With the enactment last spring of the EPA's Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) rule, contractors are facing a number of new requirements, one of which is to use a HEPA vacuum for cleanup whenever lead-based paint is disturbed. The rule also says that HEPA vacs need to be used with tools that sand or grind lead paint. Contractors should assume that any home built before 1978 contains lead paint unless testing shows it does not.

If you work on older buildings, you may be shopping for your first HEPA vacuum. I bought my first one in 2005, because as a remodeler I was unhappy with the amount of fine dust getting through the filters of my standard wet/dry models. Switching to a better grade of vacuum solved my problem with dust – and now the EPA hopes these vacuums will help solve the more serious problem of lead poisoning.

The RRP has been hotly debated in the building community, and it's not my intention to revive those arguments. The purpose of this article is to help contractors choose the HEPA vacuum that best suits their needs and provides good service over a period of years.

What Is a HEPA Vacuum?

The first thing you'll notice when shopping for HEPA vacs is how much more they cost than the wet/dry models found at most big-box stores. You may be tempted to outfit one of those less-expensive models with an aftermarket HEPA filter – but the machine won't be EPA-compliant if it wasn't designed to be used with a HEPA filter.

EPA standard. According to the EPA, a HEPA vacuum is one "designed with HEPA as the last filtration stage," where "all the air drawn into the machine is expelled through the filter with none of the air leaking past it." The definition is a little awkward, but the point is that general-purpose vacuums are not well-sealed and retrofit filters may not fit properly in them, which could allow lead dust to escape through gaps in the housing or come blasting out in the exhaust air.

The EPA has adopted the industry standard for HEPA filters, defining them as ones designed to stop 99.97 percent of particles down to 0.3 microns in size. Some industrial vacuums can be equipped with ultra-low-particulate air (ULPA) filters. A ULPA filter traps a greater amount (99.999 percent) of even smaller particles than a HEPA filter does and is used in settings like cleanrooms and pharmaceutical labs.

Filter location. In vacuums designed for lead work, the filter is typically placed between the collection bag and the impeller that pulls air through the machine. This negative-pressure location reduces the likelihood of leaks because the filter is pulled tightly against the gaskets. Locating the filter on the other side of the impeller (as is often the case in household vacuums) increases the chance of leaks because this arrangement puts the gaskets and housing under positive pressure.

Which models comply? The EPA does not provide a list of approved vacuums or refer to any testing standards, so it's impossible to certify any particular machine as "RRP-compliant." Fortunately, though, there is some precedent for what kinds of vacuums are likely to be acceptable. The RRP is derived from OSHA standards that nuclear-, lead-, and asbestos-abatement contractors have followed for years. Any vacuum good enough for abatement work is good enough for the RRP. The table in the specifications section on the next page (and on magazine page 34) contains a number of vacuums that appear to meet EPA requirements. Some of the brands (Mastercraft, Minuteman, Nikro, Nilfisk, and Pullman-Holt) may be unfamiliar to general contractors, but they are well-known within the abatement industry.