Canister vs upright: Vacuuming for a Healthy Home




Miele canister vacuum cleaner with HEPA

Meile canisters, equipped with HEPA filters, are popular among my health-savvy customers. .


Keeping a healthy home means detailed vacuuming once a week or so. And of course, using a HEPA filter. But if you hate vacuuming, it’s a hard job to keep up! But detailing can be surprisingly easy with the right machine. That means choosing between a canister vs upright.

Are you paying someone by the hour to do the job? Be sure they’re working efficiently. In most homes, that means using a canister vs upright.

Why my bias? My health-savvy customers need detailed vacuuming. And that’s exactly what a canister’s designed for.

There’s definitely a place for uprights too! I do say so below.


What’s the same

Canisters and uprights both come with a hose, along with a wand and tool attachments for different tasks. Standard attachments often include the following.

  • Hard floor tool, for bare floors.
  • Crevice tool, for nooks and crannies. And, of course, crevices.
  • Round brush, for dusting window frames, shutters, and much more.
  • Upholstery tool.

When buying a new vacuum, avoid attachments that make you press buttons when you take them on and off. The *&%$!* buttons easily stick, defeating the purpose. Look for twist-on attachments instead. Rotating carpet brushes, however, use buttons.


What’s different

Some vacuum sales persons claim that an upright works just like a canister. That’s sort of true for wide-open carpet areas. But not true for using any attachments. Here’s why.



With a canister, you can use attachments easily. That’s because the hose is longer, more flexible, and better positioned than on an upright. Some canisters also come with a rotating carpet brush.

If you use attachments often, go with a canister vs upright. You can switch from dusting to floors almost seamlessly. No stopping to attach a hose first, as with an upright.



Uprights are designed for carpets, not for using attachments. True, uprights often include a hose, wand and tool attachments, just like canisters do. But the hose is too short— and often in the wrong place— for using attachments. So, attachments don’t work with an upright. Not really.

When you can’t use attachments, you can’t reach nooks and crannies, or anything above the floor. Just for starters.

But here’s the beauty of an upright. There’s just one unit to push ahead of you, if you’re up to pushing. Nothing to tug along behind you, as with a canister.

This Consumer Reports video demonstrates perfectly the difference between a canister vs upright.


So, if you mainly have carpets to vacuum

Got wide-open areas of carpet, and not much else? Either type of machine will work for you. So whichever type you have now, you may as well keep it. Just be sure you’re using a HEPA filter.


If you mainly have bare floors

Here, you might get away with using an upright. But first, turn off the motorized brush (on every upright), so you don’t scratch your floors. With some uprights, you may need to select a floor height too.


If you need to detail your floor

You’ll need standard tool attachments, so go with a canister vs upright. Detailing includes the following.

  • Edges and baseboards
  • Corners, nooks and crannies
  • Under low furniture
  • Registers and grilles
  • Throw rugs


 If you want to vacuum stairs easily

A canister vs upright is easier to use on stairs. Especially in edges, corners and vertical spaces that call for using attachments. Again, attachments are far easier to use with a canister vs upright.


If most of your vacuuming is above the floor

Detailed vacuuming involves plenty of above-the-floor surfaces. Here are a few examples where a canister comes in handy.

  • Upholstery and mattresses
  • Radiators, registers and grilles
  • Heavy drapes
  • Tracks on sliding windows and doors
  • Wicker
  • Electronic cords
  • Dryer vent and lint trap
  • Misc. nooks and crannies


What’s your own your experience been with canisters vs uprights?  Your comment just might help others.


Flame retardant free: Safer Sofa Foam Exchange


Replacing the old foam with flame retardant free foam at Foam Order in San Francisco. Foam Order is one of five furniture retailers participating in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.

Saul Ordonez of Foam Order replaces foam in a sofa cushion. Foam Order is one of the first retailers to go flame retardant free, through the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange program. Photo by Regina Ryerson


Your sofa may be making your family and pets sick. That’s because most foam sofas in the U.S. — old and new— are leaking toxic flame
 retardant chemicals. But happily, there are safer options! You can buy a flame retardant free sofa. Or, more affordably, swap the foam in your seat cushions for foam that’s flame retardant free.

For most U.S. consumers, flame retardant free sofas are not that easy to find. But a pilot program called Safer Sofa Foam Exchange aims to change that. I’ve included details later in this post, along with more photos.

Is your sofa leaking toxic flame retardants? You might find out here.


Why flame retardant free?

According to the Green Science Policy Institute (GSP), flame retardants commonly used in most foam furniture are linked to “… Endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function”. Flame retardants are also found in breast milk, water, soil and wildlife.

“Unfortunately, slip covers offer no protection from potentially harmful flame retardants”, says the Institute’s website. “The chemicals are not bound to the foam and can easily travel through a slip cover. The chemicals are constantly dispersing into the air, then settling in dust. Exposure comes primarily from ingesting contaminated dust”.

