Sunday, December 19, 2010

There's Nothing Sexier Than A Night In Front Of The Fireplace With A Clean Rug!

The Good: Good suction, Easy directions for set up and use, Generally easy to clean
The Bad: No attachments, LOUD, Specific directions of cleaning the unit are hard to execute
The Basics: The Cheetah II Ash Vac allows one to keep a home and hearth ash free with efficiency and a lot less effort than other, less efficient (though quieter) means.

[Written originally after my house fire and the purchase of my new wood stove, this review alludes to a house I no longer have. However, the Cheetah Ash Vac II that I had for it was pretty incredible and all of the subsequent statements still hold. Enjoy!]

Two weeks ago, my house had minor major surgery when I had a Brentwood wood stove (click here for that review!) put in to heat most of the rooms in my house. What I was not told about the usage of a wood stove before I purchased it was that there were things that are needed in order to keep it up and running efficiently and cleanly and the truth is, there are usage and maintenance issues that make owning a wood stove something of a lifestyle choice in addition to a matter of environmental responsibility and energy-efficient heating. So, for example, no one told me that you cannot really blow into the wood stove to stoke the fire. I've worked with fire for two decades now. Blowing into a wood stove to get a fire going again is inviting the pounds of fine ash that are collected within the stove to burst out of the stove like a volcano.

So, after a few days of usage, I came to realize that my new wood stove needed some accessories. First, I needed something to clean the ceramic glass and I found a great product called Speedy White Hearth And Stove Cleaner. Then I needed something to clean up all the ash with. For that, I cast my lot with the Cheetah II AshVac from Love-Less Ash Company. And within days, this cleaner was proving its worth and long-term value.

First, some might question, why do you need a special vacuum for ash? Yes, it does seem like it might be a luxury, until one actually is faced with trying to get the very fine ash out of fireplaces. You can sweep it out, but that makes a dust cloud, no matter how careful you think you are being. Believe me, I tried that for almost a week, sifting the ash to keep the embers and it made a horrible mess. Even just sweeping everything out yielded an obscene amount of ash (very, very fine ash, like burned smaller than dust, so there's a LOT of it!) in the air, on me, the rug in front of the fireplace, and the shelf that is over my hearth. It was that coating of ash making the shelf unusable along with seeing my beautiful red rug looking frosted with gray that made me finally damn the expense and buy the AshVac. Normal vacuum cleaners cannot be used for two reasons: air quality and the fact that one is likely to vacuum up hot ash, embers and such that might ignite a vacuum cleaner bag or melt the suction tube. As far as air quality, a standard shop vac (which is what the Ash Vac is most analogous to) does not have the filters that will adequately filter out something as fine as fireplace ash. In other words, you can suck the ash out of your fireplace and blow it into whatever room you are in with a standard shop vac.

Not so with the Cheetah II Ash Vacuum System. This is basically a shop vac with a three gallon storage capacity with two filters specially designed to keep ash from escaping the canister. The five foot hose is made of aluminum so it is not at risk of melting. This is specifically designed to suck up ash and the more problematic small embers that naturally come with it.

And it works. The Cheetah II does exactly what it claims it will. So long as the filters are kept clean, this has powerful suction that sucks up anything that will fit into the 1" diameter nozzle hole. And you know what? There is no ash in the air after using it. None. Not a speck. It's completely clean! This Ash Vacuum System works wonderfully to keep a hearth and the room adjacent to it clean of ash and dust and it lives up to its reputation.

Attentive readers will note that the caveat on that is "so long as the filters are kept clean". The two air filters inside get clogged ridiculously easily (I'd say once each use when there is heavy ash built up in the fireplace). But, the Cheetah II has a solution for this! The vacuum has a special agitator that knocks the ash from the filters to clean up the inside of the unit without having to open the Cheetah II up!

There are only two problems with this. First, the filter support (which is what the agitator of the clogged ash is called) is accessible only through the brass noggle cover. This piece is tightened only hand tight, but after using the Cheetah II, it becomes virtually impossible to get the brass noggle cover off without a wrench. So, when you have the cover off (which does come off easily with a wrench, no problem, it's just something more you need to have around to actually get the most out of this) you are faced with a straight metal rod with no markings or places to hold it. That's fine for moving it up and down and limited amounts left and right, but it cannot be twisted and that seems to be the motion that works best for knocking off material that has built up on the filter.

That said, the manual for the Cheetah II is VERY well written. If you can read, you can set up your ash Vacuum System! And for those who have trouble with technical writing, there is actually a remarkably clear set of directions for installing the two filters that includes photographs! Not diagrams, but flat-out photos! It's wonderful and simple to use.

The Cheetah II's directions recommend one vacuum up ashes when they are cold, which is somewhat ridiculous; when the fire is out and the ash is cold, my house is freezing! Why would I want to wait until it's all cold to clean it out?! The Cheetah II meets people like me half way with its durable metal construction. The nozzle that goes into the ash and embers is metal so as long as one has gloves (recommended for anyone whose working in a fireplace regardless!) the fact that it heats up some when in use does not lessen the ability to use it.

