Wet/dry vacuums don't cut, shape, drill, shoot, or sand. In fact, some people hardly consider them to be "tools" at all. Yet, we expect a lot from them when we have to clean up a jobsite, empty water from a sump-pump pit, or control dust and shavings from a random orbit sander. For a tool that seems to just sit there and tangle you up in its hose, a wet/dry vacuum sees hard action before being slammed back in the truck.
I pull a wet/dry vac out of my truck so often that giving these units a workout was easy. I tested nine models over $200: the Bosch 3931, Craftsman 17050, Fein 9-55-13, Festool CT22, Hitachi RP30SA, Makita XSV10, Milwaukee 8912, Porter-Cable 7814, and the Shop-Vac 925-63-10. I ran them through both dry and wet pickup testing in jobsite conditions, and during timed shop tests. I compared their mobility, filter change, and cleanout, hoses, accessories, and extra features. I evaluated each unit's ability to swallow coarse and fine debris, move easily, and work with shop tools and sanders.
Dry Pickup. After a month working the vacuums, it was clear they all can handle most tasks, but, when it comes to power, more is better. To get a sense of which tools would devour the most junk, I filled a bucket with nails, screws, washers, and bolts, and then sucked the contents up with each unit. The Milwaukee, Craftsman, Festool, and Bosch had power to spare. They didn't choke at all, though Craftsman's motor was louder than the others. The Fein, Hitachi, Makita, and Porter-Cable each needed some prodding and hose shaking to get everything down, but they swallowed it all, too. Only the Shop-Vac couldn't empty the bucket because the debris accumulated in the hose bends. The vacs that showed the best power in the controlled test also proved to be tops in general use, sucking up both coarse and fine debris.
Blower. Though most of the time vacuums suck up debris, it's convenient to move air the other way to get dust and material off a project. The Craftsman, Festool, Milwaukee, and Shop-Vac units all have useful blower features that work well. They even have enough power to blow the vac filters clean, but because hitting them with forced air creates such a dusty mess I usually only shake the filters out manually. The other units do not have blowers.
Wet Pickup. I tested each vac's ability to gather water off a concrete floor and a newly laid stone floor. I also timed how long it took each unit to empty a 3-gallon bucket of water. The Craftsman has the strongest wet suction by a small margin, with the Bosch, Festool, Milwaukee, and Fein are just behind it. The Porter-Cable, Hitachi, and Makita also have good water pickup. The Shop-Vac emptied the bucket, just not as quickly as the others.
Switching from dry to wet pickup requires changing the filter or adding an adapter on the Craftsman, Fein, Festool, Hitachi, Milwaukee, and Shop-Vac units. Each system works easily and well. The Bosch, Porter-Cable, and Makita vacs save a step and don't need any special setup for wet work. You just need to be sure that these units are empty and the filters are clean before using them for wet pickup.
Once you've picked up all that water, it's nice to have a drain valve in the base of the tank to empty it out. The Bosch, Craftsman, Porter-Cable, and Shop-Vac models have tank drains. Porter-Cable's arrangement includes a short hose attached to the drain so you can aim it down a floor drain–a nice touch.
The Festool, Fein, Hitachi, Makita, and Milwaukee units require you to remove the motor head and tip the tank over. The Festool is clumsy to empty, and Fein's inward-sloping tank sides make it awkward to empty completely.
Stability, Cords, Hoses, & Nozzles
Stability. I tested the stability of the vacuums by giving each hose some strong jerks and tugging them around the shop and site by the hose to get at various messes. The Craftsman and Makita units capsized the most easily, and the taller, thinner Porter-Cable wobbled precariously when tugged by the hose in messy environments where I had to roll over cords, wires, or other obstacles. The Festool, with its low-profile design, is super-stable.