Stuart spotted the Flex VCE HEPA Vacuum on sale in June, and arranged for ToolGuyd to purchase one for me to vet and review. Since then it has become my primary (and secondary) vacuum solution.
The Flex HEPA vac has been a strong performer and will be on sale again for Black Friday, making it a good time to potentially pick up one of these highly recommended machines.
Flex HEPA Vac Specs
To recap previous posts, the Flex VCE is a HEPA vacuum that is available in two sizes with 9 and 12 gallon capacities. For this price range it has impressive specs:
- 11A motor
- HEPA filtration (class L)
- Dry and wet pickup
- Manual on/off and “automatic” mode switch
- Automatic filter cleaning system
- Adjustable suction flow rate
- Electronic liquid level control (for wet pickup)
- Soft start
- 15 second overrun/run-on feature empties dust and debris from vacuum hose prior to shutdown
- Dust-protected anti-static finish prevents electric charging of the suction hose
- Large rear wheels and swivel casters in front
- 158 CFM max
- 25 ft power cord
- 1.25″ x 13′ hose
Flex Vac Power and Suction Controls
On the front, there are two controls. The large knob turns 90-degrees right to turn the vac on, or to the left to enable automatic mode. In automatic mode, you can plug a corded power tool directly into the Flex’s auxiliary port, and when that tool powers up, the vacuum turns. This is most commonly used with handheld power tool, such as a sander.
The smaller dial allows you adjust the suction power. (Features like this are what separate dust extractors from shop vacuums.)
The Flex comes with a 15 foot anti-static hose. I must say – I really like the dark red color. The hose feels sturdy, but is still flexible and easily managed. I have accidentally stepped on it and it bounced right back into shape.
The connector at the end of the hose uncovers an interesting detail – it’s identical to the connector on Festool’ hose. When I posted this image on Instagram, I was informed that Nilfisk makes parts for both Flex and Festool. Whether this means you’re getting a Festool quality hose (without the fancy fabric wrap) for the fraction of the cost of a Festool hose is unclear.
Class H HEPA Filter
Inside the Flex there’s a sealed orange filter, which clearly says Class H…. This brings up a complicated topic, is this really a Class H HEPA vacuum?
Based on my understanding, the answer is no. To be certified it’s not just a matter of having the right filter, there are other requirements. One of those requirements is a flow rate alarm that alerts you when the suction drops, such as due to a blockage or full bag. This Flex vac does not have one of these alarms.
However, what it does mean is you get a machine fitted with a 99.97% @ .3 micron HEPA filter.
There is also a removable pleated filter that is accessible from the outside.
There is also an air intake filter on the right hand side.
The Flex ships with a fleece filter bag and one disposable plastic filter. The fleece bag has a really high quality feel to it and it does a great job of containing the dust and keeping the filters clean.
A feature that is now common on vacuums and dust extractors like this is an auto-cleaning system. This typically works by reversing the direction of the suction so a blast of air can dislodge anything that has built up on the filter.
The Flex’s auto-clean is very noticeable! In fact, a number of ToolGuyd readers have commented how violent it is and I don’t disagree. When it engages there’s a loud noise and the filter cover noticeably strains to stay in place.
Festool and Bosch Tool Box “Gear Loft”
One of the most compelling features for me is the optional Gear Loft bracket. These allows you to mount either a Festool Systainer or a Bosch L-Boxx right on top of the vacuum. I purchased the Systainer dock and it took just 5 minutes to install. I love being able to store vacuum accessories exactly where they are needed.
Finding this part (#6116712) is a little challenging. I purchased mine from Acme Tools, they call it the L-Boxx Holder but I am successfully using it with Systainers.
Compared to the Dewalt DCV012
I purchased a Dewalt DWV012 several years ago and it’s been my primary shop vacuum. When compared to the Flex, I found the suction on both vacs to be basically identical. The Flex is rated at 158CFM and the Dewalt at 155CFM, and so I wasn’t expecting to see any difference.
