HEPA Vacuum: Indoor Air Pollution’s Worst Enemy (& How to Choose One for Your Home)

Branch Basics | HEPA Vacuum: Indoor Air Pollution's Worst Enemy

Dirtiest Place in the House? Maybe It’s the Air!

Have you ever thought about how to clean the air in your house? To most people, cleaning means removing trash and clutter, wiping and mopping away visible dirt and dust, and getting rid of unpleasant odors. However, the “dirtiest” place in your home may be the invisible, odorless air you are breathing. Conventional cleaning methods often fail to address the indoor air pollutants that could be making you sick. In fact, cleaning with products containing synthetic fragrance and other harmful chemicals or with an unsealed vacuum cleaner can actually leave the indoor air quality in your home worse than when you started cleaning.

Dust and SVOCs – The Silent Contaminant

Branch Basics | Common Household Chemicals to Avoid: PhthalatesParticles in the air can not only be a vehicle for the spread of airborne disease but can also be the major cause of many allergic and respiratory reactions as they present exposure to toxic chemicals that ride on dust. These odorless semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), such as phthalates, flame-retardants, pesticides, biocides, plasticizers, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are silent contaminants that emit from materials and ride on the dust in the air you see and breathe. Unlike volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that reduce relatively quickly and warn of their presence with an odor, SVOCs are insidious because they have no odor and can persist for years indoors at increasing levels because of their continual, slow rate of release from sources.

If someone in your home has had trouble healing from a chronic disease, chemical injury, or other immune system illness, there may be SVOCs in the air. Even without major health problems, SVOCs are harmful to your health and will put stress on your immune system. The good news is that just regular HEPA vacuuming significantly reduces exposure to SVOCs and improves your home’s air quality. In addition, the removal of as many sources of SVOCs from the home where possible is recommended.

The HEPA Difference – Why Your Vacuum Matters

“Cleaning” with the wrong vacuum can actually contribute to allergic reactions, asthma, and other illness. Most vacuum cleaners exhaust the very dust that was just collected back into the air, making the area more contaminated than before.1 To prevent this, a HEPA vacuum that has a certified sealed system  (also called an abatement level vacuum) should be used to ensure that the finest dust (including  animal dander) is picked up and that no particulates leak out at junctures where hoses and nozzles connect. HEPA is an acronym for High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance, a particular type of  filter that removes fine dust –  99.97% of particles that have a size of 0.3 µm (micrometers), or three millionths of a meter. Cleaning regularly with a certified sealed HEPA vacuum dramatically improves air quality by reducing the amount of airborne allergens, dust, and harmful chemicals in your home.

What to Look for in a HEPA Vacuum

“Certified Sealed” HEPA vacuums, which we recommend, are air-tight, so all air sucked through the machine passes through the filter and none escapes back into the air. In order to push air through the HEPA filter, these vacuums must have powerful motors making them typically more expensive than non HEPA vacuums. Be aware that sometimes vacuum cleaners may contain a “HEPA” filter, but if not properly sealed, dust is spewed back into the air during vacuuming. Some vacuums are even advertised as “HEPA-like” because the filter looks similar to a HEPA filter, but does not have the same filtering power of a true HEPA vacuum. Rather than purchasing a series of inexpensive vacuums that have a tendency to break or lose effectiveness over time, you might consider saving money by investing in just one quality vacuum. A well-made, high end HEPA vacuum will provide long lasting  protection from allergens and SVOCs. The benefits will be worth it – a truly clean home, a reduction in exposure to toxic SVOCs, and therefore a safer haven for your family.

Branch Basics | HEPA Vacuum: Indoor Air Pollution's Worst Enemy

HEPA Vacuum Brands We Recommend

See below for a list of some HEPA vacuum options that adhere to the Branch Basics standard of clean:

Nilfisk HEPA vacuums are our favorite brand. They are lightweight but built to last several generations with commercial level durability. Nilfisk HEPA vacuums are actually used to clean the NASA cleanrooms, spaceships and shuttle, and are used in mold, lead, and asbestos abatements.

If purchasing a new vacuum is not an option for your family right now, consider renting a HEPA vacuum for an annual deep clean. Even infrequent use of a HEPA vacuum will dramatically improve your indoor air quality.

Branch Basics | HEPA Vacuum: Air Pollution's Worst Enemy

Healthy Home:Getting the Cleanest Clean

When you begin using a HEPA vacuum, it will start to change the way you clean. You will soon discover that vacuuming is not just for floors! Although you may not consider vacuuming the walls and ceiling of your home as routine housecleaning, you can actually significantly reduce the airborne toxins and chemicals in your environment with a deep clean by vacuuming them a couple of times a year. You can use a HEPA vacuum to address dust on virtually any surface, including stuffed animals, books, furniture, walls, ceilings, lampshades, cars, etc. In fact, using your vacuum to take care of “dusting” will ensure that the dust doesn’t continue to circulate the way it does if you use a rag to wipe surfaces.

