Whether you’re faced with a mountain of fresh sawdust or a lake of freshly spilled water, the tool you’re going to reach for is the wet/dry canister vacuum. Also commonly known as shop vacuums, these handy workhorses are found in garages, shops and homes everywhere.

They’re also found in stores everywhere, in dozens of sizes, styles and price ranges, which can make selecting the best one for your particular home seem like a daunting task. So before your next shopping trip, use the following list to decide on what’s really important, and you should be able to narrow the field down pretty quickly.

Capacity: Probably your first decision is how big of a vacuum you need. Wet/dry vacuums are sized by gallons of tank capacity, ranging from 2 to 16 gallons. The smaller models are typically carried by hand and are great for vacuuming out the car or an occasional job in the living room, while the larger ones are castor-mounted for easy mobility and are much better suited to workshop and jobsite use.

Design and stability: As capacity increases, so does size and weight. So the design of the vacuum becomes important. Look for a vacuum that has smooth rolling casters and a wide base that provides both easy movement and non-tip stability. If you intend on rolling the vacuum around your shop or job site a lot, you might want to consider one with larger wheels in the back and casters in the front only, which is much easier and more stable to roll.

Noise: Noise level is a big factor in selecting a wet/dry vacuum, which tends to be irritatingly loud when you’re at the bottom of the cost spectrum and usually gets quieter as you step up in price. Rather than try and talk decibel levels, just ask the salesperson to turn on the display model for you, and have a listen for yourself. 

Ease of maintenance: Not all vacuums are created equal, especially when it comes to how easy they are to clean and what type of filter they utilize. Look for a pleated filter, which has a much greater filtering surface area than flat- or bag-type filters do. For convenience and cost-savings, you also want to look for a filter that can be rinsed and reused, and one that is readily accessible for changing and available when you need replacements.

Hose size: Since one of the main purposes of the wet/dry vacuum is to suck up things like wood chips, small construction debris, and other similar material, you want a hose that is large enough so that it won’t clog readily. Look for a hose that is at least 2 inches in diameter, and if you also intend to occasionally connect it directly to a tool with a smaller dust port then that, you should also look for one that has different sized hose adaptors available. Also, the hose should lock into the motor housing to prevent it from pulling out accidentally.

Plastic versus metal: Most of the vacuums you’ll see utilize drums and motor housings made from high-impact plastic, which save weight and cost and are also corrosion resistant for most common wet pickups. For commercial applications where wet pickups of contaminated materials happen more often, it might be worth the additional investment to step up to a stainless steel tank. You also definitely want a drum with a drain plug in it, which simplifies emptying fluids out of the tank. This is especially important on the larger models, or you’ll end up wrestling with a tank full of dirty water.

Blower conversion: If you want a vacuum that does double duty as a blower, look for a model that has a blower port. The blower port accepts the same hose that you use for vacuuming, and comes in handy for everything from blowing off sawdust to blasting leaves off the patio.

Auto-start: If one of the main uses for the vacuum will be to connect it to a tool such as a sander, you should consider buying one with an auto-start feature. With auto-start vacuums, you would first attach the vacuum inlet hose directly to the tool, and then plug the tool into a special outlet on the vacuum. Now, whenever you turn the tool on or off for use, the vacuum will automatically turn on and off with it.

Accessories: Finally, you want to consider what accessories come with the vacuum. In addition to the hose, most will include a wide utility nozzle and a smaller crevice tool. If the vacuum you want doesn’t include them, you can usually purchase other accessories and extension wands separately.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paul2887@direcway.com.

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