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HouseWorks: Workshop vac an essential reno tool

This heavy-duty workshop vacuum includes a HEPA-rated filter and a self-cleaning mechanism that greatly extends working life when cleaning fine dust.
This heavy-duty workshop vacuum includes a HEPA-rated filter and a self-cleaning mechanism that greatly extends working life when cleaning fine dust.

Chances are pretty good that if you’ve got home renovations planned, one of the most important tools for the job probably won’t jump to mind immediately. As boring as a workshop vacuum might seem, this tool is actually extremely useful while fixing up a house. In fact, you could argue that a shop vac is the single most useful renovation tool of all because it does something no other tool can do. Shop vacs make large, dirty areas clean, and recent design innovations are making them more useful, too.

A workshop vacuum is a versatile source of cleaning power made to pick up large amounts of dust, debris and even liquids. Shop vacs come in small, medium and large sizes and I’ve owned, used and worn out a bunch of these things over the last 30 years. One of the first lessons I learned had to do with shop vac size.

If you’re gutting a house, finishing a basement, planning to do some woodworking or fixing up a cottage or rental property, you probably need a bigger shop vac than seems reasonable at first. That’s because the job of cleaning dust and debris in cases like these is larger than you’d imagine while you’re standing in a hardware store aisle, deciding which vac to buy. I’ve never seen anyone wish for a smaller, less powerful vac, but I have seen plenty of people who wished they’d pay more and got more. But it’s not just size and air flow volume that matters when choosing a vac. There are specific improvements that make today’s best shop vacs better than ever.

The main improvement in shop vacs has to do with filters. Every shop vac pulls air in as it sucks up dust and debris, then pushes air out after leaving the dirt behind inside. The separation of dirt from the vacuum air stream is what a filter does, and the letters HEPA matter a lot in this regard.

“High-efficiency particulate arrestance” is what the acronym HEPA stands for, and it refers to the verified ability of a filter to remove 99.97 per cent of particles 0.3 microns in diameter or larger. The thinnest human hairs measure about 15 microns in diameter, so we’re talking about very fine filtration indeed when it comes to HEPA. Look for a shop vac that either comes with a HEPA filter or can be fitted with one. Anything less and all your vac will do is broadcast fine particles around your house as you use it. A HEPA rating is absolutely essential if you’re cleaning up moldy materials, too.

The only problem with a fine filter is that it doesn’t take long to clog. If your vacuum is running but not creating much suction, chances are the filter is plugged with fine dust. The traditional solution was to shut off the vac, take it outside, remove the filter, then gently hit it with something hard to knock off the dust. If this sounds like a big hassle, that’s because it is, especially when you’re cleaning up drywall dust. This stuff is so plentiful in a house that’s been drywalled, and it’s so fine, that it can clog an ordinary shop vac after just 10 or 15 minutes of use. Boosting the efficiency of jobsite cleaning is why the amazing self-cleaning filter was invented.

Imagine that a small person is trapped in your shop vac, hitting the sides sharply every 15 or 20 seconds. That’s the sound of a shop vac with a self-cleaning filter in action. An internal mechanism strikes the filter automatically during use, knocking the dust off and maintaining top air flow without you having to stop work. It’s a great innovation and a real time saver, as I learned this past spring renovating a century-old home that needed lots of TLC.

Steve Maxwell always gets a thrill from making things clean. Ask him questions about home improvements, woodworking, power tools and outdoor living at BaileyLineRoad.com

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