Larger shop vacs have stronger suction, but portable models are handy
For heavy-duty cleanup tasks, standard vacuum cleaners sometimes don't cut it. For sucking up water, large piles of sawdust or heavier objects like wood chips or nails, you'll need a vacuum cleaner that's up to the task. And that means a shop vac. Note that Shop-Vac is a brand name for a line of wet dry vacs, however, in the same way that Kleenex and Xerox have become synonymous with all tissues and copy machines, many people simply call all wet dry vacuums shop vacs, regardless of who actually made the machine.
While upright vacuum cleaners and canister vacuums are designed for handling standard household cleaning tasks such as vacuuming rugs, hard flooring, and carpeting, a wet dry vac is what you need for tackling the bigger jobs. Capacity, suction power, and performance are all considerations in choosing a wet dry vacuum, as well as whether you'll be transporting your shop vac up and down stairs regularly or outside the garage or workshop to job sites.
From mini wet dry vacs to large-capacity models, size matters
Shop vacs come in a range of sizes, from portable, mini wet dry vacs with a two-gallon capacity to large units with a 20-gallon capacity.
For use in a workshop, many professionals may opt for a tool-triggered shop vac. To use these professional-grade vacuums, a power tool is plugged into the unit's electrical outlet and the tool's dust port is connected to the shop vac's hose. Tool-triggered shop vacs have an auto-start function for powering the vacuum on and off simultaneously with the tool, while the dust is suctioned directly into the vacuum's canister. These are the priciest type of shop vacs, and can cost between $400 and $500, or more.
If a tool-triggered vacuum is not a must have, for well under $200, a consumer-grade wet dry vac will provide plenty of suction power. Performance, features, and included accessories are key considerations that drive pricing, but so is capacity. Small wet dry vacuums, which have a stated capacity of between five and 10 gallons, cost between $40 and $100, while medium-sized wet dry vacs (with a stated capacity of 12 to 14 gallons) cost between $70 to $120. High capacity (15 to 20 gallon) wet dry vacs sit at the high end of the price range, from $100 and up
The shop vacs described above are all corded, relatively bulky and need an available AC outlet for operation. For tasks outside the workshop or on job sites, portable wet dry vacs and cordless models are a more convenient option. The tradeoff is a smaller capacity (between two and four gallons is typical) and weaker suction. Most are relatively inexpensive -- $50 or less in many cases.
Finding the best-reviewed wet dry vacs
We turned to professional reviews and hands-on comparison tests to identify the wet dry vacs with the best performance for general-purpose and workshop use, Experts evaluate wet dry vacs on their ability to suction water, sawdust, nails, and other materials, often relying on timed tests to determine which models are the most efficient at getting the job done.
For tests of general-use wet dry vacs, we found the best review at ConsumerReports.org, where editors test 23 models ranging in size from 2 to 20 gallons; ratings are based on rigorous objective tests. Editors at FineHomebuilding.com, Fine Woodworking magazine, Popular Mechanics, and TruckTrend.com also conduct independent, hands-on testing of wet dry vacuums, each review testing between four and eight models.
Owner-written reviews are also helpful for finding the best wet dry vacuums, offering insight into long-term durability, real-world ease of use and performance for a variety of household and workshop tasks, and feedback on manufacturers' responses to warranty concerns and complaints. We found the most helpful owner-written reviews for shop vacs at Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Lowes.com, and HomeDepot.com. However, as is often the case these days, some of the reviews at some sites, notably Lowes.com and HomeDepot.com, originate at the manufacturer web sites and are same ones seen over and over again at these and other sites -- a factor we took into account in determining which shop vacs are truly best liked by owners.
The best shop vacs for home owners and do-it-yourselfers
For well under $200, a consumer-grade wet dry vac will provide plenty of suction power for homeowners and light workshop duty. Most will come with a decent assortment of accessories. The main drawbacks with consumer-grade shop vacs are high noise and that some dust in the exhaust is to be expected.
