Since the EPA’s Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule regarding lead-paint dust and debris went into effect in 2010, remodelers, installers, and painters working in houses built before 1978 have been in need of HEPA vacs that meet the requirements of the rule. Part of the cleanup requirement for RRP jobs includes removing dust from the ceilings, trim, walls, and floors of the work area before it can be tested for final clearance. A vacuum cleaner isn’t required on RRP jobs for cleanup. However, if you are sanding or using another power tool to remove painted wood on an RRP site, you are required to use a tool that’s connected to a certified HEPA vac. The models in this test are tool-triggered models made by name-brand power-tool companies and specifically designed—and certified—by the manufacturers to meet the requirements of the RRP rule.
Because power-tool brands were cautious of health and safety liability issues, it took a while—a few years in some cases—for them to be willing to state that their vac and filter together meet the EPA’s rather vague definition of a vac suitable for collecting and containing lead dust. Some found that their existing vac fitted with a high-quality HEPA filter would meet the requirements, while other brands sought new models to meet the new challenges. (I say brands here instead of manufacturers because only DeWalt and Festool make their own units; the others are sourced from European vac companies.)
The EPA doesn’t qualify or approve any vacs; it just states three simple requirements: the HEPA filter rating; that the vac is 100% efficient at moving all air through the filter; and that users comply fully with manufacturer’s instructions. Get any of these wrong and you’re not in compliance with the RRP Rule.
Concern for the safe pickup of dust containing crystalline silica from drilling and grinding concrete has also pushed the development of these jobsite vacs. With OSHA regulations requiring more-stringent exposure limits for crystalline silica currently in the works, HEPA filtration vacs like the ones in this test may soon be required for jobs involving concrete and masonry. As wet/dry vacs, each of these units can be used for dry dust extraction through a tool shroud, or for collecting the slurry created when working wet. There are even special slurry filter bags that contain the muddy particles for disposal, but allow the bulk of the water to be drained from the vac’s canister.
The vacs in my test are best defined as tool-activated dust-extracting/dust-collecting HEPA vacuums, and they’re really a different class of tool from common utility or “shop” vacuums used for general cleanup. Dust-collecting vacs use high-efficiency filters and can make use of paper or fleece fabric bags to contain debris and also act as a pre-filter to keep dust from reaching an expensive HEPA filter. In addition, the vacs have a few key features optimized for collecting dust directly from a power tool, such as a sander, grinder, or drill. This includes a tool-activated circuit that starts and stops the vac when the attached tool is turned on and off, and a thinner hose than those found on most cleanup vacs.
I chose vacs from Bosch, DeWalt, Fein, Festool, Makita, and Metabo. We looked only at HEPA vac models that are rated by each company to meet RRP requirements. However, versions of these same models are also available with standard filters for all but the DeWalt. And the Bosch and Makita vacs are sold only as “HEPA-ready” with standard filters, so you must buy and install the manufacturer’s HEPA filters to make them qualify.
I ran the vacs through a battery of tests devised to evaluate strengths and weaknesses (see “Performance Tests”). But first I made some basic measurements, of which a few key ones affecting dust pick-up are summarized in the charts.
Airflow is the volume of air being pulled through the vac over time and is typically measured in cubic feet per minute (cfm). The flow of air does the actual work of collecting and then moving dust and debris through the hose and can be slowed down by friction from things such as a longer hose, a narrower hose, or a clogged bag or filter. Too little airflow in the system makes for no work being done. I calculated my measurements based on air-velocity readings from a high-speed anemometer I mounted in the center of a tube with approximately the same internal diameter as the average size of the hoses of the vacs in the test. Since different hoses (with different amounts of friction) can be used with the vacs, I tested the range of airflow values directly at the canister hose inlet at the lowest and highest motor speeds, as well as the maximum airflow at the end of the provided hoses.
Air velocity correlates to how well the moving airstream can grab dust particles. The higher the velocity, the more force there is to change a particle’s trajectory. It is measured with the anemometer mentioned above.
To evaluate how this changed as the filters became caked with dust, I measured air velocity after the “loose dust” test, described on page 22. Those systems with automatic filter-cleaning systems performed best. It should be noted here that the Bosch does have a filter-cleaning system, but it cannot be used with the HEPA filter. With a standard filter and the filter-cleaning system active, I measured air velocity at 165 feet/second, indicating plenty of dust-handling capacity for non-RRP jobs.
The loose dust test gave me the perfect opportunity to see if any dust leaked past the filters or escaped elsewhere from any of the vacs, which proved to be a key rating in the final evaluation of these vacs for RRP work.
