Buyers Guide: Wet/Dry Vacuums

Indoors and out, wet/dry vacs have become increasingly popular. Just be sure to buy the best model for your space and specs.

Buying the Best Wet/Dry Vac

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No longer strictly for the workshop, wet/dry vacuums have become a necessary convenience all around the house. A wet/dry vac can suck up large spills and messes in the kitchen; dry leaves in the yard; and sawdust, wood chips, and other detritus from your home improvement projects. But these handy helpers aren’t one-size-fits-all—and bulk isn’t the device’s only potential downside—so it’s wise to do research before you invest in one. Ahead, you’ll learn what features and options will suit your needs and get specific insight on our picks for the best wet/dry vac, based on independent reviews and extensive customer ratings.

PROS AND CONS TO OWNING A WET/DRY VAC

The Best Wet/Dry Vac at Any Size

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Messes happen, and if you’re like most folks, you’ll find ample opportunities to use your wet/dry vac. They’re great for:

• Making short work of leaks and spilled drinks.

• Removing water from wet carpeting so it can dry more quickly.

• Sucking up piles of blown-in leaves that collect in corners of the garage and shed.

• Cleaning away woodchips and shavings in workshops.

• Vacuuming the inside of automobiles.

• Blowing leaves off the sidewalk (if the vacuum has a blower connection).

While wet/dry vacs have a lot going for them, do consider the following:

• These babies are big! Even a mini model can measure about a foot high and a foot wide. Plus, their canister shape can make them a challenge to store.

• Many wet/dry vacs are so loud, Consumer Reports recommends wearing ear protection when operating one.

• Wet/dry vacs are not designed to filter out dust and other tiny airborne particulates. Unlike standard household vacuums, which have sealed collection containers, wet/dry vacs have unsealed containers that let dust escape during use. While most come with washable filters, and some include dust bags to reduce a portion of the dust, shop-type vacuums will not contain the dust as a household vacuum will. If someone in your home has allergies or asthma, don’t use a wet/dry vac indoors.

KEY CONSIDERATIONS

Understanding which features best fit your needs will go a long way to simplify the shopping trip when you’re looking for the best wet/dry vac. Get started with these features.

The Best Wet/Dry Vac at Any Size

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SIZE AND CAPACITY
Manufacturers tend to list their models as one of four general sizes that correspond to the vacuum’s collection tank capacity.

• Mini: Holds less than 2 gallons

• Small: Holds 2 to 6 gallons

• Medium: Holds 6 to 14 gallons

• Large: Holds more than 14 gallons

The largest vacuums are often the most powerful, making them best suited to job sites and spacious workshops. Minis have such limited “oomph,” collection tanks, and options, they can’t be relied on for much more than cleaning small spills. Small- and medium-sized models tend to strike a happy medium for homeowners who want to dispense with sizeable messes but haven’t space for a larger unit.

ATTACHMENTS
Wet/dry vacs feature a number of attachments; some you may love while others you may never use. Nearly all models come with a wide floor utility nozzle, which connects to a rigid extension wand. Other common attachments include a crevice nozzle for sucking debris out of tight corners and an elbow wand for reaching around corners or overhead. Most models also boast a wet nozzle with a squeegee edge for banishing liquid spills and a brush nozzle ideal for car interiors.

RELATED: You’re Not Using Vacuum Attachments the Right Way

OPTIONS
Except for the smallest mini-models, most wet/dry vacs feature a drain plug that lets you release liquid without having to remove the inside collection canister. Many also include a blower connection, which allows you to attach the included hose and blow leaves away from a garage or sidewalk.

Filters and/or dust bags are helpful for capturing a greater amount of dust as you vacuum, but the filters are not designed to capture all the dust, as a HEPA filter does. Most filters can be cleaned and reused, while dust bags can be reusable or one-use only, depending on the model.

Hose length runs from six to 30 feet, depending on the model. Longer hoses, which often come with wall-mount models (another perk for garage and workshop use), allow you to mount the vacuum in a central location and vacuum from one end of the garage to the other without having to pull the whole vacuum along with you. While this is handy in many cases, long hoses have a tendency to get twisted if they’re not wound carefully after use.

Cord length, which runs six to 10 feet on average, is less important since you can always use a long extension cord if you’re cleaning the shed at the back of the yard and no electrical outlet is nearby.

