The vacuum cleaner that should have been here decades ago

No one vacuum cleaner can do it all – a vacuum cleaner which cleans large areas of floor brilliantly well won’t necessarily be good on the stairs, and a vacuum that gets all the pet hair out of your carpets can be a nightmare on hard floors.

So I’ve got a small vacuum created to do stairs, and it does them brilliantly; I’ve got a mains-powered, light, handheld vacuum with a hose and attachments for dusting and cobwebs etc., and I’ve got a ‘workshop’ rechargeable vacuum for hard floors and edges. What I didn’t have was a decent vacuum for the large carpeted areas.

There are a huge number of vacuum cleaners out there and I’ve tried a lot of different types and variations. I loved my built-in vacuum and my backpack vacuum and my robot vacuum in turn – but the built-in was left with the house, the backpack is too large for our cottage, and the robot vacuum can’t cope with its small spaces, nooks and crannies. So when I fell badly over my professional canister vacuum for the third time and just saved myself from a horrible fall down the stairs, I was more than interested to see an article on the new AirRam.

As usual with John Lewis the vacuum arrived swiftly. Putting the thing together was hardly a major exercise: you just clip the handle onto it and that’s it. Then you charge the battery for four hours and you’re up and running.

The only available floor on which I could test the AirRam, the others being covered with boxes etc., was actually a floor that had been vacuumed the previous day – but I only wanted to check that the AirRam worked, so I went ahead and vacuumed. All seemed OK, so I went back to work, taking the AirRam with me into the (home) office so I could photograph the serial number plate for the database. Later, while on a telephone call, i glanced down at the AirRam and noticed the dust collector was full. Full? From a carpet that had been vacuumed the day before? With a professional vacuum cleaner?

I went downstairs and looked more carefully at the carpet I’d vacuumed. It wasn’t just clean, it looked, well, newer. It seemed brighter and more ‘plumped up’. I was deeply impressed.

I took the AirRam’s dust canister out to empty it. No problem there, just a matter of unclipping it, tipping the contents into the bin, and slotting it back in place. So that part is, as advertised, virtually dust-free. What isn’t mentioned in the marketing is that you also need to tap the cover of the AirRam (the bit covering the workings) over the bin to free the two filters of collected dust. This is easy and only takes a few seconds – but it’s not dust-free. For those of us with no problem with dust it’s a breeze, but for anyone with a dust allergy or suchlike this means getting someone else to do the job. However as the whole process takes seconds rather than minutes, getting that someone‘s help shouldn’t be hard.

By now I was enthused with this machine, so I went round the whole house. I was even more horrified to find that every single room yielded a great deal of dust – what had my professional vacuum cleaner been doing? I’d been getting barked shins, twisted ankles from tripping over the confounded cord, and backache from lugging the thing up and down the stairs etc., and it had been doing, apparently, a rather poor job. So I went round the house again with the AirRam. The cottage isn’t large, but it’s a reasonable size (three bedrooms) and I went round twice and really did a blitz on the carpets; the battery showed one bar gone out of four. So I’m quite happy to accept that one charge, as GTech claim, will be enough for two four-bedroomed houses.

To use, the AirRam is a cross between a manual carpet sweeper and an upright vacuum cleaner. It’s much lighter than an upright vacuum, but considerably heavier than a carpet sweeper. Its manoeuvrability is better than the average carpet sweeper’s, and far better than that of an upright vacuum. Its profile is higher than a carpet sweeper’s (a shade under 4”), but lower than that of any upright I’ve ever used. The AirRam has a lot in common with a robot vacuum cleaner, actually, particularly the dust compression and the nearness of the dust collector to the brush bar (i.e. where the dust is picked up), which are what make both the robots and the AirRam compact, lightweight and able to run on rechargeable batteries.

Running costs these days are important, of course – and here rechargeables win out every time over corded. The new battery technology is very good indeed and most of the tools, gardening equipment etc. in this household are now rechargeable – so having what is genuinely a vacuum cleaner (and not merely a sweeper) running on a rechargeable battery is excellent. The batteries are said (by GTech, I asked them) to last for five years and a new one costs £60. Given that a new filter for my professional vacuum costs £36 and that bags and filters generally are pretty pricey (when you can find the confounded things), £12 a year for a battery seems more than reasonable.

On the subject of the battery, what GTech don’t tell you is that when you use the ‘bridge’ software and connecting lead (free at the moment, when you register your purchase, scheduled to cost £29.99 in the future), the battery running time is extended from 40 minutes to 60 minutes. With 60 minutes’ running time you could do a serious-sized house!

Obviously I don’t know about durability as I’ve only just started using my AirRam – but it certainly feels robust and GTech give it a five-year guarantee, so they must be pretty confident. It’s mostly modular as well, so if a piece does break it should be easy enough to have it replaced. Sourcing the bits should be easy too – GTech has a (non-premium rate) telephone number and when you telephone you talk to a real – and pleasant and knowledgeable – human being. I rang them because the instructions said that a light should come on when the battery was charging, and I could see no light. (The instructions are fairly basic, with line drawings and no itemised description of the parts.) It transpired that a) if the battery is plugged in when it’s not in the vacuum then there are no lights, and b) if the battery indicator lights are off, you can’t see where they should be because they’re concealed in a ‘decorative feature’ of the housing; when the battery is in the macine, however, the lights can be seen. So customer care and after-sales service are excellent – and that really counts.

The AirRam doesn’t have any ‘on-board’ tools (or any tools at all). However, having tried on-board tools I am completely unimpressed with the majority of them. If you want to walk around vacuuming the corners of ceilings and beams etc. (I’m a neat freak and an arachnophobe), then you want something that will move with you and is light to carry. Otherwise you trip over the confounded vacuum (as I write I’m resting my very swollen ankle…), or get tangled up in the cord and pull the vacuum over and chip the paintwork (or knock your Kindle off the dresser and break the screen…). So do yourself a big favour and get a separate small handheld vacuum for this type of job.(like the Electrolux WorkZone for example, which is brilliant on the stairs as well).

So I’m highly impressed with this machine. It’s pretty lightweight, easy to manoeuvre, it stands up firmly when it’s abandoned while you move furniture or whatever, and it vacuums very well indeed. Due to the construction and the filter system etc., there is no reason to think that it won’t be picking up as well as it does now after several years’ use. The running costs are very low, and the maintenance costs are low.

Best of all, this is a vacuum that is easy to use. You get it out, switch it on, and start vacuuming. No cord to unwind, no plugging into a socket – just grab and go. Then, when you’ve finished, it’s a quick and easy job to empty it. A vacuum cleaner you use all the time is always going to keep the house cleaner than a vacuum you can’t be bothered to get out because it’s such a hassle.

Stylistically speaking, it looks like an escapee from the ‘60s or early ‘70s – and it’s white (which is not only boring and outdated but it also shows the dust – terrific). I’m sure I saw something like this mocked-up at the Ideal Home Exhibition decades back, in one of those ‘House of the Future’ displays. Personally I’ve been looking for it ever since – and here it is at last.

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