It was late Sunday evening, I was cleaning up after dinner, and I noticed that my freshly vacuumed carpet looked like it hadn’t been vaccumed in weeks. I sighed and accepted what was becoming a routine disappointment in the performance of my vacuum cleaner. Granted it’s a strange thing to complain about but considering that common post-Ironman activities include frequent and obsessive cleaning of the house and considering that I have all of the time in the world to think and complain about commonplace daily things, I have become increasingly dissatisfied, disgusted, disgruntled by our incompetent vacuum. That’s right – I said incompetent because I can think of no other way to politely say bagless piece of crap.
It looks like a vacuum, it makes noise like a vacuum, it has a cord like a vacuum but it picks nothing up. Nothing. Ok, I lied. It will pick up something as long as you run over it repeatedly, from multiple directions until you get so irritated by it’s incompetency that you eventually just pick the item up with your hands and throw it away. On top of that, it is bagless which I think is about as useful as a bag of marbles. I really meant to say shit but I was trying to keep this clean. When you empty the bagless piece of shit’s bagless compartment, the contents - which should have been bagged - end up flying all over and full circle you’ve created another mess to vacuum.
That is not making life easier, simpler. That is not the high-powered, highly effective vacuum I was looking for. That is not what a machine powered by 12 amps is designed to do.
Or was it?
The teacher inside of me quickly formulated a hypothesis and set out to test whether or not my vacuum was indeed giving me 12 amps worth of cleanliness and work; work being the number of volts multiplied by amps by time to equal one clean and tidy carpet.
You might be wondering at this point how I knew the vacuum cleaner had 12 amps. Here's where I become the savvy, perceptive vacuum user - because it says so right on the front of the vacuum. As if it means anything to me, as if I would know yes! yes! I must have this vacuum because it has 12 amps! The only reason I wanted that vacuum is because it was lightweight, in stock, and under a hundred bucks.
To figure out what a machine capable of 12 amps was designed to do, I asked my husband. Trained as an engineer, he tends to excel in anything mechanical and physical filled with kinetic or potential energy. And I’ve learned, the hard way, that the engineer inside of him is often dying to know and explain how things work. This is why one day I came home to find my new Nike Triax sitting on the counter in pieces. Note this was not something I wanted to see since it had taken me about an hour running around a track in the dead of winter to calibrate it to perfection. When I asked him what happened to the Triax, he explained that he wanted to see how it worked. The cost of the curiosity for my engineer husband – one Nike Triax and one angry Liz.
Naturally then, I asked him about the vacuum cleaner and the suspicious claim that it has 12 amps behind it. Suspicious because I wouldn’t put 12 cents towards that truth after looking at the mess it leaves behind on my carpets. And thus began a lecture on volts, amps, potential energy, equations, how amps multiplied by volts equals watts – which confuses me even more because on my Power Tap wheel I can put out wattage so does that also mean I contain volts and amps? And, if so, would it be safe to say that I am equipped with more than 12 amps? Because there is no doubt in my mind that if I put my mouth on the floor I could do a better job of picking up dirt than my damn vacuum cleaner.
The lecture went on about how amps were like dropping a coffee cup from a specific distance and the higher you drop it from the heavier it is and the more amps it has have, including a demonstration with my thermal coffee cup that I swear he was ready to drop on to the kitchen floor to make an amp-related point and I swear I was ready to jump underneath to catch my cup if this was the case. What seemed to make perfect sense to him made absolutely no sense to me. In fact, I have no idea if any of this is really what he said or even what he meant because honestly I checked out soon after he pulled out the coffee cup because it reminded me that tomorrow was another day and I get to have coffee again.
Long physics lecture short, 12 amps means that my vacuum cleaner can draw up 12 amps worth of dirt into the bag. 12 amps worth of dirt – is that a lot? or a little? Is that like saying it is capable of picking up dirt for about 12 inches and then it gives up? How would I know if 12 amps was something that had considerable power? And, can you even look at amps like a measure of power? Since I know that power is measured in watts (thank you Power Tap) then what is the type of work that amps do? Amped? Ampature? Ampability? And what did this have to do with my coffee cup?
I began looking around the house for other objects that have amps to get a sense of comparison – to see if perhaps other household items were more powerful or more amped up than the vacuum. The garage door opener – capable of horsepower. Stereo? Watts. Light bulbs give of energy in volts. The microwave oven? Also watts - 850 of them. Which got me thinking – since Chris can put out over 850 watts on his bike should I hook him up to the chicken the next time I want it reheated? The stove – gas is measured in BTU. Phone charger? Volts and milliamps. What about ohms? Are there no ohms in my home?
Which got me to thinking – why so many different units of measure for the same thing? I mean, the garage door opener uses energy to make the door go up and down. The stove uses energy to heat things. It’s all the same – work is work – and why can’t it all be measured with the same unit? Like voltohmampojoules...