 

The Best Wet/Dry Vac at Any Size

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POWER AND PERFORMANCE
When it comes to wet/dry vacs, horsepower can be a bit misleading, because the number relates only to the unit’s motor output, not to its performance ability. The horsepower number printed on the unit refers to Peak Horsepower (PHP), which designates the power of the motor. While it’s true that the higher the horsepower, the more powerful the motor, other factors, such as the length and diameter of the hose, also affect the amount of suction. So rather than focus on PHP as your sole focus, put more stock in customer ratings when determining actual suction power.

According to InterVac Design Corp, a leading manufacturer of whole-house and shop-type vacuums: “No matter what you call it, PHP, HP, or horsepower, it’s all just horse hockey when it comes to the performance of a vacuum cleaner.”

OUR TOP THREE WET/DRY VACUUM CHOICES

After comparing reviews from consumers and publishers alike—as well as the key shopping considerations outlined above—we’ve rounded up three of the best wet/dry vacs available today. With miniature, medium, and large sizes represented below, we feel confident you’ll find a model built to tackle your messes.

 

Best Wet/Dry Vac - ShopVac 1.5-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac

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Shop-Vac 1.5-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac ($43)
With a history of manufacturing quality work-type vacuums since 1953, it’s no surprise a Shop-Vac won a spot of honor among our three top choices. The compact Shop-Vac 1.5-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac rises to the top of its class for mini wet/dry vacs. For households with limited storage space, Consumer Reports recommends buying a lightweight vacuum, “even a mini-sized model.” Weighing in at only 5.6 pounds, this little Shop-Vac is a breeze to tote from room to room. It features 2 peak horsepower (PHP), a washable filter and a 4-foot hose for sucking up small spills quickly. Attachments include an extension wand, a 5” utility nozzle for flat areas, and a crevice tool to get in tight spots. Easy-release buttons let you remove the top and dump the collection container, but there’s no drain spout. Amazon shoppers award the Shop-Vac (which includes a two-year limited warranty) 4.1 out of 5 stars for its tiny size and mighty suction. At only 10” high and 11” wide, this mini Shop-Vac can be stowed in a closet or on a shelf. Available from Amazon.

 

The Best Wet/Dry Vac at Any Size - Rigid 12-Gallon

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Rigid 12-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac ($70)
For its powerful motor and outstanding performance during rigorous testing, Wirecutter—a New York Times home-and-appliance review site—selected the Rigid 12-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac as its top shop-type vacuum choice. This medium-size model features 5 PHP and a sizeable 12-gallon collection tank, making it a good option for workshops and around-the-house use. The tank comes with a built-in drain spout for easy emptying of liquids, and four sturdy swivel casters make it simple to pull across the floor. Attachments include two extension wands, a utility nozzle, an automobile nozzle, and a wet nozzle. There’s a 7-foot hose, a reusable filter, a reusable dust bag, and a blower connection. Home Depot customers give the Rigid vacuum 4.5 starts, citing its powerful suction and smooth rolling casters as its best features. It weighs in at under 19 pounds, measures 26” high and 22” wide, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. Available at Home Depot.

 

The Best Wet/Dry Vac at Any Size - Emerson 16-Gallon

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Emerson 16-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac ($123)
If you’re looking for a workhorse that you won’t have to stop and empty every half-hour, consider the Emerson 16-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac. For its durability, power, large storage collection capacity and a “plethora of attachments,” The Spruce made the 6.5 PHP Emerson its top pick for a 16-gallon vacuum, ideal for job sites and busy workshops. It boasts a copolymer drum, instead of the standard plastic drum found in most wet/dry vacs, which offers enhanced resistance against cracking. There’s also a built-in auto-shutoff float that senses when the liquid level in the drum nears capacity and then shuts off the vacuum to prevent overflow accidents. It comes with a blower connection, a drain spout and a 7-foot hose that winds around the lid for easy storage. Attachments include a wet nozzle, a utility nozzle, a car nozzle, two extension wands (but no crevice attachment), which connect via a roll-tight locking sleeve that holds them securely together. You’ll appreciate the reusable cartridge filter, as well as a wet filter sleeve that protects the motor from liquid. Amazon buyers award the Emerson vacuum 4.4 stars for its power, durability, and snug-fitting attachments. The Emerson 16-Gallon Wet/Dry Vac comes with a limited five-year warranty. Available from Amazon.