Wet/dry vacuums—also known as shop vacs—are designed to handle clean-up of both wet and dry material and heavy-duty messes. While wet/dry vacs were once primarily used in garages, workshops and warehouses, manufacturers are now producing compact models of this handy tool for household use.
How Do Wet/Dry Vacs Work?
Wet/dry vacuums use a small tube to suck liquids and dry debris into a large tub. Air is pulled through the system with an electric motor and fan, and the materials sucked into the vacuum fall to the bottom of the tub as air is expelled back outside the machine. A float ball in the tub indicates when liquid inside the chamber reaches its maximum level and the vacuum stops automatically.
How Do I Use a Wet/Dry Vac?
Before using a wet/dry vac to clean up a new mess, it’s important to make sure no stagnant water from the prior use is still inside the hose. Put the hose in a bucket of water and switch on the vacuum, then move it to a dry spot and empty the tub once it fills with water.
Next, ensure you have the right attachments in place to address your mess. Wet/dry vacs may come with brushes that help collect dust particles, narrow nozzles to concentrate suction in corners and small spaces or special attachments designed for cleaning mats, car seats or other areas.
Most wet/dry vacuum cleaners are equipped to not only draw air in, but also propel air out of the hose, which can come in handy for outdoor clean-up jobs. For example, you may wish to blow leaves, dirt and other gardening or landscaping material into a contained area for collection later.
Finally, be sure to empty the vacuum’s tub every time you use it. Stagnant liquids or other material left to sit inside the tub for extended periods of time will not only start to smell, but can eventually erode the vacuum’s functionality.
The longer you own your wet/dry vac, the more uses you’ll find for it. In addition to cleaning up common household messes, wet/dry vacs can be used to retrieve lost items from hard-to-reach places, unclogging stubborn sink drains and more.
What Should I Look for in a Wet Dry Vac?
Wet/dry vacs come in dozens of designs, outfitted with varying features, at all price points. As you’re shopping, these are the most important characteristics to consider.
- Noise level: Some wet/dry vacs operate at a noise level comparable to a standard household vacuum cleaner and generally won’t require ear protection. However, heavy-duty models designed primarily for commercial or industrial use may be significantly louder, which can be compounded by other power tools being used in the same space. If the noise level in your work area exceeds 85 decibels, be sure to use ear protection.
- Drain valve or spout: This feature makes it much easier to empty the tank of liquids. Without it, you’ll have to remove the lid ad tip it over, and a tank full of liquid can be extremely heavy.
- Anti-tip features: Wide-set wheels and a low profile will make it less likely for your vacuum to tip over, especially if you’re hauling it up and down stairs.
- Onboard tool storage: Keeping your hose, cord and attachments close at hand saves the time and hassle of searching for them.
- Long hose: A longer hose means you can tackle big messes in large areas without constantly having to move the vacuum. Wet/dry vac hoses come in a wide range of lengths, with most between 7 and 16 feet but some as long as 20 feet. However, extremely long hoses may result in reduced suction power.
- Long power cord: Similar to generous hose length, a power cord 15 feet or longer means you can keep working without constantly having to move the machine and search for another outlet.
- Size: A 10- to 14-gallon wet/dry vac is an ideal size for the typical demands of household and workshop use. They balance performance with convenience and are easy to store and move while also delivering adequate power. However, if you expect to tackle bigger jobs like cleaning up wood chips, a slightly larger size (16- to 20-gallon tank) is preferable. If you anticipate using your vac primarily for cleaning out vehicles or addressing household messes, a smaller model (5 to 6 gallons) will be most convenient. Even smaller portable models (1 to 3 gallons) are available, but we don’t recommend these due to their limited suction and capacity.
- Hose width: Your anticipated use will determine the best hose width to purchase. Workshop tasks like sucking up sawdust and wood shavings call for a hose diameter of 2.25 to 2.5 inches, since anything narrower than that is likely to clog often. If you plan to use your vacuum for tasks like power tool maintenance, go for a smaller, more flexible hose compatible with dust ports on tools, or find an attachment that can be used to convert the larger hose for smaller jobs.
- Accessories: Dust bags, filters, variable-size hoses, attachments and extension wands add versatility to your vacuum, but they can also drive up your total costs quickly, so be sure to check your budget before adding them to your cart.
- Air quality: If you or your family suffer from allergies or simply want to reduce dust in your home or workshop, look for a wet/dry vac that comes with a HEPA filter and is compatible with dust collection bags, which can help reduce particulate matter in the air.
- Storage: Wet/dry vacs—even those of similar capacity—come in various shapes and sizes, so consider where you’ll be storing and using your vacuum to ensure it’s a good fit. If you have limited storage space available, you may even want to consider a wall-mounted model.
Best Wet Dry Vac – Our Five Top Picks
We reviewed more than a dozen of the most popular wet/dry vacuums on the market, and these five models rated highest on quality, performance and value.
Manufactured by one of the most trusted names in tools, the Stanley SL18130 5-Gallon Wet/Dry Vacuum is powered by a high-performance 4 peak horsepower motor. Wrapped in durable stainless steel, the vacuum’s compact design and light weight make it easy to transport among jobs around the house, in the workshop or inside a vehicle. A 10-foot power cord provides ample reach, and the onboard wrap feature keeps the cord tucked away when not in use. Four swivel-cast wheels allow smooth maneuverability in any direction, making this model a reliable, convenient solution to all manner of wet and dry messes.