Flame retardants are found in high concentrations in common household dust, especially in California. Toddlers and pets are most at risk, because they spend much of their time on the floor. Toddlers are at highest risk, because of hand-to-mouth ingestion

Leather upholstery doesn’t help, I’m surprised to learn. Flame retardant chemicals pass right through closed zippers, with ease.

Think your sofa’s too old to matter? “Home sofas could be laced with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals”, says Scientific American. So the older flame retardant-treated sofas leak almost as much as the new.

UPDATE 7/22/14: According to GSP scientist Stephen Naylor, one study of a 30-year-old couch cushion found flame retardants at levels almost identical levels to those in new cushions. “The concentrations used are so high that they do not deplete even after several decades,” said Naylor.

Somehow, laws haven’t protected us all this time. Deborah Blum writes in Well blog, “Flame retardants are regulated in the United States primarily by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which does not require studies of toxicity or long-term health effects for most industrial compounds before they are marketed”.


Launch of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange

Before running out and replacing your sofa, consider replacing your toxic foam with flame retardant free foam instead. You’ll save money! Not to mention, reusing your frame is less wasteful than landfilling it.

On June 17th, I attended the launch of Safer Sofa Foam Exchange, a pilot program created by GSP in partnership with local foam and upholstery businesses. The program, made possible by a new California standard, enables consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area to swap out their problem foam for new foam that’s flame retardant free.

The launch was hosted by Foam Order, one of four participating furniture retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area. All offer flame retardant free replacement foam. I’ve listed participating stores at the end of this post.

Speaking about the importance of going flame retardant free were James Redford, Co-Producer of Toxic Hot Seat,  Arlene Blum and Stephen Naylor, scientists at GSP; and Tony Stefani, Chairman of San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. Also attending were representatives from the San Francisco Department of the Environment.


James Redford's latest directorial project, Toxic Hot Seat, is a documentary film that examines the potential health dangers of chemical flame retardants currently used in upholstered furniture made in the USA.

James Redford, co-producer of the HBO documentary Toxic Hot Seat, speaks at the launch of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange in San Francisco June 17th, 2014. Photo: Regina Ryerson


How the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange Works

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, bring your flame retardant-treated seat cushions into a participating store. The store will replace your problem foam for foam that’s flame retardant free.

“Some sofas have polyurethane foam in the arms and backs, and foam in those areas will not be removed”, says Stephen Naylor. “Doing the foam exchange will remove 80-100% of flame retardants from your sofa”.

Foam collected through the program will be used for research into a responsible recycling or disposal solution for flame-retarded foams.

A portion of the sales through the program will be used to fund the research. At Foam Order, the portion is 10 percent. Learn more about disposing of your old foam.

Foam Order owner Michael Gorham invited me to photograph a foam exchange operation in progress. Supervisor Enrique Avevalo walked me through the process, explaining each step.

So, here’s my slideshow of a Safer Sofa Foam Exchange operation.


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Foam options that are flame retardant free

GSP estimates a cost of $45.00 to $95.00 per flame retardant free foam cushion, depending on cushion size, and the type of foam you want.

At Foam Order, you can choose from natural latex foam, or conventional polyurethane foam. Both are flame retardant free.

I prefer natural latex, myself. Sure, it costs more up front. But according to O Ecotextiles blog, “Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant. It is not highly  flammable, and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test. It has little or no off-gassing associated with it”.

Here’s another reason I prefer latex. Natural latex is made from a renewable natural resource, the rubber tree. Conventional polyurethane foam, on the other hand, is made from nonrenewable petroleum.

Natural latex foam is more durable than I’d assumed. “We guarantee our Natural Sense Organic Latex foam for ten years”, says Enrique.


Vote with your dollars!

One goal of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange is to prove there’s a consumer demand for flame retardant free furniture. And to support retailers like Foam Order who are taking the lead.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up for the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange program here.

If you’re buying a new sofa in California, but live outside the San Francisco Bay Area, ask your furniture store manager for a flame retardant free sofa. Better yet, urge your furniture retailer to get on board with the program.

If you live outside California, there’s still hope! Here’s a list of retailers throughout the U.S. offering flame retardant free furniture.  Scroll down to see the list.

A sofa is made of more than its cushions, of course. And many other options are available.

For example, EcoTerric offers its Basal Living handcrafted collection. It uses “FSC certified hardwoods; chemical free natural upholstery options such as jute webbing; biodegradable, non-toxic rubber latex foam cushion; natural organic certified cotton…” EcoTerric, based in Sausalito, California, claims “lifetime durability” for its sofas. UPDATE 7/25/14: EcoTerric will soon have a new website, with many more products!

