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.
So why bother with a leaf vacuum? First things first, 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.
Given that, our team set out to determine the best leaf vacuums on the market right now. You’ll find the results of our testing below, after some advice and things to keep in mind when shopping for a leaf vacuum of your own.
In deciding between gas and electric leaf vacs, it comes down to this. Gas-engine machines are far more powerful than cordless and more resistant to clogging, especially when 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.
Also, 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. And this shouldn’t be surprising. 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.
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. First, blow or rake the leaves into piles, then vacuum them up.
First, we selected researched and selected five of the most promising blower-vacuum combination machines. Three are powered by gas engines, one is cordless, and one is 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, and pine needles. We also did extensive testing on damp and wet leaves, as well as damp and wet mixed debris such as a combination of pine needles, leaves, and twigs. We cleared lawns, a parking lot, the curb line of a commercial building, and the perimeters around garden beds. Here’s how the testing shook out.