Shortly after the Civil War, an enterprising fellow in Chicago by the name of Ives W. McGaffey invented the "Whirlwind" — generally considered the world's first vacuum cleaner. Although it seemed more efficient than a simple broom and dustpan, families who plunked down $25 — an enormous sum in those days — found the gadget had one flaw: You had to crank it by hand as you pushed it across the floor.
Over the years, engineers added electric motors, hoses, and disposable dustbags to improve the original concept, but vacuum cleaners did — and still do — have certain drawbacks. They are generally heavy and noisy. They require frequent emptying of bags or bins. And most of them tend to blow a certain amount of unfiltered air back into the home.
So sometime in the 1940s, an enterprising engineer whose name has been lost to history realized that it might be better to tuck all that complicated machinery away, and just carry the hose throughout the house. The result is commonly known as a central vacuum system. The motor, filter, and dirt-collection canister are hidden in a basement, garage, or attic. Tubing running through the walls of a house carries suction (and in some case, electricity) to inlets mounted throughout the home. To use such a system, just plug the hose into the inlet and flip a switch on the handle.
Because the motor size isn't restricted to what can fit on a regular canister or upright, "you have a lot more power, a lot more air flow, and lot more suction, so a central system is better at getting deep-down dirt," says Brett Baggett, co-owner of Best Vacuum Care in Memphis, which sells and installs Beam Central Vacuum Systems.
The larger dust canisters on these systems hold much more dirt than a regular vacuum, and require less emptying.
"It depends on the house," says Baggett, "but we usually tell owners to check it once a month to start, and then it usually gets down to every three to six months."
And Baggett points out, the additional advantage is air quality. Since no filter can completely trap all dust particles without blocking the airflow, a regular vacuum cleaner blows a certain amount of unfiltered air back into the room, and the exhaust from the machine tends to stir up dust. A central vacuum system completely eliminates both problems.
"Everything gets filtered outside the house," says Baggett, "so everything that it comes into contact with is removed from the living area."
Best Vacuum co-owner Gene Baggett points out, "That means allergy problems are helped considerably. Research by Beam has indicated as much as a 60 percent improvement in indoor air quality."
Although you might think that an inlet would be needed in every room of the house, most central vacuum systems come with lightweight 30- or 35-foot hoses, which enable the user to vacuum several rooms at one time.
"You can usually figure on one inlet per 700 square feet of living space," says Brett Baggett. As a result, a typical central vacuum system often requires no more than three inlets.
According to Baggett, his company can install systems in homes under construction in a single day. Existing homes can be more of a challenge.
"We've been in business 20 years, and we've never run into a house where it couldn't be done," says Brett Baggett. "Now sometimes the owners did not want it done, because it meant cutting into so many walls. But we can put them just about anywhere."
The Beam company website claims that 95 percent of existing homes can be fitted with one of their systems. What's more, Beam even suggests, "If you're reasonably handy, installing a Beam system can be a fun, rewarding, low-cost weekend do-it-yourself project." A quick glance at the pages and pages of installation instructions, though (how many people already have a 5.7 cm Forstner bit?), would probably send most people scurrying to licensed installers.
The cost varies depending on the type of equipment and the size of your home, with prices generally beginning at $1,000. Options include something called a "Kick Sweep" — a slot mounted in the baseboard that eliminates dustpans. You flip a lever with your foot and then just sweep crumbs into it. Plus there are attachments for cleaning curtains, blinds, ceiling fans, and yes, even your pets.
"We sell a lot of Beam systems to people with horse barns," says Brett Baggett. "It comes with a curry-comb attachment. The unit is far away so the noise doesn't scare the horses, and they like the air being pulled across them."
For information, call Best Vacuum Care at 901-452-2970, or visit beamvac.com.