Motor Mouth

Posted inID Mag
Thumbnail for IMPACT Design for Social Change Returns

By: Shonquis Moreno | November 13, 2009

James Dyson’s new handheld vacuum boasts the most powerful ?engine ever designed for a home appliance.

DYSON DC31 AND DC31 ANIMAL $219.99 and $269.99 ——

I live in a century-old former pasta factory. Cement shards fall from my ceiling on a regular basis, plaster is crumbling away from two walls, and the floor is a lunar landscape of pockmarks and craters. I enjoy a view of the East River over a strip of Mack truck–ravaged road off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and onto a cement factory about 100 yards away. Freighters looping back and forth between Nova Scotia and the Brooklyn Navy Yard dump small mountains of gravel on the pier, bits of which waft inland and precipitate through my closed windows, coating the sills with dust. I am also the owner of a cat who sheds so constantly that I am at a loss to explain how she still has fur. I tell you all of this only because it seems unfair to test a vacuum, especially a handheld vacuum, in my apartment.

Unless it’s the DC31. Though its name makes it sound like an airplane the size of a small village, it’s actually a 3-pound handheld manufactured by U.K. inventor James Dyson. A Royal College of Art alum, Dyson made his name with a bagless vacuum that doesn’t lose suction, and ?another that pivots on a ball. What sets apart his latest curiosity, which is touted as being lighter, smaller, and more powerful than its rivals, is the new Dyson Digital Motor (DDM).

Ten years in the making, the DDM is four times as fast and twice as efficient as a conventional motor but half the size and a third of the weight. Software engineers made up a large part of Dyson’s development team, since software is, as he puts it, “the brains of the motor and the heart of the machine.” While conventional motors work by passing current through carbon brushes to make them spin, producing sparks, heat, and wasted energy, the DDM requires no brushes—which emit carbon as they wear down—and only one moving part, a rotor, making it a more energy-?efficient and environmentally friendly product. That doesn’t mean it sacrifices power—quite the reverse. The DDM’s intelligent electronics—similar to a car’s electronic fuel system, which decides when and how much fuel to feed the engine for optimal performance—make 3,300 adjustments per second, allowing the motor to spin at more than 100,000 RPM—five times the speed of a Formula 1 race car engine. ?“It is fundamentally different from any ?motor seen before in appliances,” Dyson says simply. “That’s why it’s protected by ?15 patents.”

As an added bonus, the DC31 corrects the aesthetic flaw that previous Dysons shared with so many toothbrushes and sneakers—they’re too colorful, in all the wrong colors. Instead, it’s more toned down, and its form—somewhere between a power drill and a light saber—makes it look like the rugged tool it’s meant to be. After limbering up with a vigorous series of Charlie’s Angels poses, I put it to the test.

Fortunately, since I was hoovering rudely at midnight and my walls are thin, the machine wasn’t overly loud. Its compliant yet potent tininess made me long to give my place a thorough going-over, but like most handhelds, the machine has only a ten-minute run time (six minutes on high power)—it’s designed specifically for quick pickups. Happily, I found that it could do more in that time span than some much larger vacuums. On the low setting, I was able to suck up cement clumps from between tightly clustered pipes, crumbs and hair from narrow voids between my bed frame and mattress, and scattered bits of cat litter.

After a full recharge (which takes about three and a half hours, a fraction of the time required for comparable handhelds), I inserted the pet-hair attachment included with the Animal model, a stubby tube armed with two types of bristles. It seemed to both suck and scrub, and soon I had what resembled a small kitten in the dirt trap. To dump the contents, I clicked an enticing red button that opened the trap door without dirtying my paws. Then I resumed vacuuming, one-handed, like a fencer. The only drawback was a sore trigger finger, suggesting that perhaps an ergonomic adjustment is needed. But all in all, this vacuum sucks in the best possible way.

Shonquis Moreno is a New York–based writer who contributes to magazines like T, Frame, and DAMn.

Photo of vacum by Mark Weiss