Developing a Solid Maintenance Plan with an Industrial Vacuum

By: Paul Miller

Vice President & General Manager Nilfisk CFM

In developing a comprehensive and effective cleaning program, pharmaceutical plants should understand the importance of choosing the correct vacuum for their application this machinery represents a critical component in helping to minimize or avoid certain risks. A superior vacuum not only maximizes production efficiencies by enhancing the performance and lifespan of critical manufacturing equipment, and safeguarding product quality, it also protects the safety and health of employees.

From research and development, to production, to packaging, every sector of the pharmaceutical industry faces a common enemy, contamination. It can destroy the reputation of a product or a whole company, and even infringe on the safety of your workforce, all of which can cost millions. And if FDA regulations or strict international quality standards to protect consumers weren’t enough, many pharmaceutical companies now have the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on their doorsteps to see if they’re 1 of the estimated 30,000 facilities at risk for a combustible dust explosion1, making contamination control much more than just mere housekeeping.

Contamination reflects the presence of any foreign substance that can undermine, or have a detrimental impact on your product. Relating mostly to particulate matter, contamination can occur at any step during protection and falls into three main categories:?Airborne Contamination carried and moved by air currents?Fluid Contamination generated or dispersed by fluids, whether in machinery or elsewhere. Transfer Contamination picked up (often by personnel and wheels of trolleys) and carried to critical areas.

There are many methods to combat contamination and although all have a place somewhere in controlled environments, a high-quality, multi-stage industrial vacuum cleaner definitely has features and benefits that trump other traditional methods like wipe-down. An industrial vacuum cleaner can collect and retain particles inside the machine with little chance of being exhausted back into the atmosphere. They can also be equipped with accessories to clean hard-to-reach areas including overhead.

What To Look For In A Vacuum

When selecting an industrial vacuum cleaner for your facility, plant managers will quickly find there are many options. From basic vacuums with a collection container and motor to those that feature more gadgets than a Cadillac, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important.

Intermittent Vs. Continuous Duty: Knowing whether you need an intermittent duty or continuous duty vacuum is the first step in determining what kind of vacuum you need and will greatly narrow your choices. Deciding between intermittent and continuous duty vacuums is mostly dependent on the requirements of your specific application and electrical requirements. If your application requires constant extraction, continuous duty is the best option. Continuous three-phase power is also more economical; however, not every plant is equipped with it. Single phase power is more prevalent but can limit the power of the vacuum. Nonetheless, if the vacuum will be used for general cleanup of work areas for approximately an hour or less each day, an intermittent/single-phase industrial vacuum is your best bet.

Portable vs. Central System: Because of their bigger size and increased suction power, central systems are capable of handling several applications at one time, including local exhaust ventilation and the pickup of fine powders. The machine can also be isolated outside or in a separate room to control noise and used with accessories hooked up to wall inlets. Each system has its pros and cons, but for many manufacturers the decision between central and portable systems comes down to the application. If you need to clean very specific areas, such as multiple neighboring clean rooms, a central system with a drop down hose in each working area may be best; if you need the flexibility to clean the entire plant including stairwells, corners, and overhead areas then a portable system is most efficient. Naturally, many manufacturers have both a central system and several portable industrial vacuums in order to meet all their maintenance challenges.

Cleanroom: If your vacuum will be used in a cleanroom environment, a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) or Ultra Low Particulate Air (ULPA) filter is an obvious must, but the location of the filter is also critical. Because contamination standards in the pharmaceutical industry are more stringent than other industries, HEPA/ULPA filters located before and after the motor will help achieve optimal efficiency. Placed downstream or after the motor, these filters will eliminate the dust created by the motor’s commutator and carbon brushes from being released back into the environment through the exhaust stream An “upstream or after the motor filter protects the motor from the potentially harmful debris you are collecting. An upstream filter will help prolong the life of the motor and also safeguard employees if maintenance is needed on a motor.

