlets is dominated by the fact that they are already built into the walls (or floor, perhaps). Access to the fittings will determine the cost. Where is the unit located, attic or basement? Are your inlets in the floor or in the wall? Can you get to them without tearing out drywall?

We have dog hair, and a gravel driveway, and mud and firewood and wood ash for the system to contend with, and it does fine (although the combination of kindling splinters and long human hair create wads that have to be removed from the vacuum heads from time to time).

Actually, it's better than fine. It's great.

There's no hyperfine (sub 2.5 micron) dust emitted in the house: it is all vented to the outside. It's quiet: the vacuum unit is in the walk-in crawlspace, so that greatly reduces the noise. It's powerful: we routinely suck up pea gravel and larger from some of the gateway outdoor spaces (it'll suck up pennies, but we try not to do that). It's convenient: the hose is relatively flexible, and is no more difficult to manage than a cord on a regular vacuum cleaner, and the setup and takedown is fast. It's easy to empty: bottom half of the central unit detaches, is covered with a plastic garbage bag, and inverted; with skill, you don't even get any on you. We empty it about 3 times a year.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a central vac. I love it. It's an older (circa 1990) Electrolux 1590. It came with the house.

I can't say how to pick a new one - but I've done maintenance on this one, and it is a pretty simple setup. Newer ones may have more options.

If pipes are in place, you can probably buy a new plug-in ready motor. It will need to be mounted to the wall (it should come with brackets and instructions), and I assume the pipes will be the same diameter.

Ours has two low-voltage wires that come out and "connect" with each wall socket. When you plug the hose it, it completes the circuit for those two wires, and that trips a relay to engage the vacuum motor (ie turns it on).

You can easily test if those wires are working correctly on your own (assuming you own a multimeter and understand basic electricity.. ).

I have not had any of the problems other folks have listed. I did have a problem vacuuming up a ton of pine needles one year (the last year we had a real Christmas tree.. ), that caused a clog.

I think the biggest complaint would be cost. I'd love the hose to be maybe 5' longer, but the hoses are expensive, the attachments expensive, the units expensive.

I find it just as easy, if not moreso, to use than a typical canister or upright vacuum, and a lot quieter. Ours vents in the garage.

Yes, emptying the catchment is gross, but no more or less than a normal vacuum bag. Cleaning the filter is a bit more icky, but, really, not a big deal.
posted by k5.user at 7:06 AM on December 16, 2013

We had one of these in our last house. In most circumstances it was functionally equivalent to a normal vacuum cleaner -- carrying the hose around is no more or less convenient than carrying a vacuum around -- but there was one major advantage: we could clean out the fireplace by just vacuuming up the ash. Try that with a shop vac or household vacuum and you just fill the air with superfine dust and instantly clog up your filter, but with a central system it just vented out in the garage. And it was extremely satisfying to watch all that ash just go thwooop out of sight.

before the safety patrol comes to yell at me: yes I know that that's a fire risk if done while the ash is hot and that ash can stay hot for longer than you think especially when piled deep; we were suitably careful and nobody got incinerated
posted by ook at 7:06 AM on December 16, 2013

Wow everybody thank you for the wealth of information. These were exactly the kinds of answers I was looking for. And thank you for thinking of things I failed to mention, like the two woodstoves that we need to clean regularly. We currently use a shop vac and while it has a good filter and not too much dust seems to escape, it stinks and is always lingering nearby so that its handy.

Versus all the minuses that make a lot of sense to me...

Lots of food for thought...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:14 PM on December 18, 2013

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