How a Bagless Bissell Vacuum Cleaner Changed My Life

Hingston: Nature abhors a vacuum. Me, I'm in love with one.

Not all vacuums are created equal. Photos |

I have a long and checkered relationship with vacuum cleaners. Such simple appliances, yet they can cause such angst. You plug one in, you run it over your rug, that’s it. Only it’s really not. Most vacuums don’t do a good job at the one job they’re supposed to do.

You know this. You’ve been in this same situation: There’s a speck of something on the carpet. You run over it with the vacuum. Nothing happens. You run over it again. Nada. Zip. You repeat your actions, with increasing annoyance. The speck remains immobile. Finally, defeated, you bend down and scrape the speck up off the rug with your fingernail.

A machine whose sole raison d’être is to remove specks from the carpet ought to be capable of that.

I’m accident-prone when it comes to vacuum cleaners. Once, on the very first day I used a newly purchased vacuum, I ran over the cord, and the “power beater” chewed the plastic cord coating down to the wire. I cried. I’m not ashamed to say it. I tell you this to explain that my relationship with vacuums is fraught.

Once upon a time, I had a great vacuum cleaner. It belonged to my husband before I married him, and it may have had something to do with the fact I did. It was an Electrolux his parents gave him when they “upgraded.” (Hah!). It was made of metal. It was a canister model, and it sucked up dirt like a drunk sucks up beer. It was far and away the best vacuum I ever (half) owned.

But we were young then, and feckless. A wheel fell off the Electrolux. We kept using it anyway. Another wheel fell off, and then another. I was dragging it around on its butt. Had I only known, I could have called Electrolux — this was in the pre-Internet days — and ordered replacement wheels. But I had no notion, then, what that Electrolux was worth. Just a vacuum, right? We put it out on the curb on trash day and bought a shiny new upright. The state of my carpets has been unsatisfactory ever since.

After a long string of sub-par uprights from a variety of manufacturers, it occurred to my husband and me that perhaps we should buy another Electrolux. By that time, though, an Electrolux cost well north of $700 — and it wasn’t made of metal anymore; it was plastic. When you have two small kids, you can’t spend $700 on a vacuum cleaner, even if those two kids, plus a couple of cats and a very large dog, are the exact reason why you should.

Meantime, vacuum-cleaner technology moved on. I was suspicious of every new innovation. The vacuum cleaner I’d loved had been old-school. What did I want with wet-vacs, bagless vacs, whole-home central vacuum systems? All I wanted was a vacuum that worked as well as that old Electrolux but didn’t cost an arm and a leg. I read Consumer Reports‘ recommendations; I stood in department stores and stared at all my many, many options. Once, when a vacuum-cleaner salesman knocked on my door, I let him in, and he demonstrated his product for me. “How many times do you think the average person runs over the same spot while vacuuming?” the nice young man demanded. “Uh … once?” I said. He looked at me in extreme disappointment, realizing at that point, I think, that I was a lost cause. “Seven times,” he muttered. But dammit, a vacuum cleaner is supposed to pick up dirt, right? It shouldn’t take seven repetitions to do its job!

Vacuum-cleaner buying was a crapshoot. But even crapshooters get lucky once in a while.

When my most recent lousy, unsatisfactory vacuum cleaner — a Bissell — finally died, I headed to the department store again. (What is that definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?) I strolled along the line of models. I lifted them all with one hand — one of the reasons I was discarding that Bissell was that it was so heavy that it aggravated my pickleball elbow. The price range was extremely wide. And (what was that definition?) the model I liked best was an upright Bissell, of all things. That cost, not $700, but $79 (on sale). And it was bagless, though I couldn’t quite imagine what that meant.

Now I know.

My bagless Bissell is my favorite vacuum cleaner ever. Instead of a bag, it has a see-through tank with an agitator inside. When I run the vacuum over my carpets and my wooden floors, the agitator spins around and around, and the tank fills up with — what? Gray matter. Fluffy gray matter. Lots of fluffy gray matter.

What the hell is that stuff?

I’ve read that most of the “dust” in our homes is comprised of skin cells that we slough off. I choose not to believe that. My hair might be gray, but my skin isn’t. Yet. Still, I find whatever’s in that tank at the close of my vacuuming sessions immensely gratifying — far more so than I ever thought the stuff in the none-see-through bags I used to use was. Something about the immediacy of watching the accumulating swirl of dust in that tank really makes my day. I find myself vacuuming more often, and with a gladder heart than I have for most household chores. And at the end of my vacuuming bout, I get to unlock the tank, hold it over the kitchen trash can, push a button, and watch all that stuff as it’s purged from my life forever. Instant gratification.

What can I say? Sometimes the new ways are better. I’m a total sucker for this vacuum.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.