Shop Vacuum Optimizations

Please Read This Disclaimer: A standard (residential/domestic) shop vacuum should never be used to pick up hazardous materials, or waste suspected to contain hazardous materials, including, but not limited to, lead paint particles or chips, lead dust, and asbestos. Nor does a standard shop vacuum comply with the requirements of the EPA’s RRP rule, even when operated with a HEPA filter. The purpose of this article is to highlight accessories and practices I’ve found useful when employing a domestic/residential shop vacuum in cleaning ordinary (non-toxic) house hold waste and dust, only.

I’m rather obsessive about shop (or wet/dry) vacuums. In fact, I don’t own (nor would I even care to own) a regular, household vacuum cleaner. I see no use for them. The shop vacuum can do it all. One reason is there’s a huge array of accessories available making them extremely versatile. Since I find my shop vacuum so useful, I thought it was time to write a short summary of the best accessories I’ve found so far, as well as a few tricks I’ve discovered over the years.

Below is my favorite configuration and the one I use most: A RIDGID® WD1450 professional grade shop vacuum. It has a six HP (peak) motor, a fourteen gallon canister, a 20′ power cord, and a 2.5″ hose:

RIDGID WD1450 Wet/Dry Shop Vacuum

My RIDGID® WD1450

There are three non-standard accessories that I always, always use:

  • RIDGID®’s 4x Pro Hose® (the orange hose in the photo). I’ve replaced the stock hose with this one, since the stock hose crushes too easily, whereas the 4x Pro Hose® is much stronger and crush resistant. It also seems to glide more easily over floor surfaces. But don’t throw the stock hose away! There’s a good use for it, as you’ll see shortly.
  • An angled handle for accessory attachment. A number of 3rd parties make or re-sell these (mine came from Rockler). This makes the hose far easier to control, and also takes some stress off the hose end.
  • A radial diffuser on the exhaust port. This diverts the exhaust air 360 degrees, thereby reducing the amount of dust that might otherwise be picked up and sent airborne when the exhaust is blowing full bore (note that, by this, I mean dust already kicking around the room, not vacuumed dust that might happen to get past the filtering mechanism and then ejected out the exhaust — the diffuser won’t capture that).
RIDGID WD1450 Up Close

The 4X Pro Hose®, angled handle, and diffuser

However, if I’m working in really dusty conditions, I’ll replace the diffuser with a section of stock hose (this is why I said not to throw it away), and run it right out a window (preferably, a window on the leeward side of any wind flowing around the outside of the house) to even better prevent dust from getting kicked up inside the room:

Exhaust Hose Led Outside Window

Keep the old stock hose around for better dust control when you need it

For wet pick-up, RIDGID® makes this foam filter, which is a great idea, because if you don’t have a filter in place, you’ll get water spitting out the exhaust (even with the diffuser), and if you attempt to use a dry filter for wet pick-up, it’ll get soaked and ruined, and you’ll lose suction rapidly. But don’t use the foam filter for dry pick-up! Dust will pass right through it:

Foam Wet Pick Up Filter

Foam filter used for wet pick-up only

For dry pick-up, I tend to stick with a HEPA or fine dust filter:

HEPA Filter

HEPA filter for dry pick-up

Note that a clogged dry pick-up filter can be cleaned and re-used, as long as the debris you’ve been vacuuming contains nothing hazardous (and, of course, it never should — you should never use a shop vacuum for hazardous waste removal). The way I do this is by first removing as much of the caked debris as possible from the filter (usually outdoors and with gloved hands and a dust mask). Then, with the filter outdoors, I take an air gun and try to blow as much of the remaining debris out from between the filter’s fins, as possible. (Did I mention I’m obsessed with air tools, as well? Look for another article soon on that particular topic :-) ).

Another extremely useful accessory for wet pick-up is this small, electric pump for evacuating the canister of waste water. The pump screws onto the drain opening near the bottom of the canister. An ordinary garden hose attaches to the output of the pump, and water is pumped out through the hose (note that the plug on the power cord is GFCI protected, as it should be):

Wet Dry Vac Pump

Electric pump used to draw water out of the shop vacuum canister

The packaging claims that you can attach a very long garden hose to this pump. I don’t recall a maximum length being specified, but the idea is that one could, for example, run a hose straight up the cellar steps and out onto the yard. I’ve never tried this myself. Rather, I simply use a very short section of old garden hose (just a few feet in length) and empty the canister water into a 5 gallon bucket. Then dump the bucket out once it’s close to full.

