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What is a Wet and Dry Vacuum Cleaner?

Written by James Hall |

What is a wet and dry vacuum cleaner?

Thinking of buying a wet and dry vacuum cleaner? Find out how these vacuums work, what they are used for, and how to choose the best option.

Wet and dry vacuums function in the same way as regular vacuums, but are designed to suck up both dry debris and liquid spills.

These vacs are often heavy duty and can handle tougher tasks. Examples include workshop debris, blocked sinks, and outdoor messes. They also tend to have large capacities and powerful motors.

Let’s take a closer look at wet and dry vacuums to see whether they are the right option for your home.

How Do Wet and Dry Vacuums Work?

Most wet and dry vacuums (or shop vacs as they are sometimes known) resemble a cylinder vacuum. They have a hose, motor unit, and collection chamber. Some have multi-purpose filters for wet and dry messes, while others have separate filters for different tasks.

As with all vacuum cleaners, the motor generates suction through the hose. When air enters the collection drum, it slows down, allowing whatever you’ve sucked up to drop into the drum. Then the air passes through the filter and back into the room.

Bagless or Bagged?

Many wet and dry vacuums come with a dust bag for dry collection, which you then remove for wet spills. Others don’t use a bag at all. If you’re using your vacuum for a mixture of wet and dry, like unblocking a sink, it all gathers in the same drum. 

But fear not, the internal parts are insulated to keep any moisture away from the electrical components. Wet and dry vacs are completely safe to use, providing you follow the instructions.


As for emptying, there’s often a float in the collection chamber that lets you know when it’s time to drain the tank. This is important, as overfilling a wet and dry vacuum could be dangerous!

Larger models often have a drain port. This allows you to empty liquids without lifting the vacuum, which will be heavy when full. Smaller or lower quality models may not have a drainage system, so you’ll need to pick them up to pour the contents away.

Blower Functions

You can also find wet and dry vacuums with a blower function. When in this mode, air is blown out rather than sucked in. This handy feature is ideal for clearing autumn leaves in the garden, or blowing dust away after your latest DIY project.

What are the Benefits of a Wet and Dry Vacuum?

If you’re buying a new vacuum cleaner, here are some reasons to consider a wet and dry model:

  • Versatile. You can use these vacuums for wet and dry messes, both indoors and outside. 
  • Powerful suction. The motors on wet and dry vacuums aren’t limited to 900w, as standard vacs are, so they benefit from powerful suction.
  • Large capacity. Wet and dry vacuums are available in a range of sizes, but the average model has a larger capacity than a regular vacuum. A 15-30 litre capacity is around standard, although keep in mind there is often a different capacity for dry and wet debris.
  • Tough and durable. Wet vacuums can handle tougher jobs and are built to last. This makes them a great choice for DIY or commercial premises.
  • Great value. Wet and dry vacuums provide great value for money – especially if you need a powerful vacuum and don’t care about advanced features. 

Of course, there are some downsides to wet and dry vacuums too. They are often bulky and difficult to manoeuvre, making them inconvenient for daily cleaning. Wet and dry vacs also typically don’t have the ease-of-use features found on many modern vacuums.

What are Wet and Dry Vacuums Used for?

Wet and dry vacuums aren’t just for work sites. They come in handy for home tasks as well as commercial use. Examples include:

  • Cleaning spills from carpets or car seats
  • Removing large amounts of liquid, such as after a pipe bursts or emptying a fish tank
  • Keeping worksites and workshops clear (they handle fine dust and wood shavings better than a regular vacuums)
  • Unblocking sinks and bathtubs
  • Clearing snow or leaves (if it has a blower attachment)
  • Clearing sharper debris, like staples and nails after a DIY project (check the manual first though!)

How to Choose a Wet and Dry Vacuum

The wet and dry vacuum market is full of options, so here are a few key features to consider when choosing.


Capacity is how much water and waste a vacuum can hold. Liquid and dry capacities are often different, so check them both. 

The jobs you need the vacuum for will determine the size you need. Small tasks around the home won’t need as large a capacity as one for dealing with ponds or worksites.

Hose Diameter, Hose Length, and Cord Length

It might sound obvious, but the width of the hose will determine what types of debris a vacuum can pick up.

Commercial models tend to have wider hoses. While this reduces airspeed, it does allow you to pick up larger debris. Domestic models typically have thinner hoses.

The combination of hose length and power cord length determines the cleaning radius. A longer hose and cord give you more freedom and speeds up cleaning, but may make the vacuum more difficult to store.

Portability and Weight

Weight is an important factor, as the vacuum is only going to get heavier as it fills with water. 

If you want a vacuum to use at home and need to carry it upstairs, a smaller model is more manageable to manoeuvre. For example, this portable Draper wet and dry vac weighs in at just 3.8kg.

Aside from weight, features such as a carry handle and castor wheels make a wet and dry vacuum more portable.


Some wet and dry vacs have a HEPA filter, which traps 99.9% of micro dust and allergen particles (the Henry Charles is one example.) Other models use standard washable filters, making them less suitable for workshop debris or people with allergies.

Additionally, make sure that it’s easy to swap over the wet and dry filters. A complicated process makes the vacuum much more difficult to use.

Drainage System

For larger vacuums that are heavy when full, you really need a drainage port. Picking up a big wet and dry vacuum that’s filled with water isn’t easy!

A drainage port might not be so important for smaller wet and dry vacuums, but it’s still a useful feature to have. 


Wet and dry vacuums are the workhorses of the vacuum market. They are tough, versatile, and can handle wet messes when required. This makes them great for both home and commercial cleaning.

If you think a wet and dry vacuum could be a good option for your home, check out our guide to wet and dry vacuums. We’ve listed some of the best models to help you make the right choice for your requirements.

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