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What is a Cyclonic Vacuum Cleaner?

Written by James Hall |

what is a cyclonic vacuum cleaner

Not sure whether a cyclonic vacuum cleaner is the right choice for your home? Keep reading to learn how cyclonic vacuums work and their advantages over bagged alternatives.

Bagless vacuums with cyclonic technology have become the dominant type of cleaner over the last few decades. Popularised by Dyson, there are now many manufacturers who build cyclonic vacs.

But how do cyclonic vacuums actually work? And what are the pros and cons of this design? Let’s find out.

What is a Cyclonic Vacuum?

Example of a cordless cyclone

Cyclonic vacuum cleaners use cyclones – rather than a bag – to capture dirt, dust, and other particles from the vacuum’s airflow.

Unlike a bagged vacuum, where air passes directly through the bag, a cyclonic vacuum cleaner spins air at high speeds around a cylindrical dust canister. As dust and other debris is pushed to the edge of the canister due to centrifugal force, it falls out of the airflow and is collected in the bin.

We’ll discuss the details of how a cyclonic vacuum works in the next sections, but there are two key features of this type of vacuum design:

  • By using the centrifugal force of spinning air to collect dirt and dust, cyclonic vacuums don’t need a bag to act as a filter.
  • As air doesn’t need to pass through collected debris, a cyclonic vacuum (theoretically) doesn’t lose power as the bin gets full.

Note: Cyclonic vacuums are not the same as bagless vacuums. While all cyclonic vacs have a bagless design, not all bagless vacuums have cyclones (although many do.)

When Were the First Cyclonic Vacuum Cleaners Developed?

The Original Bagged Vacuum

Before we can understand a cyclonic vacuum, it’s helpful to think about how a standard vacuum cleaner works.

Vacuum cleaners generate suction by creating a difference in air pressure. As air rushes to equalise the difference in pressure, it creates suction that the cleaner uses to pick up dirt.

The key to a vacuum cleaner’s ongoing cleaning performance is maintaining this airflow. When the vacuum is clogged, bag is full, or the filters are covered in dirt, the suction is greatly reduced.

The first vacuums had a simple bagged design. A brush at the front of the machine agitated dirt, before a small motor sucked both the air and debris into a bag. As the bag wasn’t completely sealed, air could pass through the walls, which meant that the bag acted as a filter.

A key point is that all the airflow passes through the bag. There is little resistance when the bag is empty, but as it fills up the air must pass through all the collected debris, leading to a loss of suction. This issue is what triggered the search for a new type of vacuum cleaner.

Dyson Takes a Cyclonic Approach

Example of a Dyson cyclonic vacuum

In the late 1980s, nearly all vacuums still had a bagged design. These worked fine, but suffered from the suction loss mentioned in the previous section. The more dirt the bag contained, the worse suction became.

James Dyson decided to try a different approach to solve this issue. Instead of using a bag to “catch” the dirt and dust, he created a bagless cyclone system that spun the dirty air in a circle at high speeds.

When air is spun at high speeds, dust is pushed to the edge of the container where it can be filtered or collected. This replaces the need for a bag to filter the air.

More importantly, it also means that air doesn’t need to pass through all the collected dirt. The result is that suction power doesn’t decrease as the bin fills up (as long as you empty the canister before it’s full.)

James Dyson spent many years perfecting this design, before eventually releasing the DC01 as the first Dyson vacuum cleaner. While the company has released many vacuum cleaners since then, they still rely on the same basic cyclonic design.

Did Dyson Invent the Bagless Vacuum?

James Dyson didn’t invent the concept of a bagless vacuum cleaner. In fact, the FilterQueen system attempted to solve the bag issue several decades beforehand. Dyson also didn’t invent the idea of a cyclone to filter dust from air – that was first mentioned in a patent from 1913.

Dyson’s genius came from recognising how effective the combination of a bagless design and cyclone could be, relentlessly improving the design (there were over 5000 Dyson prototypes before the first Dyson vac was manufactured,) and then popularising it with great marketing.