- Capacity: 5 gallons
- Motor: 4 peak HP
- 10-foot power cord
- Onboard accessory storage
- Included accessories: 1.25-inch by 5-foot flexible hose, three extension wands, crevice nozzle, utility nozzle, floor brush, reusable dry filter, foam filter, disposable filter bag and dust bag
- 1-year warranty
- Compact, lightweight design for easy portability
- Swivel casters provide smooth, multidirectional movement
- Large switch button with waterproof design for safe and easy operation
- Short hose
This powerful, efficient wet/dry vacuum features a 5-gallon stainless steel tank and 4.5 peak horsepower motor. The vacuum is mounted on a sturdy, smooth-rolling dolly for portability, and carrying handles mounted on the top and side ensure you can take this unit anywhere. An impressive package of included accessories and convenient onboard storage system make it a versatile tool capable of handling the toughest jobs. Additional filters, hoses and attachments for pet groomers, car detailers, landscapers, homemakers and more are also available.
- Capacity: 5 gallons
- Motor: 4.5 peak HP
- 6-foot power cord
- Secure lid latch system
- Rear blower port converts vacuum into a powerful blower
- Top and side carrying handles
- Onboard tool storage
- Included accessories: 1.25-inch by 7-foot hose, three extension wands, crevice tool, gulper nozzle, floor nozzle, cartridge filter, foam sleeve, filter bag
- 3-year warranty
- Can be converted to a blower
- Dolly and handles make it easy to transport
- Powerful motor
- Generous hose length
- Short power cord
The powerful motor and generous capacity of the Craftsman XSP 12-Gallon 5.5 Peak HP Wet/Dry Vac make it the ideal partner to stand up to big messes on the job site, in the shop or around the house. This sturdy machine is capable of picking up shards of metal and wood, nails, drywall and more, and a 20-foot power cord and 7-foot hose give you plenty of room to maneuver.
- Capacity: 12 gallons
- Motor: 5.5 peak HP
- 20-foot power cord
- Top tray storage for easy tool access
- Onboard hose, cord and accessory organization
- Included accessories: 2.5-inch by 7-foot hose, 2 extension wands, hose bracket set, cartridge filter, wet pickup foam filter, crevice tool, utility nozzle and floor/squeegee nozzle combination
- Converts to a blower tool for lawn and garden jobs
- 1-year warranty
- Powerful motor
- Large capacity tank
- Extensive reach (27 feet)
- Quick-empty liquid drain built for big jobs like flooded basements
- Ergonomic handle and 360-degree swivel casters make movement a breeze
- Heavy (25 pounds)
- May be more vacuum than many users need
The most powerful vacuum on our list, the WORKSHOP WS1600SS packs a 6.5 peak horsepower motor and a massive 16-gallon drum. The durable stainless-steel body and rugged cart let you take it almost anywhere while the large rear wheels provide a stable platform for transport. Best of all, you can pick up about a gallon of water per second with this mighty machine, making quick work of major messes.
- Capacity: 16 gallons
- Motor: 6.5 peak HP
- 20-foot power cord
- Included accessories: 2.5-inch by 7-foot hose, fine dust Qwik Lock filter, dust bag, utility nozzle, wet nozzle, crevice tool, car nozzle and two extension wands
- Onboard storage bag keeps accessories close at hand
- 5-year warranty
- Large capacity
- Powerful motor
- Dual-Flex Locking Hose offers 180˚ flexibility at both ends
- Integrated blowing port for extra versatility
- Generous warranty
- High price
- May be more powerful than many users need
- Requires significant storage space
The RIDGID 14000RV Wet/Dry Vacuum may be the best of all worlds, offering serious power and capacity with maximum convenience. Its 14-gallon tank and 6.0 peak horsepower motor make it a worthy opponent for cleaning up wood chips, construction debris and more, while patented scroll noise reduction technology makes it one of the quietest models on the market. The 1-7/8-inch hose has a smooth interior to prevent time-wasting clogs, and it can be transferred to the integrated blower port for removing leaves, dirt and debris from sidewalks, decks and patios. This impressive vacuum is protected by RIDGID’s exceptional lifetime warranty, providing peace of mind for years of productive use.
- Capacity: 14 gallons
- Motor: 6 peak HP
- 20-foot power cord
- Included accessories: 1-7/8-inch by 8-foot hose, fine-dust, two 2.5-inch wands, car nozzle, utility nozzle, wet nozzle and crevice tool
- Lifetime warranty
- Capacity and motor offer good “middle ground” between smaller models and larger commercial-grade vacs
- Noise reduction technology enhances user experience
- Push-handle cart and large rear wheels ensure stability over uneven terrain
- Large drain quickly empties fluids
- Lifetime warranty provides ultimate protection
- Heaviest unit on the list (29 pounds)
- Moderately high cost
A wet/dry vac is an indispensable tool for any homeowner. Even if you don’t spend any time in a workshop, this versatile machine has a nearly infinite number of uses, from quickly cleaning up liquid spills and dry debris to more creative applications like rescuing hard-to-reach items and dislodging drain clogs. We recommend buying the most powerful wet/dry vac that you can afford and comfortably store, and you can be confident you’ll get your money’s worth and then some over years of use.