Wet/dry vacuums, also called shop vacs (not to be confused with the Shop-Vac brand!), tackle the jobs other vacuums simply can't. The motor is separate from its airflow, meaning it won't short out like other vacuums when it gets wet.
This is especially important more recently, as flooding is gradually becoming a significant issue for places that, historically, haven't had to deal with that particular disaster before. If you've found yourself in Kentucky, Virginia, Las Vegas, or another area that's beginning to have problems with flooding, a good wet/dry vaccuum or shop vac is an important and increasingly-necessary investment in home maintenance.
While they're designed to deal with difficult messes, that doesn't mean they're all-powerful. Some on the market greatly out-perform others. That’s why we gathered up nine of the best-selling models to find out which one is worth its salt. We put each model through a set of grueling tests to measure power, usability, and versatility.
After analyzing the results, we think the VacMaster(available at Amazon for $103.79) will serve the most people the best, and it is adept at handling big messes.
These are the best wet/dry vacuums we tested ranked, in order:
The VacMaster is one of the most popular wet/dry vacs on Amazon and is our pick for the best 12-gallon model. While it wasn't the most powerful vacuum, it was the most versatile.
First off, this vacuum has a detachable motor, meaning it can instantly turn into a corded leaf blower that's easy to tote around the yard or use for garage cleanup. It also comes with eight attachments, including a crevice tool that makes it easier to clean out your car when it's sitting in your garage.
The only problem we found with this VacMaster was its power: It sucked up 1.36 gallons of water in 10 seconds, placing it in the middle of the pack. Even so, it was still able to handle our dirt and heavy debris test. For just $81, you're getting a great value that's covered by a two-year warranty.
Hey, I'm Jon Chan, the Senior Lab Technician at Reviewed. In our testing labs, I'm the garage guru, testing everything from work gloves to pressure washers. I’m also the resident expert on vacuums in general. Having lab-tested more than 100 vacuums, I know superior cleaning performance when I see it.
When it came to testing wet/dry vacuums, I was most interested in finding the best model for the average homeowner. To claim that top spot, a vacuum needed to be reasonably priced, consistently powerful, and easy to use.
All the vacuums we chose ranged in size from 6 to 12 gallons, and from 3 to 5 horsepower. We tested them on three major criteria: power, usability, and versatility.
To test power, we first started by measuring how much water each unit could suction up in 10 seconds. It’s a quintessential task considering that’s the “wet” in wet/dry vac. We also took note of how much each model bucked when cleaning up a liquid mess. The strain of suctioning up water also speaks to the build quality of a unit.
The water pickup test was the most important and we performed it multiple times. Peak horsepower and amperage are not reliable ways of determining suction ability.
After the water pickup test, we moved onto more solid matter. We chose wet sand and metal bolts. We chose these two materials but they represent a wide range of densities and malleability.
We tested usability by switching out filters, putting on attachments, and lugging the unit around our offices and labs. Finally, our versatility tests looked at how easy it was to store, how long the cord and hose were, whether it worked as a blower (plus the strength of the blower port), and if it included features like foam sleeves or cord wraps.
What You Should Know About Wet/Dry Vacuums
Most people should only require a 3.5 to 5 peak horsepower motor for their wet/dry vac. If it can suction up water and sawdust, you're probably good to go. Besides, the horsepower number on most wet/dry vacuums is peak horsepower, which is a more generous estimation than a defined power rating. Peak horsepower, also known as developed horsepower, is a number based on ideal laboratory conditions, not real-world work.
Manufacturers also like to tout the amperage, or amps for short, of their models. Amps represent the total amount of electricity drawn by a device. The idea is that the more amps a motor uses, the more energy it can put out.
Again, the amount of energy used does not represent the total amount of suction. A dirty filter or a clogged hose can turn all those amps useless. Because of the limitation of how much a circuit breaker can take—typically between 15 and 20 amps—most vacuums do not exceed 12 amps.
Since amps and peak horsepower don’t translate to how well a wet/dry works, we also relied on real-world tests, including water pick-up tests to calculate suction power because water has a consistent density at room temperature.
You should also know that a wet/dry vacuum is a very versatile tool. They can unclog drains, retrieve hard-to-get cables, and help you tie a perfect ponytail.
How Does a Wet/Dry Vac Differ From a Regular Vacuum?
While a wet/dry vacuum cleaner is a versatile tool, we don’t recommend having it replace your regular floor cleaner. First, most wet/dry vacuums do not come with a HEPA cartridge filter. Typically, if a HEPA is offered at all, it has to be purchased separately. Second, because a wet/dry vacuum has to be able to deal with water, there’s no such thing as a motorized brush head for this type of vacuum. This lack of spinning brushes means a wet/dry vacuum can’t clean carpet or upholstery as effectively as a moderately priced regular vacuum. Finally, a wet/dry vacuum is designed to live in the garage, not inside your home. They are bulky and awkward to store indoors, and many can’t even fit inside a normal closet.
