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Health benefits, greater cleaning efficiency and affordable pricing are among the factors driving the steady growth in the number of central vacuum systems being installed in new and existing homes. Add to that, relatively simple installation, some clever equipment innovations and the convenience factor (no need to lug around a heavy vacuum cleaner), and it's easy to see why more and more homeowners are opting to install these systems.
There's a world of difference [between current models and] central vacuums of the 1970s, says John Coghlan, president of Beam Industries, which markets some of the biggest names in the central vacuum business, including Electrolux, Eureka and Beam brand systems. Coghlan cites such improvements as lower noise levels, more powerful and efficient units, and better functionality. In addition, he points to research indicating that a central vacuum system can improve indoor air quality and add to a home's value.
Throughout the industry, there's a full-court press to tell homeowners about the benefits of central vacuum systems, and the message seems to be getting through. About 10 percent of new homes built in the United States in 2003 were equipped with central vacuum systems. That number is expected to jump as high as 50 percent by the end of the decade. It's clear that, rather than being seen as luxury item, a central vacuum system is starting to be perceived as a practical appliance in the home, much like a dishwasher or microwave oven.
Updating Old Technology
Prototypes of the modern central vacuum system began appearing in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 50s and 60s that the idea caught on and systems became widely available. Unfortunately, those early systems had almost as many drawbacks as benefits. Most were excessively noisy and only marginally more efficient than a good upright or canister vacuum. Moreover, central vac equipment was pricey and bulky, and installation could be expensive, especially when retrofitting older houses.
Today, central vacuum systems have changed significantly, though the basic benefits are essentially the same. The system removes all dirt, dust and allergens by taking them to a central area away from the living space, which is still a good idea for both convenience and for health reasons.
In fact, central vacuum manufacturers are placing an even greater emphasis on the health benefits of their products, particularly in light of studies indicating that there's been a surprising increase in the amount of debilitating allergens and pulmonary pollutants in the home. There is hardly a central vacuum sales pitch that doesn't provide clinical information about central vacuum systems and their ability to improve indoor air quality (see Clearing the Air, page xx).
Beyond the health issues are improvements in the operation of modern central vac systems. Take, for instance, the noise issue. Depending on how close you stood to the main operating motor of an older central vacuum system, the noise level could be nearly 90 decibels, which is the threshold for risk of deafness when subjected to long and continuous exposure, and somewhere near the same noise level as modern chainsaws. The noise level of a modern central vacuum system, however, is around 60 decibels, which isn't much more than a typical washing machine.
Suction has improved, too, as has the system by which suction is measured. In many older systems, the amperage of the central electric motor was usually offered as the measure of the system's ability to move air. That's a bit like saying the amount of fertilizer used in a garden determines its success, when in reality there are many other factors to consider.
Alternatively, some central vac manufacturers used the volume of air moved -- noted in cubic feet per minute, or CFM -- as a measure of a system's efficiency. Again, that tells only part of the story.
Today, most central vacuum manufacturers use the term air-watts when referring to the output, or suction power, of their systems. Air-watts is a measure of how efficiently the amount of electricity used moves air through the hoses, and how much lift that air movement can provide. Lift is a measure of how well the suction moves debris through the hoses and pipes.
Power brushes and hoses also have changed for the better. Older models depended on air movement in the form of suction to operate the spinning power brush that assists in cleaning rugs and fabric-covered furniture. You were really counting on airflow through a turbine nozzle to turn the agitator, says Brad Nyholm of Hoover Central Vac Systems.
Now Hoover, Beam and many other central vacuum manufacturers, including NuTone and Dirt Devil, offer power brushes driven by electricity. On some models the electricity is supplied through a wire that's integrated with the flexible hoses and plugged into special inlets throughout the house; others use a separate electrical cord that can be plugged into a standard power outlet. If you have lots of traffic, kids and pets, electric-driven power brushes will far outperform turbine models, Nyholm says.
Some manufacturers still offer economical power brushes driven by the turbine effect and say improvements in suction make their brushes more reliable. In any case, just about all the hoses today are more flexible, lighter and longer than their earlier brethren, requiring fewer inlets throughout the average home.
Components and Features
A central vacuum system is fairly simple in its operation. A power canister, which can be located in a basement, garage, utility room or other remote location, serves as the systems core. The canister consists of a power unit on top that houses the electrical motor and electrical components, and a dirt can below that collects debris swept up while cleaning. The canister can be mounted on a block or wall bracket, and usually requires a dedicated 120-volt grounded power circuit.
