How Does a Vacuum Cleaner Work [Answered]

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Vacuums have long been a staple in the household’s cleaning arsenal. Today, there are different types of vacuums, attachments, and accessories specifically engineered to keep your house and car clean. However, vacuums haven’t always been around, nor have they always performed as well as they do nowadays. In this article, we go over how a vacuum cleaner works, along with its history and a few fun facts.

​What is a Vacuum Cleaner?

​Simply put, a vacuum cleaner is a home cleaning device that sucks up all the dirt and debris with the use of a suction. It traps the dust that passes through its filters, storing it away for later disposal. The machine through the years has stood the test of time, and has paved the way for faster and more efficient home cleaning.

​The Origin of the Vacuum Cleaner

Before we dive in to the processes of this cleaning machine, let’s take a step back and see where it all started, to see and understand why the vacuum cleaner works the way it does today.

​Manual Carpet Sweepers

In 1860, a man by the name of Daniel Hess created the first manual floor cleaning device called the “Carpet Sweeper.” The machine had a rotating brush head, and bellows which he used for suction. These bellows, which are also known as suction cups, created a vacuum when attached to a surface. The cups sucked the air, and the rotating brush head that’s attached to it created a continuous flow of suction, picking up the dirt and debris along its way.

These carpet sweepers were hand powered, usually requiring several people to operate. And, as you can imagine, they weren’t very efficient. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, various manufacturers came onto the scene to develop manual vacuum cleaners, such as the Baby Daisy and the Burger.

​Powered Vacuum Cleaners

Several versions and alterations of the Carpet Sweeper came after that but none of them were similar to what we have today until Hubert Cecil Booth’s discovery in England in 1901. Booth placed a handkerchief on top of a chair, put his mouth on the cloth and sucked on it. He noticed how much dust he was able to collect because of the vacuum he created and was inspired to take on his own version after that.

Did You Know?
Hubert Cecil Booth is known to have coined the term
"vacuum cleaner," the first mention ever recorded of
today's popular cleaning device.

​The key to Booth’s discovery was developing a powered way to create suction. Over the years, other engineers took from his discovery and created powered, portable versions of the cleaning machine. It was four years later in 1905 when Walter Griffiths created the first carry-around vacuum cleaner that made use of bellows for suction.

​Technology in Vacuums

Other technological advancements such as the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) Filter, were only introduced after World War II to remove the radioactive particles in the air. Discoveries of the Water Filter bags and the AiRider in 2004 allowed the vacuum to hover off the floor and suck dust particles without touching the surface. From there, more and more engineers designed and created improvements to the machine, adding accessories, and attachments to further improve its versatility and performance.

​How Does a Vacuum Cleaner Work?

Now that you know what a vacuum is and where it came from, know that there are also a few different types of systems a vacuum cleaner operates in. Let’s go ahead and examine the various kinds and processes of the cleaning machine, so to better understand what it does and how it does it.

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​Direct Fan Vacuums

The original, conventional style vacuums, also known as Direct Fan Vacuums, are those that come with a bag or a container to hold the collected dirt. This type of vacuum instantly dispenses the sucked-in air and particles to its container for a single-step filter, before the air is then re-circulated in to the home.

How it Works:

​1. Generate Suction

Once the machine is turned on, the motor of the vacuum cleaner initiates the airflow from the base of the unit up to the bag or container. The fan, which is also powered by the motor, is set to a low pressure mode which allows the motor to generate suction.

The outside air then draws the dust particles into the machine, while the low pressure sucks the debris though the intake port of the vacuum.

​2. Particle Pick-up

Once the dirt and debris is sucked into the vacuum, the particles are transported to the bag or the container of the vacuum. Depending on the type and model, a beater bar is usually attached to the base of the unit. This is most commonly found on standard upright vacuums and many stick vacuums, and aids in the pick-up of dust.

The beater bar hits the surface over and over while the brushes, if any, sweep up the dust to the intake port.  Sometimes this system of agitating dirt to loosen it from its surface is also called the brush roller by vacuum manufacturers.

​3. Filtration

Once the particles reach the container, the mixture of air and dust is sifted through the exhaust filters to retain any dirt that was picked-up from the intake port within its container. Now clean, the air exits the vacuum machine after the entire process.

A common modification, HEPA filters are often used instead of the regular filters. The difference is that a HEPA filter can gather the smallest of particles and filter them out of the air. The filter gathers dirt, debree, and allergens that a regular filter would simply push back in to your home.

A ​good HEPA filter vacuum can trap in allergens and other airborne particles that can cause problems for asthma and allergy sufferers alike.

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​Cyclonic Vacuums

Newer technological advancements have brought on improved suction, quicker debris disposal, and advanced filtration, typically all a part of a cyclonic vacuum. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a standard, direct fan vacuum, cyclonic vacuums are a cut above.

