Collecting Dust: Standards for Vacuum Cleaners

Today, the vacuum cleaner is a common household appliance found in millions of homes around the world. However, this simple device has a surprisingly complex past.
Tim Sprinkle

Powered vacuums were considered a luxury item through the first half of the 20th century, but sales exploded after World War II. Returning GIs were settling into larger, suburban homes, and every one of those homes needed to be cleaned. Enter the vacuum cleaner, which today is a $53 billion (USD) segment according to However, alongside this growing market came competition among manufacturers – and confusion among buyers.

“By the 1970s, many manufacturers were making advertised claims that were questionable and couldn’t be validated, as there were no industry standards at the time,” says Ken Lee, membership secretary of the committee on vacuum cleaners (F11).

Vacuums are complex and ever-evolving products. In order to make an informed decision about which brand and model to choose, the customer needs to be able to answer several questions: How well does it clean? How long will it last? How loud is it? How hard is it to push? How much debris does it hold?

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The committee on vacuum cleaners was formed 50 years ago this year to address this confusion – and to respond to pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, which wanted to level the playing field among vacuum manufacturers and clear up confusion among consumers. With the Consumer Protection Bureau taking steps to regulate the industry at this time, manufacturers came together and formed F11 with consumer interest groups and government officials. Their goal was to standardize the methods upon which manufacturers based the claims they were making about performance.

“They first began working to develop a cleaning performance methodology to evaluate and compare products in the industry and to assist with designing new products,” says Lee. “But there were more metrics to measure besides just carpet cleaning. For instance, suction performance, litter removal bag capacity, and a number of other performance parameters.”

The resulting standard – the committee’s first – was the test method for evaluation of carpet embedded dirt removal effectiveness (F608). Over the past 50 years, the committee has actively developed and managed new standards to keep pace with innovation in the vacuum cleaner industry. According to Lee, some of the committee’s most important and impactful standards include the following:

1) Test method for evaluation of carpet embedded dirt removal effectiveness of household/commercial vacuum cleaners (F608): As mentioned, this was F11’s first standard, developed when the committee was first created in the 1972, and it remains one of the most important. The test outlines a method to establish how well a given vacuum cleaner can remove embedded dirt from carpeting. It is based on home cleaning tests, so that a reasonable correlation exists between home and laboratory results. 

2) Test method for determining initial, fractional, filtration efficiency of a vacuum cleaner system (F1977): Another important consideration in vacuum cleaner design and performance is dust efficiency, or how much dust the product puts back into the air during operation. This is one of two F11 standards that addresses this specification and determines the efficiency of the vacuum-cleaner filtration system.

3) Test method for determining the change in room air particulate counts as a result of the vacuum cleaning process (F2608): Along with F1977, this standard addresses vacuum-cleaner emissions, this time with a focus on the total particulate emissions that are kicked back up into the air and/or escape the filtration system during the operation of the vacuum cleaner on dust embedded carpeting.

4) Surface cleaning appliances — Part 6: Wet hard floor cleaning appliances for household or similar use — Methods for measuring the performance (IEC/ASTM 62885-6-18): Developed in partnership with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), this standard measures the performance of wet hard floor cleaning appliances for household use. Says Lee: “Many committee members, including myself, are also members of IEC Subcommittee 59F on surface cleaning appliances, covering carpet and hard floor cleaners both dry and wet. This was the first dual logo standard that's harmonized for hard floor cleaning appliances that use wet applications to clean.”

5) Surface cleaning appliances — Part 7: Dry cleaning robots for household or similar use — Methods for measuring the performance (IEC/ASTM 62885-7-22): The second dual logo standard between ASTM and IEC addressed the future of vacuum cleaners: robotics. Dry-cleaning robots for household use have been a significant focus for manufacturers for over a decade, and this standard specifies the essential performance characteristics of these types of dry-cleaning robots.

A new joint IEC/ASTM working group, JWG10, was recently formed to address battery-related parameters common to cordless products, both manual and robotic, such as the evaluation of   runtime, energy consumption, charging, and how to determine when a cordless product is completely charged.

“In F11, we still have consumer interest groups represented in the organization,” says Lee. “We've had home economics professors from a number of universities involved through the years, and we still have a good smattering of general interest consumer members on the committee at the present time. The committee remains very representative of the industry at large as we look ahead to what’s coming next for vacuum cleaners as a category.”

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