Answer Geek: Do Cyclone Vacuums Deliver?

Q U E S T I O N: Most commercials for new vacuum cleaners seem to talk about the "new" wind tunnel or cyclone technology. Is this a ploy to sell more vacuums or are they really more powerful with this new way of making the air flow inside them?

— Kevin

Q U E S T I O N: Is there anything to the "swirling tornado" effect in most of the vacuum cleaners being sold today or is it more of a "looks cool" gadgetry thing?

— Gerard G.

A N S W E R: If you haven’t been paying close attention to the latest advances in the field of domestic cleanliness, a revolution is underway in the vacuum cleaner industry, with something called “wind tunnel” or “cyclone” technology all the rage.

My initial reaction when I heard about it was a hearty “yeah, right.” There’s something about touting the unmatched cleaning power of vortexes, swirling tornados, and dual cyclonic systems that just seemed suspicious. So when I set out to answer these questions, I must admit, I was hoping to debunk the whole thing as so much hype and hooey.

Not Just a Lot of Hot Air

Imagine my surprise. It turns out that this so-called cyclone technology is the biggest breakthrough in vacuuming since Ives McGaffey invented the contraption back in the basement of his Chicago home 1869. The name of the first vacuum to hit the market? The Whirlwind. A handcranked device, it was awkward to operate and never really caught on. Thirty years later, however, McGaffey added an electric motor to his machine, and during the course of the next decade or two, companies like Hoover, Eureka, Kirby, Royal and improved the device and figured out how to market it to the masses.

So ended the march of vacuum cleaner progress, at least for a while. The basic upright models that most of us use aren’t that different from the ones our great-great grandparents vacuumed with in the early part of the 20th century. A fan near the bottom of the vacuum cleaner creates suction, drawing air-and dirt-up into the machine. All that air and dirt flies up past the fan and is pushed into the filter bag, where the dirt is trapped.

The only real change to McGaffey’s basic turn-of-the-century version was the addition of motor-driven, revolving brushes at the base of the machine, which help lift and loosen the nap of a carpet, making it easier to get at the dirt embedded there.

Reinventing the Wheel

Sweep over time to England in the late 1970s and the basement of a man named James Dyson. A furniture designer, businessman, and inventor, at the time, his most successful creation was the Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow with a ball where the front wheel is normally found. At the factory that made the Ballbarrow, a cyclone device was used to purify air laden with epoxy paint. (Similar devices found in some diesel engines force exhaust gases to spin as they head out of the exhaust system; the centrifugal force causes soot and other particles to be ejected from the stream of gas before it reaches the open air.)

Apparently Dyson’s domestic duties included the job of vacuuming. Frustrated with the inefficiency of the vacuum cleaner he used, he began tinkering and discovered that he could replace the vacuum cleaner bag with a crude version of the cyclonic air purifier used at the Ballbarrow factory, with promising results. Some additional research, more tinkering, and a bit of luck along the way led to a new kind of vacuum cleaner that used two cyclones, one tucked inside the other, eliminating the need for the traditional vacuum cleaner filter bags. It took awhile, but Dyson eventually set up a company to market his new invention, and by the late-1990s, his company’s cyclonic vacuum cleaners dominated the market in England.

Dyson’s invention is actually fairly simple. The machine still has brushes at the bottom to stir up the carpet, and a powerful fan to create suction. But instead of going straight up through the fan into a bag, the dirt-laden air is channeled at an angle into a chamber, creating a vortex that spins at speeds in the neighborhood of 200 miles an hour. At that rate of spin, large particles are flung from the stream of air and settle in a dust-collecting cup at the bottom of the chamber. The swirling air is then channeled into a narrower chamber nested inside the first chamber. The size and shape of this interior chamber cause the air stream to flow in a tight little cyclone at speeds of anywhere from 600 to 900 miles per hour, kicking out even the smallest speck of dust, which also settles into the cup at the bottom.

Litigating Vortex

By all accounts, these cyclonic vacuum cleaners really do a better job — good enough to have spawned a host of imitators. That in turn spawned a series of patent infringement suits. One of those suits was settled in October, when a court in England ruled that Hoover had violated Dyson’s patents with its Vortex line of vacuum cleaners. It is assumed that Hoover will be ordered to pay Dyson damages running in the millions dollars.

It may turn out that vacuum cleaners aren’t the only domestic appliance that Dyson makes his mark on. His company is just beginning to market his new, improved washing machine, called the Contrarotator, which uses two drums to spin clothes, resulting in cleaner laundry in less time.

At least so they claim. But does it? It’s too early to provide a definitive answer, but I wouldn’t bet against Mr. Dyson. After all, he really cleaned up the first time he tinkered with a home appliance. Who’s to say he won’t do it a second time?

Todd Campbell is a writer and Internet consultant living in Seattle. The Answer Geek appears weekly, usually on Thursdays.