How Does a Vacuum Cleaner Work?

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The basic mechanism behind the working of a vacuum cleaner is as simple as taking a sip of a drink through a straw. However, the execution of this process is relatively complex, as there are numerous mechanical/technical parts involved.

A vacuum cleaner puts suction to work while cleaning up the dust. The design of a normal vacuum cleaner may appear to be simple, yet it utilizes a wide array of physical principles to perform its function.

In order to make things clear, we are going to explain how a vacuum cleaner works. So let’s start discussing our topic without any further delay.

Components of a Vacuum Cleaner

Prior to understanding the working of a vacuum cleaner, it’s essential to know the basic components of this machine. A conventional vacuum cleaner mainly comprises these six components.

  • The intake port
  • The exhaust port
  • Electric motor
  • Fan
  • Collection bag or bin
  • A housing

What Happens When You Plug in the Vacuum Cleaner?

How does a vacuum cleaner work?

When you turn on the vacuum cleaner, its motor starts to rotate. The fan attached to this motor also starts rotating. The fan blades force the air forward and create a vacuum. This drop in pressure behind the fan creates suction.

The outside air rushes into the intake port of a vacuum cleaner due to the pressure difference. The passage through the vacuum cleaner stays open, allowing a constant stream of air to enter the intake port and come out through exhaust port.

Clean Air vs Direct Air Vacuums

How a vacuum cleaner works depends on the type of motor it has. There are generally two different types: a direct air motor (like those found on a Kirby vacuum) and a bypass motor (like those found on a Dyson or Shark).

Vacuums with direct air motors have more airflow at the floorhead because the fan is located only a few inches away from the carpet. These vacuums work by the fan blowing air and dirt into a bag which captures the dust and filters the air before releasing it back into your home.  You will know a direct air vacuum when you see one as the outer bag inflates when you turn it on. 

By contrast, in a bypass (aka suction or clean air) motor  vacuum the fan is placed after the dirt bin and sucks the air through the filter, bringing dirt along with it. Because the fan is much further away from the floor head, these vacuums have reduced airflow compared to direct air motor vacuums. These are the more common vacuum type you find for sale these days by all the popular brands such as Dyson, Shark, Kenmore, Hoover and Electrolux.

Finally, there are vacuums such as Riccar that combine both clean air and direct air motors to get the benefits that both systems offer. Check out our Riccar Vacuum Reviews for more on this.

Airflow path

How a vacuum air flow works

Now let’s see how this pressure difference helps to pick up the dust particles and debris from the floor or carpet. The basic principle behind this mechanism is friction. The suction created by the fast-moving fan gives rise to a stream of air that constantly flows through the intake.

The stream of air works similarly to a stream of water. The moving air particles start to rub against loosely scattered dust or debris. When the suction is stronger than the weight of debris, the friction carries the debris away into the air intake port of a vacuum cleaner.

As the air containing dirt and debris moves through the exhaust port, it crosses a porous bag. This bag is made up of porous woven material, making it a perfect air filter. The air can easily pass through these tiny holes, but the dust and debris get caught in the bag.

The dust or debris thus collected in the bag is removed once the operation is over. By using this simple principle, manufacturers create a wide range of vacuum cleaners to meet the needs of their clients.

What Affects the Working of a Vacuum Cleaner? 

After learning how a vacuum cleaner works, it’s time to consider the factors affecting the performance of a vacuum cleaner. In many respects, the same factors to consider when buying a vacuum cleaner are relevant here.

Vacuum cleaners suck up dirt and debris by creating a pressure difference. The air stream flows through the filter leaving behind all the dust particles and debris.

Motor Power and Fan Speed

In order to perform flawlessly, the machine should create a powerful suction. This depends on a variety of factors including the speed of a vacuum cleaner’s fan and condition of its air passageway. The speed of a fan is essential to generate the required amount of suction. It relies on the power of the motor rotating the blades.

If the motor is powerful enough to rotate the blades at the required speed, there will be no issue at all. On the contrary, a motor with less power won’t be able to offer a sufficient fan speed. Apart from this, the intake port or air passageway should offer a clear path to the stream of air.

Clear Air Path

When this pathway is blocked due to dust and debris, the air particles will face resistance. As a result, the air speed will slow down. Hence, the friction created by the moving air becomes weak, making it impossible to pick up the dust.

In addition, the size of the intake port also plays a key role while generating a large amount of air pressure and suction. In most of the cases, the fan speed of the vacuum cleaner is constant. Similarly, the amount of airflow also remains constant.

This also suggests that irrespective of the size of the intake port, the same amount of air would pass through the vacuum cleaner. However, when decreasing the size of the intake port, the air particles will move at a great speed.

When the airspeed increases, it drops the pressure in front of the fan, causing the suction to increase. Since narrower intake ports create more suction, people prefer them when cleaning heavy dirt particles and debris.

How Do Bagless Vacuum Cleaners Work? 

How does a bagless vacuum cleaner work?

Vacuum cleaners that come without a dust collection bag are the bagless vacuum cleaners. These machines perform in a similar manner, yet you don’t need to stop the machine and check whether the bag is full of dust or debris, as you can clearly see the dirt and debris while they accumulate in the attached cup. When the dirt load reaches its limit, you just need to empty the cup. 

Bagless vacuum cleaners operate via a cyclonic air filtering system. Sir James Dyson brought these to the retail market in the 1980s with his world first Dyson bagless vacuum cleaners. Since then many other vacuum brands have gone on to use the same cyclonic system. In these vacuums the fan sucks in the dirty air and spins it around at high speed like a centrifuge. Spinning the dirty air is an effective way to separate the dust out of the air. 

How Cyclonic systems in Bagless Vacuums Work

Cyclonic cleaners separate the dust from the air in a detachable cylindrical collection vessel or bin. Air and dust are sucked at high speed into the collection vessel at a direction tangential to the vessel wall, creating a fast-spinning vortex.

The dust particles and other debris move to the outside of the vessel by centrifugal force, where they fall due to gravity. The cleaned air from the center of the vortex is expelled from the machine after passing through a number of successively finer filters at the top of the container. 

The first filter is intended to trap particles which could damage the subsequent filters that remove fine dust particles. The filters must regularly be cleaned and usually replaced every 12 months to ensure that the machine continues to perform efficiently.

Benefits of Bagless Vacuums

After understanding how bagless vacuum cleaners work, let’s take a look at the befits of using this kind of machine.

  • Bagless vacuum cleaners are eco-friendly devices, as their filters are reusable;
  • The cost of running this type of vacuum cleaner is relatively less when compared to the bagged vacuum cleaners.


In this article, we have tried to explain how does a vacuum cleaner work. The basic principle involved during the operation of a vacuum cleaner is the same, yet there are numerous factors that make them differ to some extent.

When buying a vacuum cleaner, make sure to consider your individual needs. If you live in a huge home, opt for the vacuum cleaner with maximum power output. On the other hand, it would be smarter to buy a small machine for small and less-messy homes.

Keen to learn more? Check out our other article about How Robot Vacuums Work. Robot vacuums bring the added complexity of being autonomous and cleaning your home all by themselves. 

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