How to vacuum: top tips for quick and efficient cleaning

Think you already know how to vacuum? Think again – there's more to it then running the vac over the floor. We walk you through a whole method to adopt to get the job done efficiently and quickly

how to vacuum up soil off a carpet

We all think we know how to vacuum. Plug it in and switch it on, duh! It turns out that it's not as simple as it looks. Or put it another way: if you bother vacuuming correctly, the results will be markedly different than the plug-and-play method most of us use. Read our tips to vacuuming and enjoy cleaners floors, and a vacuum that lasts longer.

And once you've done so, and assuming you're hooked on the subject, don't miss our buyer's guide to the very best vacuum cleaners (ever) to equip you with the very best weapon for the job.

1. Get ready to vacuum (we can't wait)

First things first, pick up any large pieces of debris (hair grips, pieces of glass) that will bung up your vacuum cleaner, then check the vacuum's canister or bag are empty(ish). This alone will give you the better results.

Then, work out which attachment you want to use first – because you should always do the attachment work before the vacuuming with the main head. 

If, like us, you've used the main vacuum head and the crevice tool and never ever tried out those other 'odd-looking brush head thingies', it's not a bad idea to find out what they're for (no time like the present). 

Deep cleaning press image from Airtasker

2. Get to know your vacuum attachments (exciting)

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Guilty of always using the same dishwasher programme? Never veer off the 'quick' setting on your washing machine? Puzzled by all but two of your vacuum attachments? Yup, us too. 

But the different vacuum attachments are designed to give you the best/quickest results on all the different surfaces you'll be tackling, so getting to know which is which is really worthwhile. Okay, it's not a hot date with Channing Tatum/Gigi Hadid, but you've read down this far so... 

The main head: the canister vacuum attachment you no doubt use the most. It might be motorised for deep cleaning; it might have a lift-up function for carpets; it might have a stiff brush function for hard floors. Does this one really need explaining further? 

The crevice tool: you know, the short skinny one with the angled tip. Use this to get into corners, along the top of skirting boards, behind radiators... It's probably one of your top two, so we won't go on.

The extension tool: like a crevice tool, but much longer, without the angled tip and you can fit other heads on to it. For reaching those cobwebs on the ceiling.

The dusting brush: it's the little round brush head and you're meant to use it on delicate vacuuming jobs, perhaps along painted windowsills that you don't want to scratch, around books that you don't want to suck up, or on lampshades which inevitably gather dust. 

The upholstery tool: it looks like a small, non-tooled-up version of the main head. We always thought it was for vacuuming into small gaps, but when we looked closer, we realised it had a lint-catching fabric strip for when you're vacuuming upholstery.

The pet grooming attachment: you might already sensibly have a vacuum cleaner for pets and pet hairs, which may have this attachment included (check our buyer's guide to the best vacuums for pets and pet hair). Ideal for tackling your dog/cat's bed some can also be used on them. If they'll let you. 

The mattress attachment: we are really getting into the realm of 'unusual vacuum attachments now', but this neat little add-on is designed to get rid of dust mites from mattresses really efficiently (use it on the sofa, too). It looks like a much narrower version of the upholstery tool. Find out more about cleaning a mattress in our comprehensive guide (hint: the first step is vacuuming).

3. Plug the vacuum cleaner in the right socket (really)

Oh yes, there is a right socket. Simply put, it's the one by the door out of the room. The idea is, you plug the vacuum in by the door, start on the opposite side of the room and vacuum your way back out so that you end up by the socket again. In theory, it will leave your carpet looking like a newly mowed lawn, without a hint of humanity ever having trodden on it. It never lasts, but hey-ho.

4. Pick the right vacuum power setting (you know why)

We've all gone for 'power mode' and watched the hallway rug disappear up the tube. You know what we're talking about: delicate setting for unfixed or flimsy materials; power mode for fixed carpets; beater bar 'on' when you need to give that grime an extra nudge upwards. Using the different settings is how your vacuum was intended to be used, so put them to good work.

