How to Clean Your Vacuum Filters

Seriously, the vacuum filter is one thing you’re probably forgetting.

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Remember that time you turned on the vacuum, proceeded to clean your home carpet, and wondered why the room smelled worse than it did when you started? It might be because you’ve overlooked cleaning your vacuum itself. Cleaning objects designed to clean is a fairly ironic chore, but just ask yourself, when’s the last time you cleaned your broom? Cleaned your toothbrush? Or gave the washing machine and dishwasher some TLC? (What else aren't you cleaning?) Today we’re focusing in on that smelly vacuum, and in particular, how to clean a variety of filters for the longevity and effectiveness of this much-used small appliance. 

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Photo by: Emily Fazio ©2017

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Mimi Hoang, a Product Manager for BLACK+DECKER Home Products reinforced the importance of cleaning your vacuum filters, sharing that “clean filters maintain strong suction and help pick up dirt and debris effectively. Filters that are clogged may severely impact a vacuum cleaner’s performance."

She adds, "we recommend checking and cleaning your filter when emptying the dustbin. It’s also important to replace your filter every six to nine months depending on your cleaning frequency. Keeping your vacuum cleaner free from blockages ensures a top performing vacuum cleaning system.”

Let’s start by addressing all of the types of vacuum-like appliances you may have at home, and the filters you’ll probably encounter the most:

Your everyday vacuum: It might have a bag, or it might be bagless with a foam filter, and it could also have a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter.

Handheld vacuums: Often bagless with small cartridge filters

Workshop vacuums: often fitted with a large cartridge filter, filter bag, reusable disc filters, or foam sleeves

Some basic information to keep in mind:

  • You can definitely extend the life of a filter by cleaning it regularly; manufacturers will suggest that you replace (purchase) new filters with regular frequency, but it’s not always necessary.
  • HEPA filters are an exception. Made of tightly-woven materials, cleaning a HEPA filter can damage the fibers, rendering it less effective at blocking microscopic allergens. Purchase a HEPA-quality replacement filter from the manufacturer for the best guarantee.
  • Maintaining a vacuum goes beyond monitoring the filter, but a congested filter and dirty components will contribute stress to the motor, which in turn can affect the life of the appliance.
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How to Clean Foam Filters

A bagless or canister vacuum is accompanied by a foam filter that catches dust beneath the easy-to-empty canister. When you remove the canister, you’re likely to see the foam layer that air passes through. The filter in my Shark vacuum is pretty clean with minimal staining, but still helps to demonstrate how the dust moves through the appliance:

How to clean a vacuum filter.

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Photo by: Emily Fazio

Emily Fazio

That’s a piece that gets congested with dirty air, capturing dust and debris that might otherwise make it back into your room.

To clean a foam filter, submerge it in water, squeeze it to allow the dirt to escape the foam, and allow it to air dry before putting it back in your vacuum. If you want the room to smell really nice next time you’re vacuuming, add a few drops of essential oil to the foam – tea tree, lemongrass, peppermint and eucalyptus are just a few of the oils that also possess antibacterial qualities.

Much like a foam filter, if your vacuum is fitted with reusable disc filters you should make it a point to wash them regularly to allow good air flow. These filters are similar to reusable coffee filters and attach using mounting hardware; we have them on a large workbench vacuum, but you aren't bound to find them on ordinary household vacuums.

How to Clean a Vacuum Bag

If you have an upright vacuum with a bag, that bag is either disposable, or designed to be reusable. Replacing or cleaning the bag on a vacuum is important because for preserving the condition of the motor; when overfilled, the motor has to work harder to operate the appliance. Disposable bags should be replaced before they’re entirely full, but they’re otherwise relatively maintenance-free. 

If a bag is reusable, you should empty it out into a large garbage can that can contain the dust. Tap the sides of the reusable bag to ensure that all of the dust has been removed, and for the best results, use a second vacuum to remove dust on both the outer and inner surfaces of the bag. Aim to make it “like new” each time you clean it.

How to Clean a Cartridge Filter (Those Round, Pleated Things)

Both of our handheld vacuums as well as some of our heavy-duty shop vacuums operate with cartridge filters. Those filters, which are usually cylinders of pleated paper or synthetic materials are technically disposable, but can last for a long, long (believe me, long) time with regular cleanings. Removing the dust from a cartridge filter helps to improve the ability for air to pass through, and I can attest, if you take the time to clean the filter after vacuuming dry debris like sawdust and soil, you’re sure to see the difference in performance over time. 

How to clean a vacuum filter.

How to Clean a Vacuum Filter

Learn how to clean different types of vacuum filters.

Photo by: Emily Fazio

Emily Fazio

First, remove the cartridge from the vacuum. 

