Shopping for your first robot vacuum? Trust me, it’s worth every penny, but you should know what to expect first.
Don’t get me wrong: Robot vacuums have become so advanced over the past few years that the priciest models will make quick work of your floors with a minimum of fuss on your part—and if you spring for a model with a self-emptying bin, you won’t have to deal with any dust and debris for weeks at a time.
Even better, more and more robot vacs come with laser-guided navigation systems that let them find their way around your home, while others can dodge obstacles and even pet poop.
That’s the good news; the bad news is that even the most advanced and expensive robot vacuums still need frequent maintenance, and the more affordable the bot, the more hands-on you’ll need to be. Also, even floor-mapping robot vacuums take time to learn the lay of the land, and getting stuck is an issue for practically any robovac.
Finally, the sticker price on your new vac is just the beginning when it comes to costs, as you’ll need to shell out for replacement brushes, filters, debris bags, and other parts.
So yes, if you’re circling your first robot vacuum, I say go for it—but here are a few things to keep in mind about robot vacuums before you click the “buy” button.
Robot vacuums are rightly famous for their ability to find their way around your home, avoiding obstacles such as furniture, loose shoes, and the like. But even with their optical sensors and ability (in pricier models) to map your home’s floor plan, even the best robot vacuums can find their way into situations they can’t get out of.
If you purchase a budget-priced “bump-and-run” robot vacuum, be sure to follow your robotic buddy during its first few forays around your house. That way, you’ll be able to identify trouble spots and do something about them. My very first Roomba, for example, repeatedly got stuck when it rolled on top of a rubber doorstop and couldn’t roll back off. My solution: Pick up the doorstop.
I also noticed that the Roomba would stop dead in its tracks when it approached the stairway to our basement and detected the sudden drop. After some deliberation, I decided to block the doorway to the stairwell (which lacks an actual door) with a nearby bench.
Of course, you can also pay up for pricier robot vacuums that can map your rooms and avoid obstacles (more on the latter in a moment). But even these floor-mapping bots can require some initial hand-holding, particularly if the bot’s first stab at rendering a map looks more like a Picasso than a floor plan. It may take a few tries (and some frustration on your part) before your robovac’s map bears any resemblance to reality.
Finally, even with the robot vacuum’s pathway prepped and/or its map accurately rendered, it will still get stuck every now and then. One time, my top-of-the-line Roomba j7+ got stuck under a sofa while my family and I were on a 10-day vacation (I’d programmed it to clean while we were away), and it remained jammed in place for roughly a week until we got back.
Can robot vacuums dodge obstacles on the floor?
Depending on the model you buy, yes—or at least, they’re supposed to. Again, however, even the latest robot vacuums with the best obstacle-avoidance systems can get into trouble.
On my first day with my new Roomba (a cheaper bump-and-run model, mind you), I let it run wild through my apartment, and one of the first things it did was roll under our bed and gobble up some extension cords. Once I yanked the cables out of the Roomba (no permanent damage was done) and set it back on its way, the robot made a beeline for our closet and began snacking on shoelaces. And when I took the Roomba downstairs, it found its way to the entertainment room and had its way with my speaker cables. Not good.
Again, there are plenty of no-cost solutions that could work, such as picking any loose cables off the floor before starting a cleaning cycle, or closing closet doors to keep shoes hidden.
If your budget allows, you could also instruct a (pricey) robot vacuum with obstacle-avoidance technology—and for the most part, they work surprisingly well, pausing just shy of shoes, toys, and other household items before prudently scooting away. That said, I’ve seen a pricey obstacle-avoiding Roomba eat the cinch string on a sleeping bag that was sitting by the floor, as well as have a go at the power cord on a standing lamp.
Do robot vacuums empty themselves?
Unless you pay up for a robot vacuum with a self-emptying bin—and they’re not cheap—you will need to empty your bot on a regular basis. How often you’ll need to empty your robot vacuum’s bin depends on a variety of factors, including the frequency of your cleanings, whether you have pets, the number of family members with long hair, and so on.
If you can afford a robot vacuum with a self-emptying bin, you’ll love it. The vacs come with jumbo-sized charging stations that automatically suck the dirt and debris out of the robot’s dustbin, depositing it into a (typically) football-sized bag that sits inside the base. Generally speaking, you’ll only need to replace the bag every few weeks or so.
Even if you don’t have a robot vacuum with a self-emptying bin, you may find that disposing of the dust and dirt to be a curiously satisfying experience. In my household, emptying the Roomba has become something of a family event, where we marvel at how much debris the Roomba managed to sweep up.
Do you have to clean the brushes on your robot vacuum?
Just as the dust bins on a robot vacuum need to be emptied regularly, so do their brushes need to be cleaned. My Roomba (via the iRobot mobile app) bugs me every several cleanings or so to remove its roller and clean out the debris and hair that gets wrapped around its bristles.
The procedure only takes a few minutes (the brushes on my particular vacuum are a snap to remove and replace), so it’s not a huge deal, but it’s a chore you don’t want to skip; if too much hair builds up in your robot, it could be permanently damaged. Some robot vacuums have rubber roller brushes, which are much easier to clean rollers with short bristle brushes.
If you’re picturing having your new robot vacuum clean your floors while you’re asleep, think again.
Even the quietest models tend to make a racket when they’re zipping around your house, banging into your walls and furniture as they go.
The noise of my Roomba doesn’t bother me while I’m working (although it loves to nuzzle my feet if I’m sitting at our dining room table) or doing household chores, but it’s bothersome when I’m trying to watch a movie, and I certainly wouldn’t want it running while I’m trying to sleep.
Where does a robot vacuum’s home base need to go?
While it’s tempting to tuck your robot vacuum’s charging station in a corner, you’re going to need to put it somewhere a bit more conspicuous. The base station for my Roomba, for example, needs to sit against a flat wall, with about 1.5 feet of free space on either side and four feet of clearance in front.
The placement requirements for different makes and models will vary, of course; but generally speaking, you’ll need to place the base station somewhat in the open. Tuck the base out of the way and your robot might have trouble finding it so it can dock and recharge its battery. Also, don’t forget that the charging station needs to be reasonably close to a power outlet.
Do you have to buy replacement parts?
Yes, prepare to pay extra to maintain your robot vacuum, and that includes purchasing spare parts.
In some cases, we’re talking consumables, such as dustbin filters and (in the case of self-emptying vacuums) debris bags. But you’ll also have to replace your bot’s brushes every so often, including the main roller brush (or brushes) and the spindly edge-sweeping brushes.
First-party replacement parts for robot vacuums can be expensive; for example, a Roomba replacement kit with three filters, three edge-sweeping brushes, and two roller brushes for higher-end Roomba models costs a cool $62, and you’ll need a couple of those kits a year to keep your Roomba properly maintained.
Another option is to shop for replacement parts from third-party manufacturers, but buyer beware; there’s no shortage of complaints in the Amazon user comments about cheap replacement brushes and filters that turned out to be garbage.