Should You Get a Robot Vacuum?

By
Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

For many, robot vacuums and the Roomba have become synonymous. Produced by robot cleaning manufacturer iRobot, the gadget has been on the market since the company first debuted it in 2002. Not the smartest bots of the bunch, early Roombas worked in spiral cleaning patterns, frequently got lost, and weren’t quiet. Current Roomba models, like the $800 Roomba 980 and their cheapest offering, the $270 Roomba 614, have more improved functionality — the higher-end versions feature Wi-Fi connectivity, so you can monitor its progress on the go; sensors that prevent it from falling off stairs; and a navigation system that lets it move in straight lines and spiral spot-cleaning configurations (seemingly without any pattern or reason). With tech improvements come promising numbers: iRobot reported $20.4 million in earnings in the first quarter of 2018. Sales rose from $168.5 million at the close of quarter one of 2017 to $217.1 million in the first quarter of this year.

In my own Roomba tinkering, I found the gadget to work exceptionally well on concentrated messes like a pile of crumbs. It approaches walls and corners with more force than finesse, wiggling its way through the edging process. Because of its cliff sensor, dark shadows or floor hues scare the Roomba — it’ll avoid it, thinking it’s going to fall down stairs or a balcony. But for Roomba enthusiast Chris Coultas of Medford, Oregon, the bot is more than efficient at cleaning up after her grandkids in her 5,000-square-foot home. “If you want a cookie, okay, great,” she says. “I don’t worry about it.”

Roomba, however, is not the only brand of robot cleaners on the market. Neato Robotics has its Botvac series, Samsung has the POWERbot, and Dyson offers a $999 robot dubbed the 360 Eye. Each boasts different cleaning run times, various camera, laser, and sensor technology, as well as size variances, including height and dustbin capacity. In other words, they vary. A lot. “Every manufacturer is totally different,” says Haniya Rae, Consumer Reports’ robot-vacuum expert. “They’re going through a learning curve right now. No manufacturer really has the perfect algorithm for mapping your floor.”

Consumer perception tends to lean more optimistic, Rae says, where folks think robo vacs may mean the end of human vacuuming. Not quite. “There is the caveat that you need a second vacuum to make sure you get everything,” she continues. Before you ditch your upright vac for a little autonomous roving one, take stock of the messes in your life — and the environment where they live — to determine if a robot vacuum is the right addition to your burgeoning smart home.

How do they clean?

The robo vacuum first gets a lay of your home. Either through laser technology, sensors, cameras, or a combination of any of the above, it maps out the floor space, and makes sure to avoid any furniture — or it cleans under it if your items are high enough from the floor. (Most bots are between three and four inches tall, save for the Dyson, which is nearly five.) Many newer models feature Wi-Fi connectivity, so users can trigger and track their vacuum from an app.

Suction levels vary from surface to surface. The machines adjust based on its floor surroundings, although most work best on hardwood floors. Sometimes, Coultas says, her Roomba gets caught on her area rug.

Underneath, dirt gets sucked up via rubber roller and side brushes, which help get debris out of corners. The POWERbot, Consumer Reports’ highest-rated robot, even has an extendable arm that collects crumbs pushed up against the walls.

On short carpet, the vacuum is sufficient at picking up larger bits of debris and pet hair, though it doesn’t get as deep a clean as the traditional stand-up vacuum. Longer carpet fibers can get tangled in the rollers and brushes and can stall the cleaning cycle, which isn’t ideal for when it’s running while you’re away. Roomba’s higher-end models 960 and 980 have more power when it comes to carpet maintenance.

Of the 27 robot vacuums Consumer Reports reviews, only the Neato Botvac and Samsung POWERbots aren’t round; they’re D-shaped. One flat side helps the gadget run close to the wall. “The edge-end brush-cleaning makes a difference,” Rae says.

Even though Utah-resident Mark Amos’s Botvac has a straight edge, he still has to pull out his regular vacuum for a closer clean. “All they have are these spinning brushes,” he says, “they can’t pull out an edging tool and get into the crevices.” But compared to his original Roomba, which he’s since given away, the Botvac is a better buy.

The vacuum will rove around your house until the cleaning cycle is complete, or until its charge runs low, another spec with a wide range from manufacturer to manufacturer (70 minutes on the low end, to 130 on the high). Then, it’ll return to its charging dock, though some models have been said to die mid–cleaning cycle without making it back to their homes.

Who are robot vacuums for?

People who live in apartments with hardwood floors would get the most utility out of these gadgets, Rae says. Pet owners also stand to gain a lot from robot vacuums. “They want help with the tufts of hair when their pets shed just to keep that at bay,” says Jonathan Chan, senior lab technician at Reviewed.com. “On the higher end, you get a lot of people who are looking for a luxury good. They’re looking for the latest technology.”

But don’t look for your bot to effortlessly link with other smart-home systems. Expect to toggle between apps for various smart-home gadgets. The closest any manufacturer has gotten to a cohesive technological family is Samsung; the POWERbot connects with the Samsung SmartThings smart-home hub. Roomba and Botvac have models that pair with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Where do they excel?

These gadgets are great at preventing large messes from building up on hard surfaces. Coultas can babysit her grandkids multiple days a week without worrying about the state of her floors afterward. “They’re not great at picking up dirt,” Chan says, “they’re better at picking up debris — pet hair, crumbs, macaroni.” Just make sure the room is clear of any shoes, clothes, toys, and other clutter.

There’s an element of mindlessness when it comes to cleaning, too. Set them off and they’ll return to their docks when finished. “You should definitely take advantage of the scheduling features, which are almost universal across all robot vacuums,” Chan continues. “For manual cleaning, it depends on your lifestyle; I think people could stand once-a-week cleaning.”

Where do they fall short?

Despite being an item to make your home smarter, these robots aren’t the most intelligent. Their mapping and navigation system technology sometimes gets a little wonky on dark floors, around various furniture setups, or the machine will get lost throughout the house, trapping itself in a closet or bedroom. “It’s not smart enough to always remember there’s going to be a chair there,” Rae says. “That’s why if you move your furniture around, it’s totally lost.”

Frilly rugs and blankets, shoelaces, and extension cords can be debris fodder for robot vacuums, causing it to either get stuck or drag objects like lamps and shoes around a room. Longer carpeting also tends to challenge robot vacuums, since they can get caught on the fibers and don’t clean as deeply as upright vacuums or steam cleaners.

The shape of these things can be a little limiting. Because they’re designed to be compact, the dustbins fill rather quickly depending on the amount of hair or debris it sucks up. Their round shape makes corner-cleaning tricky, too. Chan surmises that a triangle-shaped bot would be more effective at reaching into nooks and crannies.

Final verdict

Don’t ditch your upright vacuum. The robots are best for maintenance on hardwood floors, automatic upkeep throughout entire floor plans, and kid-proofing your home. And you won’t have to deep clean as often.

“It doesn’t replace physical labor, but it greatly reduces it,” Amos says. “You won’t ever not vacuum again.”

Should You Get a Robot Vacuum?