Battery wet dry vacuums certainly have appeal, if only due to convenience. Frequently the places where you need to use them may not have a convenient outlet, or the outlet may not be safe to use because of the standing water. But does that mean they’re good? They certainly have trade-offs. Here’s how to figure out if they are right for you.
Remember the Dustbuster
When I was a kid, The name Dustbuster was synonymous with battery powered vacuum cleaners. It was a small handheld vacuum cleaner that was fine for cleaning up small messes. The appeal was that it was small and lightweight, so you could grab it and clean up a small mouse in less time than it would take to pull your full-sized vacuum out of storage and plug it in, let alone the time to use it, wind the cords back up, and put it back away.
Battery technology has improved a lot since 1979. The idea of being able to drive 3 and 1/2 hours in a car powered by batteries was science fiction in 1979. It’s reality now, so it stands to reason battery powered vacuum cleaners would be better today. But can it replace a corded vacuum cleaner?
Sometimes it can, but just as the case with the Dustbuster, there are trade-offs. The idea of having the versatility of a wet dry vacuum with a capacity measured in gallons certainly has a lot of appeal. But your corded wet dry vacuum still has some advantages over its battery powered competition. The question is whether those trade-offs are worth it to you.
18 volts versus 40 volts
Smaller battery powered wet dry vacuums run on 18 volt batteries just like a drill or a circular saw or other similar household power tools. These tend to be smaller capacity models with shorter runtimes.
Costlier models use a 40 volt battery like an electric lawn mower usually uses.
Both types are capable of reaching 80 CFM, but that doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to power. The 40 volt units, as you might expect, have more power and longer run times. A 40 volt model has enough suction to pick up and hold a whitewood board about the length of your forearm. A good corded vac can do that as well. An 18 volt battery powered vac won’t be able to do that.
Granted, that’s not what you buy a vacuum cleaner to do. But it means you have to get up a lot closer to reach those dust bunnies and other messes. It’s like the difference between using a Dyson versus whatever random vacuum cleaner happens to be on sale for 1/3 the price at any given moment. You have to get up closer to the mess and you may have to use more than one pass, so it takes longer. And the problem with that is battery life has a hard limit. So it may mean you have to change the battery in order to finish the job. You can expect about a 15 minute runtime.
Voltage isn’t the only part of the story. You really need to use at least a 4ah battery, and more is better. But you pay more in money and weight for the additional power.
I realize this is a niche use, but I use a wet/dry vacuum to pick up gumballs from my gumball tree in the spring. This keeps me from mowing so many gumballs and dulling my lawn mower blade. When it comes to this task, you can’t have too much suction. A corded vacuum does a reasonably good job of this, at the cost of being tied to an electrical cord. You’ll get better range on battery, but the job takes longer. And with 18 volts, you’ll find yourself just picking up the majority of them. And 15 minutes isn’t a long enough runtime for this task.
This is the main reason I would want a battery powered wet/dry vac. But it’s not up to the job.
This may or may not matter to you, but one frequent use of a wet/dry vac is plugging it into a dust port on a saw to control the mess while cutting lumber. Being able to use a battery powered vacuum for this means a cordless saw remains cordless. That is, if the hose on the vacuum actually fits the port on your saw. The hoses on battery powered vacuums are not always the same size. So even if your vacuum and your saw came from the same manufacturer, that isn’t a guarantee they will work together.
You also want to make sure that whatever model you are considering can you use a filter. While the filter increases maintenance, it also keeps you safe. The cost and inconvenience of having to change filters occasionally is worth saving your lungs. Otherwise, you need to wear an N95 mask while vacuuming sawdust. If behavior during the pandemic was any indication, a significant part of the population doesn’t want to wear a mask while vacuuming.
The versatility of battery power comes at the price of losing some versatility and other areas. It is entirely possible you will find if you buy a battery powered wet dry vac, you still need to keep a corded model around for some purposes. And since these tend to be pretty bulky tools, that’s not exactly ideal.
And there is real money involved in the cost as well. A good corded model costs less than a mediocre 18 volt model. A 40 volt model costs more than twice as much as a corded model of comparable capacity.
There is something to be said for having a 5 gallon corded model and supplementing it with a small 18 volt model that uses the same battery system as your other power tools for quick jobs, if you have the space to store it.
Not a full replacement for corded models
So while a battery powered wet dry vacuum has a lot more versatility than your grandfather’s Dustbuster, it is not a replacement for corded models in the same sense that a drill or a saw can run on batteries and be just as good as the corded models of old. For me, if I’m going to spend $200 on a tool, I can think of other battery operated tools in that price range that I would put to better use.
If you can make do with a corded model and a long extension cord, you will probably be happier with that solution. The audience is really people who frequently have to vacuum in areas where plugging in just isn’t convenient. A lot of garages and basements, especially in houses from the 1960s and earlier, don’t have adequate power, but if that doesn’t describe the place where you live, you’ll be happier with a corded model most of the time.
So while I’m a big proponent of battery powered lawn mowers, I’m not as high on a battery powered wet/dry vac. I’m going to wait for better battery technology.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.