The 14-gallon Ridgid WD1450 (Est. $100) sits at the size that most experts consider the sweet spot for wet dry vacs, neither too big nor too small. The Ridgid WD1450 lacks the sensors and tall handle featured on the pricier and somewhat larger 16-gallon Ridgid Pro WD1851 (Est. $160), see below, but its 28-inch height allows it to be stored under most workbenches. More than 780 owners posting feedback to HomeDepot.com give the Ridgid WD1450 an overall rating of 4.7 stars out of 5, and 96 percent say they'd recommend it. Overall, owners praise the Ridgid WD1450 for its quiet operation and powerful suction, with some noting that it's quieter than other wet dry vacs they've used.
Feedback from users is mixed on ease of use in terms of onboard attachment and hose storage (which some owners say isn't that functional), and some say the unit is bulky and difficult to move around. A few also say that the filters become clogged quickly, and they are costly to replace (ranging from around $15 for a basic filter to around $30 for a HEPA filter that keeps fine particles and allergens from being expelled back into the air). In one head-to-head professional comparison test, the Ridgid WD1450 earns the highest rating among medium-sized wet dry vacuums, getting excellent scores for both wet and dry performance, as well as for emissions, and a very good score for ease of use.
In a review for Fine Homebuilding magazine, Paul Johnson puts the Ridgid WD1450 up against seven other wet dry vacuums, including models by Shop-Vac, Bosch, DeWalt, Fein, and others. The Ridgid WD1450 sucks up both concrete and dust faster than any other wet dry vacuum included in this roundup and is out-performed only by the 12-gallon Makita VC4710 (Est. $530), a tool-triggered professional workshop shop vac that's discussed in more depth below, in a test of its ability to suck up nails.
Johnson says the inexpensive Ridgid WD1450 "held up surprisingly well" against the more-expensive wet dry vacuums he tested and says its performance coupled with its fitted HEPA filter make it a "solid choice for all-around cleanup." A review by editors at TruckTrend.com compares four wet dry vacuums under $100, including the Ridgid WD1450. Editors praise the Ridgid for its "powerful suction both for fine dust and water, best-in-class 88 dB operating noise level, and lifetime warranty," but say the crevice tool has an odd design, making it tough to get into tight and low spots.
While the Ridgid WD1450 offers a solid performance, TruckTrend.com editors ultimately name the 12-gallon Craftsman 12006 (Est. $80) as their top pick. The Craftsman 12006 placed first in overall suction power and first or a close second in all tests, including water pickup, decibel level, and grinder dust pickup, among others. Editors also say that the Craftsman 12006's large-diameter hose (2.5 inches) did not clog even when cleaning up larger messes.
Owners posting feedback to Sears.com say this 5.5 peak horsepower wet dry vac has excellent suction power, is relatively quiet, and easy to move around during cleanup, thanks to its relatively light weight of 26.5 pounds and heavy-duty, 360-degree swivel casters for better mobility. Overall, the Craftsman 12006 earns an average rating of about 4.5 stars out of 5 in nearly 240 owner-written reviews.
Owners also appreciate the variety of attachments (including cartridge and wet pickup foam filters, a crevice tool, utility nozzle, combination floor/squeegee nozzle, and hose bracket set) and onboard storage, as well as the top storage tray for easy storage of screws and nails or other tools. The Craftsman 12006 offers a 27-foot cleaning reach, with a 7-foot hose and a 20-foot power cord, and convenient, onboard storage for both for easy storage.
On the downside, while owner feedback is fairly strong, there are a few isolated complaints of motors burning out after a few months or just over a year of use. The Craftsman 12006 is backed by a one-year warranty, which pales in comparison to the limited lifetime warranty on the Ridgid WD1450.
If you're looking for a shop vac with a larger capacity and a bit more suction power, experts also praise the 16-gallon, 6.5 horsepower Ridgid WD1851. In one large comparison test conducted by editors at a leading consumer testing organization, the Ridgid WD1851 earns identical scores to its smaller counterpart, the Ridgid WD1450. More than 300 owners reviewing the Ridgid WD1851 at HomeDepot.com contribute to an overall rating of 4.7 stars out of 5. The Ridgid WD1851 shares the same 7-foot hose length, 2.5-inch hose diameter, and 20-foot power cord that earns the WD1450 high marks for ease of use. It's a bit heavier at 31.25 pounds and taller at 36 inches.
