If you want to buy the most effective leaf vacuum you can lay your hands on, buy a lawnmower. Seriously. A mower is more powerful than a handheld leaf vacuum, holds far more debris and supports its debris bag on a frame, so you don’t have to carry it. It also covers an area more quickly than a leaf vacuum. Finally, it does a far more uniform job of mulching the debris it collects. On what do I base that radical opinion? Decades of product testing for Popular Mechanics, and 50 years of gathering leaves by every method imaginable—both by hand and by power. You learn a lot about leaves in half a century, believe me.
So why bother with a leaf vacuum? First things first, let’s straighten out its name, which is a misnomer. It should be called a lawn vacuum or debris collector. It does more than collect leaves. It picks up conifer needles and cones, small pieces of plastic and paper litter, twigs, acorns and other nuts. It can snatch debris out of a corner where a sidewalk or lawn meets foundation wall. You can even take an electric model into a garage, to clean out cobwebs and dusty corners. Furthermore, leaf vacuums work on paved surfaces, another place where a lawnmower performs poorly, and they grab leaves out of flower beds and between shrubs—more places where a mower can’t reach.
In deciding between gas and electric leaf vacs, it comes down to this. Gas engine machines are far more powerful than cordless and more clog resistant, especially pulling in twigs and wet leaves. They are certainly far more mobile than corded machines. If you’re working a small, manicured yard, corded and cordless are perfect. For a large lawn, especially where you have to remove nuts, twigs, pine cones, and pine needles along with the leaves, go with a machine powered by a gas engine. Also, note that air movement speed and volumes stated by manufacturers usually refers to blowing, not vacuum mode. There is no standard test for vacuuming lawn debris, and air movement is only part of the story. How well a machine does at vacuuming has a lot to do with the material you’re removing, its shape, friction, and dampness.
How To Vacuum
The first thing you notice about gathering leaves with a vacuum is that wet leaves, and leaves mixed with pine needles or twigs can stop them dead in their tracks. These machines work best on clean, dry, uniformly-sized leaves. Next, you learn that they’re too slow to clear an area. Clear the area first by blowing or raking the leaves into piles then vacuum them up. Vacuuming reduces their volume considerably. That last point bears some discussion. The data for the mulching ratio for these machines strikes us as irrelevant. When you spill out a leaf vacuum’s debris bag and inspect it closely, you’ll notice most of the leaves are only partially shredded. What accounts for the reduction in the pile’s size has as much to do with flattening and packing created by forcing the leaves into the bag–as it does by the partial (and in some cases complete) shredding created by the machine’s impeller.
We selected five blower-vacuum combination machines. Three were powered by gas engines, one was cordless and one was corded. We selected only machines from manufacturers with a proven track record in our tests: Echo, Greenworks, Husqvarna, Stihl, and Worx. We ran our test on dry, freshly-fallen hardwood leaves, acorns, pine cones, pine needles and wet oak leaves that had fallen and accumulated. We also did extensive testing on damp and wet leaves as well as damp and wet mixed debris, such as a combination of damp pine needles, leaves and twigs. We cleared lawns, a parking lot, the curb line of a commercial building and the perimeters around garden beds.
Stihl SH 86 C-E
Weight: 12.2 pounds (with tube, bag) | Engine: 27.2 cc | Air: 430 cfm, 154 mph | Fuel: 50:1 gas/oil ratio
The Stihl finished Best Overall by offering a combination of leaf-pulling power and resistance to clogging, even with damp, wet and mixed debris. Its tubes are easy to mount (align the marks on the blower and the tube, push the pieces together and turn the large plastic mounting nut). Dismounting the tube to switch back to blower mode takes more work, though. You have to push a screwdriver through a slot in the housing to engage a flexible mounting tab in order to unlock the tube. It’s not difficult, but it takes you a few tries before you get to be fast at it. The collection bag slips off the discharge tube easily and its large zipper opens the bag quickly for a fast dump. Demerits? We can’t think of one. This is a fine, dealer-only product.