Suction—or more accurately, static lift—is the maximum amount of pull a vac can exert at stall-out and is represented in units of “inches of water.” This literally represents the number of inches the vac’s suction could lift a column of water. It’s not the most important indicator of vac performance, however, since it’s a measurement of force that’s at its highest when no air is moving through the system. For example, the maximum suction of a vac remains the same even if a vac is clogged and can barely move any air. Its usefulness can best be thought of as the reserve power needed to keep airflow up when under load. I measured the range of suction with a vacuum (negative pressure) gauge attached to the ends of the vac hoses at the lowest and highest motor speed settings. (Note: Measured at 5,300 feet elevation, my readings are lower than those at sea level.)
Noise was measured with a digital sound-level meter and expressed in decibels (dBA). The meter was placed 8 feet from each vac, which was running at full motor speed and had the same brush nozzle attached to the hose. Some of the smaller hose ends whistled loudly, and placing a nozzle against a surface while cleaning often raises the noise level significantly, so the noise close to the source may be much louder than the recorded levels.
For selecting and using a jobsite vac, here are some basic features to keep in mind:
Size. These are the largest HEPA models available from each brand except Festool, which offers the same vac head with a deeper canister. (Bosch and Festool also have shorter canister versions.)
Tool-triggered operation. All of these vacs can be set to turn on and off by means of the switch of a power tool plugged into the onboard outlet. The vacs continue to run for several seconds after the tool is switched off to clear the hose of dust. You should make sure that the combined current draw of the vac and the connected tool under load don’t exceed a vac’s 15-amp-rated cord (12 amps for Festool and Makita), even if you are plugged into a 20-amp circuit.
Variable-speed operation. Every unit except the Fein has a variable motor speed dial. To deliver more current to the attached tool, you can turn down the speed of the vac. The numbers on the Bosch and Metabo dials approximate the amp draw of the vac; with the rest, you must guesstimate.
There are operations, such as collecting dust from a random orbit sander, when reducing the vacuum power is helpful. Too much suction arrests the free movement of the pad, which slows down the sanding and causes swirl marks. Adjustable vents on the hose ends of the Bosch and the Fein let you reduce suction without changing the motor speed, and the vents have the added benefit of picking up ambient dust around the connected tool or nozzle, as well.
Automatic filter cleaning. Vacs gathering dust without a filter bag installed pack dust around their filters and can benefit from mechanical filter-cleaning features such as those found on the Bosch, DeWalt, Makita, and Metabo units.
The Metabo uses a hi-tech system with pressure sensors on either side of the filter that trigger the cleaning cycle when a pressure difference of a certain magnitude is detected. The filters are shaken up and down with the rapid cycling of electromagnets positioned above steel inserts at the top of the filters. When the cleaning cycle no longer relieves the pressure differential, a warning light on the front of the vac illuminates to remind the user to empty the vac or check if the hose is blocked. Judging by the measured air-velocity results after the fine-dust test, this system is effective in practice.
For the Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita, the cleaning system works by shutting off the suction to a filter briefly, which causes a puff of air to flow backwards through the filter and flush it as the pressure equalizes. These systems cycle continuously on timers every 15 seconds for the Bosch and Makita and every 30 seconds for the DeWalt, whether the filters are clean or clogged. The Makita requires full motor speed for its cleaning cycle, so if the variable speed dial is turned down, the motor will only run at the desired speed for 10 seconds before ramping back up to full speed for five seconds.
The filter-cleaning systems can be turned off on the Bosch and Metabo vacs but cannot be bypassed on the DeWalt and Makita vacs.
Wet pickup. As wet/dry vacs, any of these units can be used for slurping up liquids. The DeWalt requires its filters to be removed for this operation and Festool recommends the use of a special wet filter, but the HEPA filters can be left in for the rest of the vacs. Each unit is protected against overfilling. Electrical contacts within the Bosch, Fein, Festool, and Metabo vacs shut the units off when conductive liquids reach the contacts. The Makita shutoff relies on a dangling tube connected to a pressure sensor designed to work for all liquids, and the DeWalt has simple ball floats that suck up against seals when they get high enough. When you hear the motor high-revving, you must turn the vac off manually. In addition to offering special slurry bags made for wet particle collection and disposal, Bosch alone has a drain tube on its vac, which makes it easier to remove liquids without lifting and tipping the canister.