Not quite satisfied that I had proven or refuted my hypothesis, I continued to walk around the house, from appliance to appliance, looking through owner’s manuals and asking Chris “what about…..” He tried his best to explain it to me, but then he threw in that the dryer was probably also measured in amps which totally confused me all over again. If the dryer and the vacuum cleaner perform two fundamentally different cleaning tasks, how is it that they can share amps? Furthermore, has the most powerful cleaning weapon in my house been hiding all along? Should I put the dryer on wheels and see if it will suck things up off my floors? After all, amps are amps no matter where you use them, right?
To get a better understanding of all of this, I did a quick search of what are amps and was inundated with all sorts of physics-filled information about amps, volts, ohms, electricity, flow, and assorted other terms I did not understand. And then I noticed this – “Amp is the measure of current flowing in a circuit. The more current flowing, the higher the amps.” In other words, my vacuum has 12 amps of current flowing through it at any given time. Now, I don’t know much about amps, obviously, but I do know that the number 12 is small – relatively speaking. For all I know, there could be vacuums out there capable of 12,000 amps. Imagine the sucking power on that bad boy.
While that made a little bit of sense to me, the more I read, the more I got confused as the text began throwing out terms like coulombs, electromagnetism, charge, current. After a few readings, I realized my brain had about as much ability to comprehend this information as my vacuum cleaner had an ability to clean my carpets. And, to add insult to injury, I read that amperes are not a flow of energy. Not a flow of energy? I thought amps were current flowing in a circuit? How can something flow, with a current, but not be considered energy? After all, I eat currants for breakfast before a race and they give me lots of energy so can we not assume that you trade an ‘a’ for an ‘e’ but still get energy?
But wait. Then I read something that caught my attention; "Amps are slow and circular while watts are fast and one-way." I won’t even get into how amps and watts are nearly the same thing, separated loosely by joules and coulombs, but I will get into the fact that you don’t need to be a physicist to understand the words ‘slow’ and ‘fast’. The athlete in me quickly perked with attention and my brain came alive. Maybe that was it. I’ve got a useless, slow vacuum because it only speaks in amps. Maybe that was the key – go to the store and buy a vacuum that knows how to speak watts and problem solved. It would be the fastest, one way high wattage sucking machine around.
I was starting to realize that perhaps there was no answer for me – no physics-induced explanation on why my vacuum can’t do what it’s supposed to do. I was frustrated, and jaded, not only at the vacuum but at myself for not paying better attention in physics class, for not understanding how the world worked. I began to wonder if the joke was on me, the consumer so shamed by her performance in high school physics that she still can’t tell the difference between a watt, a joule, an ohm, and a volt? I wondered if perhaps the weakness of my vacuum cleaner wasn’t a fault in machine design but rather a fault in my own weakness of understanding what amps were and how they relate to my vacuum cleaner.
And then, in a moment of forlorn desperation to understand how, and also why, my vacuum sucks, I read this:
"Many vacuum manufacturers only give the current in amperes, for example 12 amps, and the consumer is left to multiply that by the line voltage of 120 volts to get the power ratings in volt amperes."
Some quick calculations and I see that my vacuum is capable of 1440 volt amperes. At least that’s more than 12. I feel like that should mean something to me, but alas it does not so I read on:
"The power does not indicate how effective the cleaner is, only how much electricity it consumes."
And therein lies the problem. 12 amps not only means nothing to me, but it means nothing to the efficacy of the machine overall – nothing about power, or suction, or air flow, or speed. It just means that after a few runs across the carpet, it consumes that much electricity. Which still means nothing to me.
No matter what I found out and what it meant to me, one thing was certain – I needed a new vacuum cleaner. And with Christmas right around the corner, it was the perfect time to write new vacuum cleaner on my list. And I wondered if perhaps I should also request this vacuum cleaner contains a certain amount of amps. Not that it means anything (which I now know), but imagine how intelligent and physics-inclined that would make me seem; how engineer-like, how science savvy. And so I began writing "with…….", but then stopped because I had no clue how many amps I should ask for. I still hadn’t determined if more was better or if amps was something I should be looking for in the first place. After all, it’s just electricity consumed so maybe less is more?
And then, from the basement, Chris told me that if I wanted a more powerful vacuum I should be looking for one with it’s own transformer because a transformer can probably handle 1,000 amps. I wasn’t quite sure what a transformer did but I thought it had something to do with the energy that goes into all of the houses on the block and that it erupts in a green glow when the power goes out. If transformers are capable of things like that, they must be pretty powerful. And so it was settled, I would ask for one vacuum cleaner equipped with stand alone transformer.
I’m not sure if Hoover makes a model like that but it was probably worth a shot. And really, all that I’m looking for comes down to a few simple things. I want a real vacuum. A meat and potatoes vacuum. I want it to have a bag, a long cord, and one setting – clean. I want it to be light enough to carry up the stairs and stable enough to carry downstairs without dropping one hundred accessories, hoses, and attachments along the way. And that’s when I knew exactly what to write on my list: One new vacuum cleaner with the sucking power of a Vegas whore. Terminology that all of us, physics enriched or not, could easily understand. And if someone can find me one of those, you will have made my Christmas complete no matter how many amps it has.