How to vacuum – top tips for quick and efficient cleaning

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

How to vacuum your home text on pink background with vacuum cleaner graphic
(Image credit: Future)

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, 'that'll do' method most of us use. 

It's worth noting that not all machines are made the same. So we've even gone as far as to suggest the best vacuum cleaners (ever) to equip you with the very best weapon for the job.

From sparkling stairs to clean carpets and pristine floors (yes – even with pets), knowing how to use a vacuum cleaner to its full potential will save you hours of time and effort each week. We share our tips for vacuuming, enjoying cleaner floors, and making sure your cleaning device lasts longer with some dos and don'ts.

How to vacuum like a pro

'There’s nothing wrong with running your vacuum hurriedly over high-traffic areas when you’ve got company coming, or you only have a few minutes to tidy your home.' says Katie Berry, owner of Housewife how-tos (opens in new tab) blog.

'But that kind of quick cleanup shouldn’t be your regular routine. To get the most dirt and dust off your floors – and out of your home – you need to prepare your vacuum, prepare the spot you’ll be vacuuming, and then take your time doing it right.'

1. Prepare your space before you vacuum

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 best results.

Next, work out which attachment you want to use first – because you should always do the attachment work before 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). 

2. Get to know your vacuum attachments

Guilty of always using the same dishwasher program? 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 really worthwhile when using a vacuum cleaner.

The main head: the canister vacuum attachment you no doubt use the most. It might be motorized 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 onto 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 realized 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 clean a mattress can also get rid of dust mites really efficiently (use it on your best sofa, too). It looks like a much narrower version of the upholstery tool. 

3. Plug the vacuum cleaner in the correct socket

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

We've all gone for 'power mode' and watched your best 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.

'The level you set your vacuum depends on the height of your carpet says Bianca Cisler, brand manager, Bissell Homecare (opens in new tab).

For bare floors, use the lowest or bare floor setting, for short and medium-pile carpets use a medium setting, and finally, for plush carpets use the highest setting. When vacuuming, there should be minimal resistance, if it is difficult to push, adjust to the next highest setting.

'Some Berber carpets have a tendency to fuzz with wear. Repeated passes with your vacuum over the same area may aggravate this condition. Consider using the highest height setting or turning off the rotating brush for this type of carpet.'

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. After all, what goes up, must come down, right?

6. How to carefully vacuum curtains and blinds

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.

'The window area is often missed or avoided but it’s still important to clean it,' says Nic Shacklock, head of marketing and brand development, Online Bedrooms (opens in new tab).

'Not only should you be cleaning the windows but you should think about your blinds and curtains too. You can machine wash curtains if they need it but this should be on a gentle cycle with warm water only. If you don’t feel the need to wash them then vacuuming over them or your blinds will be just fine too.'

7. How to vacuum a rug

Why rugs first? If you clean a 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, lay 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 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.

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 fur, human hair, and whatever else you may have trodden into the treads.

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.

It goes without saying, the best cordless vacuum is the winner for this job. Because no one wants to risk tripping over wires or having to negotiate a cord up and around a staircase.

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 and get rid of household smells.

Want to know how the best method of cleaning a carpet? You've got it. Simply sprinkle bicarbonate of soda generously over the carpet and leave for at least 15 minutes before vacuuming. Doing this has the added bonus of releasing pet hair because it loosens the carpet's fibers and it deodorizes the vacuum cleaner from inside. Clever. And it's not something you need to do weekly – every couple of months is enough.

'If you have carpet you should try to clean this regularly due to the build-up of germs and bacteria that they collect.' says Shacklock.

'You can buy carpet sprays from most places, simply spray over your carpet, leave for a day and then vacuum it up. If you’re worried about ruining your carpet you could always hire a carpet cleaner too.'

Ready to commit to a fresher-smelling floor? Sweep up our best carpet cleaning products as chosen by us.

10. How to vacuum

Okay, you're finally ready to vacuum the floor, be it carpet or cleaning hardwood floors. 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).

11. How many times do I need to go over a certain spot before the area is clean?

'For heavier traffic areas, it is recommended to go over the area 5 - 7 times,' says Cisler.

'For less traveled areas, it is recommended to go over it 3 - 4 times. To get the best possible results, be sure to vacuum the area slowly and go from side to side. Occasionally change direction to help stand the pile upright and reduce matting.'

12. 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 when cleaning a floor.

Price
Upright vacuum cleaners tend to be cheaper than canister models. 