5. Do your attachment work first (working high to low)

The idea is that if you work high (cobwebs on the pendant lampshade, then sofa cushion covers, then skirting boards, then rugs and ONLY THEN floors, you'll knock any dust and debris downwards as you go and only have to vacuum each surface the once.

6. How to vacuum curtains and blinds (carefully)

Using the dusting brush attachment and with the vacuum set to delicate or low power mode, carefully vacuum curtains or blinds from the top downwards, paying particular attention to the top 10cm where most of the dust will be. 

Add this to your vacuuming routine once a month to keep your curtains looking (almost) just dry cleaned.

bedroom with patterned rug by carmine teal

(Image credit: Carmine Teal)

7. How to vacuum a rug (yup, there's really a way)

Why rugs first? If you clean your rug first then put it aside you won't be spreading any rug dirt about your floors.

Anyway, we thought it worth a quick pause here to tell you how to vacuum a rug, because there is a technique that's worth copying. 

First, check the care label for any vacuuming instructions and warnings. Then, take it outside and give it a gentle bashing (over a line if possible; if not over a garden chair – but away from the house or the dust will go straight back in. 

Take it back in, lie it flat and stand with your feet wide apart on the rug, vacuuming between them as you go, being careful not to vacuum any delicate trimmings. Then simply roll it up and put it aside while you vacuum your floors. Or, leave it outside hanging somewhere for a nice bit of UV treatment to kill any bacteria and freshen it up.

8. How to vacuum a shag rug or sheepskin rug

Another rug material, another technique, but you'll need to do this if you don't want to a) damage your vacuum and b) damage your rug.

Start by turning the shag or sheepskin rug face down, then pin it between your feet (as above) and use the carpet attachment (with the beater bar if you have one) on high. 

Then roll the rug up, face side in, and put it to one side while you vacuum the rest of your floor. Finally, roll the rug out and use the upholstery attachment to gently remove any debris. Job done.

Using hoover to clean underneath sofa

(Image credit: Hoover)

8. How to vacuum stairs (for a hotel-neat finish)

Start by picking up any large bits of debris, then, if you have carpet, don a pair of rubber gloves, wet them and wipe them over the stairs to quickly remove the majority of pet and human hair. 

Then, using a crevice tool, work up the stairs doing just the edges and corners of each step. Then put your main attachment back on and run it over first the top of each step, then the riser. Work from top to bottom so that you aren't walking over where you have been. This also means that you vacuum up anything that drops from steps above on the way.

9. How to get bad smells out of a carpet (with a vacuum)

Carpets really are stink hoarders. They, like curtains and upholstery, soak up all sorts of household smells we'd rather live without, but you can work in a small step to your vacuuming routine to banish the not-so-fresh aroma yours gives off.

Simply sprinkle bicarbonate of soda generously over the carpet and leave for at least 15 minutes before vacuuming. Doing this has the added bonuses of releasing pet hair because it loosens the carpet's fibres AND it deodorises the vacuum cleaner from inside. Clever. And it's not something you need to do weekly – every couple of months is enough. 

Find our cleaning guide to getting rid of household smells for loads more neat tricks. And don't miss our guide to cleaning a carpet if that's your floorcovering of choice.

The best carpet cleaning products
If you feel your carpet needs something stronger than bicarb, look no further than our pick of the best carpet cleaning products.

Best carpet cleaning machines
Carpet in a real mess? It might be that you need a carpet cleaning machine to sort it. We've found the very best.

10. How to vacuum (finally)

Okay, you're finally ready to vacuum the floor, be it carpet or hard flooring. Here's how.

Remember you plugged it in by the door (seems like an age ago now). And you're poised at the far corner of the room, having already tackled the attachment work? 