Aside from superior filtration, simple, smooth construction is also important for a cleanroom vacuum as it prevents contamination by the vacuum and is easier to clean. Non-particle-generating material such as non-porous stainless steel is a preferred material in controlled-environments, and hoses and attachments should also be smooth for fast, simple sanitization and validation. Wet or Dry: Don’t forget to take spill response into account when purchasing a vacuum. If you try to collect liquid with your dry-only vacuum you can easily ruin your investment and cause serious injuries. Wet-collection vacuums must have a grounded, by-pass motor to avoid electrical hazards. A stainless steel or polyethylene tank to prevent corrosion is also a good feature to look for, along with an automatic shut-off valve to prevent overfilling.

Redundancy Is Important

No matter what type of vacuum you choose to safeguard against multiple sources of contamination, superior filtration is key, and in most cases, is what sets apart a quality vacuum from an investment that will quickly end in the trash. For peak operating efficiency, a vacuum should have a multi-stage, graduated filtration system, which uses a series of progressively finer filters to trap and retain particles as they move through the vacuum. As mentioned, HEPA and ULPA filters have become standard in the pharmaceutical industry, and a multi-stage system is key in protecting these filters from blockage and excessive wear and tear, maintaining peak performance. A vacuum’s filtration system should also use oversized filters, which slows airflow action across a larger surface area to optimize the air-to-cloth ratio. This allows the vacuum to easily collect large volumes of debris over extended periods of time – while once again minimizing maintenance.

It’s Electric

In February of this year, a Georgia sugar manufacturer experienced one of the worst workplace explosions in history. In addition to 13 fatalities and countless injuries, OSHA recently fined the company more than 8 million dollars for work-place safety violations. Many pharmaceutical manufacturers assume their facility and equipment is safe from an explosion like the one seen in Georgia, but for environments classified as hazardous by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), the risk is very prevalent, no matter what industry. In response to the recent rise in facility blasts, OSHA has made preliminary recommendations of prevention that include incorporating an industrial vacuum into maintenance plans, but choosing the wrong vacuum can actually add to the risk.

A vacuum used to collect combustible materials should be certified explosion-proof to the core. This means that everything from the outer shell to the internal mechanics including the motor, switches, filters and inner chambers should be grounded and constructed of non-sparking materials such as stainless steel. Some companies offer basic models dressed up with a few anti-static accessories and describe them as suitable for explosive material. These imposters may still create arcs, sparks or heat that can cause ignition of the exterior atmosphere and overheating that can ignite dust blanketing the vacuum. Approval by an internationally recognized testing agency such as the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) will protect you from purchasing a poser and provides legal certification to ensure that every component in the vacuum from the ground up meets strict standards for preventing shock and fire hazards and is suitable for your specific NFPA classified environment.

Although it is rare for a pharmaceutical facility to use pneumatic machinery, there are times when electricity is unavailable or undesirable. For these environments, pneumatic, intrinsically-safe vacuums are a reliable option. Although testing agency certification does not exist for air-operated machines, an intrinsically safe vacuum should still meet the same standards required for their electric counterparts.


Like all investments, pre-sale research is key. Visit manufacturer websites and talk to sales reps; a company that is knowledgeable about your application will certainly put your mind at ease. And naturally, every manufacturer will be responsive to your needs before you buy, so look for a company that will still be there after the bill is paid. Excellent post-sale support will make things easier when it’s time to purchase replacement parts and filters or service your industrial vacuum.

Under the burden of such heavy regulations, manufacturers must continuously evaluate their housekeeping regimens to ensure that all controlled areas are properly cleaned and maintained. There are many options out there, but as proven by one too many tragedies across the United States, a solid maintenance plan is critical and investing in a quality industrial vacuum should be viewed as more than just a cleaning solution. Purchasing the right vacuum from a company with a solid reputation can save money, protect the integrity of the product, increase productivity, and most importantly, safeguard the health of your workforce.


1 Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program. (02 Jun 2008). Occupational Health and Safety Association.