how to clean a dirty vacuum filter

How to Clean a Vacuum Filter

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To keep your vacuum in good working order, you must regularly maintain its filters. So it’s important to know how to clean a vacuum filter.

If you, like me, have noticed your vacuum kicking back dust to the floor or working less effectively, one likely culprit is a clogged filter. Understanding what kind of filter you have and how you maintain it can ensure your vacuum always does its best work.

How Do You Clean a Vacuum Filter?

The first step to maintaining your filter is learning your type of vacuum filter. If you are unsure, check your manufacturer’s information. The most common household vacuum filters include:

  • Bagged filters: If you have a bagged vacuum, the bag likely has a filter built right in. Dispose of it when full, and the next bag will come with a new filter.
  • Cartridge filters: Circular and often made of foam, paper, or fabric. These are usually disposable, but you can clean them. See detailed instructions below.
  • Cyclone filters: These are composite materials and can usually be washed with cold water. Make sure it dries completely before returning the filter to the vacuum.
  • Foam filters: These filters are easy to spot since they are made of foam and are simple to clean. See the instructions below.
  • HEPA filters: You cannot clean HEPA filters. Some HEPA filters have cleanable pre-filters. Sometimes these are labeled as cleanable HEPA filters. See further instructions below.

How Often Should I Clean a Vacuum Filter?

Vacuum filters need to be cleaned or changed regularly. For most, cleaning once every three months is sufficient. However, if your home gets heavy traffic, you may need to increase the frequency of cleaning. Neglecting this task can leave you with a broken vacuum. As filters clog, the motor has to work harder to suction air through. Over time, this will burn out the motor.

The specifics of filter care depend on the type of filter you have. Some filters, like pleated filters and most HEPA filters, are not meant to be cleaned and must instead be replaced. Pleated filters are changed annually.

How to Clean a HEPA Filter

cleaning a hepa vacuum filter

Do not wash HEPA filters. These filters are delicate, and contact or exposure to water can damage them. Instead, you should replace your HEPA filter every six months to one year, whatever the manufacturer recommends. Your HEPA filter may have a washable pre-filter. If your HEPA filter is labeled washable, it’s essential to understand that the HEPA filter itself is not the washable part. Instead, you wash the pre-filter, which captures larger dust and debris particles.

  1. First, check if your HEPA filter is labeled as ‘washable’ or ‘pre-filtered.’ If not, you should replace it according to the manufacturer’s schedule. Usually, this is once every six to twelve months. HEPA filters are never washable, but some contain a special filter that can be.
  2. To clean the pre-filter, remove it and carefully brush or rinse under cold water. Be careful not to touch the filter and allow it to dry thoroughly before replacing it.

How to Clean a Foam Filter

cleaning a foam vacuum filter

A foam filter in your vacuum helps collect dust in canister or bagless vacuums, collecting fine enough dust that might slip through the canister without sending it back to your clean floors. Cleaning them a foam filter is simple!

  1. Soak foam filters in water. You can add a few drops of distilled white vinegar to your soaking water to help disinfect the foam filter.
  2. Squeeze to help release dirt trapped inside the foam filter until the water runs clear.
  3. You can add a few drops of essential oils into the foam as it dries to create a fresh, lovely scent in your room when you vacuum. Some also offer antibacterial properties, including eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree, and lemongrass.
  4. Squeeze out as much excess water as possible before setting it somewhere with good airflow to dry.
  5. If you need the foam vacuum filter to dry more quickly, set it near a fan or dehumidifier.
  6. Allow the foam filter to dry completely before replacing it. The drying process can take up to twenty-four hours.

How to Clean a Cartridge Filter

cleaning a cartridge vacuum filter

Cartridge filters are permanent filters that are meant to last a long, long time with proper care. Regular cleaning will help ensure these filters endure and continue working properly.

  1. Remove your cartridge filter from the vacuum. It’s wise to do this over a sheet or towel to collect dust that escapes when you remove it.
  2. Tap it vigorously (but not so hard that you dent or damage the filter) over your garbage to loosen any dirt or debris caught in the accordion-like filter.
  3. If you haven’t cleaned a cartridge filter for a while, it may take longer. Use a soft-bristled brush to agitate the filter’s fibers to release stubborn dirt and dust. If you notice objects stuck between the filter folds, you may need to dislodge them with your fingers. Keep at it until dust and dirt no longer falls from the filter.
  4. If your filter is made of paper, keep it away from water. If it’s cloth, you can use a damp rag to wipe away dust gently. In either case, give the filter plenty of time to dry completely before you return it to the vacuum.
  5. Set the filter in front of a fan or near a dehumidifier to speed up the drying process.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if vacuum filter is dirty?

A dirty filter means your vacuum will not be particularly efficient, kicking back excess dust to your floors as you vacuum. Further, your vacuum’s motor has to work harder to accomplish the same job, which can burn out the vacuum faster and require you to replace or repair it.

Can you clean and reuse a vacuum filter?

Maybe! It depends on the type of filter your vacuum has. Some filters, like HEPA filters and pleated filters, are meant to be replaced rather than cleaned. Some HEPA filters have a pre-filter that can be washed. Check with your manufacturer if you need clarification on what type of filter your vacuum uses.

Can you machine wash vacuum filters?

No, most vacuum filters cannot stand up to your washing machine. It’s better to tackle washable vacuum filter cleaning by hand. Likewise, do not attempt to clean your vacuum filters in the dishwasher.

Can you wash vacuum filters with soap?

In most cases, washing vacuum filters with soap is not necessary or advisable. Several filter types should not come into contact with water, including HEPA filters and paper cartridge filters. If you are unsure if your filter can be exposed to water, check with the manufacturer.

Can you wash vacuum filters with vinegar?

If you are cleaning a foam filter and want to disinfect it, add a few drops of distilled white vinegar to your soaking water. Do not use vinegar to clean any other kind of filter.

How often should I vacuum my home?

In general you should vacuum hardwood and tile floors each week and rugs and carpets twice per week. If you have high traffic areas in your home, then you might need to vacuum more. Wondering what the best vacuums are for floors? Read our expert reviews on the best corded-stick vacuums and the best vacuums for laminate floors.

Final Thoughts on Cleaning a Vacuum Filter

Maintaining your vacuum filter isn’t a complicated or time-consuming process. Keeping your filter cleaned or replaced can preserve the lifespan of your vacuum and keep that excess dirt and dust from landing on your floor.

Ken Lyons
Ken Lyons has 20 years expertise in the cleaning industry. He's owned and operated two residential cleaning companies, providing services for hundreds of clients in the Greater Boston Area.