Saturday, April 27, 2019

Bissell 1984

Rechargeable appliances are the wave of the future.

I have struggled with vacuum cleaners my whole life.   You buy an expensive one, and it breaks.  You buy a cheap one, and it breaks.  They are cumbersome, heavy, tied to an electrical cord, and a pain-in-the-ass to use.

I have written about vacuums before.   In my life, I have had several, some given to me, some bought, some found in a dumpster.   None have been particularly good, although some were better than others.

My first vacuum was a Kirby, which my brother sold to my Mother when he worked for them as a door-to-door salesman.   It was his only sale.   It cost a staggering $600 back in 1980 when she bought it.  It was heavy and built like a tank and had a host of attachments that came with it, including even a paint sprayer.   Yes, I painted my first car (a rusted-out 1967 Chevy) with that vacuum cleaner.   Can you say orange peel?    Hey, I was only 15 years old at the time - I didn't even have a license yet (that didn't stop me from driving though).   Anyway, Mother got tired of trying to figure out all the attachments and returned to her trusty Electrolux (circa 1965) and she gave me the Kirby when I bought my first house.

I used it for nearly a decade, until it finally bit the dust (no pun intended).  It was durable and heavy, but it was a pain in the ass to clean out the non-disposible vacuum bag.  The motor finally burned out and we sent it to the curb.   It was a hybrid "upright" that looked like a hotel vacuum from back in the day.  But you could attach a hose to it and sort of use it as a canister vac.  Like I said, the attachments were a nightmare for anyone not mechanically inclined, so they were rarely used by anyone other than me, and even then, rarely.

A durable vacuum, to be sure.  Too heavy and complicated to use, and staggeringly expensive.   $600 back in 1980 would be close to $2000 today.   You could buy a car for that.   But of course, it was more than just a vacuum - it was a scheme to get young people to sell these door-to-door in poor neighborhoods and finance them on time.

Not a bad product, but another example of selling "expert" grade equipment to ordinary consumers at high prices.  The experience is not enhanced by paying more.

My next vacuum was an Electrolux.   There may have been some sort of cheap Eureka upright bought in the interim, but it was not memorable.   It took bags, as I recall, and Mark hated it.  He finally said, "Let's get an Electrolux, our Mothers had them - and our Dads still have them - and they are durable and last forever."   This made sense, even though they were expensive.

We went to a vacuum cleaner shop (remember those?) and paid about $600 for an Electrolux.  It was not the same thing as our Mother's vacuums.   It was made of plastic, not metal, and didn't last as long, particularly as we had a cleaning lady.  She would do things like yank the electrical cord out of the wall from across the room, which quickly bent, and then broke, the prongs off the plug.  I put on a replacement plug, but that was not the end of it.  She banged it against furniture, cracking the plastic.  Duct tape to the rescue!  She would try to empty the bags and re-use them, rather than put in new ones.  It lasted about five years or so, before it, too, went to the curb.

The GE Canister Vac was next - actually we bought two, one for each house.  We still have them, although they are beaten.  They cost less than $100 and they worked well - for a while.  I wrote before how I did Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA, which is not a form of flood insurance) while at Carrier.  The military figured out how long electrical components last, in a specification called MIL-SPEC-217-D.  Each component has a design life factor, and the things with the shortest life expectancy are light bulbs, connectors, switches, and power supplies.

The GE canister vacs still "work" but the lights in the beater heads burned out, and then the connectors on either end of the beater head arced and melted (I replaced them with lamp cord plugs) and then the main power switch died (I screw-gunned a piece of metal over it to hold it in the "on" position).   It failed just as MIL-SPEC-217-D predicted it would.  They both still "work" however, cobbed together as they are.  One is used in Mark's studio where it has a hard life vacuuming up clay dust, and the other in the garage.  Once we run out of bags (bought cheaply online, in bulk) they will also go to the curb.

We bought a cheap Bissell upright at Walmart for the condo.   We still have it but rarely use it. It has no hose attachments and could not vacuum under the bed or other types of furniture.

We were then given another Bissell, this time a cyclone upright vac that a friend of ours used to clean their camper. They sold the camper and we inherited the vacuum cleaner.  It turns out they had salvaged this vacuum cleaner from the dumpster, after another camper threw it out.

Cyclone vacuum cleaners, as I wrote about before, are interesting innovation. They sell themselves as being easier to use and requiring no disposable bags. However, all of them have a filter to catch the fine dust, and this filter either needs to be periodically washed out or replaced.

I think the reason why the original owner threw the vacuum in the dumpster was that the filter became clogged, and they had no idea how to clean it or replace it, and thus it stopped suctioning.  I bought a new filter for it online, as well as the replacement cleaning nozzle for the hose.  And it works pretty well, although it requires frequent cleaning, which means periodically removing the filter, washing it in soap and water, and letting it dry for a day or so.