How Do Cyclonic Vacuum Cleaners Work?

Diagram of how a cyclonic vacuum cleaner works

Cyclonic vacuums all work in a similar way, even though the designs can vary. Here’s a basic overview of the process:

  1. Air and dirt are sucked into the vacuum via the floorhead. This is driven by an electric motor that essentially acts as a powerful fan. Many cyclonic vacuums also have a rotating brush bar which is powered by a drive belt.
  2. The dirty air enters the cyclone, where it starts to spin around the dust canister. Dirt and dust are pushed to the edge of the canister, before falling to the bottom as it passes outside of the airflow.
  3. Air is pulled upwards in the canister. At the top there are often a set of smaller cyclones that perform a similar function as the main one, but are designed to removed finer dust and dirt from the airflow (not pictured.)
  4. The air, which now contains much less dirt and other debris, is passed through a filter at the top of the canister. The purpose of this filter is to remove dirt and dust that’s still caught in the vacuum’s airflow.
  5. Air is sent back down an internal pipe to an outlet at the back of the vacuum cleaner. Many vacuums also have a secondary filter here to remove more dirt that’s escaped.

As you might have guessed, this is a simplified version of what’s happening inside a Dyson or other cyclonic vacuum cleaner. It gives a sense of how these vacuums function though.

What Are The Advantages of a Cyclonic Vacuum?

Now you know how cyclonic vacuum cleaners work, what are the advantages of this type of vacuum cleaner? Here are a few of the most important examples:

  • Bagless. Cyclonic vacuums have a bagless design. You don’t need to buy replacement bags, which saves money, and many people find bagless vacuums more convenient to empty.
  • No suction loss as the bin fills up. One of the biggest advantages of a cyclonic vacuum is that there shouldn’t be any suction loss as dirt builds up in the bin, unless the bin is overfilled. It’s worth noting that this isn’t true of all cyclonic vacuums, but is the case for most.
  • Versatile design allows for cordless vacuums. Cyclonic technology is easy to fit inside a cordless vacuum. There are a few bagged cordless vacuums, but the majority have a bagless design.
  • Allow for effective filtration. By the time air has been spun around the cyclone and passed through two filters, most dust and other allergens have been removed. However, the filtration efficiency of bagless vacuums varies a lot depending on the brand, type of filter, multi-cyclonic design, and whether the vacuum is properly sealed.

What Are The Disadvantages of a Cyclonic Vacuum?

Despite the popularity of cyclonic vacuums, they aren’t the best choice for every home. In fact, the bagged vacuum cleaner still has many advantages over cyclonic vacs, such as:

  • Small dust capacities. Bagged vacuums have bigger dust capacities, as bags can be larger than a cyclonic dust canister. For comparison, many bagged vacuum cleaners have capacities of 4-5 litres, while most bagless models have capacities of 1-2 litres.
  • Messy to empty. As dirt and dust is caught in a plastic dust canister, a cloud of particles can escape when emptying. If you suffer from allergies, you’ll need to get someone else to empty the vacuum into an outdoor bin.
  • More maintenance. While you don’t need to buy replacement bags for a cyclonic vacuum, the downside is that dirt and grime builds up inside the dust canister. You’ll need to periodically clean it to maintain performance, which isn’t the case with a bagged vacuum, as all the dirt is contained.

Summary

Cyclonic vacuum cleaners rely on centrifugal force to separate dust and dirt from the air. This means they don’t need to rely on a bag to capture debris.

The main advantage of a cyclonic design is that the vacuum shouldn’t lose suction as the bin fills up with dirt. Cyclonic vacuums also have a bagless design, which some people prefer.

It’s important to note that cyclonic vacuums aren’t necessarily “better” than bagged vacuums. While there are advantages to a cyclonic design, there are also reasons to consider a bagged vac. These include a larger dust capacity and more hygienic emptying (as dirt is contained within a bag.)

Do you have any questions about cyclonic vacuum cleaners? Please let us know in the comments section below. You may also want to read our guide to how to choose a vacuum cleaner.

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