I have a HEPA Vacuum. Now What?

Branch Basics Deep Cleaning MethodReady to get started with a HEPA vacuum? We recommend starting fresh with a thorough deep clean of your home. You can follow our tutorial for the Official Branch Basics Deep Clean to remove toxins. After an initial deep clean, you can use your HEPA vacuum to maintain clean indoor air on a regular basis. If you aren’t able to do a full-home vacuum very often, we highly recommend at least regular vacuuming in your bedroom. Because your bedroom is the room you spend the most time in per day and the room where your body rests and restores itself overnight, it should be your first consideration when it comes to air quality.

Do you have a HEPA vacuum? Have you noticed any differences when using it for cleaning? Let us know by leaving your comments below!


FURTHER READING

Branch Basics Nontoxic Air FreshenersBreak the fragrance habit. Use these Nontoxic Air Fresheners instead of the synthetic variety to remove odors.

Keep reading about chemicals to avoid in your home: Common Chemicals to Avoid – A Branch Basics Series.

Going on a trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more!

Ready to streamline your routine? Read Clare’s tricks in Safe + Simple: Tips from a Minimalist Mama.

Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps!

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19 Comments

  1. Hi, I have some feedback, an observation, and some questions.
    First, after seeing your previous article about deep cleaning, in which you listed the Shark vacuum as a sealed-system option, I purchased one of the Shark vacuums because it was more affordable and readily available. However, when I first tried to use the vacuum, I immediately had to turn it off because it was giving off a smell that was bothersome to me (I’m chemically sensitive). We have a portable/handheld vacuum that gives off a similar smell, so I’m unable to use that one also. I describe it as an ozone-y smell, perhaps a bit plastic-smelling also. I was frustrated that it has this same smell as the portable vacuum, and turned it off and haven’t tried using it again, and instead started searching for a Miele vacuum. I don’t know the smell coming from the Shark would dissipate after a while or not; the portable (another brand, by the way) still has the smell after a long while, so I’m not super hopeful about the Shark smelling any better. Also, the Shark vacuum is very plastic-y; I have to wonder if some of those plastics contain phthalates, etc (soft plastic hoses, for instance). It doesn’t give me the feeling that it’s something that would last for decades; so as you mentioned in your article above, I’m inclined to think I might not be saving money in the long run. Unfortunately, we no longer have the box, so we figure it can’t be returned now and are sort of stuck with it. As someone who is chemically sensitive, it’s important that the vacuum not only suck up and dirt and filter the particles well, but also that the vacuum itself isn’t giving off objectionable odors (either from the materials, or from the vacuuming process). We think the ozone smell might be coming from the brush motor. I’m no vacuum expert, though, so I’m not sure!

    Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at the Miele vacuums. They have many models and it’s a bit confusing to sort through the differences. It appears that a number of them do have the sealed system; and while not all of them come with HEPA, most seem to have the option to add the HEPA filter in lieu of the other filter (which is also apparently quite good). I’ve seem reviews that mention it’s a good idea to get a lower-level Miele (which still isn’t cheap) and add on the extras you’d like, such as the HEPA filter or a different floor brush, and that this approach is less expensive than buying one of the higher-end models that includes those features but costs much more. So I’m wondering… have you evaluated any of the other Miele models? Are your recommendations based mainly on which ones come with the HEPA filter, or are there other specifications you’re looking for when selecting one of the Miele vacuums?

    I just clicked through your links to see the Nilfisk vacuums. The second one you linked (the GD 930) mentions capturing all the particles, etc; however, under the Specifications tab on that page, it indicates that it is NOT a sealed system. Just wanted to mention that in case that is important to anyone who might be looking at these. I suspect these (and all the Miele units) are far better than many of the cheaper vacuums on the market, but just mentioning it since it does indicate it isn’t sealed (unless somehow I’m misunderstanding what they mean).