A cyclonic vacuum works by making use of a high speed fan and, more importantly, a cyclone to filter the air. The sucked in air is spun at very high speeds around the inside of the vacuum, to which the particles are forced up against the walls of the vacuum.

The cleaner air from the inside of the cyclone travels upward and the remaining particles are dropped to a container. The process is repeated several times inside the vacuum before the air is sorted through a HEPA filter for the final step of filtration.

How it Works:

​1. Suction Generation and Particle Pick-up

Similar to the bagged vacuum above, once you turn on the cleaner, the motor creates a low pressure, allowing suction to start.

At the same time, the brush rollers located at the base of the vacuum spin to pick up any additional debris from the surface that aren’t picked up by the pressure alone. It's just like sweeping/dusting the ground ​or ​furniture but only 10x faster and more efficient!

From there, dust particles and debris enter through the ports in to the second step, which is the cyclone.

​2. Cyclones

What sets this type of vacuum apart is the tapered piece of plastic called the cyclone. Once the dirty air enters the center of the vacuum, it is separated by the cyclone, which is much more efficient and effective than the previous direct fan method.

Meanwhile, the “cleaner” air goes through another round of smaller cyclones to remove any smaller or finer dirt substances, before being expelled back out into your home.

​3. Filtration

The third and final step to this cyclonic process is the advanced filtration, or HEPA filtration (presuming your model comes with this). After passing through several rounds of cyclones, the air passes through one final filter before being exhausted back in to the room.

The HEPA filter is efficient in trapping allergen microbes which are the smallest of all microbes, effectively cleaning the air better than the regular vacuum.

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​Water Vacuums

Another variety in the vacuum cleaner systems is the Water Vacuum. Contrary to the two previous types of cleaners, the water vacuum does not need a filter to sort out the dust particles, nor does the surface need to be dry. The water vacuum can suck in both wet and dry substances which it can filter later on in the process. The excess air is spun within the tank to help remove smaller particles before finally being exhausted as clean air. This type of vacuum is good for shag rugs and carpets as dirt can easily get stuck deep within thin their bristles.

How it Works:

​1. Generate Suction

Like the two other types of vacuums, a motor powers the machine, creating suction through low pressure. With a press of a button, you can switch the machine between wet or dry, which will determine whether or not it will use its brushes for picking up debris.

Either way, the sucked in debris will then move through the tubes to its next destination, the canister.

In some models, the reverse suction, or the blower function, is also available for moving wet and dry substances such as leaves, debris, pools of water, etc.

​2. The Tank

From the tubes, the debris is directly ejected in to the solution where larger dust particles immediately drop to the floor of the container. As for the smaller particles, the container spins (similar to that of a washing machine) and the water goes out through the container’s holes. This leaves the remaining dust and dirt within the floor of the canister.

​3. Filtration

At this point, what remains is a vapor that has had the majority of debris removed from it. The vapor passes through small plastic plates within the tank to separate water droplets from the air. Any tiny debris particles remaining are separated and removed at this time too. Once it is finished with the process, the air is exhausted back in to the room as clean air.

​Vacuum Cleaner Attachments

Aside from the three standard systems mentioned, additional accessories and attachments can also alter the way a vacuum cleaner operates.

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​Extension Wand and Crevice Tool

​Although the motor creates no change in air pressure when using an extension wand or a crevice tool, using an attachment with a smaller intake port means that the passage of air is narrower, creating stronger suction because of the speed in which the air moves. This is the same reason why larger sized intake ports have less power than smaller ports.

Attachments are vital for vacuums that need to be highly portable, like the models used to clean cars.

​Dusting Brush

​The Dusting Brush on the other hand, does the complete opposite. While the narrower ports create stronger suction, this attachment comes with long and soft bristles that spread out and weaken the suction of the vacuum. It allows for a much gentler pick-up which is why it is safer to use around knick-knacks and objects that need cleaning

​Upholstery Tool

​Another popular attachment is the Upholstery Tool. This one has a small and flat head and is in the shape of a rectangle. It is similar to the regular intake port except that it is lined with short and dense brushes that is designed to help remove lint, dust, and fur from fabric.

Upholstery tools are vital and a must have for vacuums like the canister model, which do a lot of cleaning in high places and in and around upholstery.


Overall, the Vacuum Cleaner is a competent machine that will do well in any household, regardless of its cleaning needs. What once was a mini experiment, is now the vital cleaning machine still relevant to this day-- and with the continuous advancements in technology, you can only expect the humble Vacuum Cleaner to get better and better.

About the Author Allen Michael

Allen Michael is the Founder and Editor of Home Viable, a website that he started to provide readers with tips on home efficiency and automation. He draws on his engineering background combined with his family-of-four experiences for his articles.

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