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Canister vs. Upright Vacuum: Which One Is Right for You?

From power level to ease of use, we break down the advantages and disadvantages of canister vacuums & upright vacuums so that you can choose the best cleaning device for your home.
Woman using a Vacuum

Getting Started

Canister and upright vacuum cleaners get their names from the design of the device. Upright vacuums are all-in-one devices of a sort. They stand upright, balancing on the power head/power nozzle (the part that sucks). The power head, dirt container, and handle are all attached as parts of the same unit.
Canister vacuums separate the motor and dirt container from the handle and (power) head. A hose connects the handle and head to a canister which houses the motor and dirt container.
The choice of canister vs. upright vacuums depends heavily upon your usage, personal preference, and budget. Canister vacuums are usually quieter, provide better suction for bare floors, and cost more. Upright vacuums, on the other hand, are efficient carpet cleaners, less expensive, and easier to move and store. Keep reading for a full breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Woman using a Canister Vacuum

Canister Vacuums

Advantages of Canister Vacuums

Noise Level

Whichever style you choose, vacuum cleaners are loud. Average models put out roughly 70 decibels of noise. For reference, that's about as loud as a flushing toilet. Canister vacuums are usually quieter than that average—around 60-65 decibels.
Contrast that with the quietest upright vacuums which clock in at about 70 decibels. While a few dBs might not seem like much, the decibel scale is logarithmic. Simply put, 73 dB is twice as loud as 70 dB and half as loud as 76 dB. If you or anyone in your household is especially sensitive to noise, canister vacuums are the clear choice.

Weight and Maneuverability

In general, canister vacuums tend to be slightly lighter than upright models. While the difference might only be a few of pounds, the design of canister vacuums makes them feel much lighter. Rather than pushing and pulling the full device across the floor, the majority of a canister vacuum sits stationary while you use the lightweight wand and the attached head to clean.
This difference is especially noticeable when vacuuming stairs and tight spaces. If you're looking for an even lighter option, you may want to consider a handheld or stick model.

Manageable, Retractable Cords

Almost all canister vacuums offer retractable cords which hide inside the canister when not in use. This feature provides the vacuum with a cleaner appearance and reduces the chances of tripping over the cord. If you've ever done this, you know how annoying and potentially painful it can be.

Suction Power

Canister vacuums generally have more suction power than upright models. This power makes them particularly well suited for cleaning bare floors. And while they're also efficient at cleaning carpets, upright vacuums, especially models that use collection bags, tend to be more effective carpet cleaners.

Disadvantages of Canister Vacuums

Not Easy to Store

Although the wand and head of a canister vacuum is more maneuverable than upright vacuums, the canister itself can be cumbersome. Rather than having a single unit to move around, you have two pieces to worry about. For small spaces, the hose connecting the canister to the wand is usually long enough that you won't have to move the canister much.
But if you're vacuuming the whole house, you'll have to roll or carry the canister from room to room. If you aren't careful, the canister can easily bang into and scuff up walls or furniture. For folks with back issues, it's also important to note that canister vacuums are low to the ground and many require you bend over when turning them on or off.

Bulky Design

Because of their disjointed design, canister vacuums are not as easy to store. Upright models typically balance on their head, making them easy to tuck away in a closet. While the canister portion of a canister vacuum is stable enough, the hose, wand, and head generally can't stand on their own accord. They should still fit in just about any closet, just know that they'll take up a bit more space and the wands/heads have a habit of falling over if they aren't carefully balanced.
Upright Vacuums

Upright Vacuums

Advantages of Upright Vacuums

Easy to Use

The one-piece design of upright vacuums makes them easier to move from room to room. Rather than bending down to deal with the canister, the handle on upright vacuums lets you push, pull, or carry the whole device with a single hand.

Easy to Store

Upright vacuums can easily stand up on their own inside a closet or anywhere else you have a place for them. Some models even offer customized wall mounts that help free up floor space in your mudroom, garage, or wherever your vacuum lives.

Large Vacuum Head

The large head that allows upright vacuums to balance on their own also comes in handy when vacuuming large areas. Its wide footprint makes it easy to quickly clean even the largest rooms.

Easy to Empty and Clean

Most upright vacuum models are bagless, built instead with plastic receptacles that can snap in and out of place. This makes them significantly easier to clean once you've finished collecting all the dirt and debris.

Disadvantages of Upright Vacuums

Noise Level

As discussed above, upright vacuums are almost always louder than canister vacuums. You can still find a quiet upright vacuum rated around 70 decibels. But in general, their unibody design makes it hard to muffle the sound from the motor.

Weight

Upright vacuums can weigh 20 lbs or more. That might not sound like too heavy given that you don't have to fully lift them off the ground very often. But their weight becomes more and more noticeable the longer you vacuum. However, there are some lightweight upright models weighing just 10 pounds. If weight is a big concern, a cordless stick vacuum could be a better choice than either a canister or upright model.

Maneuverability

Unlike canister vacuums, upright vacuums can't reach all those corners and crevices. Sure, you can add attachments, but it can still be awkward to reach behind and around furniture. Stairs are also a pain to vacuum with an upright. They require you to lift their heavy frame from step to step. Plus, their wide head might be bigger than the steps themselves which can make balancing the vacuum a bit tricky.
And don't forget about the power cord. Most upright vacuums do not include a retractable cord. Instead they tend to have hooks around which you can wrap the loose cord. Because of this, the cord is far more likely to get tangled and/or become a trip hazard.

Furthermore

We hope this canister vs upright vacuum breakdown has helped you understand the differences between the two designs. While each has their strengths, you should now have a good sense of which style best fits your home and cleaning style. If you want to learn more about vacuums and their various features, our Vacuum Cleaner Buying Guide is a great place to start.

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