Believe it or not, price isn’t everything when it comes to robotic vacuums - nor is the brand name attached to it. But, even if you don’t need to spend a fortune on your new cleaning appliance, you should know what you need or you may as well be throwing that money away.
Why do you want a robotic vacuum? Do they really work?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that your old-fashioned upright vacuum cleaner does a better job than a robotic vacuum. Not only are you there to spot check the area, you can bet that the tiny motor and small dust collector that even the best robotic vacuums have just don’t have the cleaning power of their more experienced cousins - unless you’re really ready to splash out on the highest-end models.
These robots are really good at maintaining the cleanliness of your home in-between deeper cleans that you handle with a vacuum in hand; they’re not necessarily a replacement for your old cleaning appliances (especially, if you have carpeted stairs).
Do they work? Absolutely. Do they work as well? Not so much. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one; it doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of one.
Robotic vacuums are particularly useful for pet owners, busy families, and for anyone that would rather lose their teeth than clean up the house.
What are the downsides?
Stairs. No really. If you have stairs, you have limitations. Most robotic vacuums can’t even cope with slopes over 15 degrees, let alone stairs. If you have two (or more) floors in your home, you either need to carry your vacuum up and down your stairs - or you need to invest in two (or more) robots. Of course, you can always use one on the ground floor and store and use your upright vacuum upstairs.
Robotic vacuums just can’t cope with certain floors. As you would imagine, shag carpets are going to be a challenge for these devices. But, perhaps a little surprisingly, they get a little tripped up with dark surfaces as well. If you have black-stained wooden floors, your robotic vacuum will stand at the edge, freaking out, as if it was a cliff (and, yet, it will tumble down stairs before you can catch it).
Wires on the floor - and anything else a regular vacuum could chew - is an easy target for a robotic vacuum. It’s almost as if your new machine will seek to destroy wires behind your television, even when the path your robot takes to get there makes zero sense. (And if erratic movements drive you insane, you need to splurge on a robotic vacuum that maps your home rather than going anywhere it pleases.)
And yes, the dust collection bin is tiny (no matter how large of a machine you buy), so you will need to take time to empty it frequently. Though, you will have saved all that vacuuming time, so you should be able to make that work.
How much space needs cleaning? Do you need a large capacity vacuum?
The most important step in determining which robotic vacuum is right for you is considering the size of the space you need to clean. And, bigger isn’t necessarily better; the larger the appliance, the more likely it is to get itself stuck under furniture. The more you need to ferret out your robot, the less utility it has.
But, keep in mind, that even though you don’t want a super large robot (the kind that gets stuck), you also don’t want a small one because you’ll need to empty the dust collection bin seemingly constantly.
That said, it’s really the floor space that matters. You can’t get a tiny robotic vacuum and expect it to clean 2,000 square feet. Luckily, most manufacturers provide a solid expectation of the floor space their machines can cover, so as long as you know how much floor you have to clean, the easier it is to start narrowing realistic choices.
What type of floors do you have?
Some robotic vacuums are better at carpeted floors, some are better at cleaning hard surfaces. If you have only one or the other, you can cut a chunk of options out of your search almost instantly. But, many American homes have a combination of floors; if you’re one of them, you’ll need to think about your priorities. In most cases, you’ll consider the robotic vacuums that fare better with the surface you have the most of.
But, you will need to keep in mind that some cheaper robotic vacuums struggle to get over those tiny little bumps that separate carpets and hard floors. You should plan to splash out on a better model if you expect your robot to cross surfaces frequently in the course of a clean.
If you only have hard floors, you can get away with a robotic duster - which aren’t vacuums per se, but will take care of minimal amounts of dirt and dust at a low cost. They’re not super efficient, but they should get the job done if you live in a relatively small apartment. But, you can also choose a robotic mop which does the sweeping and cleaning all at once. But, if a vacuum is the way forward, stay right where you are.
And, if you have exceptionally plush carpets (lucky you), your options are a little more limited as most models are designed for shorter piles. Suction power is measured in watts (between 15 and 30) and you’ll need to look for something with a higher wattage if you have gorgeous, thickly piled carpet. As previously mentioned, if you have shag carpeting, move along altogether.
What do you need to know about standard features like batteries, brushes, and sensors?
Assuming that you’ve chosen to go the robotic vacuum route, and you know your floor types and space, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the features that matter the most.
- Battery life - The majority of robotic vacuums have an average 1.5 hours of run time before they need charging. The range is somewhere between 1 to 2 hours. Obviously, the cheaper models are more likely to have less run time. But, this may or may not make a difference in your home. What’s more important for most users is the homing feature that’s activated when the battery starts to run low. There are some low-end models that you need to manually plug in to the charging station, though these somewhat defeat the purpose of having a robot to do the job for you. If you have a large space to cover, with lots of rooms, you will, however, want to look for the longest possible battery life you can afford so that your appliance can find its way home in the time between the low battery signal and actually running out of juice.
- Sensors and mapping technology - Robots that only need to tackle a single large space have it easy. They can roam around in whatever nonsensical pattern they deem fit. But, as soon as you start adding doorways and hallways into the mix, it’s time to start looking into the sensor technology that’s in play. Basic models will simply change direction when they bump into an object or get too close to the stairs, but they won’t actually map the space. If you’re expecting your robot to cover multiple rooms, you need a little more of a plan - and that means forking out a little extra for the software and the sensors to make that happen.