In terms of noise, at full suction I was unable to notice any difference, but the Flex did sound a little quieter when the suction was turned down. This might not be a fair comparison given all the factors that could be involved but it’s safe to say it’s comparable.
The Flex is smaller, even when you take into account that we’re comparing 9-gallon to 12-gallon capacity. However, the wider wheel base of the Dewalt and the overall chunkiness lead me to say that it would stand up to a lot more abuse making it more suited for jobsite usage, compared to strictly workshop use.
I have always liked Dewalt’s telescopic handle, which makes it easier to move around. The Flex doesn’t have a handle, which means I end up dragging it around with the hose. You can buy one for $54 but at that price you’re going to think twice before buying it. However, the Flex does have the ability to mount a Systainer which for me is a big plus.
Ignoring the price it would be hard to pick between them. For me the decision would come down to what type of environment they will be used in. The Dewalt looks to be more robust and better suited for changing and demanding jobsite conditions. But when you factor in the price difference, you can buy almost two of the 9-gallon Flex vacuums for the cost of just one Dewalt 12-gallon vac.
You can find endless discussions online about shop vacuums vs. HEPA vacuums vs. dust collectors, and the pro/cons for different usage scenarios. It’s certainly true that in a perfect world and in a fully equipped shop, armed with an unlimited budget, and unimpeded without any space constraints, you’d have go with combination of dust management tools.
I don’t have that option, and I’m not expecting the Flex to suck up a 100% of the debris in every situation. My real world experience says this is a very competent device:
When used with my Festool sander, I had to turn down the suction because it was sucking itself to the plywood I was sanding. At first I thought the paper needed changing because I didn’t see any dust build up but I was wrong. The combination of the Flex and Festool ETS 125 is honestly outstanding at managing the dust.
Stuart’s Note: This does happen. There is such a thing as too much vacuum power. There are nozzle attachments that let you bleed off some suction power, but variable suction power control is more efficient.
Performance with a Festool track saw was on par as with my Dewalt ShopVac. Heavy particles are ejected to one side, but the cutting area stays nice and clean. I have never tried a Festool dust extractor, and soI don’t know if results would be different.
Stuart’s Note: For some tools, such as track saws, a wider hose diameter has an easier time with larger chips and debris.
At the extreme end, cutting 1/2″ ApplePly plywood on my Dewalt DWE7491RS table saw has similar results, where I end up with a pile of sawdust under the saw, but I at least don’t see a big dust cloud.
My kids used the Flex to vacuum the inside of our cars and it did a very competent job. Given that Flex has roots in the automotive detailing industry, this is hardly surprising.
What this says to me is the Flex is doing an excellent job picking up the small particles. This means my working area stays clean, the air is visibly cleaner but I do need to clean the floor up after I finish a project.
To sum it up, I’ve been really impressed with quality and performance of the Flex. So much so that I purchased a second when the price recently reduced to $239 and I sold my Dewalt! I have one permanently attached to my Dust Deputy separator and use the second for more mobile tasks. I am planning to modify my Dust Deputy so I can run both through it, giving me double the suction for my Router Table.
If you are in the market for a shop vacuum that would be used in connection with handheld power tools or small woodworking machines, you might want to seriously consider Flex’s HEPA vac.
The prices are fluctuating, generally hovering around $299 but dropping to as low as $239 for the 9-gallon. We’ve seen less price fluctuation for the 12-gallon which is priced at $399.
Buy the Flex 9-Gallon Vac ($249-299)
Buy the Flex 12-Gallon Vac ($400)
has had the 12-gallon vac for $253 with free shipping, but it looks like price is back to normal.
L-boxx and Systainer Mounting Bracket ($30 as of 11/27/19)
Transport Handle via Acme Tools ($55 as of 11/27/19)
5-pack of Fleece Dust Bags ($27 as of 11/27/19)