Things to Consider Before Buying a Robot Vacuum

29 November 2021

Debbie and I hope you all had a safe and happy Thanksgiving with family and friends. As Black Friday is behind us and we face Cyber Monday, I’d imagine there’s been a lot of post Turkey-Day online shopping going on. I’m hoping you also remembered Small Business Saturday as well.

As part of your online smart home shopping you may have a robot vacuum on your list. We have an iRobot Roomba and love it. We received it as a gift though I’d been doing a lot of research on robot vacuums at the time to determine the pros and cons. My real motivation wasn’t all about cleaner floors as much as smart home planning to accommodate appropriate space and power for a potential future robot vacuum. My concern was where to put the charging station so it wouldn’t look like an afterthought and be as centrally located as possible. And with our home design all on one level to prevent us from having to traverse stairs moving into older age, it’s a perfect scenario for a robot vacuum.

I think we pulled it off with bit of a small garage design under Debbie’s Coffee Bar near the Kitchen. We’re testing a mock up of it currently at home but struggling occasionally with the re-docking as the station is extremely light and the Roomba tends to push it into positions that prevent docking. So there’s something to consider if you’re thinking about buying a robot vacuum. There are others …

I love the idea of robot vacuums in theory. Your floors are cleaned regularly by a robotic assistant so that when you wake up or get home from work you have one less thing to do. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t always translate well in practice.

A robot vacuum is exactly what it sounds like: a small, autonomous cleaning device that deploys itself automatically to clean up after you. Once you’ve made the initial investment, they’re cheap to run but require attention from you in the form of emptying them as you would a standard vacuum.

By far the biggest draw of a robotic vacuum cleaner is that they clean your floors so you don’t have to. Most allow you to program or manually deploy them, often using a smartphone app or web interface. They operate on a set-and-forget basis, and if you work out of the house in the day you might never cross paths with one in your hallway. We have ours set up so it operates when Debbie and I are both out of the house so it doesn’t interfere with our daily activities or bother us sleeping. We make frequent enough trips to the gym together that our floors get vacuumed plenty.

Not only do they clean your house automatically, but they also return to their charging docks at the end of a cycle so that they’re ready to go next time. You can’t forget to charge a robot vacuum, and most will even notify you when it’s time to empty the dust compartment. I also occasionally check the rollers, brushers and filters to make sure they’re clear but also for replacement as needed.

Since they’re a lot smaller than a traditional vacuum, they’re a lot quieter too. They use additional tricks like small brushes that sweep debris towards the main intake and some can even detect the type of surface they are cleaning and adjust as necessary.

By far the biggest question to ask yourself before you invest in a robot vacuum is my house and lifestyle compatible?

Home layout is a huge consideration. Not everyone lives in a modern apartment with level carpets and walls at right angles. Some people live in older houses, while others have quirky layouts that may pose a problem.

If your house has a combination of carpet, tiles and wooden floors you likely have transitions between surfaces. These can be bumpy and uneven, and your vacuum might not be able to navigate them. You may live in a split-level house with steps leading from one living area to another, for which there is currently no solution in the robot vacuum world. Manufacturers reportedly working on the problem, however.

But layout is only one part of the puzzle. Most of us have a small jungle of interestingly-shaped furniture and objects in our homes like shoes in the hallway or clothes on the bedroom floor.

If you have children or pets, you’re probably used to toys cluttering up the floor. Our grandkids are great at accomplishing this but also pretty good at cleaning up after themselves (when asked). These items can become substantial obstacles for most robot vacuum cleaners and may cause them to avoid large areas entirely. Smaller toys can become land mines that get gobbled up and choke the vacuum (like a traditional unit). It’s not always possible to clear the way before your robot does its thing.

This isn’t an issue when doing a weekly clean or spot-fixing problem areas. But the whole point of a robot vacuum is convenience, so you might want to consider how much you’ll need to nanny your autonomous assistant for it to work as advertised.

Robot vacuums were never designed to be the only vacuum you own but rather to help keep the place a bit tidier. In light of this, you might find that your money is better spent on a do-it-all device instead.

Take a second to think about all the other things you might use a vacuum cleaner for aside from cleaning your floors …

  • Dusting out of reach places
  • Cleaning your car
  • Freshening up cupboards and shelves
  • Getting in between and under the cushions on your sofa
  • Vacuum sealing bedding, clothing, etc. and other fabric

You might also want to consider the things they don’t do so well. Some have trouble with darker floors and mistakenly believe they’re about to drive off a step. While most will handle pet hair to some degree, they often pale in comparison to a standard vacuum designed specifically with pet hair in mind.

The best robot vacuums will still cost you plenty too, and for good reason. These are the best on the market, with fancy features like smart home integration, long battery life and self-cleaning or emptying mechanisms.

For example the iRobot Roomba s9+ still costs in excess of $1000. iRobot claims it’s their smartest and most powerful model, but it’s still limited in terms of what can be achieved. It can’t navigate steps or move your kids’ toys, though its performance is among the best in class.

Cheaper models are much more popular, but like any cheaper version of a high-tech product, they come with their own set of drawbacks. At the other end of the spectrum to the Roomba s9+ is the Lefant M201 at less than $150. In this price range, the internal components are going to be much less reliable and prone to breaking and many reviews (even the positive ones) complain about poor software and build quality.

Budget robot vacuums often lack the more intelligent features that make them attractive in the first place. You should expect to get what you pay for but even the best may fall short of expectations.

And I’m sure you’ve seen the news stories where pet owners come home to a nasty surprise. Dogs and cats have accidents, it’s a part of having pets. The vast majority of robot vacuums in homes around the world do not use AI to avoid the presents that your dog or cat may leave around the house from time to time. The problem has become so prevalent that iRobot now uses AI to avoid what most of us would consider a nightmare situation. This problem will probably go away as more vacuums are able to identify undesirable matter but for now, it’s something to keep in mind if you have free-roaming pets at home.

Despite the horrific scenario above, in many situations, a robot vacuum is going to save you hours every month. They’re especially ideal in places where you might not want to carry a heavy vacuum, like open floor plans, basements or home gyms.

Robot vacuum’s are just not ideal for everyone, and if your life isn’t robot vacuum-ready then your money may be better spent elsewhere (for now). If you’re thinking about it for yourself or as a Holiday gift, you might want to check out my previous posts Alexa and Robot Vacuum Cleaners or Was Santa Good to you and your Smart Home? to get some quick background on some potential options.

What are your thoughts on robot vacuums? If you have one let me know which model and how you like it. Is this a solution you’d consider? Is the ROI there enough on robot vacuums to make them worth the price? Please leave us your comments, DMs and emails as usual as we love hearing from you.

Debbie and I have been doing some home planning over this Thanksgiving weekend but getting the opportunity to spend time with family. So I’m going to close it down for now in favor of that as the weekend winds down. Until next week …

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Seasoned professional sports information technology executive with a passion for out of the box solutions to complex challenges.