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Out from the cellar's depths

Sunday night. Rain is coming down in sheets when a live-alone neighbor calls in desperation. Water is pouring into her basement through a bulkhead surrounded by ice.

No plumber can get there fast enough, so she borrows my workshop vacuum. In 15 years it's never done a lick of "wet" work. Yet the machine performs like a charm, quickly earning two new admirers.

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Yes, in the upstairs/downstairs world of vacuum cleaners, the downstairs utility models do occasionally get the attention and respect they deserve.

The image they've had as hulking basement dwellers - strong and loud - is beginning to wear away as smaller, quieter, more portable models are manufactured. And their versatility is growing. Besides the usual work of sucking up sawdust, dirt, and liquids, many shop vacs have accessories now for cleaning gutters and grooming animals, inflating air mattresses and vacuuming the car.

Detachable heads

Some models sport detachable heads that can be used as leaf blowers, and many power tools now have ports for vacuum hoses that intercept sawdust before it becomes airborne. "They can seize about 95 percent of this dust," says Mike Mangan, a Sears tool consultant.

Sears's Craftsman line and Shop-Vacs are industry leaders, but it's a competitive market, with Ridgid, Eureka, and Hoover among the other makers vying for a share of the business.

The competition, technological simplicity, and secondary status of shop-type vacuums help to keep prices down. Whereas, a quality carpet sweeper usually runs $200 or more, the equivalent wet/dry vac may cost half as much.

Despite growing popularity, wet/dry vacs are still considered optional equipment in many homes. They are found in 25 to 30 percent of American households compared with 75 percent for upright carpet vacuums. And they don't get used that often - only once or twice a month where woodworking's not a hobby.

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Still, the sales potential for wet/dry vacs is rising as they become more practical and friendlier to a wider market.

"It's amazing how many women are buying shop vacs," says Ward Wrangen, a home-improvement specialist in Home Depot's Bloomfield, N.J., store."

Several years ago Shop-Vac came out with the one-gallon, hand-held All-Around, which lists for $29, and Craftsman has a similar model at the same price point. They've sold well, despite being much smaller than the 12-to-16 gallon models, which are fixtures in so many basement workshops.

Shop-Vac spokesman Larry Tempesco says the small size is an attractive option for people in apartments and dorm rooms, as well as for homeowners who consider the muscle machines more vacuum than they need.

As alluring as some of the superlightweights are, Mr. Wrangen finds many customers in Home Depot want to move up to larger, fuller-featured models after buying the smaller units. His recommendation for first-time buyers is a 12-gallon unit with a 4.25-horsepower motor. "At $69 that's an excellent investment."

Is Schwarzenegger in the house?

All of these vacs roll on wheels or casters. Occasionally, though, they must be lifted. So when purchasing, it's important to remember this, otherwise that 16-gallon model that is manageable in the store will feel like an immovable object when partly full. Certainly with water, which weighs about 8.5 pounds (19 kilos) per gallon, you won't be able to carry a full tank unless you're last name is Schwarzenegger.

The good news is that plugs usually permit water drainage from the side or bottom, right into floor drains, and at least one model has a hose attachment to pump out water.

Dust and debris also collect in the canister, and then must be transferred to trash bags. Some models, however, use dust-collection bags ($1.50 to $2) that must be replaced once full.

The wet/dry is different from the conventional upright vacuum in two significant respects. It uses a bypass motor, which means the air flow bypasses the motor rather than being drawn through it. This allows utility vacs to suck up water and bigger pieces of debris that would ruin through-flow motors. The other major difference is that wet/dry vacs do not have rotating brushes, which help dislodge dust and debris.

Wet/dry vacs can do the living room, but they have rigid nozzles that work on suction alone. As a result, they are not the tools of choice for rug cleaning.

Another design limitation: Wet-dry tower-type vacs sometimes tip over when their hoses are pulled. Sears has addressed this tendency with the introduction of a Low Profile vac that is shorter, squatter, and less tippy, but no less powerful (it sucks up one gallon of water per second).

Consumers who dislike whining motors have welcomed efforts to muffle the noise. Shop-Vac's QSP series, for example, is marketed as 50 percent quieter than the company's standard models.

Most wet/dry vacs are long-lasting workhorses, if the filters are kept clean. Find out how easily the filter can be cleaned and replaced (Hoover's two-tank system allows switching from wet to dry pickup without changing filters or emptying the tank). When it comes time to get a new filter, Home Depot's Mr. Wrangen recommends Gore-Tex Clean Stream Filters. They cost $19 to $29, but he says the price is offset by the features: They stop fine dust, can be washed, and don't clog.

And, oh, yes, when "kicking tires" in your local home center, consider that the 2-1/2-diameter hoses, standard on larger vacuums, clog less often than the 1-1/4 inch hoses on smaller vacs.

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