Very Clog Resistant
Weight: 12.2 pounds (with tube, bag) | Engine: 25.4 cc | Air: 391 cfm, 140 mph| Fuel: 50:1 gas/oil ratio
The Echo is an outstanding machine and nearly as clog-resistant as the Stihl. It handled dry and uniform debris quickly and easily, gobbling it up at full throttle, quickly filling its bag. It only fell behind the Stihl in the mixed-debris and damp-debris tests. But, frankly, the difference in power between the two is small. Conversion from blower to vacuum is fast and easy. In this respect, it was the best of the three gas engine machines. To remove the vacuum tube grip the large plastic lugs molded into tube and turn the tube off. The debris bag, held with a large Velcro strap and is easy to mount and to empty. The machine received only one small demerit and that was for the fixed-position sliding On/Off switch. Our experience shows that a momentary rocker switch is better because after the machine is switched off, the switch automatically springs back to Start. We inadvertently went to restart the Echo in the Off position when we remembered to switch it to On.
Weight: 12 pounds (with tube, bag) | Engine: 28 cc |
Air: 445 cfm, 217 mph| Fuel: 50:1 gas/oil ratio
The Husqvarna is very well built, starts extremely easily (one pull), and it handles dry leaves with a vengeance. It did clog, however, when gathering damp mixed debris, such as oak leaves and pine needles. We were mystified by that, since it has more than enough air flow. We suspect that its vacuum tubes, which are slightly narrower and longer than others, may be the culprit. A deal breaker? No. We did have a beef, however, with its bag attachment, which is by means of a heavy-duty spring sewn into the bag’s collar. Its grip on the discharge tube is so tenacious that once attached, the bag cannot be easily removed. You end up lugging the machine and the filled bag to dump the shredded contents. Given that a bag of shredded debris weighs anywhere from 5 to 12 pounds (according to our tests) that’s inconvenient .
Easiest Blower to Vac Swap
Weight: 9.6 pounds (with tube, bag) | Motor: 120 volts, 12 amps | Air: 620 cfm, 70 mph
The Worx is, hands down, the easiest machine to switch from blower to vacuum. Its tube stays put. You simply turn a dial on the machine’s side to rotate the motor 90 degrees. Easily slip the vacuum collection bag into place over the impeller; just press on the bag’s small spring-loaded collar and release when the collar is seated. We timed it as taking less than 20 seconds. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering. The Worx is no slouch when it comes to scooping up dried leaves. Its 12-amp motor is up to the job. Still, it won’t compete with our gas engine machines, particularly with damp debris or when loads of twigs are mixed. Also, you do notice that cord drag as adding to the machine’s weight once its bag starts filling up, and with dried consistently-shaped leaves, it can fill that bag in minutes. Bottom line: we see the Worx as a good fit for a small, intensively manicured yard where cord drag is kept to a minimum and you spend most of your time cleaning leaves from between shrubs by vacuuming or blowing.
Weight: 9.8 pounds (with 4.0 Ah battery, tube, and bag in place) | Motor: 40 volts | Air: 340 cfm, 185 mph
The Greenworks proves how far 40 volts will take you today. A long way, as it turns out. We ran out of leaves before its battery ran out of juice. We see this machine as filling a niche in conjunction with the trimmer and mower
The mower handles the grass and some leaf bagging, the trimmer cleans up the edges. You blow the remaining leaves into a pile and quickly switch to vacuum mode by flipping down the impeller hatch, detaching the blower tube with a simple press on the detent and click the oval-shaped vacuum tube into place over the impeller. The debris bag has a stubby collar on it that clicks into place where the blower tube was located. Vacuum up the leaves, and you’re done. This is a great little blower-vac, but we don’t see it as being fast enough for a yard full of leaves. It did prove ideal, however, for small cleanup.
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