HEPA Vacuum: What It Can and Cannot Do

Most of the time you use your vacuum cleaner to simply remove dust and dirt that accumulates in your home. But if you are dealing with serious allergy problems or a house that is potentially contaminated with lead dust or mold, you might need to step up your vacuuming strategy and take a look at a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.

A HEPA vacuum is not automatically going to solve all your in-home contamination problems, however. A HEPA rated filter in a vacuum that is not properly sealed to prevent particles from escaping could do more harm than good by spreading the contaminants through the house. And some contaminants are too difficult to remove even with a HEPA vacuum cleaner. Let us take a close look at what a HEPA vacuum cleaner can do, what it cannot do and what other options you can turn to if you have to remediate serious contamination issues in your home.

What is HEPA?

A HEPA filter is a high efficiency particulate air filter, designed to remove 99.97 percent of all particles that are 0.3 microns in size that pass through it. The HEPA standard is set by the U.S. government’s Department of Energy, and was developed for use in nuclear facilities in the 1940s. HEPA filters can collect some pollutants, though, they cannot capture everything. For instance, particles smaller than 0.3 microns can escape through a HEPA filter, as can the gaseous molecules of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as some viruses and bacteria. For more information on the benefits and limitations of HEPA filters, check out our post “Pros and Cons of HEPA Filter Air Purifiers, Dissected.”

How Does HEPA Work in a Vacuum Cleaner?

To understand how a HEPA filter in a vacuum cleaner works, we have to take a brief look at how vacuum cleaners operate in general. Whether the vacuum is a bagged or bagless model, it generates suction that pulls contaminants up through the vacuum, usually using a rotating brush that helps loosen particles from carpets and upholstery. The air passes into the collection chamber or bag, and then the air is recirculated back into the room. The recirculation is the important part — without a filtration system, the vacuum may be blowing all the dust and other contaminants back into the room. In fact, some cheap vacuum cleaners with poorly designed filters do exactly that.

The average vacuum filter is fine for collecting large dust particles, bits of pet hair and dander and other contaminants that are relatively large. For most people, this is sufficient. However, dust mites and certain particles can be much smaller than what the average vacuum cleaner filter can catch, so they get dumped back into the room during the vacuuming process. If you have severe dust mite allergies or a serious contaminant problem, a better filter system with your vacuum might be the solution.

Controlled studies, like this one from the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association (Lioy et al, J Air Waste Manag Assoc. 1999 Feb), have shown that vacuums with HEPA filters do perform better than the average vacuum. The problem is, vacuum cleaners need to be properly sealed to prevent fine particles from escaping. The frame the filter is mounted in must be air-tight so particles cannot get around the filter. The collection chamber or bag must be carefully sealed, and the exhaust from the motor must also be fully sealed and filtered. This concise operating procedure needs to be carefully adhere to by the consumer using the vacuum, or you may lose out on the benefits of a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter.

It is possible to buy a vacuum that collects more than 99 percent of fine particles, but it will be expensive. Some vacuums that have HEPA filters do not have properly sealed air flow, so the filter will not be as effective.

There is another filter specification you might hear about when you are shopping for a vacuum cleaner: ULPA (Ultra Low Penetration Air). The ULPA specification was developed for the pharmaceutical industry, and it is extremely stringent, collecting 99.99 percent of particles down to 0.12 microns. ULPA filtration systems are most often found in industrial dust collection systems, and even smaller ULPA vacuums can cost thousands of dollars. They are probably not a practical option for most homeowners.

When Do I Need a HEPA Vacuum?

There are specific scenarios in which a HEPA vacuum cleaner should be used and provide the most benefit.

  • Someone in the home has severe allergies. A HEPA vacuum will remove more dust mites, dust and other allergens from the air than a non-HEPA vacuum. A HEPA vacuum should not be your only tool against allergens, however. An air purifier along with proper cleaning and efforts to remove allergen sources from the home are also important ways to keep the air clean for anyone in your home who suffers from severe allergies. This interview with allergist Dr. Purvi Parikh has a lot more information on how to deal with serious allergy problems.
  • Lead dust removal. If you live in an older home (built before 1978) that has lead paint in it, that means you also have lead paint chips and lead dust. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), lead exposure can cause brain damage, learning disabilities and other health problems, especially in young children.A HEPA vacuum can help remove lead dust, but lead dust particles can be too small for even a HEPA filter, and their density means filters have a harder time trapping them than other particles of similar size. That is why using a HEPA vacuum is only part of the proper lead dust remediation procedure in your home. Wiping down lead dust contaminated surfaces with a wet cloth or mop is actually the most important part of lead dust remediation. Note that some local health departments offer HEPA vacuums for rent or loan for lead dust remediation.
  • Mold removal. Removing mold that has contaminated a house is a complicated and difficult task. The EPA recommends that if the contaminated area is greater than 10 square feet, you should consider using a contractor who specializes in mold remediation. Mold gives off spores and enzymes that can be toxic.Using a HEPA vacuum to remove mold is only a small part of that process. First, contaminated surfaces must be dried and scrubbed clean. Porous surfaces like carpets or foam tile should be discarded and replaced, since it is impossible to completely remove all the mold from crevices in the material. Only once everything is scrubbed and dried can a HEPA vacuum be used to remove any mold spores that might remain on surfaces.Be aware that “wet vacuuming” is sometimes used in mold remediation. This process uses a special vacuum cleaner that can suck up water along with contaminants. The presence of water prevents mold spores from being disseminated into the air. This is completely different from using a vacuum with a HEPA filter on an area that has already been cleaned and dried, and requires different equipment.

Is a Vacuum Cleaner with a HEPA Filter Worth It?

Evidence shows that a HEPA vacuum with properly designed seals does a better job of collecting contaminants than the average non-HEPA vacuum. This will be particularly helpful for allergy sufferers, as a HEPA vacuum traps dust, dust mites and pet dander better than non-HEPA vacuums. Of course, you have to weigh the benefit against the cost, both of the vacuum itself and replacing the filters.

A HEPA vacuum can also be part of a remediation plan for other household contaminants, such as lead dust or mold, but a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter will not solve all your contamination problems by itself. Follow the proper steps to remove these harmful materials from your home, using a HEPA vacuum only when appropriate.

It’s important to note that you should not use a HEPA vacuum, or any other vacuum, for asbestos abatement. Asbestos is a very harmful material that causes cancer. It should only be removed by specialists trained to do so. Do not try to vacuum up asbestos dust or fibers yourself. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that asbestos in good condition be left alone, while asbestos that is deteriorating or in a high-traffic area should be encapsulated or removed by a professional. Sanding, sweeping, drilling or vacuuming asbestos or near asbestos can send asbestos fibers into the air, which, when inhaled, can cause lung cancer.

Keeping your house clean and free of contaminants is always a multi-step process. Proper cleaning, removal of contamination sources and the use of an air purifier that effectively removes the types of particles you need to get rid of are all important steps to take to keep the air in your home clean and safe. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can be a very useful tool for reducing allergens and for some remediation of harmful contaminants.