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In this article, you will learn how to build a shop vac system that...
Shop Hacks articles are designed to empower you to Build Your Space so they are longer than most but, if you prefer to skim... Use this index to go straight to the parts you care about ...
1. What if I told you that you never have to clean your shop vac filter again?
2. Cleaning a shop vac filter exposes you to the dust you want to avoid.
3. How do I know this system is safe?
Do I have your attention? Keep reading and I'll show you how you can do the same thing with just a few components.
4. Why don't manufacturers make all shop vacs this way?
So, how can you beat the system and save some $$ in the process?
5. What's the secret to NEVER having to clean your shop vac filter?
You will need 5 components to build a maintenance free vacuum system . If you don't include all 5 components you will continue to have to clean your shop vac filters. With all 5 working as a system you will never have to change the bag or clean the cartridge filter. That opens up some very interesting possibilities that you might not consider otherwise. Since the vac, bag and filter are all in one unit and will never need to be accessed, you can mount the vac in a remote location such as up in the rafters, in a ventilated cabinet or closet, or even outside in a weather resistant enclosure.
6. Benefits of never having to touch your shop vac
The most obvious benefits to never having to clean your shop vac filter again are...
For instance, you can mount your shop vac...
Simply plumb 2.5" or 3" PVC pipe from the vac to wherever you mount your cyclone separator and waste bin. If you have a run over 20' then use 3" DWV PVC. Otherwise, 2.5" will work without affecting the flow rate noticeably. The waste bin may be mounted on a wall so that it is convenient to access when it needs to be emptied. Since the waste bin is independent of the vac, you can use anything from a 5 gallon bucket to a 55 gallon drum. More about that later.
Shop vacs create as much heat as portable heaters so always make sure you mount your vac in a well ventilated space to allow prevent overheating.
If you build your own creative combination then be sure to share a picture of your setup in the Shop Hacks Facebook group so everyone else can see it too! The Shop Hacks Facebook group is a great place to share and to see other's solutions too.
7. How to build your own maintenance free shop vac system
The figure below illustrates the 5 components needed to build a maintenance free system. If some of this is new to you, don't feel intimidated. Putting this system together is very easy. You just purchase any of these components that you don't already have and connect your shop vac hose to the cyclone separator, connect a new hose to the inlet of the cyclone separator, install a bag filter, and you are finished!
There are many ways to configure the system but this is what the full system may look like.
Some people mount everything on a rolling cart with the dust bin and cyclone at the top. I recommend placing the shop vac in the rafters or in a utility room then running 2.5" to 3" PVC pipe from the vacuum to the cyclone separator which may be mounted on the wall. That will allow quiet operation of the vacuum while still having a convenient way to empty the collection bin.
Using the remote power switch I linked to earlier means you never have to touch the vac again. I attached the power switch remote fob near the end of my vacuum hose so anytime I want to use the vacuum I just press the power button near the end of the hose and I'm ready to roll.
The following overview below describes each component in more detail. If you would like to see several options for the various components and learn more about how they work then be sure to read the Deep Dive section later in this article.
1. A cyclone separator that is designed for a shop vac system
The cyclone separator is where most of the magic happens. A cyclone separator that is properly matched to the vacuum it is connected to will remove 95% to 99% of the dust from the air stream. That means the bag and filter only have to remove the fine and very fine dust particles. However, a cyclone alone is not enough to prevent clogged filters.
Most of these cyclone separators will connect to a standard 2" ID shop vac hose. Some come with an extra hose to connect to the inlet of the cyclone (the hose you use to clean up messes) and some do not so check the details to see if you will need to buy the extra hose or not.
2. A collection bin
95+% of the dust and debris that enters the cyclone will fall into the collection bin below it. You can use anything from a 5 gallon bucket to a 55 gallon drum for this. It has to be able to withstand the vacuum pressure of the vac and it must be sealed air tight. It needs to be sealed air tight and it has to withstand the vacuum pressure a blocked vac hose can produce (up to 500 lbs per square foot).
If you are careful to not block the hose to your shop vac then just about any 5 gallon bucket will work. Just mount the cyclone separator to the sealed bucket lid per the instructions, or just put it on the bucket in the case of the Dustopper, and you are ready to go. If you have a powerful shop vac it can cause the bucket to buckle if the hose gets blocked off more than a second or two. To prevent this you can cut out a 3/4" thick by 1" deep plywood ring using a jigsaw or a bandsaw and then press it inside of a 5 gallon bucket to prevent it from collapsing under the vacuum pressure of a strong shop vac.
3. A filter bag
The shop vac filter bag is the key component that most people aren't aware exists or don't think to use. Normally it would be quite expensive to use bag filters on a shop vac because the bags would fill up very quickly. However, if you use a cyclone separator upstream of the bag, the bag only gets 1% to 5% of the debris which means it will last the full life of the vacuum without requiring replacement and it prevents your cartridge filter from clogging.
