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Tired of hauling that heavy vacuum around the house? A central vacuum system can make the job of cleaning your home a little easier -- plus, you can install it yourself. So is it worth it to invest in one? DIY Life breaks it down for you in this edition of Should You or Shouldn't You?

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When we moved into our house two years ago, I was thrilled that it had a central vacuum system and I enthusiastically ditched our standard portable vacuum. It appears to be the general opinion of professionals and homeowners alike, that a central vacuum system is superior to the standard unit. But what's great for one homeowner isn't necessarily what's right for you. Central vacuum systems can get pricey, costing as much as upwards of $1,000. So are the benefits of owning a central vacuum system more dream than reality?

We asked Roger Ambrose, owner of Central Vacuum Stores, to help us understand the basics of central vacuum systems: how they work, their benefits and disadvantages versus portable units -- plus installation, repair and maintenance tips.

Unlike standard portable vacuums, central vacuum systems don't require you to haul a heavy unit around the house to clean. With built-in central vacuum systems, you need only carry a lightweight hose and power brush. Dirt and debris is sucked up and sent through tubing located in the walls and sent to a power unit/receptacle, which typically installed in a garage, crawlspace or basement.

Inlet valves are located throughout the house, and PVC tubing is installed in the walls and under the floor connecting back to the central vacuum. The lightweight hose connects to the the inlet and can reach up to 35 feet. So instead of plugging a portable vacuum in and out of of pre-determined electrical outlets, you just need to move the hose from inlet to inlet when operating a central vacuum. Like standard vacuums, central vacuum hoses have a variety of attachments with added features, such as wet interceptors that pick up liquid.

Chris Rout, Alamy

Central vacuums are not as pricey as you may think, relatively speaking. In recent years, several portable vacuums have hit the market complete with high-tech features that take all the (human) work out of vacuuming. These advancements have begun to equalize the cost between portable vacs and central vacs. With price becoming a smaller factor, here are some great benefits to central vacuum systems:

- Healthier Air
Central vacuum systems are the only virtually dust-free way to vacuum. Traditional vacuum cleaners collect dirt and dust in a cup, paper bag or reusable cloth bag. Even with HEPA filtration, fine particles are exhausted back into the air. With a central vacuum system, the dirt and dust are collected in a receptacle located away from the living area. Homeowners can exhaust their units outside, thus eliminating any dust or odors recirculating. This is a very important feature for people who suffer from allergies.

- Powerful Cleaning
Traditional vacuum cleaners are meant to be portable, and thus need to have extremely lightweight motors. Such is not the case for central vacuum systems, which can accommodate larger, more powerful motors: about three to five times more power than traditional vacuums. Not only are central vacuum motors larger, they have built-in cooling fans (for longer life), as well as greater airflow and suction.

- Versatility
With portable household vacuum cleaners, an upright machine is superior for cleaning carpets while a canister vacuum is superior for cleaning bare floors, cars, upholstery, etc. With a central vacuum system you get an all-round superior cleaning, there's no need to switch models for different tasks. Inlets can be strategically placed anywhere in the house or garage, and a lightweight 35-foot hose can cover the distance between sockets. Because of the long hose, you can easily go right up your stairs without having to carry a heavy unit up and down. The long hose and inlets make it easy to get into every area, including the garage to clean car interiors easily. Wet interceptors allow you to pick up water with your central vacuum system too. Furthermore, you can install automatic vacpans that allow you to sweep dirt right into the system.

- Longer Lifespan
Central vacuums have considerably longer life than portable household vacuum cleaners. With average use most central vacuums will last 20 years. By contrast, a standard chain store vacuum will last about two years.

- Added Home Value

Personally, while my husband and I wouldn't have chosen a home based on whether or not it had a built-in vacuum, we certainly saw it as a selling feature. According to, a central vacuum system can add around $2,000 to your home's resale value.

With all the benefits, there are some noteworthy disadvantages of central vacuums:

- Cost

If you do the installation yourself, a central vacuum system can cost as little as $500. Yet this is still a significant cost, and a portable household vacuum cleaner is certainly your best choice if budget is main concern. Also, there is an added energy consumption factor. If you ran the vacuum for an hour every day, you'd consume about 20 cents more electricity per day with a built-in central vacuum system.

- Installation Obstacles
It is extremely difficult to install central vacuum systems in apartment and condominium buildings. Houses without a basement, crawlspace or attic to house the vacuum center are better off with a standard vacuum. Other limiting features include poured concrete walls. These factors makes installation difficult and costly. In such cases opt for a standard vacuum and avoid the headache.

- Physical Limitations
Homeowners who have disabilities that make emptying the relatively large canister a challenge are better off with a standard household vacuum.

Before doing away with my standard vacuum cleaner, I had become familiar with troubleshooting the household vacuum. I knew my machine, its little quarks and what it could and couldn't manage. Luckily, this seemingly complex central vacuum system is actually fairly straightforward, and in most cases you can manage your own troubleshooting as well. From unclogging the tubing, to changing the motor brushes, central vacuum maintenance and repair is very DIY-friendly, with an abundance of resources and troubleshooting tips available.

With the average life of a central vacuum system being 20 years, they are bound to require repairs eventually. Attachments will need to be replaced every 5-8 years at a cost of about $150-$500 depending on what you need. Also the carbon brushes in the motor may need to be replaced after about 10 years at a cost of $15-$20.

While some motors last 20 years, others may go sooner. If they do you're looking at a cost of about $200. When considering the options, be aware of an emerging trend in the central vacuum industry, a movement toward throw-away power units. These types of central vacuum units have either sealed motor pods or the manufacturer doesn't offer replacement parts. "If a customer is okay with the idea of replacing the entire unit when the relay or carbon brushes wear out, then there would be no problem," Roger says. "However, if a customer wants the option of repairing their central vacuum power unit, then they need to ask and make sure the motor is repairable and parts are available."

Cleaning a central vacuum in most cases is as simple as emptying the canister and occasionally reaching up and removing any dust that accumulated and got trapped above the container. Central vacuum bags and canisters need to be emptied on average once every three months.


I was thrilled to learn that the average person can install and maintain their central vacuum system. While I'm still a little skeptical, Roger assures me that the vast majority of their customers are installing the central vacuum system themselves and often in pre-existing construction.

However, there is some degree of difficulty: determining the layout requires planning. Enter Faith Elliott, P.E., the structural engineer on staff at Central Vacuum Stores. She and her team offer free design consultations, so they can address any questions the customer has about their system's layout.

There are lots of resources available with general installation instructions, and Central Vacuum's own 7 steps to installation guide. You'll want to review the specific instructions for your unit, consult with a professional, and check to make sure that a non-professional installation won't void your warranty.

The ease of doing-it-yourself depends on whether you have easy access to the area where you plan to store the system and that no major hurdles in the home require professional troubleshooting. Once you've reviewed the instructions, if you decide that you don't have the necessary skills, time or interest to install it yourself, you can always hire a professional. Either way, the resources are plenty.

FINAL VERDICT: For homes that are less than 1000 square feet, a central vacuum system is simply not worth the money. But when your home and your budget can manage it, built-in vacuum systems are definitely a desirable choice.


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  • Andy

    Intervac Design has some new units which are very easy to install and low priced. These units feature HEPA type filtration and are easy to install in Condos, Apartments and other pre-existing structures. They are also built here in the USA and offer a 6 year warranty.

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