how does a vacuum cleaner work

Many of us have used a vacuum cleaner at one point or the other. But what is the science behind these machines? Well, suction is the key element in the proper working of a vacuum cleaner.

Suction is caused by a drop of pressure at the bottom and an increase of pressure at the top that causes air to rush up the pipe and into the machine. This is the basic level suction principle.

But it is not as simplified. In this piece, we will answer the question, how does a vacuum cleaner work? To do this, we will look at different parts of the vacuum cleaner and the roles they all play.


When looking into the history of vacuum cleaners, we found that these appliances have evolved from horse-drawn machines. A good example of this is John Thurman’s early model of simple and easy to use machines. Some names that resonate with the evolution of vacuum cleaners include John Thurman, Ives McGaffey, Hubert Cecil Booth, and James Murray Spanger. Each of the men mentioned here invented a better vacuum cleaner than the last building on principles discovered by those before them.

Early vacuum cleaners were more or less hand-pumped rug cleaners that were used to get rid of dust in houses by wives. These then evolved to motorised cleaners, then electric vacuum cleaners, before finally evolving to portable vacuum cleaners. Vacuum cleaners work differently today from how they did back then. Nowadays, vacuum rotating brushes loosen dirt and suck in air. This is the same principle that these inventors worked with.

Parts of a Vacuum Cleaner

A vacuum cleaner may appear complex and daunting when you first see it. But it is not. A standard vacuum cleaner is made up of six essential parts. These are:

• The intake port. This varies from brand to brand, and the type of accessory is fitted.

• The exhaust outlet

• The electric motor

• A fan

• A dirtbag, tray, or canister

• A housing unit. This is what holds all these components.

Several processes occur when you first plug in the vacuum cleaner to a power outlet and turn it on. You can break down these processes like this:

Air Pressure

Once the vacuum is plugged in and turned on, the electric current is pushed to the motor. This is the motor that is attached to the fan. The fan is made of angled blades, somewhat resembling that on an aeroplane propeller. As the fan rotates, they push air forward to the exhaust outlet. When the air particles are pushed to the front, their density increases at the front. On the other hand, the air particles are reduced in the back.

The drop in air pressure behind the fan is similar to the drop in air pressure in the straw when you sip your drink. The low air pressure behind the fan and increased pressure outside the cleaner create suction power.


This so-called suction is popularly referred to as ambient air pressure. This pressure is what pushes the air through the intake. With the fan running and the passageway open, air constantly flows through the intake and exhaust port. You might ask how air flowing through ports clean the carpet. Well, there is more to this, so read on.

A steady flow of low air pressure and high-pressure air through the vacuum coupled with friction is what cleans the carpet. Friction is a key element in the process. To better understand these processes, let us look at the vacuum cleaner’s features and roles.

Vacuum Cleaner Brushes and Bag

a woman is tidying up the living room area

We have touched on the fan, and its rotation creates a pressure difference. This allows for airflow through the intake and out through the exhaust outlet. You can compare the air stream in and out to a river or water flow.

This, paired with friction, allows for dirt particles to be sucked into vacuums by first loosening them up using the rotating brush and sucking it in. As the dust and dirt air enters the hose, it flows through the bag.

The bag is made of a porous material that allows air out and traps dust and debris, acting as an air filter. The bag can be placed anywhere between the intake and exhaust ports. In most upright vacuums, the bag is placed at the end of the exhaust port hence acting as the last stop for this air.

Vacuum Cleaner Variables

You now understand how the flow of air and friction allows a vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt and dust. However, it is important to note that the power of the suction produced depends on various factors. These are:

The Power of the Vacuum Fan

To get a powerful suction, you need a powerful electric fan. This means you need a powerful motor to run the fan at a good, steady, and high speed. This translates to more dirt being sucked up.

The Openness of a Vacuum Passageway

When dirt and dust enter the hose, they are unfiltered. This means they will build up in the cleaning hose after some time. If the build-up is too much, it creates a blockage. This results in a slow down of how much the vacuum cleaner can suck at one given moment.

Another part that can cause a slow down in the process is a full vacuum bag. This is why you need to regularly empty and clean the bag. The bag is responsible for trapping and carrying dust and dirt.

The Size of the Intake Port Opening

The intake port’s size determines the amount of air flowing through the vacuum clear. The smaller the port, the higher the pressure. This means that the air flows faster, decreasing the air pressure. The fast and constant drop in pressure allows the fan to create stronger and steadier suction. The size of the intake port varies depending on the cleaner attachments used.

Types of Vacuum Cleaners How They Work

Cylinder Vacuum Cleaners

Cylinder vacuum cleaners utilise a fan’s ability to take dirty air through the hose. It does this by pulling air leading to the outside air being pulled into the cleaner. The air pressure inside allows the air to be filled with dirt, dust, and debris. When the dirt is sucked in, it is swirled around in a dust collector compartment before being emptied. Other cylinder vacuum cleaners come with different canister designs to trap the dirty air.

Upright Vacuum Cleaner

Upright vacuum cleaners are some of the modern vacuum cleaners available. These cleansers work when the air from inside the cleaner is pushed outside using electric-powered fans that create a partial vacuum.

When the air is pushed back, it allows for outside air to be sucked in from the surface being cleaned. This air carries with it dust and dirt. This air passes through the cleaner’s porous bag and a filter. The incoming air is dirty, the dirt is trapped, and the clean air is passed out through the exhaust port.

Vacuum Cleaners Make Your Life Easy!

As more time passes, vacuum cleaners are getting more sophisticated, but they are all still using the same principles of suction and friction. But do not be surprised if someone comes up with something better for innovation is just around the corner.

Now with a proper answer, how does a vacuum cleaner work? Do you know what each part does? Other vacuums like central vacuum systems and even complex robotic vacuum cleaners use similar concepts to clean.

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