If you’re looking for the best shop vac on the market in 2020, we got you covered. We looked at several categories including the best small shop vac, the best medium shop vac and the best large shop vac. So no matter what kind of shop vac you’re in the market for, you’ll be able to find it on this “best of the best” list.
However, it’s important to understand a little bit about shop vacs before determining which one is the best shop vac for you. So, let’s discuss a little bit about the origin of the shop vac as well as some of the qualities to look for in a shop vac to determine which is truly the best shop vac.
Ready? Okay, let’s go.
Origin of the Shop Vac
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but we human beings are rather fond of a vacuum cleaner. It delivers us from a multitude of spills, mishaps and unfettered accumulations of dust and debris. What began over 120 years ago as a “pneumatic carpet renovator,” powered by an internal combustion engine mounted on a horse-drawn carriage, has now morphed into scores of specialized cleaning machines in all sizes, shapes, brands and prices.
Once considered a domestic appliance, one that occupies a corner of the hall closet until needed for cat hair removal and spilled Rice Krispies clean-up, the vacuum cleaner has now achieved full multipurpose status. It can be found in car trunks, shops, garages and barns and even poolside. Wherever there’s a need, there’s a vacuum cleaner to fill it.
One of the most popular vacuum cleaners on the market is the shop vacuum, capable of big jobs, wet or dry, in big places, grungy places and saw-dusty places. The shop vacuum should not be confused with the brand name Shop Vac. Shop Vacs are shop vacuums, of course, but the brand is not the only one out there. Not by a long shot.
So whether you call it a shop vac or a shop vacuum, if you’re in the market for one of these do-it-all marvels, save yourself some time and perhaps some buyer’s remorse by checking out our list of the best shop vacs. We’ll start with the big boys and work our way down to the juniors.
What Makes the Best Shop Vac the “Best”?
There are several qualities to look for when choosing the best shop vac. The first is going to be the purpose of the shop vac. Until you determine the shop vac’s primary purpose, you can’t really determine anything else. Are you going to use it for big jobs or small jobs? Are you going to use it inside or outside? Are you using it to clean up glass and dangerous debris or is it mainly for cleaning up dust?
After you figure out the primary purpose of the shop vac you want, then there are several important factors to consider when looking for the best shop vac. Here are a few of the factors to consider when looking for shop vacs:
- Wet/Dry: Shop vacs either come in wet, dry or wet/dry. This just determines whether or not it is capable of sucking up water. Again, this is why knowing the primary purpose of the shop vac is so important. If you don’t know if you’re going to be using it for wet or dry applications, you can’t really find the best shop vac for you.
- Size: Again, this goes hand-in-hand with the purpose of the shop vac. When you know the primary function of the shop vac you’ll have some idea of the size. In terms of performance, the larger shop vacs clean better than the smaller or medium-sized shop vacs. However, if storage space is a problem or you are going to use the shop vac indoors, you might want to stick to a small shop vac.
- Noise: The bigger the shop vac the louder it’s going to be in general. So, if you want performance be prepared for the noise. Also, you can find the noise level in decibels for most vacuums, so be sure to compare vacuums using these values. We suggest using a nice pair of ear plugs no matter which size you go with.
- Capacity: In general, capacity is more gimmick than anything else. Most of the time you’re never going to fill the shop vac to the brim. However, once you leap categories you will notice a difference, but as far as the same categories go (shop vacs in small, medium or large sizes) the capacity isn’t as important as you might think. Most shop vacs aren’t accurately advertising capacity anyways (source).
- Attachments: When you know what you’ll be using the vacuum for you’ll know whether or not you need additional attachments. That said, it’s also nice to have more attachments not less. You tend to get more attachments with the large shop vacs so consider this when choosing the best shop vac for your needs.
Top 12 Best Shop Vacs for 2020
Best Large Shop Vacs (10 Gallons or More)
Best Features: Heavy Duty; Doubles as a Blower
The Craftsman 16-gallon heavy duty wet-dry vacuum is solidly built and powerful. A whopping 6.5 HP heavy duty motor provides plenty of power for anything you need it for in the shop or jobsite.
Sixteen gallons is a lot of water. You can’t pick this up and tip it over to drain it (Well, you could, but that’s a lot of weight there). So the manufacturer built this with a fast drain. You just pop the cap off and stand back. There will be a Niagra Falls of dirty water tumbling out of the base, and in no time, you’ll be back at the task at hand.
This item ships with some nice accessories, like a seven-foot, 2 ½ inch kink-free hose. It locks securely in place and is easy to maneuver. There are two extension wands and a car nozzle, plus nozzles for the business end of the hose for specialized purposes. There are clip-on places on the body of the vacuum for the accessories.
