Has the performance of your Roomba vacuum dipped? Have you been using your robot vacuum for years now, but...
Robot Vacuums have gone from novelty item to trusted home appliance. Select a robot vacuum from the chart to clean your house automatically.
The future is now, even if it’s not as exciting as most hoped it would be. Robot vacuums hit the scene with the original Roomba in 2002, but there is now a wide variety of autonomous cleaners to choose from. Finding the best robot vacuum is a bit tricky, however.
For those on the hunt for a great autonomous cleaning solution, robots are the way to go. Knowing is half the battle, however, so let’s hop right in with the why’s and how’s of these excellent devices. There’s more than meets the eye to making sure that a person ends up with a great one.
Contrary to the marketing claims, autonomous vacuum cleaners really aren’t going to eliminate the need for the old school stuff. They’re primarily useful as a way to reduce the amount of work needed when it comes time to actually clean.
Even the best designed robot can’t currently do the same job as an upright vacuum with a human guiding it. It’s unfortunate but true.
However, for those who regularly find their floors crawling with crumbs, pet hair, dust, and other small debris they’re an excellent stop-gap measure. One should think less of a robot vacuum as an alternative and more as a supplement to normal house cleaning.
Since the robot can be set to clean while you’re away they’re also hassle-free. Just let them do their thing and the majority of small debris will practically disappear. Even the best isn’t going to let you skip your next spring cleaning however.
Fifteen years ago the choice was much easier than it is today: Roomba was the only game in town and it was just a matter of which model you could fit into your budget.
The technology has advanced quite a bit since those humble beginnings, however, and while Roomba still holds the bulk of the market share there are some serious competitors out there. For the potential buyer that means checking the following qualities is much better than vetting by brand.
Size matters a lot with a robot vacuum, especially if you’re planning on clearing out the undersides of tables, beds and couches with it.
Most are 4” or shorter, but a vacuum which is under 3” is ideal for those who are using them to clean underneath furniture.
The overall size of the bot also matters quite a bit. Most of them are round and those with a bigger diameter won’t be able to get in as tightly on corners and around square edges as those which have a smaller width.
Each robot has their own quirks when it comes to picking things up. For the most part the thing to look for is superior suction power compared to other models combined with a larger waste compartment.
In an unfortunate twist of fate, no robot vacuum can empty itself at the current stage of the technology. That means a larger storage area for dust, hair, and other debris will lower the overall maintenance on the vacuum.
These are make or break features for your vacuum. Without them even the smartest, lowest-profile autonomous cleaner will end up being useless overall.
While the early generations of robot vacuums didn’t have much in the way of AI, newer models can do some surprising things. Most of us still have visions of the earliest models bumping their way around the room haphazardly, but newer models have come quite a long ways.
Different systems work in different ways, but for the most part, the average consumer is best served by something which will at least map the room. Some of the more advanced robots not only map the room but also keep track of the areas they’ve already gone over, making them much more efficient with their energy storage.
While it’s not a big concern for those living in smaller apartments, those who are planning on allowing their vacuum to get the whole house should keep a close eye on the estimated battery life of their robot.
Longer battery lives mean more cleaning per charge and most people program their vacuums to only clean once per day. It also means a better chance of making it back to the dock, some of the cheaper models have a tendency to die in awkward places like under couches which just means more work for the owner.
That said, it only becomes a big concern once the square footage to be cleaned reaches 1,000 or more square feet. Those with smaller homes shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about this factor.
Robot vacuums run from relatively simple little bots that just do their thing at the time they’re programmed to wifi connected smart vacuums that will tie in with your phone and any voice service you may have like Amazon Alexa or Google Home.
This is largely a personal choice. Not everyone wants to get updates on what their robot is up to during the day or wants to be able to activate it with a simple voice command. Others do.
Just be aware that the more technology is crammed in the little bot, the more expensive it’s going to be and it doesn’t necessarily mean an upgrade to the base functionality of the device as a whole. More tech also means more battery usage, so they may not be the best option for larger homes as well.
There are two main parts of the process which need to be easy: setting the robot up to run at the designated time and being able to empty debris storage. For those with less advanced capabilities it can also mean the ease of clearing jams.