Anti-static hoses. This is a feature of the hose as well as the vac. To avoid shocks generated when picking up a large volume of statically charged particles quickly, the vacs from DeWalt, Festool, and Makita come with anti-static hoses made with conductive plastic (which are available from Bosch and Metabo as optional accessories, but not from Fein). The ground path from the hose requires a connection between the lower canister section and the upper motor section through metal contacts located above the hose inlet, so keep in mind that wrapping a plastic liner bag over the contacts may disable this feature. The contacts on the Festool and Makita are outside the canister on the far side of a channel the bag slips into, and the Bosch has a sharp contact prong, but the DeWalt and Metabo vacs require you to cut a small hole in a liner bag to ensure that the anti-static function works.
Euro-style hoses. The vacs in the test are sold with slender “European style” dust-collecting hoses (similar in size to the domestic 1?¹/4-inch class hoses), but come without nozzles and extension tubes.
With the same airflow from a vac, a thinner hose creates much faster air velocity, and that speedy air reaches out and grabs dust particles better than a larger area of relatively slow-moving air. The trade-off, however, is that large debris gets clogged easily in a thinner hose.
For most vacs, you can always use a larger 2 1/4-inch vac hose to make cleaning up larger debris faster and easier. I’ve been using European vacs for years and have often been frustrated when a single wood chip or drywall screw lodged against the hose end inside the nozzle and stopped my progress. So I began attaching a 2 1/4-inch hose to my Euro vac whenever I need to pick up wood chips and shavings. It makes a huge difference in productivity—even small offcuts and nails will zoom through the fat hose with ease. For cleaning up anything finer or collecting airborne sawdust from a power tool, I switch to the Euro hose, thus getting double duty from the same vac.
A few types of bags are available for containing waste inside the vacs.
Disposable plastic liner bags have a side hole that is fitted to the vac’s inlet port, and then the bag is draped over the rim of the vac canister just like a garbage can liner bag. When the bag’s full, the inlet hole must be sealed and then the mouth of the bag must be gathered in and tied shut. One other problem with these bags is that air sometimes leaks in around them and causes the bag to suck up tightly against the filter. To prevent this, the Metabo vac has a special vent at the inlet port that must be set for use with plastic liner bags.
Paper or fleece fabric filter bags allow air to pass through so they are fully enclosed except for the inlet hole. Since all of the dust and debris flow into these bags first, they act as a pre-filter, capturing all of the debris and all but the finest dust—but only if they are connected properly throughout the time the bag is loading. A loose connection to the bag will cause dust to take the path of least resistance and fly right into the HEPA filter. Opening the canister regularly to check the filter bag’s connection is a good practice. The fleece bags I used from each brand have thin rubber seals at the inlet, but the weight of the debris being packed in can cause a bag to settle down and tug at the inlet hole. Bags can also shift during transport, so it’s good to check the connection after carrying the vac around.
Fleece filter bags are preferable to paper ones since the thickness of the fabric is designed to let more air through and because they are less likely to tear when heavily loaded. In addition, the extra weight of the fabric is said to collapse inward and dislodge attached dust once the vacuum is turned off. Once full, the built-in closure at the bag’s inlet hole helps keep the mess to a minimum for disposal.
In placement order, the Festool and Metabo occupy the top tier, the Bosch and DeWalt the mid-tier, followed by the Fein and Makita.
It was difficult to pinpoint the best-performing vac in all aspects and trials, but I kept three things in mind when tallying the results. First, use on RRP jobs means these vacs will be used with a filter bag. Second, different-diameter hoses can be swapped easily for different tasks, which separates slow pickup issues that could be fixed with a different hose from issues that were real deal breakers. And third, in the context of using these HEPA vacs to collect and contain dangerous lead paint dust, filter effectiveness is of utmost importance.
The winning Festool was the only vac in the test that didn’t allow any captured dust to escape around its filter or anywhere else. In addition, the Festool has the largest filter-bag capacity and loaded its bag more evenly than most, which cut down on time spent dealing with the bag along the way. The availability of many different hoses and attachment kits from Festool makes for a particularly versatile vac system as well.
The other top performers were the Metabo, DeWalt, and Bosch. The Metabo is a solid unit that performed well in every way, and its filter-cleaning system that cycles only when needed proved effective and efficient.
The Bosch is a great vac, but its main annoyance is that its filter-cleaning system must be turned off manually every time you turn on the vac. If you forget, the cleaning cycle will damage the HEPA filter and filter bags.
The DeWalt has a great jobsite design, but major filter leaks with an earlier Type I model had me write off this vac as unusable until a retest on a newer, Type II model proved the problem was fixed. The inconveniences of too-small filter bags and proprietary hose connections that are incompatible with common hoses and nozzles remain, however.