- Brushes - When you really get into the specifics of brushes, you’ll quickly realize that there isn’t an industry norm. Every manufacturer has gone their own way in this category. That said, you should expect a brush bar with beaters to sweep dust and dirt into the suction section. Newer models have full-width turbo brush bars. And, even though you’ll want to laugh at the little sweeper brushes that flair out from sides, these are actually great at pulling in dirt from the sides.
- Remotes, apps, or manual settings - There are three different ways to get your robotic vacuum going. The most basic models require you to manually push a button on the machine (and/or program it to start at a certain time on the robot’s interface), while remote controls are a step up. What we really love about remote controls is that they allow you to set the cleaning mode and sometimes steer the robot into the right place from the comfort of a seat nearby. And then there are app-controlled vacuums. Needless to say, these models tend to do more and have more settings, which drives the price up, but allows you to get your vacuum going while you’re away. You’ll find variations in price within each control system (which is one way to narrow in on your final choices), but you won’t be able to discern cleaning ability according to the type of controls; it’s really a matter of preference.
- Cleaning modes - In the most basic models, you’ll usually find two cleaning modes. One is the standard clean until you’ve exhausted your battery or your dust canister is full. The other is a spot clean which is a really short cycle that involves just moving within a small radius to clean areas that visibly need a vacuum. There are a few models with deep or power clean functions that work as a combination of spot cleans and regular cleans. And, we’re hoping to see more programming functionality in room cleaning modes as the technology and apps for robotic vacuums develops.
Do you have pets?
If you have furry pets that live in the house with you, it’s almost critical to invest in a robotic vacuum designed to remove pet hair. What’s the difference? Generally speaking, it’s in the strength and design of the brushes, though sometimes there are different suction areas as well.
You may not think of this as a big deal; any old vacuum will do, right?
Erm, no. Short hairs become tangled in carpeting and usually need more assistance to come out than specs of dust and dirt. A little more brushing is required to release hairs effectively. And, yes, you want the suction that can pull up all the little critters that live on the pet hair too. (We’re not kidding.)
As a bonus, many of the pet models also have built-in HEPA filters to avoid kicking allergens into the air, though these do need to be replaced annually.
One thing you do need to be vigilant with when you have both a pet and a robot vacuum is the maintenance of the latter. Pet hair can clog the brushes, dust receptacles, and filters - and you’ll soon find that a weekly clean of your cleaner will keep it in good condition for a longer time.
What programming features make a real difference?
Obviously, the features that matter most to you relate to your home, your family, your schedule, your pets, and your cleaning needs. But, there are a few features that are worth paying for if you can fit them into your budget.
The first feature you should definitely consider is a robot’s ability to realize it is running out of power combined with homing so it gets back to base without losing itself under some piece of furniture. You’ll spend a lot of time looking for your robot if you don’t have this feature.
Secondly, programming makes all the difference. Although you’ll watch your vacuum for the first few hours (no really, everyone does this), you’ll soon lose interest and you’ll want to set it and leave it, only remembering to empty the dust reservoir when it works for you.
Above and beyond are WiFi and app integrations, especially if you already have or are moving towards a Smart home. If you’re running everything from your phone or a hub of sorts, it’s a real pain to break for a little robot vacuum action.
But, perhaps the coolest feature - and one that’s useful for nearly everyone - is a machines ability to set do not enter barriers. These absolutely cost more - even for models that rely on a physical barrier strip - but they’re very worth it. Though the invisible barrier signals are obviously more useful and aesthetic, both types are perfect for ensuring shoelaces and charging cables aren’t chewed - and that pet water bowls don’t splash everywhere.
As for better mapping, well that’s really a nice to have - if you can afford it. Remember, you’re still going to need to vacuum your house every now and again; a robot vacuum is just there to save you from doing it constantly.
How much is too much to spend?
It’s really a matter of what’s in your budget. You should expect to pay at least $200, though $300 is more realistic for a set minimum of features. There are a few models that range into the thousands, but unless you have some very specific needs that only these robotic vacuums can address, you probably can set a cap around $600 to $700.
How much maintenance does a robotic vacuum need?
Every appliance needs some maintenance sometimes. At the beginning, especially if you’ve waited to vacuum until your new buddy has arrived, you will need to empty the dust receptacle every day. Once you’ve had your machine moving around more frequently, you’ll be able to see whether you can go every three days (most pet owners need to empty quite frequently) or every ten days.
Apart from that, you will need to clean brushes and filters occasionally, but it depends on how much work you put your vacuum through. If you have pets and run your robot twice a day, you’ll need to do this more often than small families in small spaces and no pets. The closer your vacuum model matches your actual needs, the less maintenance on your part.
The rechargeable battery will eventually run out, but as long as you’ve taken good care of your robot, you can expect that to happen long after you feel it’s time for an upgrade.
What do you need to know before setting your new gadget to work?
Read the instruction manual before putting your new robot to work. It’s not because you can’t figure out how to push a button or two; it’s because you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize your warranty or ability to return it if it’s not right for you. At the very least, skim the guide for anything that says you’ll invalidate your warranty by doing something specific.
Other than that, the only thing you need to know is that you will, like everyone else, spend a whack of time just watching your robot run when you first get it going.