It’s a big factor and the reason that many robot vacuums end up permanently on their dock at one point or another. The easier it is to use, the more likely a person is to keep using it. Even the budget models aren’t cheap, so carefully consider any complaints about the autonomous vacuum being hard to set up before committing to the model.
For those who have pets around, a robot vacuum is often a great way to keep pet hair build up down when you’re busy. That said, some are much more adept at this than others.
HEPA filters reduce the amount of free-floating dander in the air. While they add an extra bit of maintenance since they need to be replaced they’re a standard issue feature in any robot vacuum marketed to pet owners. They also remove pollen and other allergens that can creep their way in by a large amount.
Models designed for pet owners often have slightly different bristles as well. These bristles are adept at removing pet hair from the surface underneath them, even if it’s stuck down by something else.
Robot vacuums are complex, even the relatively simple ones. They have motors, servos, and tons of different components that allow them to handle cleaning without needing human intervention.
That, unfortunately, also means there’s a lot of failure points spread through the vacuum as a whole. One bad component making it through quality control can spell an inoperable robot, turning an expensive appliance into a glorified paperweight.
Check the warranty which is offered with the vacuum. With reputable brands the consumer is unlikely to need it, but it shows both faith in their products and that you’ll be able to get a replacement if something does happen.
Using an autonomous cleaner requires a bit of set up prior to getting things going. If you have an extremely cluttered floor, it may just not work out without some modifications.
There are also some limitations to what even the best autonomous cleaner can do.
The biggest trip up?
Stairs. While there are a few multimillion dollar robots designed to climb stairs… they’re not vacuums. With the current state of technology there’s simply no way for your new robot cleaner to get up and down stairs.
It’s something to keep in mind when you invest in one. Ideally you may have one for every floor, but in practice most people only use their robots on the first floor, which is ideal since these floors are usually the heaviest trafficked in the home.
Preparation isn’t that hard, but it will require some work. In general the following steps are enough to get the most out of the bot:
Clear any unnecessary clutter on the floor. Measure the width of the robot for going under things like tables and shelves with a high bottom as well so you know the areas it won’t be able to get into.
Clear a good sized space around the docking station. The dock also acts to let the robovac know where it’s at since it’s a triangulation point but the important thing is to put it in an area where the vacuum has a clear path back so it can recharge.
Clear tiny, hard objects from the floor. Things like nails, screws, and even small toys can damage the internals of the robovac and may not be covered under warranty.
Try to keep cords off the floor in the areas cleaned as much as possible. Networking or charging cables are a particular hazard since they’re thinner than most electrical cords but robovacs can easily find themselves tangled in just about anything if care isn’t taken.
High piles carpet and shag rugs are a no go. Robovacs are almost always low profile and they can easily get their brushes entangled within thicker carpeting. Keep the robot out of these rooms or program it to avoid these areas depending on the model and capabilities it offers.
Be careful about letting the vacuum in rooms where there may be water present on the floor like the kitchen or bathrooms. Most aren’t wet/dry vacuums and getting water in the internals is a quick way to end up with a very fancy and expensive door stop instead of a functioning appliance.
Either leave a light on or crack the blinds if you’re allowing the robotic appliance to clean when you’re not home. The vast majority rely primarily on optical sensors so they’ll tend to fumble in the dark.
It’s not a whole lot to handle in most homes, but it’s essential to making the most of an autonomous vacuum. Some small preparations go a long way in making the most out of your cleaner.
Robovacs are expensive, especially since they’re mostly an adjunct to regular cleaning. They’re perfect for someone who simply doesn’t have the time to regularly clean the house but has the extra money to afford one.
An entry level model usually runs around $200. These are pretty basic and it’s best to look for solid core functions at this price point. Any extras like wifi and app connectivity come at the cost of suction and navigation.
Mid-range models run from $300-$500 which is the right price for most people. At this level you can expect solid core functions, a decent warranty, and a decent app to activate the robovac remotely or check on it’s progress.
Lastly, there are premium models which can run to over $1,000. These models can be expected to be above and beyond the normal fare. They also tend to have much better batteries which is a driving force behind the higher pricing. Unfortunately, they’re still not miracle workers so you’ll still need a decent upright for serious messes.