Now simply vacuum away from yourself in a straight line, then pull the vacuum back towards you at a slight angle so that the two imaginary lines you've drawn on the floor (on a carpet, this will show up) create a slightly overlapping, very sharp V. Repeat until it makes a W, and again to create a WWW. Doing this ensures you don't repeat areas, but also don't miss anyway. In a large room, work in sections, always working towards the door to the room (where the plug is).

Cleaning hardwood floors? Find out more in our guide.

11. Which vacuum to get the best results?

An upright or a canister vacuum cleaner? To a degree it's down to choice and what you're used to, but here's what to consider if you're not getting the results you want or are looking for a change.

Price

Upright vacuum cleaners tend to be cheaper than canister models. 

Noise

Canister vacuum cleaners tend to be quieter to run than upright vacuum cleaners.

Weight

Upright vacuum cleaners tend to be heavier than canister vacuum cleaners, tricky if you have lots of stairs.

Power

Canister vacuum cleaners tend to be more powerful than uprights, with better suction; however, the motorised brushes on uprights tend to be more efficient at cleaning thick carpets (although new canister models are now being sold with motorised brushes, too).

Manoeuvrability

Canister vacuum cleaners are easier to use on stairs, on upholstery, blinds, under furniture... That said, with canister vacuums you are constantly bending forwards to push and pull the hose; with an upright you're more, well, upright, and even transitions between floor types can usually be controlled with a foot pedal; they have a wider cleaning path, too. And, you have to drag canister models, which often means they bash furniture, fall down stairs and topple over (if you're a careless vacuumer, anyway).

Ease of use and storage

Upright vacuum cleaners are ready to go, and simply stand in a cupboard; canisters require a little more assembly and the hose in particular can be a pain to keep neatly. 

Whichever you choose, find our pick of the best of the best vacuum cleaners below:

12. How often should you vacuum?

We know people who vacuum every night and some who do it once a month. While the latter might seem excessive – and who really has the time? – if you have kids or pets this might not seem like enough some days. Once a month is definitely not frequent enough to keep on top of dust mites and your respiratory system will thank you for doing it at least once a week.

These time saving tips might help:

  • Get your hands on a handheld or cordless vac for nipping round every couple of days to get crumbs or obvious mess.
  • If you have the budget, a robot vacuum that you set to work a couple of times a week while you are busy will keep on top of visible dirt. Then you can do a proper job of the skirting, furniture, rugs and corners once a week with attachments.
  • Take shoes off by the door to avoid traipsing dirt into the house in the first place (we're talking to you, kids).
  • Keep floors tidy so you don't have to do a pre-vacuum declutter every time.
  • Brush your pet at least once a week to reduce moulting. Do this outside so you don't fill the house with fur. And keep a towel by the front door for a wipe down (for the dog, but you're welcome, too), after walkies. Find more ways to tidy up after your dog with our time-saving guide.

13. Things you should never vacuum

Most of us (we hope) will know never to try and vacuum up liquids (because, you know, electrocution), but there are several other things you shouldn't vacuum, for the sake of both your carpets and your vacuum cleaner:

  • Damp dirt or soil: if you were repotting a plant and some soil spilled out, do not vacuum it up: it can clog up the motor, and your carpet will not thank you either, as you'll just be driving the soil deeper into it. Instead, wait for the soil/dirt to completely dry, then brush away as much as you can with a stiff brush, and then vacuum up what remains;
  • Used coffee: for the love of all vacuum cleaners, don't do this. Coffee grains can do some serious damage to your vacuum's mechanism;
  • Ash from your fireplace: this stuff is corrosive and will burn out your vacuum motor in no time;
  • Wood chips/sawdust/bits of old paint: doing some DIY? Don't be tempted to vacuum up the by-products of your efforts. All of the above are almost guaranteed to damage your vacuum;
  • Coins/other metal objects: we probably don't really need to explain this one, but a piece of metal jangling inside a plastic machine... will not do it any good. 

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