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Real Homes
Eve Smallman

Why does my vacuum smell? Seven problems that could be causing a stink

A red vacuum with thinking emojis around it, on a red and orange ombre background

There’s nothing worse than getting ready to vacuum, firing it up, and then having a horrible smell coming out. No, no, no. That’s the opposite of what we want when we’re trying to clean our apartments, people.

No matter what kind of vacuum you have, they’re all prone to reeking a li'l if the wrong items are sucked into them or if you aren’t cleaning them properly. If yours is sending out bad vibes, don’t worry — I’ve rounded up some expert opinions on why your vacuum may be smelling bad.

Most of the time you shouldn’t need to replace any parts, so no need to stress about spending any major dollar. Just remember to give your vacuum some TLC, and it will reward you with a fresh and easy clean.

Whether you’re reading this article because your vacuum is stinky or because you want to prevent the problem, scroll down to find out possible problems and the solutions…

Why does my vacuum smell? 7 problems and the solutions

From blockages to electrical problems, there are lots of reasons why your vacuum may be smelling. I’ve chatted with two experts to find out what these are, and how to fix them.

1. Vacuum bag

The first place to look when your vacuum is stinking is where all the dirt accumulates: The vacuum bag. “Stinky bags are often the main issue with foul-smelling vacuum cleaners,” says Ryan Knoll, owner of Tidy Casa. He recommends replacing the bag, and seeing if that fixes the problem. “For bagless models, empty the canister and clean it with soapy water. Ensure this is completely dry before reassembling the vacuum.” This last part is especially key, as water can trap dirt and dust super easily.

2. Pet hair

Pets are adorable, but they def don’t smell incredible, unless they’ve come straight from the salon. Their hair can easily clog up your machine, as well as cause an even worse smell if they’re left in there for too long. “Make sure to regularly clean the brush rolls, filters, and dustbin or bag,” explains Andrew Brown, appliance repair technician at This Fixed House. “Also, consider using a vacuum designed specifically for pet hair removal, as these often have specialized filters and brush rolls for better performance.” Our fave vacuum for pet hair at Real Homes is the Shark Stratos, which our head ecommerce editor, Annie Collyer, swears by.  

3. Clogged filter

Okay, so you’ve checked your bag, emptied out hair, and you’re still scratching your head as to where that smell is coming from. It’s now time to check the filter. “Clogged filters can cause a reduction in suction power, as well as an unpleasant odor as trapped particles start to decompose,” Brown tells me. Knoll recommends cleaning this with soapy water, as well as checking if your vacuum is one with a HEPA filter. “Vacuums with HEPA filters need to have filters cleaned and replaced every 10-15 uses,” he explains. “This gets overlooked often but is essential to keeping a vacuum fresh.” Got it. 

4. Stubborn odors

Got odors coming out your vacuum that won’t leave with soapy water alone? One of Knoll’s fave tricks for getting odors out is using baking soda, which is an amazing all-around cleaning supply to have in your cupboard (Arm & Hammer’s on Amazon is my go-to if you’re low). “Mix baking soda and water to create a cleaning solution, use it to clean the vacuum's canister, hose, and filters, then rinse with water,” he says. “Dry the plastic or metal parts with a clean cloth and let the filters air dry before reassembling.” I recommend letting your filters air dry for at least 24 hours, just to make sure they’re completely dry.

5. Mold and mildew

One of the things that I absolutely hate cleaning up is mold and mildew, so I’m totes upset to find out that it can grow in vacuums. Brown explains: “If your vacuum cleaner has been used to clean up wet or damp materials, moisture can accumulate and create the perfect environment for mold and mildew, which will lead to a musty smell developing.” That musty smell is so gross, you guys. Brown recommends disassembling the vacuum and then cleaning all parts thoroughly to remove the growth. To avoid this in the future, he also advises not to vacuum wet or damp surfaces. For those who know they’ll need to vacuum wet surfaces regularly, think about bagging a vacuum built for doing this, such as the Tineco Floor One S5 which is Amazon's Choice.

6. Overheating motor

The heart of the vacuum is the motor, as it keeps the whole thing going. But if it’s overworking itself, it may burn itself out. This can then lead to a — you guessed it — burning smell. “A vacuum cleaner's motor may overheat if it's overloaded, clogged, or if the vacuum is old and the motor's performance has deteriorated.” To stop this from happening, Brown recommends regularly inspecting and cleaning the vacuum to prevent clogging. “If the motor continues to overheat, it may be time to replace the vacuum or have it professionally serviced,” he adds. Fingers crossed your vacuum doesn’t need replacing, as they can be spendy AF. 

7. Electrical problems

Eek — this is the problem you really don’t want, but unfortunately, it could be possibly causing the smell. Knoll says: “When the vacuum emits a hot, mechanical smell, the electrical cord may be broken.” If you smell this, Brown stresses that you should unplug the vacuum immediately and shouldn’t try to fix this yourself. “Instead, consult a professional appliance repair technician for assistance.” Faulty vacuums can pose a fire and electric shock hazard, so it’s important to be careful when dealing with them. We don’t want you or your apartment getting burned, bestie.

Up next: How to clean your vacuum, in just eight easy steps

FAQs

How to stop my vacuum from smelling?

Empty out the vacuum bag or the canister into the trash can, then remove any detachable parts like the brush, hose, and filter. Soak these in soapy water for half an hour, and then leave them to air dry overnight. Then, wipe down the outside of your vacuum, before putting your vacuum back together. 

What can I put in my vacuum to make it smell better?

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