Another nice thing about this model is the built-in blower port that allows you to attach the same hose you would use for suction and go the other way with it as a blower – perfect for chasing leaves out of the garage.
A Note About Sears and Craftsman
First off, Sears never “made” Craftsman products. Sears franchised the trademark and subcontracted the manufacturing to independent producers, and for the most part, consumers ended up with pretty darn good tools. Plus, there was that famous lifetime warranty for hand tools.
With Sears struggling to stave off extinction, along with the closing of hundreds of Sears and K-Mart stores, the company sold the Craftsman logo and trademark to Stanley Black & Decker in 2017. What that means for consumers is that the extremely popular brand will live on, even if the corporate identity fades away. The lifetime warranty for hand tools will live on as well.
Best Features: Overall Dependability
Dewalt is a highly-respected name in power tools, and this wet/dry vacuum earns its namesake. It’s one of the sturdiest models on the list, with an abusable (but don’t) exterior and solid handles and attachments.
A 5.5 HP motor does the work efficiently, delivering all the power you need for heavy cleanup operations. An independent blower port allows you to use the unit as a blower for leaves and debris. Operation is quieter than most of its competitors.
The 20-foot, heavily insulated power cord gives this vacuum plenty of reach, and when you’re done, just wrap the cord around the top. It doesn’t have clip-on places for accessories like some of the other models, but it does have an attached bag to carry everything in.
All of the manufacturers who produce the better vacuums know how important it is for consumers to be able to drain the unit quickly, and the Dewalt DXV10P does that.
Swiveling casters make this easy to move around.
It comes with a one-year warranty.
Best Features: Detachable Leaf Blower; HEPA Filter
If a leaf blower married a canister vacuum cleaner their offspring might look something like this unit. The top comes completely off the tank and doubles as an electric leaf blower, so you’re essentially getting two tools in one.
The blower part generates a 240-mph hurricane, and it’s just as impressive going the other way, when it’s used with the drum as a vacuum cleaner. This unit ships with a whole host of accessories, including a high quality HEPA filter and hose attachments for various purposes.
It’s powered by a five horsepower two-stage motor. A muffler attachment cuts down on the noise. A large drain assures rapid emptying of the tank, and “shopping cart” wheels make this fairly easy to move around.
This is one of the more economical vacuums on our list and it comes with a limited two-year warranty.
Understanding HEPA Filters
HEPA stands for “high efficiency particulate absorbing.” What this means is that that filter meets the standards set forth by either the European or American standards for particulate removal. Specifically, a HEPA filter must remove 99.97% of all particles greater than 0.3 microns (very, very tiny).
HEPA filters are usually used in environments where contamination is a serious threat, such as manufacturing processes, pharmaceutical production and storage and hospitals.
Best Features: Muffler; Detachable Leaf Blower
In virtually all of the specifications, this one matches the Craftsman shop vac above, but it has the added feature of a muffler/diffuser attachment. Shop vacuums are notoriously loud, and this one mitigates the noise to a substantial degree, especially the high-pitched motor whine.
Both of the Craftsman models are real beasts when it comes to size, and that creates some maneuverability issues, but the heavy duty, free-spinning wheels roll easily over most surfaces.
This model in particular does come with a detachable leaf blower, which is great for those who don’t feel like splurging on both a shop vac and a leaf blower for blowing leaves away from areas close to the home. And with its dual-flex hose, it allows for 180 degrees of flexibility, so you don’t have to worry about your hose kinking all the time when moving around.
This shop vac also comes with a slew of accessories and attachments. There are two wands for extension, a utility nozzle, nozzle for cleaning your car, a crevice tool for hard to reach places, a wet nozzle, wand for the blower, and a dust collection bag.
You really get a nice bang for your buck with this large shop vac and leaf blower in one.
Best Medium Shop Vacs (4-9 Gallons)
Best Feature: Four-Layer Filtration System
Tacklife may be an unfamiliar brand – now – but this international company is rooted in making tools for construction, professional and home use. Power tools, hand tools, lawn and garden tools, automotive tools and cleaning tools fill out their product menu.
This five-gallon vacuum is powered by a 5.5 HP high performance motor for quick cleaning. The options are three-way: wet vacuum, dry vacuum and blower.
A standout feature is this vacuum’s four-layer filtration system that offers wet protection, dry protection and protection against the tiniest particulates. This ensures a long life for the motor, and clean air expelled into the room or work area.
The vacuum ships with a seven-foot vacuum hose, two extension wands, nozzles for various purposes and a floor brush.
Heavy duty casters that rotate 360 degrees ensure easy rolling.
This unit comes with a two-year warranty.
Best Feature: Comes with Auto Toolkit, Ideal for Car Cleaning
OK. You’ve heard of Bissell. Your momma had a Bissell upright.
