We get this question all the time: "What is the best Festool vacuum for my shop?"
Every few years I revisit this topic, because the Festool vacs get changed. Most recently - this month - Festool has discontinued the CT Mini and changed the CT Sys to be a cordless vac. So it seems like a good time to once again write about your vacuum options.
Festool uses the term "dust extractor" whenever they mention their vacuums. We call them "vacuums" or "vacs" and I don't know of anyone outside a Festool rep who calls them anything different.
The picture above shows the three Festool vacuums we have in our showroom. Below are pictures of the two vacuums we have in our manufacturing workshop. No, they’re not the latest - limited supply means we’ve cut down on the concept of “showroom demo models” - and besides these still work quite well. The middle one is a CT 36, the other two are CT 26s. The vacuum on the left has the Cyclone (more on this below) on top of it. The vacuums in the back are used mostly for metalwork and we beat the crap out of them. Fortunately, and I can say this with experience, Festool vacs are all professional grade and they last. The Midi below has to be at least a decade old and it's going strong.
We take our dust collection seriously, and you should too. Dust is not your friend! Dust you collect as you work means less dust to irritate your lungs, less to clean up, less to mess up your finishes, less to track through the house, less annoyance for you, your clients, your family, your shopmates, your pets, and so on. Increasingly having a clean job-site is a contract requirement and a way to showcase your professionalism. A stationary dust collection system with extensive ductwork is the typical approach for large shops with lots of stationary machinery but it's outside the scope of this discussion. We want to focus on mobile dust collection that you can take to the job site -- and for that matter, use in your shop or around your home too if you so desire.
Speaking of mobility, all Festool vacuums connect easily to the Systainer storage system storage system for easy transport. The CTC SYS, the new cordless version of the discontinued CT-Sys, comes in a Systainer and is designed to be carried on a shoulder strap. All the other vacs come on wheels and except for the budget CT15, all the vacs have a “Sys Dock” to which you can clip Systainers so that the vacuum becomes a rolling platform and base for your work. All corded Festool vacs have an outlet to plug in corded tools, and turning on the tool also turns on the vac.
Vacuums are rated by their suction power and their filtration (how fine a particle they can filter out). Modern vacuums can be HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) rated and in some cases certified for lead removal. HEPA vacs trap particles down to .3 microns. All Festool vacuums are HEPA rated (including the AutocClean models). If you are removing lead or other toxic dust, you must have a HEPA vac that also is lead certified. Festool offers both disposable "Self Clean" and reusable "Longlife" bags for dust collection.
Here are some guidelines for the kind of system you should consider based upon the type of work you expect to perform:
Large stationary machines in a permanently set up workshop - you should probably get a stationary dust collection
Smaller professional shop - you could go either the stationary route or choose a larger vac for dust collection
Small professional shop, but most work is done on jobsites - portable HEPA dust collection
Small home shop - portable HEPA dust collection
On-site work - portable HEPA dust collection
On-site drywall - portable HEPA dust collection designed specifically for plaster
On-site touch up/sanding only - small portable HEPA dust collection
The range of Festool vacs begins with the tiny portable CTC Sys that fits in a small Systainer. This is the first cordless vac in the Festool line up and uses two 4.0 ah batteries which last about 1/2 hour. For occasional use, and certainly in situations where a working outlet isn't readily available, this is the perfect specialty solution. You will probably want an extra set of batteries to charge while you are working for continuous operation. It especially has uses for on-site touch-ups in conjunction with cordless sanders.
The CT-Mini has been discontinued, so the next in size are the CT15 and the CT Midi. These are small but strong vacs that perhaps are especially popular in space-starved New York, but these lightweight and nimble guys offer high performance for anyone who is working in a tight shop or crowded worksite. The big difference is that the CT 15 is stripped down and doesn't have the Bluetooth capabilities (for turning on by cordless tools) and it lacks the hose garage and Sys Dock so you can't stack Systainers on top of it. (The original version of the CT 15 had a non-antistatic hose, but the current edition’s hose is antistatic, although it is not green.). Both machines use the same bags and filters. (The pre-2019 versions of the CT-Midi use different bags. While the CT-15 and Midi are slightly less powerful than the CT 26 and larger vacuums, the difference isn't a big deal. The bag capacity of the pair is fine for everything except doing a lot of routing - in which case you will fill up the bag pretty fast. Frankly, if you are debating between the CT 15 and Midi, it might be hard to justify the cost of the Midi. On a jobsite however, being able to stack Systainers on top of the Midi and move everything at once is a real boon. As a secondary vac, you save a lot of money with the CT15. Both are sweet choices for the jobsite and small shop and a nice supplement to a stationary dust collection system if your shop has one.
