Home Front: Fighting dirty

Ann Treneman gets sucked into the vacuum cleaner wars. Illustration by Toby Morison
he moment I saw Richard I liked him, which, considering it was early Saturday morning and he was a vacuum-cleaner salesman, was pretty surprising. "I think you are expecting me," he said. I shrugged. After all, if there is one thing that confuses me it is vacuum cleaners. Why, you have to wonder, can't they make one that works? Perhaps Richard would know. Plus, there must be a demonstration involved. I'd never seen a man actually use a vacuum cleaner. Richard and his Filter Queen might prove to be both informative and entertaining.

He stepped inside. He was in his late twenties to early fifties. His shoes were cheap and brown and there were the remains of a price sticker on one sole. His chequered trousers had been ironed by someone who was either very angry or very repressed. Or nervous, I thought, as I saw him reviewing his notes. Notes? This was a man who had been unemployed, and not long ago.

He said he was just nipping out to the car to get the Filter Queen. He staggered back. The Queen will never be mistaken for hand luggage. He produced a binder with plasticised pages and sat on the floor, surrounded by option kits. He smoothed his hair. He explained that the Queen was made in Cleveland, Ohio. The plastic binder flipped. The sale had begun.

I looked at the Queen. She seemed an ancient old girl - more 1930s motor car than vacuum cleaner, really - and the sight of her wafted me back to my childhood, to my grandmother's house...

The house was white clapboard with green shutters and a screened porch, and it wasn't that far from Cleveland. The carpets were gold, the decor fussy, and, when I visited, one of my daily tasks was to vacuum round her many nests of occasional tables. Then I would manoeuvre the Filter Queen (or something very similar) back to a closet that reeked of mothballs and polish.

See what vacuum cleaners do to you? One minute you are trying to concentrate on not staring at a shoe sticker, and the next you are daydreaming about mothballs. It was time to snap out of it and to discover if Richard knew what he was talking about. Why, I asked, is it so difficult to find a vacuum cleaner that works for longer than 10 minutes? Richard looked startled and said that I obviously hadn't tried the Filter Queen. "You won't be disappointed!" he promised.

But I was. In the end, Richard, and the Filter Queen, proved to be just as confusing as the rest of the vacuum world. At the moment, we are all in the grip of a kind of vacuum-cleaner madness. People who live in modern flats run out to buy a pounds 200 Dyson when they could probably make do with something costing pounds 50 at Argos. The recent Which? magazine report has added several new levels of confusion by naming Miele as the best cylinder cleaner, and Dyson as the most reliable upright. For some reason - boredom? asthma? - we all want our homes to be clean enough for the Bubble Boy. What does it all mean?

There is no point in asking the manufacturers. Take Miele and Dyson. They have just had a very public dust-up. Basically, Miele has questioned Dyson's claim that its cleaner has 100 per cent suction. Now Miele won't comment, and James Dyson is sticking to his guns. Such things are nothing new in this world, however. The Advertising Standards Authority has a cupboard full of vacuum cases.

None of the other manufacturers is helpful. Electrolux has come out with its own bagless vacuum and is busy promoting a prototype for a robot vacuum. AEG is so excited about its new Croma model that it sent me one, along with a brochure showing a woman vacuuming around the grand piano in her kitchen. Meanwhile, the news from the RSA Student Design Awards shows that ingenuity is not dead. Two of this year's awards have gone to new vacs: one doubles up as a bin or occasional table, while the other deflates for easy storage.

But what about the dirt? Everyone wants to talk about air watts and self- sealing bags and how many tools are "on board", but what about the dirt? Even the Consumers' Association is cagey on the subject. "There are many different kinds of dirt," says Duncan Larder, associate editor of Which? magazine. "You have to make sure you are comparing like with like. Every house will have different dirt."

Don't they do suction tests? Yes, they do, and a lot of trouble is taken to make sure they are fair. Not only are there different kinds of dirt, but there are different ways to suck it up, and different methods to measure its removal. The tests certainly sound scientific. Basically, they take one shovelful of one kind of dust, roll it into a carpet a certain number of times, then vacuum over it a certain number of times.

The result is a suction-power statistic, but these are not for public consumption. "Specific percentages would be misunderstood," says Mr Larder. "It might be a different kind of dust being picked up." I give up. "It's easy to get sucked in - to use a terrible word - to this debate," he says. "People want to know what is the best? It all depends on what you want."

Perhaps I am asking the wrong question. Perhaps I should ask why it is so hard to make a better vacuum cleaner? James Dyson thinks he knows, because he can remember the moment he decided to do just that. The year was 1979 and he was in a Badminton farmhouse. It was a Saturday and he was vacuuming. Being a sexist on this subject, I express surprise. He ignores me.

"I was using it and I realised it wasn't sucking, so I went and emptied the bag. But it still wasn't sucking, so I then got a new bag. Then, after three rooms, it lost its suck again," he says. He then realised it wasn't the bag that was the problem, it was the fact that the airflow was being blocked by a layer of dust. "I was annoyed but, as an engineer, I realised there was a huge opportunity. I couldn't think of another product like this. If a car started out going 70mph and then went down to 20mph, you wouldn't buy it. We just put up with vacuum cleaners because we felt we didn't have a choice."

It took Dyson four years and 5,000 prototypes to design the bagless vacuum cleaner, and a further seven years to get it manufactured. Then he set up his own factory, and now he is is James Dyson CBE and the 45th richest man in Britain (estimated worth, pounds 400m). He is pretty obsessive on the subject of bags - he claims there is a financial motive behind the continued use of them. The reason why no one came up with a better vacuum cleaner for so long, he says, is that most manufacturers are interested only in improving their existing (bag-using) products.

"No, that is not true," says Caroline Knight at Hoover. I want to believe her. After all, Hoover almost invented the vacuum (actually, bridge engineer Henry Cecil Booth did in 1901, but the prototype of the modern upright was built a few years later by janitor Murray Spangler, who sold the rights to Ohio harness-maker WH Hoover). Knight points out that Dyson did not invent the bagless cleaner. Hoover had already invented one years ago. "But we went back to our bag principles because we felt that they were best," she says.

So what, I want to ask Richard, are his bag principles? But Richard is too deep in his presentation to take note. By this time, I am taking a bit more notice because Richard is talking about allergens. This is the buzzword of the vacuum world and, perhaps, behind much of our current vacuum obsession.

"What do you think of when you think of pollution?" he asks. Cars, chemicals, factories, I say. Richard shakes his head. No, no, no. The worst pollution is inside our homes. We've made it so with double-glazing, gas fires, insulation. Do I have pets? Cats, I say, not to mention the ant farm. He shakes his head. Pet dander! And do I know about dust mites? I nod. He shakes his head emphatically: It isn't just the dust mites that are the problem, it is their excrement! Do I actually realise that every dust mite excretes 20 times a day? "Could you imagine sleeping in that?" he demands. Furthermore, he says, the dust mite reproduces every 14 days. "So we shouldn't really say that something `breeds like rabbits' any more," he says. "We should say `breeds like dust mites!'"

Is this a joke? He doesn't laugh. I don't either. Vacuuming, I have discovered, is no laughing matter