Central vacuum system installation tips

By Tim Carter
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:33 AM

I was touring a new home, and one of the features that really interested me was the central vacuum system. It seems like one of these would be really handy. What's involved when you install a central vacuum? Can you share some tips, especially what not to do? - Ray H., Newtown, Pa.

I've been really lucky for the past 25 years in that the last two houses I've lived in both have had a central vacuum system.

I have to tell you that I don't know if I would be able to handle going back to a traditional vacuum that you have to lug around the house.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about central vacuum systems is the myth that they can only be installed when building a new home. That's simply not true. It's absolutely easier to install one when the walls are wide open, but believe me, a talented installer can put one in an existing home with relative ease.

When you toured that new home, you saw outlets on the walls that looked something like an electrical outlet. These have a door that flips open, and the end of the central vac hose plugs into the hole. Small metal contacts inside the outlet cause the remote motor in the vacuum to immediately turn on, and you're ready to work.

The pipe in the walls is two inches in diameter. The inner diameter of the flexible hose that you use to clean with is about 11/4 inches. This is by design, so that it's almost impossible for the pipe hidden in the walls to become clogged. If an object can pass through the flexible hose in your hands, then it can also make it through the walls to the actual vacuum canister.

There are any number of mistakes you can make when installing a central vac system. One is putting in too few outlets. You have to account for furniture being in your way, so the length of the flexible hose doesn't always reach as far as you might think. You'll never regret having too many outlets. The parts needed to do this are inexpensive.

You can make a mistake in where you locate the canister.

Most systems have the motor and the canister as one unit. The motor can be loud, so I recommend putting this out in the garage. The added benefit to this is when you empty the canister or replace the bag, dust is kept out of your home.

Some installers will take a shortcut and not run the exhaust pipe outdoors. Don't fall into this trap. You want the air to exit the house in case it contains very fine dust particles. Always follow the instructions of the manufacturer. If they say to exhaust the machine outdoors, do it.

If you put your canister and motor in your garage, be sure there is an outlet on the machine. If not, then put in a regular outlet in a wall on the garage. It's so handy to be able to use the central vac to clean a car.

Perhaps the most common mistake I see when installers put in a central vac, and one that does exhaust outdoors, is leaving out a fresh-air intake.

A central vacuum consumes vast amount of air when it's turned on. If you have a very tight home, the operation of a central vacuum could possibly cause backdrafting of combustion gases into your home, which could cause carbon-monoxide poisoning. It can also make a house smell like smoke if you have wood-burning fireplaces or wood stoves as the vacuum gets its replacement air by sucking it down a chimney.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his Web site, www.askthebuilder.com.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company