Midi Vacs have integrated Bluetooth technology that allows you to start and stop the vac remotely with cordless tools, and a manual cleaning feature. If your sander uses the Festool Bluetooth Ergo battery, the battery pack can communicate with the vac and start it automatically when the sander is turned on.
Next up are the three larger vacuums - the CT 26, CT 36, and the CT 48. All have nearly identical footprint and vary only by their height and capacity. All three vacs are great. The CT 26 is by far the most popular. If you do a lot of routing, consider a CT 36 or CT 48. These vacs are all portable, but with a full bag they can be pretty heavy. The question is one of balancing cost, portability and capacity. We sell a fair number of CT 36 vacs but very few 48s. Let's be fair capacity; the CT 36 has a (9.5 gallon) capacity; CT 48 has a 48 liter capacity (12.7 gallons).
The CT 36 Autoclean (AC) vacuum and CT 48 Autoclean (AC) vacuum are modified versions of the regular 36 and 48. Plaster dust can easily clog fine HEPA filters, so these specialty vacs have an "Autoclean" feature that essentially gives a periodic shake of the bag to ensure that the bag and filters don't clog with plaster. Festool describes the CT 36 as being optimized to work with the Planex Drywall Sander. (Why isn’t the 48 also “optimized”? I don’t know.) The older versions of the Autoclean vacuums were more specialized for plaster. The current versions work with all the tools. In general if you are a cabinetmaker in a shop (pro or hobbyist) and you never work with drywall, the Autoclean is an extra unnecessary cost. But if you are a drywall person or a contractor who occasionally does drywall, Autoclean will do dust collection on everything and also prevent clogging when you sand plaster, even if you don't use a Planex. The ACs can also be used for silica dust removal.
A few years ago Festool introduced the Cyclone Dust Collection Pre-Separator, an accessory that is compatible with the CT 26, CT 36, CT 36 AC, CT 48 and the discontinued CT 22 and CT 33 models (that have the same basic bodies as the 26 and 36 respectively). The Cyclone removes larger dust and debris before it fills the filter bag, giving the filters and bags a longer run. If used with a HEPA-certified vacuum, the Cyclone can be used in compliance with OSHA's Table 1 rule for silica dust. The Cyclone has a stackable collection container that is easy to transport with the vacuum.
For more detailed specifications for all the vacuums please click on the links for the various models.
When I am asked directly which vac to get, I typically recommend the CT 26, unless portability and cost are a big issue. Then I recommend the CT15. I only recommend the larger or smaller models if there are specific situations that need more capacity or can do with less. But every one of the vacs has a fan base.
I'll close out with a picture I took last year of a contractor I saw working outside a local brownstone planing some doors. I did a double-take because he was using a CT 22, a vac that Festool discontinued almost 15 years ago. When I marveled about its age, he said, "As you can see I certainly use and it hasn't given me a moment of trouble ever."
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Any chance you could talk a bit more about the Festool cyclone preseparator? I have a cyclone on my ShopVac at home. When it finally dies, I plan to upgrade to a Festool. Can't find as much about the Festool cyclone out there as I would like. Thanks.
The CT Cyclone separates out coarser larger dust and debris before they hit the filters. (The cyclone uses centrifugal forces, the coarser/heavier stuff falls out of the swirl, hits the wall of the cyclone and gets collected into the clear container.) This saves wear and tear on the filters and bags, so you should be able to go a much longer time between replacements. The vac itself is also protected, which should keep it working at high suction efficiency. This is one of those tools that entails a capital investment, but you can definitely measure the cost savings over the life of your vac. The customers who have purchased the Cyclone have been very positive.