Noise
The best canister vacuums 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. It may be better, for example, to invest in the best handheld vacuum cleaner to keep your stair runner ideas looking spic and span.

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

Maneuverability
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 downstairs 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.

Type of filter
'For the best and deepest cleans, search for a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, strong suction, and a variety of attachments to clean every floor type,' says Justin Carpenter, owner at Modern Maids (opens in new tab).

'The HEPA filter can be pricey but it’s worth it. This will actually trap debris instead of recirculating it as dust back into the air.'

12. How often should you vacuum?

'How often should you vacuum?' is the question on everyone's lips. 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 the best handheld vacuum or cordless vac for nipping around every couple of days to get crumbs or obvious mess.
  • If you have the budget, set one of the best robot vacuums 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 molting. 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. Maintain your machine

Yes, your cleaning appliance ironically needs to cleaning. Not only to see how much you've sucked up but to also make sure your machine lasts longer. Here one expert shares the value in keeping your vac working optimally.

'Nothing can affect the performance of a vacuum cleaner as badly as a clogged filter. Check and clean them regularly and evaluate the replacement when you notice that they are too worn. Always having clean filters will positively affect the re-emission of air and the suction capacity of the product.' says Mark Barratt, marketing director at Hoover Candy Group (opens in new tab).

'Your bagless vacuum needs ample airflow to work properly. Because of this, it’s important to keep canisters and filters clean. In terms of routine maintenance, you’ll need to make sure your vacuum’s canister is emptied whenever it’s halfway full.' says Siân Lovatt QFP, marketing manager, Merry Maids (opens in new tab).

How to clean your vacuum's canister

You will need:

  • microfiber cloth
  • warm soapy water
  • a bucket
  1. Unplug the vacuum cleaner and remove the canister.
  2. Wipe the inside of the canister with a dry microfiber cloth.
  3. Wash the canister in the sink with warm soapy water.
  4. Rinse away all soap suds.
  5. Let the canister dry completely before replacing it.

How to clean your vacuum's filter

You will need:

  • A kitchen trash can
  • warm water
  1. Check your manufacturer’s instructions to determine whether the filter is washable or needs to be replaced.
  2. To wash a filter, you first need to remove it and tap it against a hard surface so that any dust is knocked out. Do this over a trash can.
  3. Now rinse the filter under the sink tap using warm water. Don’t use soap or cleaners unless your manufacturer’s instructions specifically say to do so.
  4. Let the filter dry overnight. Check to be certain it’s completely dry before replacing it.

How to clean your vacuum's base plate

You will need:

  • Scissors
  • Grout brush
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Remove the base plate so that you can clean the beater bar.
  • Cut any threads or hair away taking care not to damage the bristles on the bar.
  • Use a grout brush to remove any debris from the beater bar.
  • Wipe down the base plate of the vacuum with a dry microfiber cloth.
  • Finally, wipe down the outside of the vacuum with the same microfiber cloth

How to clean a vacuum hose

'The most important thing to know about how to clean a vacuum hose is that you must avoid puncturing it. Simply remove the hose from the vacuum and insert a dryer vent brush or the handle of a broom into it,' says Matt Cessna, appliances merchant at The Home Depot (opens in new tab).

'Gently push the brush or handle along to push out any debris, being careful not to damage the hose. When the hose is empty, reattach it and wipe off the exterior with a microfiber cloth.'

14. Things you should never vacuum

Most of us (we hope) will know never to try and vacuum up liquids with a conventional vacuum cleaner (because, you know, electrocution). But, thanks to advances in technology, several of the best carpet cleaners can draw out even the most stubborn stains and fresh spills. Just take for instance the Bissell PowerClean 2x 3112E Series Upholstery and Carpet Cleaner which we've had the pleasure of reviewing.

Nevertheless, there are several other things you definitely shouldn't vacuum, for the sake of both your carpets, your vacuum cleaner, and your safety.

  • 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;
  • Coffee grounds: 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 aforementioned 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. 

Lucy is Global Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens having worked on numerous interiors and property titles. She was founding Editor of Channel 4’s 4Homes magazine, was Associate Editor at Ideal Home, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Realhomes.com in 2018 then moving to Homes & Gardens in 2021. She has also written for Huffington Post, AOL, UKTV, MSN, House Beautiful, Good Homes, and many women’s titles. Find her writing about everything from buying and selling property, self build, DIY, design and consumer issues to gardening.

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