shop vac buying guide feature

Wet/Dry Shop Vac Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Industrial vacuums — or ‘shop vacs’, as they’re affectionately known — are indispensable cleaning tools for home and work. Developed for grimy garages, industrial sites, and workshops (where they get their nickname from), they have a leg up.

Unlike regular vacuum cleaners, shop vacs are built to suck up heavier debris, such as wood chips and soil — and even liquids, in some cases. The most powerful shop vacs feature industrial-grade motors that lend themselves to all those heavy-duty cleaning tasks. Think hoovering sawdust, metal shavings, and spills up in workshops. Or when tidying up after some messy renovations or DIY at home.

One thing is for sure; shop vacs definitely are versatile, especially the wet/dry type. No surprise, then, that some homeowners may even prefer to invest in one over and above a standard vacuum. From quiet to convenient cordless shop vac options, you can find them in many iterations.

Before you buy, do read this handy wet/dry shop vac buying guide, where I’ll discuss the key features of each.

Types of Shop Vacs

Wet/dry shop vacs are those that can handle cleaning both solid and liquid debris and messes. Use them to hoover up water and other liquid spills, alongside dirt and dust. That said, there are a variety of types of regular and wet/dry shop vacs on the market — each of which has its pros and cons.

Standard Shop Vacs

Bissel shop vac - regular

Regular shop vacs usually feature a stable, utilitarian design and liquid suction capabilities. They generally possess more powerful motors than standard, at-home vacuum cleaners. As such, they’re equipped to clean ash from fireplaces, matted pet hair, and even leaves. Often, they also come with lots of attachments suitable for various types of typical workshop cleaning tasks.

Cordless Shop Vacs

Ryobi shop vac - cordless

It’s not only regular vacuum cleaners that are available in cordless versions — shop vacs are, as well! Cordless shop vacs are particularly well-suited to wherever there’s no power outlet, like outdoors, work sites, cars, and garages. Use them to vacuum up piles of sawdust or leaves around your property, or give your car a quick once-over.

Heavy-Duty Shop Vacs

Hilti shop vac - heavy duty

Heavy-duty models are some of the most powerful shop vacs around. Featuring higher volt and horsepower motors, as well as extra features, like large-capacity tanks, they’re ideal for larger, messier tasks. Whip yours out for demanding jobs like large liquid spills or shattered glass.

Portable/Handheld Shop Vacs

Ridgid handheld shop vac

Lightweight, compact shop vacs are perfect for smaller tasks, like cleaning desks and cars. Or even getting into tiny nooks and crannies that bigger shop vacs may not be able to. They sometimes feature smaller hoses, which can increase the suction pressure, even if the motor is less powerful. You can also easily take yours with you on the road if you’re a bit of a clean freak.

Hypoallergenic Shop Vacs

Dustless HEPA shop vac

Vacuum cleaners and shop vacs aren’t automatically hypoallergenic. In fact, a lot of research, customization, and engineering has gone into pioneering hypoallergenic models and filtration systems. Look for options with HEPA filters (the best), water filtration, and other types of effective filtration systems.

Quiet-Operation Shop Vacs

Stanley quiet shop vac

All types of vacuum cleaners, including shop vacs, can potentially make a lot of noise. If you’re sensitive or work in an environment where you need to keep it down, opt for a quiet-operation model. These will usually feature a lower decibel (dB) rating than other shop vacs.

What to Know Before Buying a Wet/Dry Shop Vac

Buying anything new, including a shop vac, is always fraught with worry. Will it work as advertised? Can it handle the tasks I need it to? Is it worth the money? Will it last, or break shortly after the warranty expires? Which brand is best? Is the model I ordered as good as the one I decided not to?

Picking out a wet/dry shop vac model and make based on a few important criteria should help you avoid disappointment and costly returns.

Motor Power

shop vac motor

Shop vacs are generally more powerful than traditional vacuum cleaners. However, just how powerful will depend on the model; particularly its motor (horsepower), and wattage (corded) or voltage (cordless). Around 4 to 7 horsepower and a wattage of 1,000 or more is standard for shop vacs.

Suction Power

shop vac suction power

Just because a wet/dry shop vac has a powerful motor doesn’t mean it will be better at sucking up debris. This comes down to its design, including construction, motor type, and inner workings. The suction power or pressure of a vacuum cleaner is measured in cubic feet per meter (CFM). If you plan to pick up heavier debris, like wood chips, liquid, plaster, or glass, look for a higher CFM machine.