Bissell may be better known for its refined, domestic vacuum cleaners, but it’s not afraid to mix it up with the challenges of a workshop or garage.
The MultiClean does what it says – it cleans multiple rooms, multiple messes and is just at home on shag carpet as it is unfinished concrete. A lever on the head adjusts for bare floors and carpet, and the 11-amp motor provides plenty of suction for major mishaps or big areas that need a good dusting-up. The six-gallon capacity is big enough for probably 90 percent of the jobs you might have for it. But if it doesn’t, the vacuum is easy to empty and return to the scene of the crime.
Like nearly all of the other models, this unit has a separate blower port, so you can use it as a blower to drive out leaves, mud and debris. Something many people might overlook is the ability to use the blower option to blow up inflatables, like air mattresses, inflatable toys, wading pools, etc.
Accessories include a dust wand, crevice tool and several hose end attachments for dry pick-up or wet use.
Best Features: Remote Control; Wall Mount with Easy Detachment
This Vacmaster has a remote control. “What!?” you say. “A remote control?! Take my money!”
But hold on. It’s not what you think. But it is pretty cool.
You can turn the vacuum off and on from a remote switch at the end of the suction hose. Say goodbye to awkward reaching around the canister trying to find the off switch while your wife is trying to tell you something important (Hint: It’s all important).
Even if it didn’t have the remote switch, the main switch is huge and sits right on top of the unit.
The primary feature of this vacuum, though, is the fact that it’s wall-mounted for nifty, thrifty storage (or use). It snaps out quickly and is easily – OK, relatively easily – carried about via a sturdy, ergonomic handle. With a super-long 21-foot vacuum hose, you might not want to even remove if from the wall except to empty the tank.
You’ll need to find a stud – just one – to attach the mounting bracket.
It has a two-stage peak 5.0 HP motor that can handle any task, plus reverse operation so that it can be used as a blower.
Even though it has a sturdy, easy-to-grip handle, carrying around this unit with water inside can be rather burdensome. It’s not included, but you can purchase a wheeled dolly to make moving it about much easier.
This ships with a few accessories, including a car tool that makes vacuuming out the Beemer a breeze.
A generous two-year limited warranty covers all defects.
Using a Wet/Dry Shop Vac
- Do not pull it by the vacuum hose. You run the risk of tipping the unit over and spilling dirty water all over the floor. This also creates unnecessary wear and tear on the hose, which could lead to breaks in the hose. Transport it using the handles, or by grasping the sides of the canister with both hands and guiding it to the next place.
- Stop the Whining. When your wet-dry vacuum reaches its capacity, the motor will suddenly whine loudly (because the overfill protector has interrupted the suction flow). Don’t ignore this. Stop immediately and empty the tank, or investigate where the blockage is, if you’re dry-vacuuming. Letting the motor whine loudly for more than a few seconds will lead to severe overheating. Besides, the vacuum isn’t even working at that point.
- Don’t let the power cable sit in water. Even though the power cords are heavily insulated, there could be a gap or nick in the insulation that you don’t know about.
- In a flooded floor, find the deepest place. If your basement is flooded (no more than an inch, though; any more than that, and you’ll need a heavy duty pump), find the spot where the water is deepest and put your nozzle there. Water will flow to the spot and you won’t have to push the nozzle back and forth.
Best Feature: Tank Drain
DeWalt makes its second appearance on our list, this time with a nine-gallon version of their larger vacuum, with a 5.0 HP motor, accessories, easy-rolling casters, the ability to switch to blower and a built-in bag on the back for tool storage.
The 10-foot power cord is a bit skimpy, but it’s no worse than the others in the medium category. Sturdy, 360-degree casters make this vacuum easy to move from room to room and around obstacles.
The suction is very strong, with the ability to draw up solid material right along with the water.
Probably the best thing about this unit is the tank drain. Some medium size vacuums don’t have this feature, meaning you have to tote the reservoir of dirty water to a drain and dump it. With a tank drain, you just roll the whole vacuum to a suitable spot for water release and open the drain for quick emptying of the contents.
Best Feature: Come with Many Accessories
Porter-Cable enters the fray with a gleaming stainless steel shop vacuum that looks as good as it works. Despite its beauty, this vacuum is ready for job site, garage, basement or shop use.
A 4.0 HP motor drives the suction system, which, like the others, can be turned around and used as a blower.
Plenty of accessories will hitch a ride on the delivery truck. These are all part of the package:
- Five foot vacuum hose, 1 ¼ inch diameter
- Extension wand
- Floor nozzle
- Crevice nozzle
- Gulper nozzle for wet use
- Foam filter
- Dust bag
- Storage bag
- Reusable dry filter
None of the vacuums in our medium grou[ come with a very long power cord. Ten feet seems to be the max, and that’s what the Porter-Cable ships with.
