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Shopping for a wet-dry vac will suck the life out of you if you let it. There are SO many models and options to choose from, and so much competition.

Not only are there a lot of features to weigh against each other, there are several models for every need and price point you can imagine, from $50 to $1000 and everything in between. Literally dozens of models overall to choose from, and—because of the intense competition—many of them quite good for the money.

I was very happily surprised to find models under $100 that got rave reviews. More in that in a moment, but here are some basics about wet-dry vacs you’ll want to know if you don’t already:

Wet-dry vac basics

In a nutshell, there are two kinds of wet-dry vac nowadays. Smaller, less-powerful portable models that you carry around by hand, and the traditional ‘canister’ kind that roll on casters. These have greater suction power and higher debris/liquid capacity. Small jobs versus big jobs.

Rolling canister wet-dry vacs essentially come in small (2-5 gal.), medium (6-12 gal.) and large (14-20 gal.) capacities. Some models feature canisters/tanks made of metal, but they’re heavy-duty plastic on most. That might worry you, but it shouldn’t — they hold up fine on the good models, and don’t rust.

The vacuum power is a function of motor size, hose diameter and a host of other factors, so simply looking at motor size won’t tell you much.

The good news is that most top wet-dry vac models do very well in picking up dry debris that’s too big for indoor vacuums, like nails and sawdust. They also vacuum up liquids easily, though some a bit faster than others.

It’s all about what you need

Individual features and overall design vary greatly in this category. It’s those differences—and how they correspond to exactly how you’ll use the wet-dry vac—that determine which model is best for you:

  • Will you need to regularly vacuum up large volumes of liquid, requiring a model with a larger tank?
  • Will you moving it in and out of the house a lot? Ease of rolling and weight should be considered.
  • Using it to vacuum your car and want attachments that work best for that?
  • Can’t stand any kind of dust and perhaps need a finer HEPA filter?
  • Do you also want to use it as a blower? (some models convert)
  • Huge garage/area to clean so you want to have a longer cord?

The list goes on, and researching models can help you zero in on the perfect match.

For me, long story short, the most appealing models had superior suction, first and foremost. Secondarily, I wanted the best and most practical mix of features like attachments, portability, warranty, ease of filter use, etc.

Step 1: size matters

So how do you choose? Determining the size/gallon-capacity you need is step 1, because bigger wet-dry vac models cost more, of course. I don’t often have to clean up huge liquid messes, so it was nice to find models that held 6+ gallons under $100.

The bigger wet-dry vacs that I associate with ‘real shops’ can hold quite a bit more. There are lots of professional models, but if I had been willing to spend more like $150-200, this VacMaster 12-gallon model really has it going on. If you’ve got large pools of water, like a regularly-flooded basement, you’ll want a larger model purely for the convenience.

Not too big or too small

My needs, like a lot of average households, are fairly common and a little less ambitious:

  • Vacuum up stuff my ‘inside’ vacuum doesn’t like: screws, sawdust, etc.
  • Suck up small liquid spills, not giant messes. 6-10 gals. should be fine
  • Having the on-board attachments was a must (attached to the vacuum when not in use, not loose so that I’d lose them).
  • Attachments had to include a good crevice tool to get the futz under and between car seats
  • I needed an average length hose—not so long that it would lose suction or clog, and not so short that it was hard to use.
  • Same on the cord length, average would work. Extension if necessary.
  • Filters vary from machine to machine in every way. I wanted one that worked pretty well and wasn’t difficult to clean or change.
  • Not too big or heavy; don’t have that much extra room, and my back ain’t what it used to be.

Narrowing it down

It took awhile, but I narrowed it down to two models, a Craftsman® 9-gallon and a Shop-Vac 8 Gallon, shown below. It was almost a toss-up. They both ‘suck like crazy’ and have the right combination of features I needed for a really good price—under $200—but I opted for the Shop-Vac because of its limited lifetime warranty.

And I have not been disappointed. It works great, sucking up dirt, sawdust, nails and stuff easily, and it’s just as effective on liquids, picking up over a gallon a minute. And I’ve stopped paying the car wash—I can do it at home! Like all wet-dry vacs, it’s kind of loud. (I put some cheap ear plugs in a little bag attached to the handle so I remember to wear them.)

I’d highly recommend the Vacmaster for medium-duty work, but like I said before, it’s all about your needs—you have to start there. Here’s a link to some of Amazon’s most popular wet-dry vac under $200 if you want to start comparing.

Happy wet-dry vacuuming. Hope this helps!