Owners appreciate the fact that, like the WD1450, the Ridgid WD1851 can use an optional HEPA filter, and that it also accepts dust bags, which can help keep dust from reaching the filter in the first place. However, some owners complain that the unit's design makes it difficult to store both the hose and wands on board, while others note that some attachments don't fit securely.
Two other affordable Craftsman shop vacuums receive favorable ratings from owners at Sears.com: the 16-gallon Craftsman 12007 (Est. $110) and the 16-gallon Craftsman 12008 (Est. $130). The difference between the two is that the Craftsman 12008 has a detachable blower that easily converts to a handheld blower for more versatility. If you want something larger, Craftsman also makes a 20-gallon wet dry vacuum, the Craftsman 12009 (Est. $130). It's priced the same as the 16 gallon Craftsman 12008, but lacks that shop vac's detachable blower feature. While all of these Craftsman blowers are made by Ridgid, they only carry a one year warranty, much shorter that the limited lifetime warranty that Ridgid offers for wet dry vacs sold under its own brand.
And what would a review of shop vacs be without a word or two about wet dry vacuums offered by Shop-Vac. Reviews for most of that brand's wet dry vacs aren't strong enough or plentiful enough to earn top consideration, but one rises above. That's the 12-gallon Shop-Vac 9633400 (Est. $130). User feedback at Amazon.com is fairly strong -- 4.4 stars based on more than 340 reviews. It's well featured, including a detachable blower. However, some owners say that the attachment caddy is useless and the unit feels "flimsy" and lacks power.
Wall-mount vacuums are easy to store but have a small capacity
Small wall-mounted shop vacuums save space but usually have limited capacity; no more than 5 gallons. Although their hoses are often extra-long, owners say they clog easily. Still, some users praise them as ideal for garage use, because you can vacuum a car or the whole room while the shop vacuum stays mounted on the wall.
The Ridgid Stor-N-Go Cleaning Station WD5500 (Est. $100) is a 5-gallon shop vac that lands near the top of the pack in a large comparison test of 23 wet dry vacuums conducted by one consumer testing organization. Editors award the Ridgid Stor-N-Go Cleaning Station WD5500 a very good score for dry cleaning tasks and a good score for wet cleanup, as well as good scores for both emissions and ease of use. A 20-foot cord gives you plenty of room to range, and lots of options on where to wall mount the vacuum, and still stay within easy reach of an AC outlet. Built-in accessory storage makes it easy to access the tools you need.
The Ridgid Stor-N-Go Cleaning Station is a wall-mounted wet dry vacuum, but most owners applaud its portability, easily detaching it from the wall to move from place to place in a work area or outdoors. More than 145 owners contribute to an overall rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 at HomeDepot.com. They say that this small-but-powerful wet dry vacuum is ideal for blowing leaves off of sidewalks and dust off of workshop floors, as well as cleaning cars and other tasks.
There are a few negatives. Some say that the attachment storage caddy doesn't attach securely to the side of the unit. Some owners point out that there is no on-board hose storage, and the 20-foot cord can be a bit cumbersome. Others say there are no casters attached for pulling the unit around behind you as you work, though there are holes that allow for attaching casters. Like all Ridgid wet dry vacuums, the Ridgid Stor-N-Go Cleaning Station is backed by a lifetime warranty.
The 4-gallon Bissell 18P03 Garage Pro (Est. $180) is another option. It has a 4.5-star overall rating based on about 175 reviews on Amazon.com. Reviewers say it's easy to mount on the wall and the included attachments make it a versatile cleaning tool for a variety of tasks. The 32-foot hose is long enough to reach most areas in a typical garage. Additionally, many users find the Garage Pro relatively quiet.
While most are pleased, some owners offer mixed feedback on this wet dry vacuum's suction power, with a few noting that as dust collects in the filter, the vacuum loses suction power quickly. A handful of Garage Pro owners report LED "tank full" indicator malfunctions and hose clogs. The Bissell 18P0 Garage carries a two-year warranty.