Connected to the power canister is 2-inch PVC tubing, concealed in the walls, that services dedicated wall inlets throughout the home. On some systems, the power canister starts automatically when a vacuum hose is plugged into an inlet; other systems provide a switch on the power brush handle for turning the power canister on and off.
A typical home has three to six inlets (the rule of thumb is one inlet for every 600 to 700 square feet in the home), to which a power brush and 25- to 30-foot flexible hose can be attached, but that is changing in some systems. Hoover, for instance, recently introduced its Hose Magic system, which consists of a 45-foot hose that stores inside a wall cavity, so there's no need to connect the hose to an inlet or store it between cleanings; when you're done, just push a button and the hose retracts into its storage cavity. The longer hose also allows for fewer stations; one Hose Magic station can clean up to 2,000 square feet, according to Nyholm.
Other convenience factors are showing up on today's central vacuum systems, such as the automatic dustpan, which is without question the most popular feature these days, says Caroline Crocker, spokeswoman for HP Products, which manufactures Dirt Devil, Royal and VacuFlo central vacuums. Although it is sold under different names by different companies, some variation of the automatic dustpan is available with most central vacuum systems.
The automatic dustpan, which essentially eliminates the need to get out the hose for quick cleanup, is a doorway installed underneath a kitchen counter, a bathroom vanity, a garage benchtop and similar places. The 3-by-6-inch doorway is connected to the central vac system and is activated by pushing it open with the toe of your foot. Then that pile of dust bunnies, dog hair or other debris is simply swept into the doorway, where it is whisked away to the central debris canister.
Another popular feature is a power-brush attachment that enables the user to adjust the amount of suction to suit the job at hand. For instance, the massive suction used for cleaning carpeting and bare floors doesn't work so well with drapes and Venetian blinds. The attachment enables you to tone it down, usually with a dial on the attachment.
The usual array of attachments found on upright and canister vacuum cleaners also is available for central vacuum systems, including small power brushes for furniture, soft-bristle heads for delicate surfaces and narrow-headed tubes to reach into corners and increase suction.
Installation and Costs
If you're sold on the benefits of a central vacuum system, the next step is to consider installation and costs. Except in some older homes, most central vacuum systems can be installed in an average-sized 2,500-square-foot home in a day. The cost of a typical installation ranges from $800 to $2,000, which includes the central canister, tubing and hoses, but not variables such as a warranty.
Installation in most cases is fairly simple. If you can glue PVC pipe and run speaker wire [and cut 2.5-inch holes through framing members], you can install a central vac system, says Coghlan. In older homes, however, it may not be so simple, particularly in homes built before building codes standardized home construction.
Three-story homes also may pose a problem. Typically, the PVC tubing that carries dirt back to the central motor area comes up from the basement for the first floor and drops down from the attic for the second floor. If there's another floor sandwiched in between, running inlets to it can be difficult and somewhat more expensive.
Sizing a system, however, is simple. Typically, a 2,500-square-foot home requires a system with about 425 air-watts (or about 20 amps) of power. Upgrading the air-watts of a given system to the next level of power -- say, from 425 air-watts to 500 air-watts -- is usually a matter of another $150 or so.
Placement and setup of the power canister requires some thought. Placement in the garage ought to be handled by a professional installer, because of air pressure differentials the vacuum can create between the garage and the house. If it's installed improperly, garage air -- and vehicle exhaust -- may be drawn back into the living space.
To remove potential allergens from the living space, the central vacuum system should be vented to the outside. However, that can remove heated or cooled air from the house, which then is replaced by outside air that has to be heated or cooled after it enters the home. While that often can be solved by adding a trap that opens and closes like a dryer vent, most central vacuum installers vent the air back into the living space and rely on filters to contain all dust, dirt and allergens. Venting the system requires a decision about the home's artificially heated and cooled air.
The collected dust and dirt must be removed periodically from the dirt can, usually two to four times per year, depending on the system size, manufacturer, type of floors in the house, human and pet traffic, and other factors. Some manufacturers include a sensor device in the collection can, which tells the homeowner when it's time to empty the waste.
Central filters are usually serviced at the same time the canister is emptied. In many models, the filters simply can be washed out and reinstalled. Others recommend filter replacement, with a cost of usually no more than $10.
It's easy to understand why manufacturers of central vacuum systems expect to see significant growth in the years ahead. For convenience, efficiency and health reasons, the $1,500 or so it takes to install a central vac system seems more and more like a good investment.
Ken Textor wrote about environmentally friendly decking materials in the May/June 2005 issue. He's based in Arrowsic, Maine.