A great read on natural, flame retardant free options is Sofa Saga on Laura’s Rules blog. The blog’s creator, Laura MacCleery, is an attorney with Center For Science in the Public Interest, and a mom. Read about Laura’s epic research in Sofa Saga Part 5: A Happy Place to Sit. Laura finally settled on flame retardant free polyurethane foam, but researched many other options along the way.


Clean like your health depends on it.

GSP offers resources for consumers, including the following cleaning tips.

  • Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and always before eating.
  • Keep dust levels down by damp dusting and wet mopping.
  • Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter.
  • Open windows to improve indoor air quality.

Update 10/20/14: My pro vacuuming recommendations: Detail upholstery and beds, along with nooks and crannies throughout your house. And of course, your floors. The one vacuum cleaner that can do it all is a canister vs upright.

Dusting and vacuuming stirs up dust. So, during these tasks, I wear an N95 particulate respirator. Not only for dust particles contaminated with flame retardants, but also for particles contaminated with any potentially toxic chemicals. Here’s a brand I use, simply because my neighborhood hardware store conveniently carries it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, N95 filters at least 95% of airborne particles.  So I’m assuming N95 helps reduce my exposure to flame retardant-contaminated particles.

Flame retardants are not just about particles. They’re also semi-volatile, and N95 is ineffective against vapors. I don’t know how important the vapors are to our health. But at least I’m doing all I can on the particle front.


Participating furniture retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area

Four retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area are participating in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange, including the following.

Foam Order, 1325 Howard St., San Francisco , CA

The Foam Store of Marin (a Foam Order branch) 813 A St. (Between 2nd and 3rd), San Rafael, CA

Kay Chesterfield Upholstery Workshop, 6365 Coliseum Way, Oakland, CA

Foam and Cushion, 3482 Clayton Rd, Concord, CA


Where to learn more

Reach out to your family and friends about flame retardants. You just might help one more kid avoid learning disabilities or cancer.

Green Science Policy Institute Resource Page. If there’s a single best place to start learning about healthy homes, this is it.

Furniture without Flame Retardants: What the New Flammability Standard TB117-­‐2013 Means for You, Green Science Policy Institute.

Safer Sofa Foam Exchange Announced for Bay Area, Healthy Building Science, February 19, 2014. A great blog post. And a terrific blog, by Healthy Building Science, a environmental testing service.

Toxic Hot Seat Movie, co-produced by James Redford and Kirby Walker. Find out how the tobacco industry set up a fake firefighter’s association, to push for the TB 117 standard. That’s the standard that led toxic flame retardants getting into our foam.

Playing With Fire, Chicago Tribune’s six-part exposé on the flame retardant industry, May, 2012.

The more we protect ourselves and our families from all toxic chemicals, the healthier we’ll all be. Reducing sources of flame retardants in our homes, and thorough cleaning, is a great place to start!

Have you participated in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange? What’s your experience been?


Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

Clothes line in backyard garden in San Francisco. Nontoxic laundry products are used.

A back yard clothesline belonging to one of my healthy home customers. Her laundry’s washed with Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent. And her garden’s free of toxic pesticides and herbicides.


A healthy home is sustainably clean, and free of toxic hazards. Keeping a healthy home is the focus of this new blog.


A bit about me

Hi, I’m Regina Ryerson, creator of this blog. Thanks for stopping by!

I offer cleaning-related services for healthy homes and small business offices. Most of my customers are in San Francisco.

I’ve used least-toxic plant-based cleaners, along with low-waste tools, since officially launching my service in 1985. This combination makes my service among the first of its kind in the U.S.

My motto for healthy homes: “Use the least-toxic products that work”. When it comes to cleaning, products like the following often work. So these are what I use most often. <3

  • Plant-based castile soap made with USDA Organic oils
  • USDA Organic white vinegar
  • Baking soda

I also use a HEPA vacuum cleaner. And other products and tools I’ll be writing about in my blog.

Now, as I spend more time writing, I still serve a few loyal, awesome customers. Customers who value living in a healthy home.


A holistic approach

Keeping a clean home— without the toxic hazards—  will be a major focus of this healthy home blog.

But keeping a clean, healthy home doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Unless you’re vacuuming, that is. :)

So in my blog, I may also touch on clutter, decorating, design, cooking, and home maintenance. And even personal care.  A mindful approach to each is key to keeping a clean, healthy home.

Got household allergies or asthma? As health experts advise, avoiding your triggers is among your first lines of defense. Much of what you’ll find in this healthy home blog can help!


My quest for healthy home products

I’m constantly asked about products for clean, healthy homes. So I’m always researching products, and trying the ones that look most promising. I’ll be sharing some of my findings in my blog.


Your turn!

What are your own challenges with keeping a clean, healthy home? Or using nontoxic cleaning products?



Copyright & copy 2010, Regina Ryerson. All rights reserved.