Gloves are important as well because the AshVac is designed to pick up primarily ash, not embers or unburnt wood. As a result, things get stuck in the nozzle frequently (see next paragraph) and need to be removed. If you're vacuuming from a state of warm ash and embers that will come back with a little coaxing, it's imperative to have the gloves to keep removing (and setting aside) the usable embers while vacuuming up the ash.

The second major problem with the Cheetah II is that in some ways it's too good. I'll openly admit, I'm cheap. I scavenge wood to heat my house so I'm not about to vacuum up embers that could restart my fire and keep me and my cats warm! What the Cheetah II needs are attachments, in specific, two of them. Something the manual will not tell you, but I discovered my first shot out is that if you have an old metal strainer, you can vacuum through it to get only the ash and leave the embers to further pulverize themselves when the fire gets going again. This is a HUGE benefit to anyone using the AshVac, simply prestrain the ash from the embers using the Cheetah II and a strainer (the type with a fine mesh). Stupidly, I wonder why Love-Less Ash Company does not have an attachment - or cap the nozzle - with a straining grid to prevent anything bigger from going into the vacuum. That's an attachment I need because, frankly, it's not working as well to have a whole big strainer in there (I've got an idea how to jerry-rig one). When I purchased the Cheetah II Ash Canister Vac, it was recommended I use a slotted spoon to move the bigger embers out of the way, but I found that still left far too many embers to suck up than I liked the thought of (this unit works best on the ash according to the manual).

The other attachment I need is something like a brush. Love-Less Ash Co. understands that normal vacuums cannot handle dust and fireplace ash. What I don't understand is why they do not have an attachment to help clean rugs or rough-cut wood that gets ash-covered. Perhaps their reason is that after using this consistently, I won't need one. That seems to be the case, but I still have to clean up from the disasters that preceded my purchasing the AshVac!

The only other drawback to using the Cheetah II is the noise. This is a VERY loud vacuum. It seems like it is louder than a normal shop vac (possibly because one is so close to the source as the hose is only five feet long!) and only slightly quieter than a jet engine. I use earplugs when using the Cheetah II, especially when I know I've a lot to clean up (I still have more of the shelf and rug to vacuum, I just could not stand how long it was taking, so I'm breaking up the big clean).

But here the Cheetah II delivers better than any vacuum I've ever used. My hearth has a shelf running over it made of rough-cut lumber and anyone who has ever had anything with rough-cut knows it is a bear to clean. It cannot simply be wiped down with a cloth because debris gets into the textured wood. The Cheetah II, without the nozzle attached to the hose (which is kosher because it's not cleaning up embers or in anything hot) offers great suction and with the filters clear, it makes short work of all of my roughcut that has been coated with ash! My room is actually getting clean! This vacuum delivers!

I then moved onto the rug. I did a first pass with a regular vacuum to get up the debris from the firewood that has gotten onto the rug and then I have been methodically going over the rug with the Cheetah II to get the ash that has settled down between in the rug's pyle. This is clearly working (the color in my rug is regaining its vibrancy!) and after I'm done with this, I'll feel comfortable enough to bring a rug shampooer to the carpet (I could not do that before because that would have simply made mud in my carpet! Yuck, ashy mud!). So, in this way the AshVac is exceeding expectations. It would have still been nice to have a brush-type accessory for this type cleaning using the AshVac.

Cleaning out the Cheetah II (which I only did for this review, it might be weeks before I would have actually needed to do this myself!) is ridiculously easy. Take your Cheetah II out to wherever you would like the ash to be (on a day that is NOT windy!), unlatch the three lid clamps (any user who assembles this unit will know exactly what they are, this cannot be used without the clamps being latched first!) and dump the ash. The filters clean up easily enough using the "noggle" and I'm told they may be used for years if they are carefully rinsed out (which the manual specifically notes not to wash the filters, so that's a cointoss decision).

The Cheetah II has a one year warranty on its parts, but I have not had to exercise that warranty, so I do not know how Love-Less Ash Company actually lives up to it.

My original fireplace, which was destroyed when I had a house fire caused from a break in the flue, had an ash trap and I miss that. All I had to do was sweep embers and ash into a little hole and it fell down into a pit and I didn't have to deal with it until Spring. Now, I wake up, clean my wood stove with the Speedy White, vacuum it out with the Cheetah II and I get on with my day while my fire builds up to a ember bed that keeps the house toasty! And the Cheetah II has done what it promised it would; it's keeping my house clean with much less effort than I've had. It is efficient and it is solving my fireplace ash issues.

Give it a chance and it will take care of yours as well, even if you need gloves and ear protection to make it happen!

[ADDENDUM: After months of daily use, I've noticed the following: 1. It's still VERY loud, 2. The noggle cap becomes easier and easier to remove and the self-cleaning function from the noggle agitation becomes easier to use as well; the filter bag becomes a little more flexible, 3. Nozzle and tube get VERY hot very quickly if using in warm coals (the good news: they cool down just as quickly!) - this is worth mentioning as it might get hot enough to melt some rugs. I've found by storing it right next to a cold outer wall or the stone of my hearth, it cools down quite quickly!, and 4. Suction on this is so good that a first pass over the coals will suck up the lighter ash from about an inch away!]

For other vacuums and hearth appliances, please check out my reviews of:
Kenmore 31079 vacuum
Eureka 4700 Series Vacuum
Majestic Sovereign fireplace


For other home and garden appliances, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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