It is a small vacuum cleaner and well suited for a trailer, as the cord on it is extremely short.  As a result, when I use it to clean the house I am constantly plugging and unplugging it, as it doesn't reach very far. However for the price, free, it has been an okay vacuum.

But it's an upright, and thus doesn't go underneath the bed or other furniture.  And if you don't vacuum under your bed, you'll find dust bunnies accumulating very quickly.

What we really would like is a small powerful vacuum cleaner that is capable of going under and around furniture - including the bed - that doesn't require a cord, that is also inexpensive.  It also should be easy to clean and easy-to-use. And up until now, this search for the Shangri-La of vacuums seemed fruitless.

Enter the Bissell Air Ram. Mark came home from the pot shop one day, very excited as someone had demonstrated to him this new rechargeable vacuum cleaner.  It is made by Bissell, who made two of our previous vacuums.  It uses a lithium ion battery to power it.  Note that there are two models of the Bissell Ram Air vacuum.  An older discontinued model is available for under $200, but the latest model is the 1984 model which sells for about $209 either directly on the Bissell site or through Amazon, eBay, or various other outlets.

Like other cyclone vacuum cleaners, this one relies on a filter rather than a bag, so it's a good idea to buy a spare filter up front as you'll need it down the road.  Since the cyclone rests on its side, the filter does get dirty.  However it is an easy matter to remove the entire cartridge and empty the dust into a wastebasket and then disassemble the filter into three components, which can be rinsed out in the laundry room sink.  Left to dry overnight on a towel, they're ready to use the next day.

The lithium-ion battery is strong enough to vacuum the entire house.  And the entire assembly pivots, so it can go underneath beds and most furniture.  It is lightweight - you can lift it with one finger - so it is very easy to use, and it doesn't involve any fatigue.  And best of all, since there's no cord, you're not constantly plugging and unplugging and untangling cords as you go along.

Our friend who demonstrated it said that they enjoy it so much they find themselves vacuuming every day.  And we find that as well - it's so easy to use and pick up and just hit the power button that you might as well just vacuum something up, if you see any dirt anywhere.

It seems that we are entering a new era of home appliances. I was thinking the other day that children born this year will look upon corded appliances is something that they saw once in Grandma's house. The idea of plugging things in with long cords will seem as alien to them as gas lamps do to me.

And like with LED lighting, which is changing the very nature of how we light our homes, lithium ion battery power will change the very nature of appliances.  As I noted before, LED lights last such a long time there's really no point in making the "light bulb" removable. I suspect more and more lighting appliances will be permanently wired with LEDs and when the LED burns out you'll simply throw away the entire lamp fixture.

Similarly, lithium ion batteries will change how appliances are designed and even how they work.  Of course, many people are already moving to lithium-ion battery powered robotic vacuums and some of my friends report these work fairly well. I'm still somewhat skeptical of the robotic vacuum as it really can't get into tight corners or across multiple different types of surfaces including Oriental carpeting with fringes.  And of course, if your dog or cat has an "accident" in the house, your robotic vacuum will spread the poop all over the place.

But I suspect these problems will be addressed in future models if they are not already. And this technology will move into other areas as well.  My neighbor has a lithium-ion battery powered lawn mower that seems to work very well and made me realize that my latest Honda lawn mower will probably be the last internal combustion engine lawn mower I own.

The other day at Lowe's they had a robotic lawn mower on display out front. I tried to make it work but it just presented a confusing array of screens and asked for a password. I'm not sure why they had it on display if you couldn't actually see it function. One of my neighbors has one of these lawn mowers and they claim it works very well. For some reason always seems to be parked in the same spot on their lawn, probably because the computer tells it to park there. Perhaps that's where originally was set down and remembers its location.

This lithium-ion battery technology is changing the way appliances are designed.  And this Bissell air ram is probably the best vacuum cleaner I've ever owned.  Arguably some of the other vacuums had more suction power, but they were heavy and cumbersome to use and thus I was less inclined to use them. This Bissell Air Ram is very lightweight and thus I am more inclined it pull it out and run it around and use it more often which results in the cleaner home. Vacuums that are heavy and bulky and hard to use, and if not used as often, the result is your house doesn't stay as clean.

Is this the last vacuum I will own?  Likely not, given the my tortured history with vacuums as outlined above.  The days of getting an Electrolux as a wedding gift and then leaving it in your will to your children are long gone.   I suspect this vacuum will last five or six years or so, before something goes awry (the switch, the battery, or the battery contacts).  Given how many cordless drills I have owned, I suspect this machine will not be around for eternity.

And that is the nub of the issue.  It seems we have entered an era of disposable appliances.   No doubt by the time this Bissell shows signs of wear, a new model will be out with more features and a more powerful battery, and thus the decision to "upgrade" will be more compelling.  And when offered at an attractive price, it will be a decision hard to refuse.