The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Non-Toxic Avenger: What you don't know can hurt you, due out Fall 2011 from New Society Publishers and available for pre-order from Amazon. The book follows my attempts to rid everything potentially toxic from my life.
Just as we started this project, our vacuum cleaner of twenty years finally presented itself beyond repair. In other words, it kicked the bucket. I much prefer trying to fix something rather than throwing it out and buying a new one. Since this was a nice canister vacuum and replacing it would be expensive, we had opted in the past to get it repaired. A few years ago the motor on the carpet attachment burned out because I decided to vacuum our long wool flokati rug one too many times. And then the main motor burned out, so we took the whole thing in for repair, which was more difficult than it sounded.
Our dead vacuum was a Kenmore and apparently it was not legal for most vacuum repair shops to work on Kenmore vacuums – it had to be taken to a special Sears repair shop. There weren’t too many of these shops in our area and trying to schedule and arrange a weekday drop-off and pick-up was a pain but, for less than the price of a new one, we got it fixed and got a few more years out of it. Then the vacuum hose started falling apart and popped out frequently. When it wasn’t popping out the hose, it was dropping pieces that held the electrical cord in it. In any case, it was a good time to replace it.
Fortunately, replacing our vacuum was high on my list of things to do for this project because I wanted to get a true HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) sealed system vacuum. It all sounds very technical but basically I was looking for a vacuum with a HEPA filter that filtered particulates as small as .3 microns and that was housed in a sealed construction so that the particulates vacuumed up couldn’t escape out the back end. This is potentially a problem in non-sealed system vacuums. I didn’t want to spend the money on a purportedly “HEPA” vacuum only to find out that it just picked up big chunks and then shot the smaller bits right back out again.
The benefits of having an extremely effective vacuum and, of course, using it frequently, has to do with the fact that most household dust contains a whole lot of lead, PFOS (Scotchgard and the like) and PBDEs (flame retardants). These are the most common contaminants of concern. The lead comes from paint chipping, carpeting and dirt carried in from outside. The PFOS comes from stain resistant coating on carpeting and furniture. PBDEs come from electronic dust from computers, televisions, monitors and the like and the flame retardants that poof out from your furniture every time you sit down on something that contains foam. So, unless you have only wood chairs and non-padded church pews to sit on, it is in pretty much everything else. And, since this project didn’t include us replacing all of our padded furniture, it was important to address this issue using a different route.
The big problem wasn’t so much just replacing our canister vacuum with a true HEPA, sealed system one, it was finding one that fit this criteria and didn’t cost an arm and a leg. I didn’t want to spend a thousand dollars on a vacuum. Most of the vacuums available at that price range seemed to be gimmicks that broke down just as quickly as the cheaper ones. I wanted a vacuum that would last so I was willing to pay more than a few hundred dollars. After hours spent researching allergy and healthy home product web sites and reading dozens of reviews, I settled on a low to mid-range Miele Neptune.
Our new vacuum was a product from a manufacturer that allegedly took into account long-lasting product lines since they still made available parts for vacuums that were sold over a decade ago. Most manufacturers of appliances employ the business tactic of planned obsolescence so you are forced into purchasing a new product when the old one wears out either because you can’t find anyone who knows how to fix it or because replacement parts don’t exist anymore. This has become a larger issue with single molded plastic pieces in everything from vacuums to refrigerators. For the most part it has become cheaper to replace the whole appliance rather than fix the problem. We had another similar issue with our relatively brand new GE Profile refrigerator when a plastic door seal part snapped off. It would have cost us $800 to “fix” it, which was really just replacing the door as there was no other way of attaching it back to the rest of the door. Miele, on the other hand, had a history of solid construction and replacement parts, so I felt less buyer’s remorse investing $500 in a vacuum.
In any case, this lightweight, quiet vacuum was an immense improvement over our old vacuum that no doubt put back just as much dust into the air as it was picking up. I sprung for the upgraded Miele Active HEPA filter on our new vacuum just to ensure that, when we vacuumed, we were picking up all those flame retardant and lead bits and pieces and keeping them in the canister rather than spraying it right back into my sinuses. Since I ordered it through Amazon, we got the vacuum about a day later and I went to town testing it out, not only for its ability to pick up all the dirt and crud the kids tend to drag into the house (really, “take your shoes off! “ and “turn off the water!” should be engraved on my eco-friendly grave marker), but also to see how much the vacuum smelled. Any new appliance is going to off-gas a little heated-up plasticky smell as the plastic, lube and grease gets exercised the first few times.
One thing that was a little alarming about the vacuum was that the “exhaust”, rather than coming out the back of the canister like our old vacuum, shot straight up into the air, like a geyser. I really hated the back-end exhaust action, because all it did was shoot fuzz balls, dirt and dust bunnies back into an area you already vacuumed if you had it aimed the wrong direction. The geyser method, although unnerving when you accidentally crossed your head into its jet stream and got blown all over the place (well, my hair that is), avoided the dirt redistribution method employed by the other one.
The geyser method also allowed you to smell, or rather, not smell, the exhaust. Our old vacuum had a stink about it. Not just dirty air flying out the back end, but also something like a burning dirt mixed with a chemical smell. You could always tell when it was recently used, just because it left a stink in the house. And it wasn’t just because it was old. It always left this stink. The new Miele Neptune one, however, was like a breath of fresh air. I honestly didn’t mind getting my face caught in the geyser stream because it was more like a fan blowing clean air instead of exhaust fumes.
As for its cleaning power, it was well worth the price of admission. It was extremely quiet, even with the carpet cleaning attachment affixed and it vacuumed better than any vacuum I’ve ever owned. I actually wanted to vacuum. I would go out of my way to vacuum areas of the house even if I recently had vacuumed it. Because it was lightweight, quiet and easy to maneuver, didn’t smell and, most importantly, I really felt like I was sterilizing the house from a bunch of chemical dust, it was a great incentive to whip out the vacuum. Which, for me, was a bloody miracle.