My favorite power tool

By: Steve Manes , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips, Technology

My favorite power tool isn’t my Delta table saw nor my router table. It’s my central vacuum. In terms of sheer usefulness, it’s done more work on the house and saved me more time than any tool in the shop.

Before someone comments that a vacuum is a household appliance, not a power tool, check out my router table. That hose isn’t attached to a commercial dust collection system. It’s attached to my home’s central vac — a VacuFlo, to be precise.

In fact, several of my power tools are hooked up to my central vacuum and it works great, even on my table saw.

In 2000, I was on the losing end of a battle on Usenet’s rec.woodworking where I suggested that someone use his existing central vac for a shop dust collector. Everybody said that a central vac wasn’t up to the task. Since I was planning on installing one anyway, I decided to try it myself. Seven years later I can say that, sure, a high volume/low velocity dedicated dust collector works better. But not by much! And I have a much quieter dust collection system which also doesn’t leak a speck of dust.

When I was a little kid, my uncle installed a central vac in his house. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I shoved everything I could think of into the vacuum’s wall port: marbles, socks, cat food, you name it. I even spun off an entire roll of toilet paper into the vacuum. I knew that I would have my own central vac some day.

Providing that you don’t mind knocking some holes in the walls — or, better, your walls are already open for renovation — installing a central vac is a very DIY project. Basically, it’s a lot like gluing together PVC plumbing. Unlike rigid PVC though, central vac pipe is lighter and has a little flex to it, which lets it bend around small obstructions. So long as you know which way gravity is pulling, it’s just application of common sense: keep your runs as straight as possible, don’t make the vac have to suck anything “up” and keep your T-Y’s pointing towards the power unit.

Central vacs cost more than canister vacs but because they’re not getting dropped down stairs and slammed into furniture, they last a lot longer. My central vac system, complete with all the pipes, fittings, hoses and accessories, ran around $1000 — about the cost of two premium vacuum cleaners.

The job is less daunting when you realize that most floors will probably only need one outlet. A 30 foot vacuum hose covers a lot of area. If you remember Geometry 101 and the formula for determining the area of a circle, Pi*r*r, a 30 foot hose can cover 2800 square feet. Of course, with walls and obstructions it’s not quite as simple as that. Nevertheless, my floors are 1000s/f and I only need one port on each floor. And there’s still enough play in the hose to vacuum my back deck, front stoop and porch.

Another major advantage of a central vac, or at least the cyclonic action power units like Vacuflo’s, is that the real fine dust that people buy expensive HEPA filter vacs for isn’t an issue. Whatever fine, powdery dust isn’t caught in the six gallon bucket gets blown outdoors. A cyclonic vac doesn’t need bags or filters either.

The only real downside to the vac is that it’s bit noisy outside. The exhaust pipe sounds a bit like a jet engine at idle so you want to keep the midnight cleaning sessions to a minimum.