Size

Shop vacs can be the size of a regular vacuum cleaner or much larger. So be sure to check the dimensions in the product description. Larger shop vacs may be easy to transport in a vehicle, for example. Besides size, also look at weight, particularly if the construction is metal or you plan to hoover liquid, which further adds to its weight.

Tank Capacity

shop vac tank

When it comes to vacuum cleaners and shop vacs, tank capacity is an important consideration. For wet/dry shop vacs, this factor can be even more pertinent. The capacity of the tank you choose will determine how much mess or liquid you can hoover without emptying it. Do consider the volume demands of your regular vacuuming tasks, especially in larger workshops.

Power Type

Wet/dry shop vacs are available in both traditional corded and modern cordless designs. Corded shop vacs are usually the more affordable of the two, and can be more powerful. In contrast, cordless shop vacs are definitely more convenient, but can be pricier and slightly less powerful. You’ll also have to wait between charges to use it again.

Battery

If you opt for a battery-powered shop vac, you’ll need to take note of how long its battery lasts. A higher-capacity battery (18 to 20 volt+) is ideal if you need to clean bigger spaces or at higher power settings. Also, find out how long the battery takes to charge, and whether or not it’s removable and interchangeable. If it is, you can easily swap batteries without needing to wait for a shop vac to recharge before using it again.

Hose & Cord Length

shop vac cord length

Hose length matters, too, particularly if you need to get into tight spaces. Most vacuum cleaners feature a similar length hose, but shop vacs can sometimes have longer hoses, as they are designed for workshop use. Besides the hose, also take a look at the cord length, as this will affect the area you can clean without unplugging.

Accessories

shop vac accessories

Shop vacs generally come with a variety of accessories, but which will depend on the model and set. Sometimes, you can also buy additional specialized accessories or kits separately — so be sure to check what’s on offer. Accessories generally include a variety of hose nozzle attachments, but may also extend to cleaning accessories, like buckets, mops, and cleaning products.

Noise Level

The noise level of a wet/dry shop vac may not be your first consideration, but it’s important. Shop vacs can be very noisy; even more so than traditional vacuum cleaners. Regular shop vacs, particularly heavy-duty models, run at around 85 decibels (dB) or more. Quiet-operation wet/dry shop vacs are those that run at around 50 to 70 decibels (dB).

Filter

shop vac filter

The filtration system of a wet/dry shop vac can vary drastically per model. HEPA and water filtration systems are best for allergy sufferers and cleaning fine dust or pet hair debris. However, you may need to maintain, clean, and regularly replace filtration parts in order for the system to work effectively.

Customer Reviews

Not sure if a shop vac works as advertised? Disappointments and surprises can be avoided by browsing through real customer reviews. Sites like Amazon and other retailers allow real buyers to leave their feedback, which can be very insightful. Look for issues mentioned multiple times, particularly regarding build quality and common faults.

Price

As with any appliance or electronic, wet/dry shop vacs can be pricey. Luckily, there is a wide range of brands and models from which to choose. Try to spend a bit more on a reputable brand, known for manufacturing durable shop vacs. Otherwise, your best bet is to go for older or mid-range models, or shop sales if your budget is tight.

Replacement Parts

The cost and availability of replacement parts is also an important consideration when buying a shop vac. If spare parts are expensive or not available, this will cost you more when something goes wrong. Besides static parts, also research the prices and availability of removable parts, like filters, that may need regular changes.

Care Instructions

Electronics and appliances can be either high- or low-maintenance. Try to read up on the wet/dry shop vac’s care instructions before you buy, to find out. Cleaning and emptying shop vac tanks, filters, and the like can take a lot of time and be complex. If you’re someone who hates to spend a lot of time on maintenance, you’ll want a low-maintenance machine.

Materials

The type of materials a wet/dry shop vac is constructed from matter — particularly when it comes to sustainability and durability. Look for shop vacs made from hardy stainless steel or hard-wearing recycled or recyclable plastics. Also, consider the construction of parts like the motor and wheels, which will bear the brunt of the wear and tear.

Warranty

A warranty usually comes standard with the most reputable brand-name electronics and appliances. However, a longer warranty doesn’t necessarily guarantee the wet/dry shop vac is the best quality or build. Look at its materials, construction, and customer reviews to find out more. Plus, do consider whether or not the manufacturer is renowned for its customer service and delivering on replacement and repair promises.

To Conclude

Shop vacs are an excellent investment — both for workshops and homes. Besides cleaning heavy debris that normal vacuum cleaners can’t, some can even deal with liquid spills. Whether you go for a wet/dry or dry model, make sure you follow the above tips to pick out the best option for your tasks.

Caitlin Greyling

Caitlin is a staff writer at Durability Matters.

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