Choke test. I wanted to see how these tools resisted choking on large piles of sawdust in my shop. I had been planing a lot of cherry and the shop was full of shavings, so I plugged the vacs in and got to work. This was a great environment for the dust-hungry big boys. The Fein tool's smaller hose easily clogged with clumped shavings. When I switched to the 2 1/2-inch hose, it kept pace with the larger tools. Using the larger hose caused a power drop-off, but it still sucked up big stuff. The bulkier units fared significantly better in this mess due to their larger motors and larger holding capacities. They finished this test in the following order: Shop-Vac, Ridgid, Craftsman, Fein, and Love-Less.
Next, I hooked the vacs up to my sanders, band saw, table saw, and planer. Due to their switchable hoses, the Fein and Shop-Vac units were the only ones that caught debris from each of my dust outlets. The Fein vac easily moved around the shop. The taller, thinner, 18-gallon Shop-Vac gobbled up about as much dust as I could throw at it through both hoses. I like the Shop-Vac's switch. It's easy to get to when you're working with a tool and need to activate or deactivate the vac.
Noise. Noise and power go hand-in-hand in this group. The Craftsman, Ridgid, and Shop-Vac units are at the top of the power scale, and they're all loud. The Fein and Love-Less vacs are quieter. The Fein's so quiet you can carry on a conversation with the thing running right next to you. Noise is okay for a big jobsite, but it gets on your nerves in the shop. The Ridgid unit comes with a baffle that seriously cuts its noise levels and also serves as an exhaust deflector. Wet Pick-Up
Wet floor. Mother Nature was kind enough to give me 5 inches of rain, which flooded my basement and let me try out the vacs' water-sucking capabilities. I soon found that hoisting the smaller 6-gallon can into my utility sink to empty it was a lot easier than power-lifting the 16- or 18-gallon models over the edge.
Good accessories make all the difference here, too. The Fein and Ridgid vacs come with high-quality rubber squeegees that gather water from concrete. The Love-Less vac has a regulated drain plug that accepts the suction hose. This plug allows you to attach the 12-foot suction hose to the fitting, then drain liquid through the hose without spilling anything. The Shop-Vac, Craftsman, and Ridgid units also have drain plugs, but none of the companies' manuals tell you how to use them.
Bucket race. To test pure suction power, I led each model to a 5-gallon bucket filled with water and let it drink. Here's how they line up for water removal: Shop-Vac, Ridgid, Craftsman, Love-Less, and Fein. Winners
You get the most suck for your buck with the Fein vac. The manufacturer's attention to detail makes this tool a dream to operate. It's highly mobile and doesn't bang against things. The hose is flexible yet tough, and stores nicely. The vac comes with two hose sizes that lock to the housing. The paper vac bag option ensures clean drywall dust pick-up. The power is good, the accessories are high quality, and it's quiet. Next comes the Shop-Vac, which performed very well in the shop. The Love-Less Ash vac gobbled tons of drywall dust, while the Ridgid gobbled tons of everything. Last but not least, the low-rolling, stable Craftsman had plenty of power.
Todd Maynard is a Nantucket Island, Mass.-based remodeler.