    1. Thank you for this important reply which brings up a very important point which is actually the subject of our next newsletter. It is important to “outgas” any new product that is brought into the home*, especially large items like vacuum cleaners.The Shark vacuum is more economical, but less durable and has more plastic than the more expensive vacuums. The smell from a new vacuum made of these materials will be stronger. Anytime you buy something new (especially if you are chemically sensitive) putting it out in the sun to accelerate outgassing is a first step before bringing it in. Take advantage of the summer weather – put it out in the bright sun (make sure to bring it in at night or when rains) and continue sunning until the new smell odor passes. With the Shark, the odor will go away. You might try this trick with your older portable vacuum to see if that helps as well. In addition, during this outgassing time, if you have an outdoor outlet, plug it in and run the motor. Burning off new motors to get rid of the smell is also a good procedure to follow when buying any new machine. Hopefully burning off the motor will only take a few hours. Keep at it until the odor is gone. This same outgassing procedure – sunning and running the motor – is recommended for new Meile and Nilfisk vacuums although it probably won’t take as long.

      As far as the Miele models – look for sealed systems with HEPA filters and find a model that fits your needs. Contact a Meile dealer for help. The Nilfisk GD950 is certainly a sealed vacuum as it is a certified lead and asbestos abatement vacuum. I hope this information is helpful.

      Marilee

      1. Thank you for replying. I don’t really notice odors from the Shark (or the older portable vacuum) when it’s just sitting there. The trouble is when it’s running and giving off an ozone smell. Any idea what causes that? Is it something they use in the motor? The portable vacuum has been used by my husband a number of times over the past couple of years; do you think the ozone smell might still go away if it is run outdoors continuously?

        Perhaps the information isn’t correct on the Nilfisk website; I just observed that the first one you linked to is identified (on the Specifications page) as a sealed system and the second one (GD930) says “No” — though it does say for lead removal, etc.

  2. I have a Miele canister with a HEPA filter and a Riccar upright also with a HEPA filter. I have hard and carpeted flooring. It would depend what type of flooring you have when choosing a Miele model, the heads are different and if you have carpet you’ll want one with a powered head. If only using on hard flooring a less expensive would work fine. The Miele brand is very quiet. Hope this helps you.

    1. Thank you, Nancy. I have only hard flooring, so it looks like most of the Miele models would work for that. Is there a particular head you recommend for hard floors? I think they have the parquet, or the twisting parquet – and maybe others?

  3. Do you have any experience or opinions on Dyson vacuums? I’ve been looking into purchasing one recently but now am a little confused which is the best option 🙂
    Thanks!

  4. I’ve honestly never worried about having dirty air in my home, but I have a friend whose son has terrible dust allergies. I’m sure this would be a great solution for them! They may not even realize that their vacuum could be increasing the problem. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Tara is right. Nilfisk GD930 says it does NOT have the sealed system. Like Tara mentioned, you have to click somewhere below the photo there is a tab, it will give you the option to click “specifications”, as you scroll down you will see clearly it says it is NOT a sealed system…unless that was a typo on the site…

    1. Novela and Tara,

      Thank you both for pursuing this issue. It is good to fully investigate all purchases as this is what educates and enables you to make the best decisions. Your inquiry will pay off for others as well, as you have uncovered confusing information on a website selling the GD930.

      I have contacted Nilfisk about the misinformation on this website concerning the GD930 that states that it is not a sealed system. Nilfisk says they will contact the company and make sure it is corrected. As mentioned in the reply on July 7, 2015, the GD930 by Nilfisk is an abatement level vacuums and is a sealed system. I have been using both the GD930 and GM 80 vacuums for years in mold, lead and asbestos abatement projects with clients. The GD930 is one of the top selling abatement vacuums on the market. If you need more information call 1-800-Nilfisk and ask for customer service.

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention again, as this is exactly what Branch Basics wants people to do – question and investigate so we can make informed choices.

      Marilee

  6. Fantastic article. Dirty air cause a lot of allergies. If you have kids it is very important to live in a healthy environment. Allergens are everywhere around us. I found some articles that claims that allergens could cause cancer. I hope you take care of your health on time. Best regards!

  7. Hi, Marilee Nelson!
    Are the fragrances sold by Rainbow safe, or do they have potential hormone disrupting compounds like other air fresheners? Thanks for the podcast! It was very eye opening!!

  8. Very useful article and comments. I need a HEPA vacuum and bought a Soniclean, very highly recommended by everyone. I no sooner took it out of the box but it gassed me. I have put it out in the direct August sun for the third day now hoping the fumes will burn off, and I hope they do, as I don’t want to have to return it. I had already found my way to the Nilfisk 80 and 930 when I saw this article. The 80 is all-metal casing but costs $1500; the 930 is $450 but has plastic elements, and now I’m scared of plastics, tho’ I know it comes in different varieties (the plastic attachments for my Soniclean cause me no problem, it’s just the canister itself). What to do? Does the 80 cause any problem, since it’s all metal? I’m at the point now where I’d spend the money, assuming this were the only vacuum I’d even need again.

    Thanks for this discussion.

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