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When it comes to cleaning, a wet/dry vacuum is the biggest workhorse in the DIY shop. From sucking up spilled water to nabbing sawdust, nails, and other debris from hard-to-reach corners, owners rely on their wet/dry vac to make the task of straightening up the garage or shed much easier.
The design of a wet/dry vac is pretty basic: its biggest feature is a large, two-piece chamber to hold water or debris, with the vacuum motor perched on the top of the chamber. Most have casters on the bottom to roll the vacuum around easily. A flexible hose attachment enables users to reach into corners, and more accessories are usually available, such as crevice nozzles, dusting brushes and even squeegees.
Why invest in a wet/dry vac when a broom seems to do just as well? “Vacuuming your garage floor with a wet-dry vac is a better way to clean it than sweeping, provided you have a hard floor tool,” says Allen Rathey, past president of the Housekeeping Channel and the Healthy House Institute, and a nationally recognized expert on healthy cleaning practices. “Vacuuming removes soils in the nooks, crannies, and porous surfaces better than sweeping.”
A quick search produces many choices for wet/dry vacs from many manufacturers, so how do you choose the one best for your shop? BestReviews is here to make sure you’re informed before making your purchase. We’ve researched the top wet/dry vacuum brands, surveyed owners, and consulted our expert, Allen Rathey, to help you make the best decision. And because we purchase the products we test, you can always count on our reviews to be unbiased.
Just like a vacuum cleaner for rugs, wet/dry vacuums have a powerful motor and fan that creates suction by drawing air into the vacuum’s canister, through an intake port, and upward through an exhaust port.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Emerson WORKSHOP High Capacity 16 Gallon
Capacity and Power
The Emerson WORKSHOP Wet Dry Vac is top-of-the-line in quality and value. It boasts a large, 16 gallon capacity, a powerful 6.5 hp motor, and is even compatible with HEPA filters. The blowing port allows you to use the vac as a blower, cleaning out the garage or shop faster than your push broom. It’s a tough, durable tool, with a copolymer body that won’t dent or rust. Owners are particularly happy with the heavy suction power, as well as the large capacity.
Unlike a home vacuum, a wet/dry vac typically employs a two-chamber system to separate solids and liquids. Debris is sucked in through the intake port of the outer chamber, using a hose that attaches to the intake, and helps direct and speed up airflow. Once inside the chamber, the airflow decreases. The debris and water exit the airstream and fall down into the inner chamber. Meantime, the air continues its upward journey, passing through a filter to strain out any fine dust and debris before exiting via the exhaust port incorporated in the motor housing.
Switching the vacuum from dry to wet vacuuming is almost as easy as flipping a switch ⸺ with one caveat. You must change the filter from a dry filter to a wet filter before tackling that puddle of water. Dry filters are made of paper, which doesn’t make them a great option for filtering water. Wet filters are usually made of foam and soak up the liquid.
Allen Rathey is a cleaning expert who promotes healthier indoor spaces. He is past-president of the Housekeeping Channel and the Healthy House Institute, and principal of the Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI) culminating more than 30 years of experience in making indoor places cleaner. He has been tapped as an expert by the New York Times, Real Simple, U.S. News & World Report, and other national media.
Wet/dry vacuums come in a range of sizes:
Larger wet/dry vacs can put a strain on electrical circuits, causing outlets to fail more often. Instead, have an outlet you use for the vac, and install an outlet switch that is easily replaced at any home improvement store.
Small: This size of vacuum trades tank capacity and power for portability and price. Best for smaller cleanups around the home and garage.
Medium: Offering more power, overall performance, and capacity, this size of wet/dry vac is a good all-around appliance for most do-it-yourselfers to trade up to.
Large: For shops that face challenging cleanups, this size offers the highest capacity and power. It can hold the most water, or a much higher amount of debris. However, it’s a bear to haul around, and may strain standard 120V electrical circuits.
But size isn’t everything. Buyers should also consider static pressure, airflow, and air power. These ratings, listed on the vacuum’s label, give buyers an idea of the machine’s capibility.
To get the best performance out of a wet/dry vacuum, make sure it’s kept clean between jobs, and that the filter is changed regularly.
Static pressure (SP), also called “sealed pressure” or “sealed suction,” is an important measurement for vacs that will be used to pick up a lot of water. High-end wet/dry vacuums have an SP rating around 75.
CFM (cubic feet per minute) is a rating of the maximum airflow a vacuum can achieve at its largest opening. A higher airflow rating is important for vacs that will be used to pick up fine dust and other small particles.
