Updated February 2011

Robotic vacuums: Not yet ideal

Robotic vacuum cleaners are relatively flat, round or squared gadgets that run on rechargeable batteries, navigating their way around a living space to suck up dirt and debris. Robotic vacuums don't eliminate the need for regular vacuuming, but they can lengthen the time between using a regular upright or canister vacuum. Consumers who own robotic vacuums say they're convenient for regular upkeep, and some models offer advanced features such as scheduling vacuuming for a set time each day or automatic self-charging.

On the downside, robotic vacuum cleaners are expensive, and they aren't maintenance-free. Depending on your home's layout, you'll need to spend time setting up barriers (generally magnetic or infrared) that keep your robotic vacuum from venturing into areas where you don't want it to go. Because these are small vacuums, their dirt cups don't hold much debris, so count on emptying them after each use.

Overall, robotic vacuums work best for large, open spaces. While most robovacs have bumpers and other features that help them navigate around furniture, consumers report that they still have a tendency to get themselves trapped under tables or in cables. Some owners say they prepare a room in advance by clearing clutter away and removing larger pieces of debris, but this adds to the overall time commitment for using a robotic vacuum.

  • Robot vacuums won't replace regular vacuuming. Don't throw your upright or canister vacuum away just yet -- you'll still need to conduct regular vacuuming, but you can do so less often with the use of a robotic vacuum. 
  • Under-furniture cleaning can be an issue. Reviewers say robotic vacuum cleaners are great for cleaning areas tough to access with a regular vacuum cleaner, such as under furniture. But some robotic vacuums are taller than others, so you'll want to measure the space beneath your furniture to be sure the model you're considering will fit.
  • Scheduling features vary. Some more expensive robotic vacuums can be scheduled in advance, so you can set your vacuum up to clean each morning when you leave for work, for example. But you'll pay more for this convenience.
  • Some offer automatic recharging. Again, this convenience feature comes at an added cost. If you plan to use your robot vacuum when you're not at home, consider buying a model that returns to its docking station and recharges when it detects the battery is low.
  • Robotic vacuums require regular maintenance. Consumers say they have to prepare a room for cleaning with a robotic vacuum cleaner by removing obstacles and picking up larger particles. These units must also be cleaned after each use (both the dust bin and the brush component).
  • Consider the cost of replacement parts. Reviewers say that warranties typically don't cover replacement parts for standard wear and tear, such as rechargeable batteries that wear out over time, and that these items are costly.
  • Robotic vacuum cleaners can be noisy. Owners report some models are so noisy that it's not possible to watch television or hold a conversation while they're running.

One of the main hassles of using a robotic vacuum is setup; most models require you to place virtual walls around your home to prevent the vacuum from wandering into the bathroom or down the stairs. The most visible manufacturer, iRobot (which makes Roomba vacs) uses small infrared-equipped plastic towers to create virtual walls. The towers can also double as lighthouses, signaling the Roomba vacuum to enter and clean another room when finished in its current location. Roombas are equipped with bumper bars that detect obstacles with a light touch and send the Roomba off in another direction. Roombas navigate in a random pattern around a room, crossing over most areas an average of three to four times during a cycle.

A nice feature of some robotic vacuums is the ability to schedule vacuuming in advance -- at a certain time each day, for example -- but models with this advanced feature are considerably more expensive. The iRobot Roomba 610 (*Est. $600) is the professional model in the Roomba series, allowing owners to schedule cleanings at preset times up to once per day, seven days a week, but reviews on this model are mixed. In a review for Gizmodo.com, Andi Wang says the Roomba 610 isn't ideal for apartments or smaller rooms because it has a difficult time navigating around obstacles. She notes that even when placed directly beside its own docking station, it successfully docked itself only two out of five times. The Roomba 610 is also larger in size than its counterparts, so it won't fit under the edges of some counters or couches. About 25 owners contribute to an average rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon.com; the biggest complaint is that pet fur, carpet fringe and similar items easily become tangled in the brushes. Consumers say it's a huge ordeal to remove all the parts needed to adequately remedy such a problem.

We found frequent complaints from consumers posting to Amazon.com, Epinions.com and Viewpoints.com regarding the tendency for pet hair to become tangled in a robot vacuum's brushes and how difficult it is to clean them. IRobot aims to remedy this problem with the Roomba 562 Pet Series robotic vacuum (*Est. $370), which maintains an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5, based on more than 30 owner-written reviews on Amazon.com. The differentiating features of the Roomba 562 are the included, interchangeable brushes, high-capacity sweeper bin for containing larger amounts of pet hair, and included brush-cleaning tools to make removing the tangled pet hair easier. Owners say that while the 562 does a good job of vacuuming large amounts of pet hair, it's still a pain to clean the brushes and necessary to do so after every cleaning cycle, sometimes more often.

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