Yet another accessory I’ve found extremely useful is this reducer, which enables you to effectively reduce the 2.5″ diameter hose down to four smaller diameters, including the 1.25″ diameter used by smaller shop vacuums. If you have an investment in 1.25″ diameter attachments, you can easily reuse them with your 2.5″ diameter hose or attachment handle:

Hose Diameter Reducer For Shop Vacuum

A handy 2.5″ diameter reducer

And for cleaning very small crevices and tight areas, I use this collection of tiny attachments and brushes. They come with their own reducer that fits nicely over the larger one described above:

Small Shop Vacuum Attachments And Brushes

Tiny attachments and their reducer

Here’s an interesting accessory I haven’t actually used yet, but am looking forward to trying out: the Dust Right Vortex® Dust Separator. This is a secondary canister that front-ends the main canister by having the pick-up hose feed directly into one of its ports, and then a secondary, shorter hose run from its other port to the input of the shop vacuum. The shape of the Vortex® canister causes cyclonic winds to develop inside, forcing larger particles to settle to its bottom, rather then fill the main canister of the shop vacuum, or clog the filter.

Vortex Canister For Shop Vacuums

The Dust Right Vortex® Dust Separator

Canisters like the Vortex® are claimed to be useful as portable dust collection devices on power tools that produce a lot of dust, such as table or chop saws. I plan to use mine mainly for cleaning out centuries old accumulations of organic material in the attic joist bays of the old homes I’m working on (otherwise known as squirrel and rodent secret treasure stashes). I’ll report back soon on how well my Vortex® canister works.

Finally, here are three more useful tips:

  • Shop vacuums create a lot of noise.  You should always wear hearing protection when using one. For a good article on hearing protection, see this posting by my good friend Sean Lintow of SLS Construction, on his Homeowners and Trades Resource Center blog.
  • Since most shop vacuums have fairly long power cords, I rarely need an extension cord. But if I do, I’ll always use the shortest length, and widest gauge (heavy duty) cord set that I happen to have around. This minimizes voltage drop, thereby reducing stress on the motor.
  • Finally, the connection between the upper (motor) and lower (canister) portions of many shop vacuums isn’t always a very tight one. I’ve sometimes had dust blow out of this connection after, say, pulling the hose to move the vacuum, or accidentally tipping the vacuum over. You can overcome this by sealing around the edges with clear packing tape. Duct tape will work, too, but it leaves a nasty residue on the plastic:
Packing Tape Joining Cannister And Motor

Clear packing tape is useful when the upper and lower sections don’t hold tightly together

Well, this article has probably told you more about shop vacuums than you ever really wanted to know, I bet! But if you have any additional information or tips or experiences of your own you’d like to share, feel free to post your comments. And here’s to much happy shop vacuuming! :-)

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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4 Responses to Shop Vacuum Optimizations

  1. This definitely tells me way more than I ever knew I wanted to know (got that?). Here is what I learned: never vacuum at John’s house. Have John do ALL vacuuming. Problem solved. Come back from a lovely walk when he’s all done.

  2. First thanks for the mention & nice article but I have to ask… My god man, are you trying to send the EPA into a tizzy? : )
    For contractors working on older houses that may contain lead we couldn’t use that setup as it is not HEPA rated. You did cover some steps to reduce dust but missed one of my favorite ones (especially when dealing with drywall dust) is a bag that goes inside the vacuum. The bag not only helps keep the container clean but extends the filter life exponentially. With the bag & HEPA filter combo that should be more than adequate for many homeowners concerned about lead.
    I would be curious later to hear how that Vortex piece works – the sales pieces say nice things, but I don’t anyone that has tried them yet.

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Sean,

      Yes, you’re absolutely right that a contractor working on a pre-1978 house could not use the gear I’m touting, but I wasn’t suggesting they should. Rather, I was pointing out tips and accessories I’ve found useful in normal clean-up, not involving lead paint or other hazardous substances. However, your comment inspired me to make this point clear up front, so I’ve placed a fairly direct disclaimer at the very beginning of my article.

      The bag inside the canister sounds like a great solution, and I’ll incorporate that into my normal shop vacuum use. Also, I’ll do a separate post about the effectiveness of the Vortex, hopefully fairly soon (the squirrels are particularly interested in that one, as a potential mass volume acorn gathering device … heh heh heh! :-) )

      But, seriously, thanks very much for the great comment, and for imparting the additional know-how, and enhancing the quality of this post.

      ~John

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