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Va-va-va-vacuums

Shopping for a vacuum cleaner these days is something like shopping for a car.

Consumers want a little get up and go in their vacuums -- a sense that there is power at their disposal -- but they also don't want to compromise on style.

Like so many other home appliances, vacuums have undergone a transformation. It's not enough anymore that they do their job in a workmanlike fashion; they should also feature cutting-edge design.

"Four or five years ago, it was basically a product that had a motor in it and sucked dirt up," says Rob Newcombe, vice president of marketing for Electrolux Home Care Products.

Now, vacuums are about power and accessories. Shoppers want models with powerful motors for cleaning kid-generated dirt, pet hair and allergy-aggravating irritants.

Jim Herbert, owner of the Vac & Sew Doctor, a Modesto business that sells and repairs vacuum cleaners, says vacuums loaded with attachments are popular among shoppers.

Many upright models come with several pieces, including hose extenders and brush attachments for upholstery or stairwells, to help make cleaning jobs a bit easier.

"In the last 10 years, on-board tools have become a big thing," said Herbert, who's been in the business 17 years.

Bagless vacuums, ones that use an attached container to collect debris, remain a popular choice among shoppers. Approximately 70 percent of vacuum cleaners sold in the United States are bagless, but it's a trend that is leveling off, according to Herbert.

"Bagless models tend to get clogged more often," he said.

And when clogged, some of those bagless models can emit more dust and dirt than they suck up.

While shelf appeal has become essential -- the average consumer spends just seven minutes in a store choosing a vacuum -- function hasn't been thrown out the window. Key considerations for consumers these days are weight, the ability to vacuum in hard-to-reach areas and the idea of green cleaning with sealed High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration to remove allergens.

Recent designs from manufacturers are unabashedly colorful and downright futuristic, but they're also task-oriented. Here's a look at a few.

Unleash the beast

Dyson Absolute promises monstrously strong cleaning with its DC17 Animal upright.

The company touts its Level 3 Root Cyclone technology, which spins dirt at high speed through three cyclone levels, separating it from the soon-to-be-expelled air and allowing it to collect in the bin. The bagless vacuum relies on a washable filter, and you simply push a button to empty out dirt. Dyson vacuums tend toward the upper end of the economic scale -- the DC17 Animal retails for $550 but the company says its vacuums never clog or lose suction.

The company also says filtration is so thorough that the air the vacuum expels has as much as 150 times less bacteria and mold than normal household air.

The DC17 also offers some flexibility in use, with a quick-draw telescoping wand with a 16-foot reach.

A closet friend

Storage can be an issue with hefty vacuums. The 16-pound Electrolux Intensity promises portability and easy storage, with a telescopic folding handle. Electrolux also says the little vacuum offers 50 percent higher suction than the industry's leading upright, thanks to a short, three-inch air path from intake to dust bag.

Fingertip power controls on the handle let the user switch from carpet to hard surface settings with ease. Available at retailers such as Lowe's, Sears and Best Buy, the Intensity retails for $300.

Appearance counts

Dirt Devil's hand-held Kone vacuum is unabashedly about form.

Designer Karim Rashid's sleek cleaner brings to mind a lava lamp, and the colors, including pink, purple and a steely blue, are iPodesque.

The idea is that the 7.2-volt rechargeable vacuum will look so nifty sitting around your pad that you won't want to hide it, thereby saving storage space. In fact, a stark white version features an illuminated base that "casts a soft glow that adds an inviting radiance to any room," say the Dirt Devil folks. Available at various retailers; found at www.target.com for $40.

Easy does it

The Eureka Uno, available in a lighthearted lime green, is designed to be a more comfortable vacuum to operate. The vacuum's O-shaped, soft-grip, ergonomic handle is intended to make vacuuming easier on the wrist.

The Uno's handle also adjusts to eight positions, accommodating height differences.

On-board tools include an edger brush designed to work along wall edges and a flip-top hood that allows the easy use of a stair nozzle both horizontally and vertically. Sold at Target and Costco for $130.

Canister vacs

A number of companies make canister vacuums, models that dominated the market decades ago, before upright models ruled.

Miele makes a number of high-end canister models that are considered the Rolls Royce of vacuums. Prices for top-of-the-line canister vacuums can start at $300 and go as high as $800.

Canisters are an ideal choice for people with noncarpeted flooring such as hardwood, tile or vinyl. They are powerful enough to remove unwanted dirt without damaging flooring material.

Built-in vacuums

Severe allergy and asthma sufferers in newer homes might consider a built-in vacuum, also known as a central vacuum. Instead of physically moving a unit from room to room, the central unit is stationary, and users attach a hose to an inlet. CycloVac, Eureka and Beam are among the built-in manufacturers.

Built-in models can cost as much as $800, and that does not include installation costs (in an older home, that can be about $2,500).

Roomba for ease

Techies who like their gadgets might be inclined to try a Roomba, the circular robotic vacuum. Users simply turn it on and let it go and the unit will automatically vacuum the entire floor.

It's low enough to go under a bed or other furniture. When it gets "stuck," it emits noise so the owner can find it and send it back on its cleaning task.

Some Roombas sell for as much as $300 to $400. But this vacuum isn't the best choice for high-traffic households that generate lots of surface dirt, Herbert said.

"If you have pets or kids, this is probably not for you," he said.

Bee staff writer Donna Birch contributed to this report.

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