Air power (AP) or air watts is a key rating for vacs that will be used to pick up heavier debris like nuts and bolts.
Listed tank capacity for many wet/dry vacs is often much higher than actual capacity. A large vacuum may list its capacity as 16 gallons, but that measurement often doesn’t account for the filter. Many tanks hold just 65% of advertised capacity.
While a good rating for all three is important for any wet/dry vacuum, look for a balance that leans slightly toward a higher rating for the primary planned use. For example, a vacuum with plenty of horsepower and a very high airflow, compared to its SP or AP ratings, may be great for picking up dust, but not so good for vacuuming up nuts and bolts – its suction is too low. You’ll want the airflow rating to be more in balance with the suction and air power.
Wet/dry vacs enable some pretty unorthodox uses. For example, a vac that has a blower feature can be used to clear clogged drains. Or, using the foam filter and extension attachments, the vac can be used for impromptu carpet cleaning.
In addition to size, wet/dry vacs have a few other options that buyers may want to consider. If the vacuum will be used to pick up a lot of water, choosing one with a tank drain will make it much easier to empty the tank, rather than trying to pick up a large bucket of water.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Shop-Vac 5-Gallon 4.5 Peak HP
The Shop-Vac 5-Gallon Stainless Steel Wet Dry Vacuum provides great value from one of the best-known names in wet/dry vacs. It utilizes a collection bag, which helps reduce debris and dust drifting back into your clean area before disposal. Owners report that it excels at cleaning both fine dust and larger debris – they even mention high satisfaction with the Shop-Vac’s ability to remove dog hair from furniture. The only frequently mentioned point of dissatisfaction is the relatively short power cord, which can be easily overcome with an extension.
Some wet-dry vacs include a blower feature – either a built-in port or a detachable blower. This is very handy for knocking dust out of the corners of the shop, or even clearing leaves from the driveway.
Most wet/dry vacs come with a hose attachment with a diameter of 1 ¼ inches, but wider hoses can be purchased.
Use foam earplugs to protect your hearing when using larger wet/dry vacuums. Not only are they very loud when running, but their high-pitched tone can be headache-inducing.
Some small and mini vacs are capable of being wall-mounted. While this is great for storage and opening up floor space in the garage or shop, they’re not portable in this position. It may be hard to reach the far corners of the workshop, even with a long hose extension.
Wet/dry vacs are really loud, with some reaching 85 decibels, requiring ear protection. “Motor pitch can be annoying in single speed units,” says Rathey, so buyers may want to consider a wet/dry vacuum that has multiple speed settings. “Two speeds enable varying the power, sound and tailoring performance.”
Filters are likely the most important factor in getting the most out of a wet/dry vacuum. They need to be changed regularly, and it’s important to buy the correct size filter.
Consider using a dust bag in addition to the required filter for dry debris, especially if you switch often between dry and wet vacuuming. The bag makes cleaning the vacuum’s storage tank much easier, and can extend the life of the filter.
“Filters must be sized for the rate of airflow and the power of the unit,” says Rathey. “Wimpy filters allow lots of dust to get through and back into the air. Too much filtration slows down the air and interferes with the ability to pick up soil.”
Many wet/dry vacs have pleated cartridge filters, which are easier to change than two-piece paper/foam filters, and which trap dust much more efficiently. If your model doesn’t come with this type of cartridge, consider upgrading to a pleated filter.
Thinking of replacing the wet/dry vac’s paper filter with a HEPA filter? They’re an expensive addition, so make sure you do it right. HEPA filters require effective pre-filters or they will quickly load with dust and become ineffective,
Cleaning and drying the vacuum interior regularly is important, too, as a mix of organic soil (from vacuumed-up dust) and moisture can lead to mold and bacterial growth. Not only does that create a musty smell that affects indoor air quality, it can be a health issue.
To make cleanup a bit easier, and to reduce the amount of fine particles that escape the filter and re-enter the room, consider using a dust bag when vacuuming dry debris. The bag can be quickly removed from the chamber, making the vacuum almost instantly ready to switch over to wet vacuuming (with a filter change, of course). A dust bag can also help prolong the life of the filter.
For wet/dry vacs that are sold without them, bags are available for separate purchase. Be sure to buy the correct size for your vacuum, and avoid the temptation to purchase a “high performance” replacement bag without doing your research – most standard dust bags do a good job of catching fine dust and jagged or sharp objects without compromising suction.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.