Smaller, portable wet-dry vacs are popular for tasks outside of the workshop, and for general home and garage use. Though they can't come close to matching the suction of larger vacuums, owners usually find they have enough power to get the job done. They do have their limitations, however; for example, hose diameters are sometimes small, which means that they can easily clog with bigger debris.
In a professional of portable wet-dry vacs at Popular Mechanics, the Ridgid WD3050 (Est. $60) takes top honors. This little 3-gallon vacuum has a big appetite, gobbling up two pounds of sawdust, two pounds of topsoil and a gallon of water in just 6.4 seconds total. It particularly excels at the water test, sucking up the gallon in 2.2 seconds – half the time of most competitors. Reviewer Roy Berendsohn also says its 1.75-inch-diameter hose stays clog-free and is "supple and easy to work with, even in cold weather." His one complaint is that the small vacuum is a bit top-heavy when empty.
More than 400 owners have reviewed the Ridgid WD3050 at HomeDepot.com, giving it 4.6 stars out of 5 overall. They say it's powerful enough for most household jobs, yet also lightweight (just under 10 pounds) and reasonably quiet (88 dB). They particularly like the built-in suction-powered dustpan, which neatly collects dirt. However, like Berendsohn, they complain that it is top-heavy and somewhat unstable. Some users like the design of the collapsing hose, which expands from 2 feet to 7 feet in length, but others say the vacuum works better with a longer or wider hose. Other features of the Ridgid WD3050 include a 10-foot power cord, car nozzle, standard paper filter and Ridgid's lifetime warranty.
An even cheaper alternative is the Armor All AA255 (Est. $40). With a 2.5-gallon capacity, a 6-foot hose and a 10-foot cord, the Armor All is ideal for smaller tasks such as vacuuming a vehicle. It doesn't do as well as the Ridgid in the Popular Mechanics test, taking 11.6 seconds to complete all three tests. Nonetheless, Berendsohn says it has "more than enough power for light-duty cleaning." It's also the quietest vacuum in the test, at 83 dB.
The Armor All gets strong feedback from users. It has a 4.4-star rating based on more than 2,300 reviews at Amazon.com, as well as 4.5 stars overall from 130-plus users at HomeDepot.com. Owners say it's ideal for a wide variety of household uses, including cleaning up spills, picking up pet hair, clearing out fireplace ashes and tidying the car. They're pleased with its light, compact size, fairly quiet operation and good variety of attachments. Most say it has good suction power for its size, but they stress that this small vacuum is only suitable for light-duty jobs. We also saw some complaints about durability, usually involving loss of suction after a few uses or several months of consistent use. The Armor All AA255 is manufactured by Vacmaster and backed by a two-year warranty.
Users also like the 4.5-gallon Ridgid Pro Pack WD4522 (Est. $100). This small wet-dry vacuum is shaped like a toolbox, and the lid provides storage for the hose, 20-foot cord and cleaning tools. In a roundup of four compact wet-dry vacs at This Old House, the Ridgid Pro Pack WD4522 draws praise from a contractor for its convenient accessory storage and the two extension wands that make it possible to vacuum standing up.
More than 350 owners at HomeDepot.com give the Ridgid Pro Pack an overall rating of 4.6 stars out of 5. Reviewers say it's powerful, yet small enough to fit easily into tight spaces, and not too loud. They love the onboard storage and convenient box shape, which makes it easy to store. Reports of its reliability, however, are mixed. While some owners say this vacuum has given years of faithful service, others complain that it broke down within a couple of months.
Cordless wet-dry vacs offer the ultimate in portability – but their suction power and runtime are limited. Reviews say they're ideal for vacuuming a car or other quick cleanup jobs that last 10 to 15 minutes. Because many cordless wet-dry vacuums use the same batteries as other cordless tools from the same maker, they are often sold without batteries. All prices noted here are for the "bare tool," without the battery or charger.
For many users, the 2-gallon DeWalt DCV581H (Est. $115) represents the best of both worlds: a portable shop vacuum that can be either corded or cordless. It has a power cord for those tasks that require longer sustained cleaning time, but also works with an 18-volt or 20-volt DeWalt battery. According to owners, it can run about 25 to 30 minutes between charges. Also, unlike many portable vacuums, it comes with a standard HEPA filter. On the downside, it has a fairly short and narrow hose – 5 feet long and 1.25 inches in diameter – and a 5-foot cord, which greatly limits its reach on AC power. The unit is backed by a three-year warranty, which includes free service for the first year.
The DeWalt DCV581H did quite well in the Popular Mechanics test. Although it took 12.6 seconds to complete the timed test – nearly twice as long as the Best-Reviewed Ridgid WD3050 – it was deemed the "most well-rounded" vacuum of the lot because it can switch from corded to cordless and clean both dry and wet messes with the same filter. Clint DeBoer at ProToolReviews.com is also fairly impressed with the DeWalt, giving it an overall rating of a 4.2 stars out of 5. He says it performs equally well with both 18 volt NiCd batteries and newer 20 volt Li-ion ones, and the noise level is pleasingly low. He also loves the well-designed case with onboard storage for tools, hose and cord. It doesn't have the power for "really heavy work," but for smaller jobs, DeBoer says this is the vacuum to have – especially if you are already invested in DeWalt cordless tools.
Users also have good things to say about this DeWalt wet-dry vac. It earns 4.4 stars overall from more than 600 owners at Amazon.com and 4.5 stars from more than 100 users at HomeDepot.com, with 91 percent saying they would recommend it. Owners love the vacuum's small size and multiple power options, and they also say it's easy to clean. They generally find its suction power adequate for small cleanup tasks, but like DeBoer, they think it's too weak for big jobs. The biggest complaint we saw was that for some users, the vacuum stopped working in battery mode after a while, leaving them tethered to the 5-foot cord.
DeBoer is also enthusiastic about the Milwaukee M18 0882-20 (Est. $100). This is the smallest wet-dry vac we've seen, weighing just over 4 pounds and holding only 36 ounces (just over half a gallon). However, deBoer finds it packs a surprising punch for its size, producing a suction of 40 cfm.
What DeBoer likes best about this little vacuum, however, is its flexibility. Unlike the DeWalt DCV581H, the Milwaukee runs only in battery mode, getting about 20 to 25 minutes to the charge with a 5.0-mAh battery. However, its variety of attachments – two wands, a 4-foot hose, crevice tool and floor tool – let it function as either a handheld or stationary vacuum, and even switch to an upright model for vacuuming floors. DeBoer says switching between modes is easy, and so is opening and cleaning the vac. The included HEPA filter can't be washed and dried, but DeBoer says you can easily clean it if you "just bump it against something."
There isn't a lot of user feedback for the Milwaukee M18 0882-20, but it's generally positive. The unit earns a 4.5-star overall rating from about 30 users at HomeDepot.com, and 88 percent say they would recommend it. They love the compact size of this vac that enables it to fit into tight spaces. They also say it has decent suction, runs quietly, and comes with a useful assortment of attachments. A couple of users say it can be a bit heavy with the battery installed, and a few complain that replacement filters are hard to find.