Then, without so much force that you’re going to damage it, tap the cartridge against a garbage can to loosen debris caught between the pleats. If it’s been a long time, you might be able to agitate the filter for a good, long while and continue to see sediment fall into the garbage. After it seems clean you can replace it into the vacuum. Like with a reusable bag, make it your goal to make the product “like new” each time you clean it.

How to Clean a HEPA filter

Don’t! Remember: A HEPA filter consists of tightly-woven fibers, and washing or scrubbing it is likely to affect the condition of the fibers, which in turn makes the filter less effective at cleaning 99%+ of microscopic particles. When you notice that your HEPA filter is dirty, invest in a store-bought new one.

Hey overachievers. Here are other tips for keeping a clean vacuum:

Before use, sprinkle the ground with a little homemade carpet cleaner. Add antibacterial oils–such as the aforementioned peppermint/tea tree/eucalytpus/lemongrass oils–to do double duty, and add clean fragrance to the air at the same time.

Don’t forget to clean the brush roller on your push vacuums. Rollers wrapped in long hairs or matted with pet fur are less effective.

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Remember to clean the inside of your vacuum’s long hose or wand, which can get congested with larger pieces of debris.

Tips for Cleaning Fast

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Make a Schedule and Stick to It

Set aside a specific time to get your chores done. "Nobody hires a cleaning service that promises to arrive some random Saturday when nothing else is happening," Cynthia Townley Ewer, author ofHouseworks, says, "Take a tip from the pros and set up a regular cleaning schedule. Pros don’t quit until the job is done. Schedule the job and stick to it to get the work done in record time."

Photo By: Ljupco Smokovski

Find a Motivator

Cynthia suggests using motivators to prevent distraction and head off boredom. "Play your favorite upbeat music. Listen to a book on tape so you'll feel as if you're accomplishing two tasks at once."

Photo By: Yuri Arcurs

Dress for Success

Professional cleaners dress in comfortable, washable clothing designed for work. Supportive shoes and kneepads spare their bodies. Goggles and gloves protect against chemicals. Throw out the bleach-stained sweatshirts, and create a cleaning uniform that includes shoes, gloves and eye protection.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

Invest in Proper Tools

"Professional cleaners don’t use gadgets. You’ll never find them toting specialized one-time-use tools or the latest gimmick hawked on a TV infomercial," according to Cynthia. "Buy good tools — once — and use them, and you’ll be finished in record time."

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Simplify Supplies

"There's a reason the pros can tote all the products they need in one tray," Cynthia explains "They've simplified their cleaning products down to four basic supplies:

  • Powdered abrasive cleanser
  • Tile and bathroom cleaner
  • Heavy-duty degreasing cleaner
  • Light-duty evaporating cleaner (glass cleaner or multi-surface cleaner)

That's it! No soap scum remover, no special counter spray, no single-use products designed to clean only blinds or fans or walls. The professionals know that with these four simple products they'll be able to handle any ordinary cleaning chore."

Photo By: Aimee Lane

Tote Your Tools

For efficiency sake, professional cleaners tote all their tools with them. All their tools — cleansers, brushes and rags — are right there in the tote tray. Vacuum, mop and mini-vac wait in the doorway. A plastic bag for trash is tucked into a pocket, next to the waving lamb's wool duster. That’s why the pro has finished the entire bathroom before our amateur makes it back up the stairs with the powdered cleanser.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Kaspars Grinvalds

Minimize Your Movement

"Professional cleaners don’t circle a room more than once. Taking their place before the bathroom sink, they’ll spray and wipe the mirror, scrub the sink, wipe down counters and polish fixtures before they move one inch to the right or left," says Cynthia.

"Don’t get physical with your cleaning sessions; make every movement count. Stand fast and clean everything in your path before you move on."

Photo By: Lise Gagné

Pick It Up Before You Clean

"Professional cleaners come to clean, not to tidy counters, furniture, appliances and floors. They can’t do the job if each horizontal surface in the home is covered with papers, toys, dirty dishes and just plain clutter," Cynthia explains. "Pretend that you’ve hired a high-priced cleaning crew. You wouldn’t make them relocate the clutter just to be able to do their job. Give yourself the same head start — pick up before you clean."

Photo By: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Two Hands Are Better Than One

"The pros don’t work as if one arm is in a sling and neither should you. Get in the habit of using both hands to attack cleaning tasks," advises Cynthia.

"Spray a mirror with one hand; wipe it down with the other. Scrub counters with two sponges or cleaning cloths. Dusting goes twice as fast when a lamb's wool duster in one hand cleans nooks and crannies while the cleaning cloth in the other skims flat surfaces."

Photo By: Shutterstock/SpeedKingz


Two people make a bed four times faster than one. Two or three can make short work of an average home. Make cleaning a group effort. Family members are more reluctant to mess up a clean house when they have been part of the cleaning effort!

Photo By: Zing Images/Getty Images

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