Most homes will be best served with a robovac which is in the middle of the possible price range.
While the cheaper ones can work well, they often require more preparation and forethought in dock placement, clutter clearing, and the rest of the work that goes into properly prepping a home for a robovac.
Q: How do robot vacuums find their way around the house?
A: Robovacs use a series of sensors that allow them to find their way. Optical sensors on the wheels, for instance, are common to measure distance in those vacuums which have the ability to map a room. CNET has a good breakdown on all of the technology involved if you’re interested in an in-depth explanation but it’s mostly run-of-the-mill sensors and good programming.
Q: Are there any models of robot vacuum which can navigate stairs?
A: Even now, seventeen years since the first Roomba hit the market, there are no models which can handle stairs. It’s not surprising either, even leading robotics labs using legged robots are still having trouble getting things right, let alone the relatively basic frame of a robovac.
Q: Is there any floor surface a robot vacuum won’t clean?
A: High pile and shag carpeting are both a no-go when it comes to using an autonomous cleaner. A good robovac is low-profile which often means there simply isn’t any room. For vinyl, hardwood, tile, and low-to-medium pile carpets, however, there should be no problem with the vast majority of models.
Q: Are there any robot vacuums which empty their own debris?
A: Some of the very expensive, high end models of robot vacuum now come with bases that will collect debris when the robot returns to dock. You’ll still have to empty the larger debris collection tray eventually, however.
Q: Can a robot vacuum clean my whole house?
A: Yes… and no. While your bot, with enough battery life, can run through a surprisingly large area during the day there are always going to be spots it can’t reach. Most will occasionally miss a spot as well. It’s best to think of them as a way to keep housework a bit easier, rather than a complete solution regardless of how much money you’re willing to throw at one.
Q: How often should I run my robot vacuum?
A: Most people keep theirs set to once a day, generally while they’re not home. Others may only use it a few times a week. The important thing is to find a schedule which works for you, our primary suggestion would be to make sure it at least runs the day or two before you plan on grabbing the upright and handling things.
Q: How advanced is the AI in robotic vacuums?
A: While they seem surprisingly advanced to those not “in the know” the AI in even the most complex models is relatively simple. They’re much more worker ant than potential Skynet. Machine learning implementation in some of the new models allows for mapping a house and changing their map with the floorplan over time but the intricacy really comes from the interplay of a few coded requirements and the advanced sensors used.
Q: What’s a reasonable amount of time for a robot vacuum to last?
A: In our research we found that the average lifespan for a robotic vacuum seems to sit around five years before failure of the device. It largely depends on how you’re using it, but as long as your robovac isn’t regularly dropping down stairs or getting kicked around they’ll usually have a good lifespan.
Q: Why does my robot vacuum keep circling one area?
A: Most often this is due to debris which the vacuum recognizes but simply can’t pick up. Check the area to see if you can find anything first, but these problems can also occur with dirty or malfunctioning sensors.
Q: Do robot vacuums stop when they’re full?
A: It depends on the model. The early Roombas, for instance, would keep cleaning no matter if they could pick things up or not. Newer ones without an auto-dump built into the charging dock will often return to save battery life once they’re filled. Expect cheaper models to keep going unless they’re specifically listed to do otherwise.
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The very first robotic vacuum cleaner was made by the Swedish appliance company, Electrolux, and it hit the market in 1996. This original robot vacuum was called the Trilobite and it was such a novelty, it was featured on the BBC science show, Tomorrow’s World. Although the Trilobite worked fairly well, it had issues with running into furniture and other household objects. It also stopped short of walls while cleaning, which left areas that weren’t vacuumed at all, and most likely contributed to Trilobite production being discontinued.
In 2001, the British technology company Dyson created their own version of the robot vacuum and called it the DC06, but it was too costly to make and the team over at Dyson decided to call a halt to the project before it could be mass produced.
It was a year later that an American tech company called iRobot took a stab at making a robot vacuum, and the Roomba entered the scene. This new and improved robotic vacuum cleaner was able to automatically avoid obstacles, detect dirt on flooring, and keep itself from falling down the stairs.