A lot of folks hear about HEPA vacuums and think that if they just use anything HEPA, they are safe from lead. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Understanding how HEPA filtration works and choosing the right vacuum is only one piece of the lead safe work practices puzzle. For more about lead, visit my resource page.
How Does HEPA Work?
A High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance filter commonly known as “HEPA” is one of the most effective filters at stopping particles from passing through its pleats. To qualify as a HEPA by US government standards, an air filter must remove (from the air that passes through) at least 99.97% of particles that have a size of 0.3 micrometers or larger.
HEPA filters are like the Mack-Daddy of vacuum filters, keeping almost every spec of dust from getting through and being spread around your house. Standard shop vac filters don’t even come close to this type of filtration, so don’t fool yourself.
So, it seems pretty simple then. Go buy a HEPA filter and slap it on your existing shop vac and you’re good to go, right? Not a chance!
You might buy a HEPA filter off the shelf, but the only guarantee is that the filter itself is 99.97% effective. What if the filter doesn’t fit tightly, or comes loose during use? Then you spew lead dust everywhere and create a big health risk for yourself or a legal risk if you are a contractor.
While adding a HEPA filter to your old vacuum is better than doing nothing at all, the proper way to do things is to get a sealed HEPA vacuum. Here’s what the EPA requires for ANY contractor working in a house built before 1978:
“HEPA vacuum means a vacuum cleaner which has been designed with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter as the last filtration stage. A HEPA filter is a filter that is capable of capturing particles of 0.3 microns with 99.97% efficiency. The vacuum cleaner must be designed so that all the air drawn into the machine is expelled through the HEPA filter with none of the air leaking past it“
That last sentence is the important part. “None of the air leaking past it” means NONE. Eve the smallest leak can release dangerous amounts of particles into the air. So, how can you be sure you’re vacuum isn’t leaking one iota?
What Are My Options?
If you want to be sure you are working safely and meeting the EPA’s guidelines then there are a few options on the market. Unfortunately, certified or sealed HEPA vacuums are not cheap and unless you plan to do a fair amount of work, you may be better off borrowing one from a friend if possible.
I’ve listed a few vacuums that are sealed and certified (by their manufacturers) to meet the EPA’s guidelines. There are other options, but these three are a good place to start your research. The important thing is to find the right vacuum that meets your needs and budget.
These are what I used in my shop. I have a Festool Midi and CT-26 which have served us well for years of service. Powerful suction that rarely clogs, easy to use, easy to change bags and filters is why these vacuums are one of the top performers in the market. Their customer service is also second to none. If you can afford them I know you’ll be very satisfied with what a fantastic vacuum this is. You can buy them through my affiliate link here Festool Mini HEPA Vac.
Festools come with a very long hose which is handy even if it is a metric size instead of the standard sized hoses in the US. Also, one of the best features of these vacuums is the autostart feature where you can plug your tool (any tool) into the vacuum and when you turn it on the vacuum starts up too. Or you can run the vacuum manually like any other vacuum.
For my non-lead work, I use and like Ridgid shop vacs. While I haven’t tried their HEPA certified model, I know it has a lot of the same nuts and bolts under the hood that my regular versions have with the addition of a sealed HEPA filtration system. They have plenty of power and with their Scroll Noise Reduction Technology it makes the work a little more pleasant, even though nothing makes a shop vac quiet.
These vacuums are tough to tip over with their wide base and come with a host of attachments included that will allow you a lot of flexibility.
I haven’t used this vacuum, but I have used other backpack vacuums which can be extremely convenient. It may get a little heavy on your back at the end of the day, but it allows you get things completely clean, since you’re not dragging a vacuum around on the floor. Dustless Technologies has a good reputation for their HEPA technology and this vacuum also meets the EPA’s guidelines for a sealed unit.
A backpack unit eliminates the need for a long hose so nothing is out of reach. I prefer backpack vacs for final cleanup since that is where they really shine.
These are just 3 vacuums that can get you started looking at the right vacuum for you. There are other manufacturers like Hilti, Fein, Bosch and others I’d encourage you to check out as well.
The biggest manufacturers of HEPA vacs that are priced fairly right now are in my opinion Festool and Dustless Technologies. While they’re not cheap (usually $400-$800), their pricing can still fit within the ranges of the average homeowner and small contractor. Hilti vacs regularly run over $1250 and though I have used them and like them, that’s just too much for me to afford.
While we are all anxiously awaiting the EPA’s list of approved HEPA vacuums that has been promised for nearly 5 years now, this is the best we can do. All of these vacuums provide a sealed HEPA unit that will keep you and your job site safe. We can only hope that the EPA will get off the couch give us a list of approved vacuums soon.