How to Clean Your Vacuum Filters

If your vacuum isn’t cleaning as well as it used to, a dirty filter may be the culprit. Learn how to clean a variety of vacuum filter styles to keep your machine working its best.

February 24, 2021

Remember that time you turned on the vacuum, proceeded to clean your carpet and then wondered why the room smelled worse than it did when you started? It might be because you overlooked cleaning the vacuum itself. Cleaning objects designed to clean is a fairly ironic chore, but just ask yourself, when’s the last time you cleaned your broom? Or your toothbrush? Or gave the washing machine and dishwasher some TLC? (What else aren't you cleaning?) Today we’re focusing on that smelly vacuum, and in particular, how to clean a variety of filters for the longevity and effectiveness of this much-used small appliance.

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Mimi Hoang, a product manager for Black + Decker Home Products, emphasizes the importance of cleaning your vacuum filters: “Clean filters maintain strong suction and help pick up dirt and debris effectively. Filters that are clogged may severely impact a vacuum cleaner’s performance."

She adds, "we recommend checking and cleaning your filter when emptying the dustbin. It’s also important to replace your filter every six to nine months depending on your cleaning frequency. Keeping your vacuum cleaner free from blockages ensures a top-performing vacuum cleaning system.”

Let’s start by addressing all of the types of vacuum-like appliances you may have at home, and the filters you’ll probably encounter the most:

Your everyday vacuum: It might have a bag, or it might be bagless with a foam filter, and it could also have a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter.

Handheld vacuums: Often bagless with small cartridge filters.

Workshop vacuums: Often fitted with a large cartridge filter, filter bag, reusable disc filters or foam sleeves.

Some basic information to keep in mind:

  • You can definitely extend the life of a filter by cleaning it regularly; manufacturers will suggest that you replace (purchase) new filters with regular frequency, but it’s not always necessary.
  • HEPA filters are an exception. Made of tightly woven materials, cleaning a HEPA filter can damage the fibers, rendering it less effective at blocking microscopic allergens. Purchase a HEPA-quality replacement filter from the manufacturer for the best guarantee.
  • Maintaining a vacuum goes beyond monitoring the filter, but a congested filter and dirty components will contribute stress to the motor, which in turn can affect the life of the appliance.

How to Clean Foam Filters

A bagless or canister vacuum is accompanied by a foam filter that catches dust beneath the easy-to-empty canister. When you remove the canister, you’re likely to see the foam layer that air passes through. The filter in my Shark vacuum is pretty clean with minimal staining, but still helps to demonstrate how the dust moves through the appliance:

How to clean a vacuum filter.

How to Clean a Vacuum Filter

Learn how to clean different types of vacuum filters.

Photo by: Emily Fazio

Emily Fazio

That’s a piece that gets congested with dirty air, capturing dust and debris that might otherwise make it back into your room.

To clean a foam filter, submerge it in water, squeeze it to allow the dirt to escape the foam, and allow it to air dry before putting it back in your vacuum. If you want the room to smell really nice next time you’re vacuuming, add a few drops of essential oil to the foam. Tea tree, lemongrass, peppermint and eucalyptus are just a few of the oils that also possess antibacterial qualities.

Much like a foam filter, if your vacuum is fitted with reusable disc filters, you should make it a point to wash them regularly to allow good airflow. These filters are similar to reusable coffee filters and attach using mounting hardware; we have them on a large workbench vacuum, but you aren't likely to find them on ordinary household vacuums.

How to Clean a Vacuum Bag

If you have an upright vacuum with a bag, that bag is either disposable or reusable. Replacing or cleaning the bag on a vacuum is important for preserving the condition of the motor; when overfilled, the motor has to work harder to operate the appliance. Disposable bags should be replaced before they’re entirely full, but they’re otherwise relatively maintenance-free.

If a bag is reusable, you should empty it out into a large garbage can that can contain the dust. Tap the sides of the reusable bag to ensure that all of the dust has been removed, and for the best results, use a second vacuum to remove dust on both the outer and inner surfaces of the bag. Aim to make it “like new” each time you clean it.

How to Clean a Cartridge Filter (Those Round, Pleated Things)

Both of our handheld vacuums as well as some of our heavy-duty shop vacuums operate with cartridge filters. Those filters, which are usually cylinders of pleated paper or synthetic materials, are technically disposable but can last for a long, long (believe me, long) time with regular cleanings. Removing the dust from a cartridge filter helps to improve the ability for air to pass through, and I can attest, if you take the time to clean the filter after vacuuming dry debris like sawdust and soil, you’re sure to see the difference in performance over time.

How to clean a vacuum filter.

How to Clean a Vacuum Filter

Learn how to clean different types of vacuum filters.

Photo by: Emily Fazio

Emily Fazio

First, remove the cartridge from the vacuum.

Then, without so much force that you’re going to damage it, tap the cartridge against a garbage can to loosen debris caught between the pleats. If it’s been a long time, you might be able to agitate the filter for a good, long while and continue to see sediment fall into the garbage. After it seems clean you can replace it into the vacuum. Like a reusable bag, make it your goal to make the product “like new” each time you clean it.

How to Clean a HEPA Filter

Don’t! Remember: A HEPA filter consists of tightly woven fibers, and washing or scrubbing it is likely to affect the condition of the fibers, which in turn makes the filter less effective at cleaning 99%+ of microscopic particles. When you notice that your HEPA filter is dirty, invest in a store-bought new one.

Hey, overachievers. Here are other tips for keeping a clean vacuum:

Before use, sprinkle the ground with a little homemade carpet cleaner made from 2 cups baking soda, 1/2 cup cornstarch, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1 tablespoon borax, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 2-3 dried bay leaves. Add antibacterial oils — such as the aforementioned peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus or lemongrass oils — to add clean fragrance to the air at the same time.

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Don’t forget to clean the brush roller on your push vacuums. Rollers wrapped in long hairs or matted with pet fur are less effective.

Remember to also clean the inside of your vacuum’s long hose or wand, which can get congested with larger pieces of debris.

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