The filter bag captures small particles that would eventually fill the cartridge filter downstream. With a bag in place the cartridge filter only has to capture the very fine particles that pass through the bag. That extends the life of the cartridge filter for the life of the shop vac. I suggest using a relatively cheap filter bag since you will be depending on the cartridge filter to capture the finest particles downstream. A cheaper filter bag is less likely to clog over time since it it passes the finest particles.
4. A quality cartridge filter
Cheap filter bags don't capture the finest and most dangerous dust and that is fine because we want to depend on a quality cartridge filter to do that job. Many shop vacs come with quality cartridge filters but some do not. Make sure your vac has a quality filter so that it doesn't pass harmful fine dust into your workspace. The most dangerous dust is too small to see with the naked eye so you have to rely on the performance of your filter.
5. A vacuum that flows between 100 and 200 CFM.
Choose a vacuum fits your budget and preferences and that has at least 100 CFM of airflow. I recommend not using anything with less than 150 cfm for general shop cleanup. If the manufacturer doesn't say how many CFMs the vac flows just look at the amp rating for the motor. Anything over 12 Amps should work fine.
I am not sponsored by any company so you can be sure that all of the recommendations in this article are unbiased. I base my recommendations on systems that I use myself and that I've tested and proven to work. The links in this article are affiliate links. If you buy products with these links you will pay the same price that you would pay without using the links and Shop Hacks will receive a small commission. I hope you benefit from these articles and I thank you for supporting more content like this by using these links for any product that you are interested in purchasing. Thank you!
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8. Shop Hacks maintenance-free shop vac system recommendations
If you want a tried and tested system without reading the rest of this article then you can click images below for the products I personally use and recommend. I have tested these products and I can assure you that my setup is very effective. This is not the cheapest nor the most expensive system you can buy but it will move more air than most $700 vacuum systems and I've verified that it does a great job of removing harmful dust from the air. I have used this system for more than 700 hours (a lifetime of operation for many users) and it still works like new with the original cyclone, vac, bag and filter. The bag is still less than 1/4 full.
The components I use and recommend:
If you prefer to research more options to make a more informed decision based on your personal preferences vs. mine, I will go over each product in detail the Deep Dive section. The Shop Hacks recommended system consists of the five components previously mentioned.
9. Deep Dive - More options and more insights for the curious...
If you want to understand how each component works as well as more of the options available then you are in the right place. In this section we will discuss each component in more detail and I'll list several popular options for each.
How do cyclone separators work?
Using a cyclone separator is essential to never having to clean your filter again. At 99% efficiency you will have to vacuum 1400 gallons of dust before you fill a 14 gallon shop vac bag. Trust me, the vac will die long before you reach that mark.
Cyclone separators come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. They range from as small as your finger to larger than a house. They are always used to separate heavier than air materials from an air stream.
To understand how a cyclone separator works, picture a marble entering at high speed into the cyclone inlet shown in the figure below. As you can imagine, the marble will stay pressed against the outer wall of the cyclone and gravity will pull it down the wall until it falls into the receptacle below. As it moves down the cone it naturally starts spinning faster which increases the g-forces which pulls it even harder against the wall. Now picture that marble traveling with a flow of air into the cyclone inlet. The air will also swirl around the cyclone but it is pushed out through the cyclone outlet as new air is pushed into the cyclone inlet. So, the marbles, which are heavy, follow the wall down into the receptacle below and the air flows out the cyclone outlet.
This configuration separates particles from the air stream remarkably well. I've designed and tested many cyclone separators over the last few years. The Dust Deputy cone type cyclone is similar to the one shown above. In my tests the Dust Deputy removed around 95% of fine corn starch powder, 98% of most sawdust particles and 100% of all chips. I developed several variations of a Thien Baffle design, similar to the Dustopper, and the best of those designs performed within the experiment margin of error compared to the Dust Deputy. Based on my experiment results from similar systems I would expect the Dustopper to capture slightly less than the Dust Deputy for very fine dust but it should perform equally well for larger particles. In any case, unless you are vacuuming drywall dust or some other super fine dust, either of these two systems should suffice.
Do you still need to use a filter with a cyclone separator?
Several years ago I designed a cyclone separator that worked so well I could vacuum sawdust without a filter and I could not see or smell any dust coming out of the vacuum. I was pretty excited about that design. After I bought a Dylos DC1100 Pro laser particle counter to see how well my dust collection systems were working I was shocked to find that when I used that vacuum the dust concentration in my workshop air increased over 20x to levels 4x maximum safe limits. I was shocked but it was a great lesson that using an air quality meter is essential if you really want to know if your air is safe or not.
ALWAYS use a high quality filter downstream of any cyclone separator. The figure below illustrates how cyclones work well to remove particles over 10 microns but they pass most of the particles under 2.5 microns which are the particles that travel the deepest into your lungs and into your bloodstream.
Shop vac cyclone separators options?