Do Wet/Dry Vac Materials Matter?
We like plastic tubs over metal ones. Plastic won’t rust or corrode as metal does. Remember, stainless steel means it stains less—not that it won’t stain at all. We also like plastic models because they tend to be lighter, which aides in how easy they are to move.
Who Benefits from Owning a Wet/Dry Vacuum?
In short, any homeowner would benefit from owning a wet/dry vacuum. It’s not just for people who are planning on doing construction projects. Although the ability to pick up sawdust as well as the odd nail is a huge time saver. There are also situations in which a floor may be too delicate—and can be scratched from using a broom and dustpan—when a wet/dry vac would be a safer choice to clean up a mess.
Anyone with small children will appreciate the wet pick-up power. A wet/dry vacuum can easily solve spills and bathroom mishaps that require half a roll of paper towels.
If you find yourself constantly dealing with clogged drains, try using a wet/dry vacuum on them. Plumber’s snakes and plungers can be very laborious and chemical methods can damage your pipes. Even when a wet/dry vacuum can’t remove a clog, we have found that removing the excess water makes the situation so much better.
Is a Blower Feature Just a Gimmick?
Many wet/dry vacuums allow you to hook the hose onto the exhaust end, in effect, creating a blower. The force generated is not as powerful as a dedicated leaf blower, but we found it more than adequate to deal with dust on workbenches and light walkway clearing duty in the fall.
For its size, the Ridgid 6 gallon, 3.5 Peak HP wet/dry vac came in a close second to our overall winner for raw power. In fact, both the Craftsman and Ridgid sucked up the same amount of water. That's not a surprise, as both brands are made by a company called Emerson Electric. Ridgid is mostly sold at Home Depot, while Craftsman is mostly sold at Sears, KMart, and Ace Hardware.
While it was a photo finish in the power department, the Ridgid only came with two extension wands and a utility nozzle, so there's no specific attachment for water pickup.
We also found the filter tough to remove. Unlike the Craftsman's screw, the Ridgid has rubber flaps you have to pull up on while pressing down on a hard plastic button. One piece of good news: the Rigid HD06001 is covered by a limited lifetime warranty.
The massive 12-gallon WD1270 also comes with a car-cleaning nozzle, along with the standard two extension wands, utility nozzle, and wet-cleanup nozzle.
In real-world cleanup tests, the WD1270 had no issues. So if you need to clean up a lot of mess and find it on sale for a lot less than the VacMaster, a limited lifetime warranty makes this Ridgid worth checking out.
The Ridgid 9 gallon, 4.25 Peak HP wet/dry vac is like a value meal: For 20 percent more money, you get 33 percent more capacity, 21 percent more horsepower, and one extra attachment—a wet-cleanup nozzle—to top it all off.
However, after testing this Ridgid for two weeks, we found that the increase in power didn't translate into real-world performance. Remember, peak horsepower only lasts for a moment. If you need more capacity, we'd recommend stepping up to the 12-gallon WD1270.
Testing showed that the Shop-Vac 5989300 was one of the weaker contenders in our roundup. While the Shop-Vac proved half as powerful as our favorite Craftsman, it wasn’t a total dud. The stainless-steel exterior gives the 5989300 a nice industrial look, albeit one that might make it a little more susceptible to rust. It also comes with three cleaning attachments including a crevice, two wet-pickup nozzles, and extension wands for all three. Also, while not made in America, this vacuum was assembled here.
Stanley SL18130 5 gallon, 4 peak horsepower wet/dry vac
This Stanley was the strangest of the wet/dry vacuums we tested—and not in a good way. Because it's taller than it is wide, it can be hard to maneuver by its hose—but a high-up handle makes it easier to carry. A bag filter that slips over the motor was easy to remove, but hard to affix. It also lacked in power and isn't a great value. We think you should only buy this vacuum if you have serious space constraints.
Jonathan Chan currently serves as the Lab Manager at Reviewed. If you clean with it, it's likely that Jon oversees its testing. Since joining the Reviewed in 2012, Jon has helped launch the company's efforts in reviewing laptops, vacuums, and outdoor gear. He thinks he's a pretty big deal. In the pursuit of data, he's plunged his hands into freezing cold water, consented to be literally dragged through the mud, and watched paint dry. Jon demands you have a nice day.
Our team is here for one purpose: to help you buy the best stuff and love what you own. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians obsess over the products we cover to make sure you're confident and satisfied. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and we'll compare notes.