The Vacmaster VWM510 Wall Mount Wet Dry Vacuum (Est. $105) also earns positive feedback from owners, with more than 250 owners contributing to an overall rating of 4.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon.com. At HomeDepot.com, there's less feedback, but even higher satisfaction, with 100 percent of the more than 70 owners reviewing this wall-mounted shop vac recommending it. It's equipped with a 21-foot hose and a 20-foot power cord for great reach, and the Vacmaster VWM510 has a remote control that allows users to turn it on and off from up to 41 feet away. Owners say it's quiet, offers powerful suction, and is easy to use, even allowing users to unhook it from its wall mount to move to another area. Like the Bissell 18P03 Garage Pro, the Vacmaster VWM510 has a 5-gallon capacity and is backed by a two-year warranty.
Best tool-triggered wet dry vacs for workshops
Woodworking pros typically want a shop vac that's tool-triggered: These have an electrical outlet for plugging in a power tool and connecting its dust port to the shop vacuum's hose. Once configured, the auto-start feature turns the vacuum on and off in sync with the tool, and dust goes straight into the wet dry vac. You can often buy an accessory to make an ordinary wet dry vac tool-triggered, but the extra noise can be punishing, for example, during long sanding sessions.
While convenience is a plus for opting for a tool-triggered shop vac, using one also helps protect woodworkers' health: Wood dust is named as a known human carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services. To prevent dust-inflicted maladies, most new tool-triggered wet dry vacs accept a HEPA filter to capture particles as small as .3 microns (and for the more casual workshop users, as noted above, HEPA filters are available for some well-regarded consumer grade shop vacs. too). However, there are some practical downsides to using a HEPA filter for everyday work. For example, experts say that HEPA filters clog more easily than standard filters and advise using disposable bags that act as pre-filters, adding a dust separator for your wet dry vac, or selecting a model with an automatic filter-cleaning system.
In a review of tool-triggered wet dry vacuums for FineHomebuilding.com, Paul Johnson names the 12-gallon Makita VC4710 (Est. $530) his top pick, noting its self-cleaning function (which activates every 15 to 20 seconds) keeps the filters clean and the airflow high through various tests, including sucking up concrete, drywall mix, sawdust, and other debris. While its noise level is rated at 59 decibels, Johnson says that the noise level increases substantially when the filter-cleaning function is activated. Still, Bill Peck at Finewoodworking.com calls it the quietest shop vac that they have tested.
Just under 25 owners contribute to an overall rating of 4.4 stars out of 5 for the Makita VC4710 at Amazon.com. The VC 4710's narrow hose (just under 1.5 inches in diameter) isn't great for picking up large debris, owners say, but otherwise this wet dry vacuum is powerful. Its 16-foot hose and 24-foot cord make it easy to clean more area without having to maneuver the unit or empty the canister. The Makita VC4710 is backed by a one-year warranty.
We actually saw the best feedback for the Bosch Airsweep 3931A, but that shop vac has been discontinued and it's replacement, the Bosch VAC 090A (Est. $600), while similar, is not quite equivalent. Among other things, the capacity is cut from 13 gallons to 9 gallons.
Experts at FineWoodworking.com and FineHomebuilding.com who tested the earlier, 13-gallon version, praise Bosch's self-cleaning function and say that these units maintain great working airflow regardless of how much dust has been sucked into the machine. Bill Peck at FineWoodworking.com has also tested the VAC 090A and says that using the same testing protocols, the airflow of the new model is every bit as good as the old one. User reviews for the current model are still too scant to be terribly helpful, but there are nearly a dozen at Amazon.com, where it earns a 4.5-star rating.
The Bosch VAC 090A has an automatic filter cleaning option, which cleans the filter every 15 seconds to maintain maximum suction power. For a little less, the Bosch VAC 090S (Est. $550) is a semi-automatic model, with filter cleaning operated by a remote activation button on-demand. It earns a 4.3 star rating at Amazon.com based on just over 15 reviews, which still isn't a ton of feedback. Both models weigh 28 pounds, have a 10-foot vacuum hose, and are backed by a one-year warranty.
The bottom line, with its lower price, higher capacity, longer hose, and second only to the Bosch VAC 090A suction, we are giving the Makita VC4710, best reviewed status, but the Bosch models are very much worth considering.