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How to clean a vacuum the right way

Even the best vacuum cleaners in the world still get dirty, dusty, and too full to do their jobs properly. That’s why it’s important to know how to thoroughly clean your vacuum. If you clean your vacuum properly, you can get it back to looking, smelling, and performing like new — well, almost. Our guide will take you through the key steps in cleaning a vacuum the right way.

Note: Our guide covers cleaning bagless vacuums because if your vacuum cleaner has a bag, replacing it with a new bag will cover most of your cleaning needs. The following steps will work great for all kinds of canister vacuums that need to be manually cleaned out, and some steps may be applicable to bag vacuums, too.

Step 1: Gather your supplies

tiny homes sink
Kim Wetzel/Digital Trends

First, make sure you have everything you need:

  • A cleaning cloth: A microfiber cloth works great, but any type will suffice.
  • A small cleaning brush or toothbrush.
  • A light soap — dishwasher soap is fine.
  • Pliers
  • Scissors
  • Compressed air (not necessary, but nice for thorough cleaning).
  • Access to your sink or warm water (the sink is better).
  • Access to a trash bin.
  • A face mask (if available).

Step 2: Empty and clean the canister

Unplug your vacuum from any wall outlets and carry it to an area with plenty of space.  Your kitchen is a good option since you have easy access to both your sink and a trash can. However, bigger cleaning projects may benefit from taking your vacuum outside to the porch.

Beside your trash bin or bag, unlock your canister and empty it out. If this is your first time, remember canisters can open in a variety of different — sometimes surprising — ways, so hold it as close to the trash bag as possible for this step. Expect clouds of dust, and if allergies are a concern, wear your face mask while cleaning.

If your canister fully unlocks from your vacuum, lift it to your sink when empty and wash it out with warm water and your cleaning cloth. If there are stains or dirty spots that won’t get clean, add a dab of dishwasher soap and scrub with the brush. If your canister only partly detaches, you’ll be using the cloth and brush more at this step.

When finished, thoroughly dry out the canister with a cloth and set it aside to air dry the rest of the way while you work on the rest of the vacuum.

How often you have to clean the canister will, of course, depend on its size and how you use the vacuum. Dyson cordless models may be very easy to use, but they have smaller canisters that should be emptied after every cleaning session. If you have a robot vac like a Roomba, it’s important to check and empty its canister as well. Of course, very smart robot vacs, like the Shark IQ robot or the Roomba s9+, can automatically empty themselves. Some robots may also send you alerts indicating they need to be emptied or cleaned.

Step 3: Clean the filter

Many modern vacuum cleaners also have a filter — often multiple filters. There are two common types of filters: A mesh-like barrier and a foam wedge, which work to trap small particles of dust so they don’t get cycled back out into the air.

If your vacuum has one of these filters, take it out now that the canister is out and wash it. For mesh filters, rinse them with warm water and give them a good scrub with your brush before drying. For foam filters, squeeze them out over running water in the sink until the water runs clear, and then put them to the side to dry out. Foam filters can take some time to dry, so you’ll want to leave it out for at least the rest of the day — any moisture in the filter at all can quickly turn to mold or other problems. However, some foam filters are delicate and not designed to be put under water, so if you have any doubts, look this up in your user manual.

Note: Can you put your vacuum parts in a dishwasher? This is a common question that depends on how your filter is made. Check your manual for any specific instructions relating to dishwashers. Often, parts made entirely of plastic can be put into the dishwasher. However, foam filters cannot be cleaned this way.

Step 4: Clean the brush head

Hoover React bristles
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends

Most vacuums have a brush head or “bar” that uses strips of bristles to help scoop up stray dust and particles. If you’ve vacuumed for any period of time, you know these bristles can quickly get jammed up with hair, fibers, and threads, so cleaning out your brush head is a key part of rejuvenating your vacuum. Tilt it up until you have easy access to the brush bar and take a look.

Some vacuum cleaner models make it very easy to remove the brush head entirely with a switch or unlocking mechanism (Dyson vacs are usually good about this). If this is an option — and you may have to once again consult your manual for the details — then consider removing the head entirely for the best cleaning. With other models, you can often grab a screwdriver and dismantle the brush bar from its plate, but this usually isn’t necessary unless there’s a serious jam.

Both pliers and scissors can help you clean your brush head out. Use pliers to remove any tangled bits and cut them apart with scissors if they are too long to easily handle. With all tangled pieces removed, use your brush to thoroughly clean the bristles and get rid of any other debris that may be present. If your bar is removable, you can take it to the sink and really scrub it down for a thorough cleaning. If you use water and soap, make sure you wipe down the bar and let it fully air dry before use.

Step 5: Check the vents

Many vacuum cleaners have noticeable vents for cycling out air as they work. Check the bottom and sides of your vacuum cleaner to locate any vents, and make sure they are clean. Older or overworked vacuum cleaners often have dusty or even clogged vents. Wipe your vents down with a cloth until they are clean. If you have a can of air handy, you can spray it into the vents to help clean the interior and knock clogs loose.

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