The warranty is excellent – three years.
Best Feature: Wet or Dry Vacuuming / Long Hose
There are shop vacuums and then there is Shop-Vac. Shop Vac is the brand name that got there first, in 1965, and created a memorable product name that overshadows its competitors. This is just like how Kodak changed the camera industry and the way Zip-Lock bags and Kleenex are practically a generic term.
This handy wet-dry vacuum is perfect for medium to large jobs in the shop, home, garage or car. The capacity is 4 gallons and the hose is 1.25 inches in diameter and seven feet long – which is pretty long for a shop vac vacuum hose. Its not too bulky either (all shop vacs are slightly bulky though) and will allow you to get right on top of the mess. But, you don’t really need to with how long the hose is.
This Shop Vac is loaded with accessories. It comes with a LockOn hose, two handy extension wands, a dual surface nozzle, 10″ wet dry nozzle, crevice tool, gulper nozzle, round brush, cartridge filter (with retainer), and a filter bag that’s designed for high efficiency. Not too many sub-one-hundred dollar Shop Vacs in this price range come with this many extras.
This shop vac can even convert to a blower, if need be. And with its powerful SVX2 Motor Technology, the motor has 35% more air power than older Shop Vacs with the same size motor. And, the motor has a longer lifespan, which allows Shop Vac to offer a generous five year warranty.
Best Small Shop Vacs (<4 Gallons)
Best Features: Cord Wrap; Blower Function
Armor All is a familiar brand in the cleaning products market, but they hope to gain a foothold in the automotive accessories market with this wet-dry vacuum in the company’s traditional orange and black colors.
It’s primarily a car vacuum, but it can be used for lightweight tasks in the house or in the shop. As long as you don’t ask it to do more than what it was designed for, this should be a very satisfactory little vacuum. The capacity is 2.5 gallons and the motor is just 2.0 HP, so using for more than 30-45 minutes is a stretch, but you might not need it for more than that.
All the accessories – crevice tool, gulper, detail brush and filter – have their own little storage spot on the body of this vacuum.
There have been issues with consistency in the product quality, however. Hopefully, you won’t need it, but if there are problems, the unit comes with a two-year warranty, which is one of the better warranties on our list.
Best Feature: Corded or Cordless Use with Battery
DeWALT really stepped its game up with this handy little shop vac. Not only is it heavy duty and crush-resistant, it can also be used with or without a cord. Keep in mind, you will need an 18 or 20V battery. It does come in a version with battery, so be sure to select the right one.
The hose on this beast is crush-proof, one-and-a-half inches in diameter, extends out for 5 feet and is fully integrated with the unit. The tank insides the unit holds up to 2 gallons, wet or dry. Also, it is equipped with on-board storage to carry around additional equipment/tools with you wherever you go.
It also comes with a crevice tool attachment as well as a wide nozzle attachment.
Last but not least, another great feature on this shop vac is its filter. It is a genuine HEPA filter, for one, but it is also washable and reusable.
Comes with a 3 year warranty as well as 1 year of free service to boot.
Vacuum Cleaner Suction, Power and Ratings
If you don’t have a degree in physics you probably won’t find most of the numbers used to rate vacuum cleaners very helpful. For instance, a lot of vacuum cleaner companies advertise suction rating. A typical domestic vacuum cleaner has a suction rating around -20 kPa. What this means is that it lowers the pressure inside the hose compared to the outside atmosphere by 20 kPa. The outside atmosphere is around 100 kPa, so in this case it would be 80 kPa inside the hose. Helpful, right? Wrong.
When it comes to vacuum cleaners, a number of factors can change the kPa, rendering the number almost useless. For instance, changes in hose diameter and hose length can dramatically alter the kPa from one vacuum to another, rendering the number almost useless for comparison purposes. This is especially true when it comes to smaller vacuum cleaners as similar vacuums will vary in kPa by even up to 15.
The numbers to be more mindful of are CFM, Air Power (or Air-Watts) and sealed pressure (if it is offered). For CFM, the higher the number the better as this indicates how well the vacuum picks up fine debris or dust. Air Power is also better if higher, the higher the number the heavier the object the vacuum can pick up. Sealed pressure is all about suction and a rating of 70+ is going to be best if you’re looking for a good model. This number is closer to the “suction rating” mentioned above, so be a bit more skeptical of it.
When deciding between two vacuum cleaners, if you need more power go with the higher numbers mentioned above. If the numbers are pretty close, look for which vacuum is more dependable and see who makes the motor/where it is made. Also, check the ratings on multiple websites. If push comes to shove go with this one that is rated highest across the most websites.