Nobody enjoys doing household chores, which is why there’s been a proliferation of smart home devices that make it possible to avoid doing them completely. You can now even get “smart valves”, which automatically water your plants.
It doesn’t stop there. Vacuuming, for example, is a job increasingly being borne by robotic vacuum cleaners. These traverse your home by their own accord, sucking up all the dust and debris in their path. You’re probably familiar with (and have lusted over) the iconic iRobot Roomba, which has been on the market for almost 15 years now.
The appeal of these devices is undeniable. But they’re not for everyone. You should think long and hard before buying one. Here’s why.
House Owners Beware: They Don’t Do Stairs
Yep. 15 years of development, and they can’t climb stairs. That’s not for lack of trying; getting robots to climb stairs is a pretty big challenge, and save for a couple of pre-production prototypes, nobody has been able to pull it off without making serious compromises with maneuverability and form-factor.
This means that unless you own an apartment, you’re going to have a vacuum cleaner on hand for the stairs which, it could be argued, fundamentally defeats the purpose of owning a robotic vacuum cleaner.
As a side note, it’s worth adding that while no Roombas have the ability to climb stairs, many of the newer models ship with sensors that allow them to clean the upper flights of houses without cascading down a flight of stairs.
This is probably for the best, especially when you consider that the cheapest ones cost around $300.
Robotic Vacuum Cleaners Have Less Suction
If you read a review of a Roomba in the technology press or an Amazon comments section, you’ll see one common complaint – robotic vacuum cleaners aren’t terribly powerful at sucking up dirt. This is a no-brainer. They’re much smaller than normal vacuum cleaners, and rather than depending on a mains power source, they have to use (and conserve) a battery pack.
Advocates of robotic vacuum cleaners argue that this isn’t a problem, since robotic vacuum cleaners are designed to run more frequently than you would ordinarily vacuum a home. While you might drag out your Dyson every three days or so, you could potentially schedule your Roomba to run multiple times a day.
But I’m not terribly convinced by this. I own both a dog, and a top-of-the-line Dyson DC40 vacuum cleaner, which cost £200 (around $400 in the US) brand new. When my dog sheds fur, my vacuum struggles to capture every last strand. I have to go over the same spot again and again with a measure of forcefulness. I struggle to see how a much weaker robotic vacuum cleaner would cope.
Robotic Vacuum Cleaners Struggle With Clutter
Let’s clear up one myth about robotic vacuums. They only suck up dust and debris. They won’t pick up your dirty laundry, or move that stack of books on your floor. For them to be truly effective, you need to proactively ensure that your floor is clear.
While this won’t be a barrier for some people, it certainly will for some college students I know.
Robot Vacuum Cleaners Require Maintenance
Robot vacuum cleaners aren’t totally hands-off. You still need to perform regular maintenance in order to keep them working properly and to prevent them from breaking.
Take the Roomba, for example. In a 2013 article, CNET recommended users remove and clean the brushes and the bearings once a week, and to remove the chassis and remove any internal debris once a month. That’s a lot of work.
I imagine it could be quite scary too, especially if the user isn’t mechanically inclined. It goes without saying that the average vacuum cleaner doesn’t require the same level of maintenance.
Robot Vacuums Are Expensive
Finally, let’s cut to the chase. Robotic vacuum cleaners are still extremely expensive, and are out of the price range for many people. This is strange, given that they are a mature technology that has existed on the market for over 15 years. Doubly so when you consider that there are a plethora of Shenzhen-made knockoffs that have flooded eBay, the Amazon marketplaces, and Ali Express.
At the top of the market is the iRobot Roomba 980, which costs just shy of $900. In terms of cleaning performance, this generally matches other Roombas, but this has increased mobile connectivity, and drastically improved navigation.
The cheapest Roomba you’ll get is the 620, which costs around $300. This offers essentially the same functionality, but with some minor omissions. There’s no scheduling function, for example, and it won’t tell you when the dust bin is full and requires emptying. You have to check manually.
British household name Dyson has also entered the robotic vacuum cleaner fray with the Dyson 360 Eye. Their offering is a high-end affair, and costs more than $1,200. It also seemingly has solved the performance issues inherent with many rival robotic vacuums, but at a cost of size. It’s so big and heavy, it has to propel itself through tank tracks. This significantly enlarged size means that it struggles to get underneath furniture.
When you scrape the bottom of the barrel, you come across things like $23 O-Cedar O-Duster Robotic Floor Cleaner. This is basically a lint cloth attached to a motor and a collision detector. Avoid these like the plague.
Robot Vacuums Don’t Necessarily Have To Suck
If this sounds like I’m overtly negative about robotic vacuums, think again. For some people, they represent a worthwhile purchase. These people probably have deep pockets, and live in apartments. They probably aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, and replacing the occasional brush or ball-bearing.
But if you live in a house, and if you’re content with your current vacuum, you might want to think twice before you get a robot vacuum cleaner. Their value proposition just isn’t all that strong.
Do you own a robotic vacuum cleaner? Love it? Hate it? Tell me in the comments below.