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The proper way to use a wet/dry vacuum to clean up messes

Don't be shy about using this workhorse of a cleaning tool.

How to use a wet-dry vacuum Credit: Craftsman

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What You Need:

  • A wet-dry vacuum
  • Hose attachments
  • A dry cloth

Prep Time Needed:

10 minutes

Total Time Needed:

30 minutes



If you have a basement that's prone to flooding, a wet/dry vacuum, sometimes called a shop vac, could be a game-changer for you. Unlike regular household vacuums, wet/dry vacuums have the capacity to clean all types of messes, including saw dust, large scraps from home improvement projects, and even standing water.

So you’re sold on the uses of a shop vac, and you go out and buy one. Now you’re juggling seven attachments like a sad circus clown, staring down a pesky basement puddle that’s been sitting there for longer than you’d like to admit. What's your next move? Luckily, we're here to help you make sense of your new tool. Just follow these instructions.

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Step 1: Make sure it’s empty

Just because your vacuum can handle both dry and wet messes doesn’t mean you can cross the streams.

Make sure the drum is completely empty before you start filling it—if it has water in it, wipe it out with your rag, and if there are still dry scraps, dump them into the trash.

Step 2: Check the filter

If you’re using your wet-dry vac to clean a dry surface, check that the filter has been correctly placed. You’ll need it—the filter prevents dust from blowing out of the top while you’re cleaning.

For wet surfaces, however, you’ll need to remove the filter entirely. Liquids will damage filters, and you could even potentially ruin your vacuum if you suck up water before removing the filter.

Step 3: Pick the right attachment

Every shop vac attachment has a purpose. You can clean wet surfaces with attachments that lay flat on the ground, and you'll want to clean large piles of debris with the biggest attachment to save time. If you're cleaning a surface coated in pet hair or trying to get into nooks and crannies, use the brush attachment.

Step 4: Vacuum!

When your drum is empty, your attachment is attached, and you've discovered a newfound excitement for cleaning, turn the machine on and start vacuuming.

Step 5: Empty the bin

Don’t leave a mess sitting in your wet/dry vac, telling yourself, “I’ll clean it out next time.” You should clean this tool after every use to keep it functioning optimally.

Dump dry debris into a trash bag before returning your wet/dry vac to storage. If your drum is filled with water, remove the top of the vacuum, carry the base outside, and dump the water into your lawn. Bring the vacuum back inside, reattach the filter, and store it.

Tips for using a wet/dry vac

Wet dry vacuum leaf blower
Credit: Vacmaster

Some wet/dry vacuums have additional features—like leaf blowing!

Your wet/dry vac will be a lifesaver, so make sure you take good care of it. Aside from following the steps above, there are a few more tips you can use to extend the life of your new favorite home improvement tool.

Clean it thoroughly once a month

As with any tool that holds water, mildew can grow inside your vacuum, so treat it to a good scrub at least once a month to ensure it stays happy and healthy. Using dish soap and warm water, scrub the interior of your wet/dry vac, making sure to get into the corners.

Store it where you use it

Wet/dry vacuums are generally fairly heavy. If you’re sucking up puddles of water or home improvement debris, that drum will fill quickly—not to mention water is incredibly heavy, even if your drum is only filled halfway.

For this reason, you'll want to store your wet/dry vacuum in an area where you know you do the most vacuuming, like in the basement or your workshop.

Stick to vacuuming water

Just because you can now vacuum spills with your wet-dry vac doesn’t mean you should. To clean spilled milk, for example, you’d need to get out your vacuum, remove the filter, select an attachment, vacuum the milk, dump it out, then clean the entire tool thoroughly before storing again. Trust us, it’s not worth it. Use a paper towel instead.

Take advantage of all its features

Wet/dry vacs are sturdy, so don’t be shy about using them! For instance, did you know you can use a shop vac to clean out your fireplace at the beginning of the cold season? It's a great way to get rid of those ashes without ruining your standing vacuum (or having to get on your knees and shovel them all out). Here's another example: The top of your wet/dry vacuum can be used as a leaf blower with the right attachment.

Can you think of a more multifunctional appliance in your house? We can't—that's why we love a good wet/dry vac!

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