Shown below are 5 common models of cyclone separators designed for use with shop vacs (flow rates between 100 and 200 CFM of air). You can click on any of the photos to be take to a page with more details about each cyclone. They are all basically the same conical cyclone design except for the Home Depot Dustopper. The Dustopper is a Thien Baffle design which is slightly less efficient and is about 8" shorter than the others which makes it much better for any type of mobile or height restricted application where the cyclone and dust bin are not attached to a stable structure. With the conical cyclone separators, you pull on the hose which is attached 12" above the dust receptacle which will easily tip many designs over. The hose for the Dustopper mounts about 2" above the dust receptacle making it more stable.
All of these products will have similar performance characteristics except the Dustopper will be less efficient at separating fine dust. If you are planning on collecting drywall dust or a lot of sanding dust then it may not be the best option.
Click on any of the images above to go to the associated product page.
For proper performance you must use a cyclone designed for the flow rate of your vacuum
Always match the cyclone to a vacuum or blower that falls within the design parameters of the cyclone. Since few of the cyclone separator manufacturers list the CFM range their products are designed for this isn't always possible. In any case, you should be able to use any of the cyclone separators listed in this article with any vacuum that flows 100 to 200 CFM.
If you connect a cyclone designed for a shop vac to a dust collector it will reduce the flow to almost zero and the cyclone won't separate the dust efficiently. If you use a very small vacuum with less than 100 CFM of airflow with a shop vac cyclone separator you will find that it still works well for chips and large dust particles but it will pass a higher percentage of very fine dust.
An option that may be useful in some situations is to connect the outlets of multiple cyclones to a single manifold. For instance, you could connect 5 of these smaller shop vac cyclones via a manifold to a 600 CFM dust collector. I can't think of any situations where that would be worth the trouble but I bring it up in case it spurs some ideas in any of the creative types reading this article. Oneida offers the system shown below. It allows the use of two vacuums connected to three cyclones via a manifold.
How to make your own cyclone separator
It is not difficult to fabricate your own conical cyclone or Thien baffle cyclone system. You can click on the hyperlinks to find out more about each.
Choosing a collection bin
The most important things about your collection bin...
1. It needs to be strong enough to withstand the maximum pressure created when your vac hose is blocked.
2. It must be air tight or the cyclone will pass more dust than it would otherwise.
Most full size shop vacs can produce a vacuum pressure of around 3.5 psi which is about 500 lbs per square foot. That means that if you have a 12"x12" top on your collection bin, it will have to be able to support a 500 lb weight evenly distributed across the top without collapsing. The forces produced are huge and they are proportional to the area that they act on. That means that the walls of a large collection bin will experiences forces much higher than those of a small collection bin.
It is very important that the collection bin does not leak any air. Any air that leaks into the collection bin will flow from the bin and up through the center of the cyclone and out the top of the cyclone. That air will carry dust that is circulating in the collection bin which will greatly reduce the efficiency of the cyclone separator.
Choosing a shop vac
-Most shop vacs flow within the 100 to 200 CFM range. Manufactures often do not say how many CFMs their vacs flow, but if you look at the amp rating for the motor you can estimate flow rate using the following formula:
Flow rate = Max Motor Amps x 16 (for a rough estimate)
I.E. a motor rated for 11 amps will flow about 11x16 = 176 CFM.
A motor rated for 6 amps will about to 6x16 = 96 CFM.
This calculation will not be accurate for every shop vac but it will get you close if the manufacturer of your shop vac doesn't list the flow rate in their marketing materials. Most vacs have the motor amps listed somewhere on the vacuum itself.
Typical full size shop vacs pull around 11 amps which equates to between 150 to 200 CFM depending on the overall efficiency of the vac system. A small shop vac may pull closer to 6 amps which equates closer to 100 CFM.
Many shop vacs come with quality filters. However, some come with very cheap filters that catch visible dust but pass almost all of the most harmful very fine dust. Very fine dust can travel the full extents of your lungs and reach your bloodstream where it can cause inflammation which is the trigger for many types of diseases over time. I've only tested the Ridgid brand shop vac filters and I can recommend their top two tier filters because I didn't see any increase in particles 0.5 microns and larger in my workshop while vacuuming fine dust with either of those filters installed. To protect your long-term health, only use filters that are rated to capture sub micron particles with high efficiency. If you use the advice offered in this article you can spend more money on your filter because it will now last the entire life of your vacuum.
Shop vacs vs. Dust extractors - is there a difference?
There are endless debates about the value of expensive "dust extractors" compared to the common shop vacuum. There are reviews that extol the wonderful magic powers of dust extractors and they lead you to believe that anything less is taking a chance on your health. Fein and the Festool are two of the most common dust extractors on the market.
What's the difference? Is a dust extractor worth double to 5x the cost?
If you take a shop vac, a dust extractor or even a common house vacuum apart you will find that they all use very similar components. They all have the following major components...
What a dust extractor will not do better than a quality shop vac:
As you can see, there is a reason that the market supports both types of vacuum systems. The one that works best for you may not work best for me. Now you know the differences and won't have to believe that extractors have magic powder sprinkled on them to make them and their owners superior to all others ;-)
I would love to hear from you. Please don't be shy. Post questions or comments in the comments section below. Leave a comment to let me know what topics you would like to see covered in future articles.
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