Cleaning Robots

October 22nd, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

I got an iRobot Roomba today (model 550), partly out of curiosity to see what they’re like and partly because if it works, it will fill a practical need. I haven’t had it more than a few hours, but I thought I’d share my initial observations in case you’re curious about these cleaning robots.

The Roomba vacuumed my floors for at least an hour today and did a decent job as far as I could tell. It moves around in a very non-human pattern, but it’s supposed to cover the floors thoroughly.

When the battery is low or it’s done cleaning, it automatically returns to its home base and recharges itself. That part worked as expected. It docked with the home base and played a sound effect to let me know it was recharging itself.

I’ve heard that older models were a bit noisy, but this particular model is pretty quiet, much quieter than a normal vacuum. You could easily have a conversation with someone in a normal voice — or talk on the phone — while the Roomba is doing its job in the same room. It’s a bit louder on tile floors vs. carpet, but even at its loudest, I don’t find it bothersome.

This model also has a rotating side brush to clean along walls and in corners. It’s neat watching it trace along walls. It doesn’t move in a perfectly straight line; it constantly adjusts its trajectory to stay close to the wall without bumping it.

It includes a couple of virtual walls, which are little black boxes that project a 7-foot “do not cross” line (actually a narrow cone) in front of them. This way you can block off an area like your home office while you’re working in it. Each box takes 2 C batteries (included) and is supposed to last for about 6 months if you keep them turned on all the time. I used these to keep the Roomba confined to a certain area of the house, and it vacuumed right up to these virtual walls but didn’t cross them, so that worked just as it was supposed to.

I like that it even cleans under my dining room chairs, moving carefully between the legs.

The Roomba automatically senses what kind of surface it’s on and adjusts accordingly. My house has both tile and carpet, and the Roomba handled both without any trouble. It can sweep other surfaces like hardwood floors too.

Instead of violently crashing into walls and obstacles, it has sensors that allow it to slow down when it’s about an inch away, so it only taps things lightly. When it isn’t near an obstacle, it speeds along the floor at reasonable pacing. It also has sensors to keep it from falling down stairs.

You can also program it to vacuum on a schedule by setting the days of the week and the times you want it to vacuum. My house is pretty big, so I estimate it would take about 4-5 charges for it to do the whole house. I guess I’ll rotate its location, so it can vacuum the whole house over the course of a week. I can have it do some rooms while I’m sleeping and other rooms while I’m working.

As for the negatives, one issue I’ve seen so far is that it went into a room where the door was halfway open, and as it cleaned behind the door, it was gradually closing the door on itself and would have trapped itself in the room had I not intervened. It’s easy enough to avoid this minor problem though.

Another issue is that my upstairs has some tiered areas with a couple steps here and there, so I’d have to set the Roomba to clean one tier at a time since it can’t go up and down steps. And of course it can’t clean the staircase. I guess you could have it clean a landing area though.

The Roomba doesn’t use vacuum bags. It has a little bin that you empty after each use. When I emptied the bin the first time, it had enough dirt and hair in it to convince me that it will keep my house cleaner if it continues to do its job consistently and tirelessly.

It also has some modular parts like brushes and a filter that you need to clean after every few uses and replace as they wear out. The model I have includes 2 replacement brushes and 2 filters.

A person could vacuum the floors much faster than this little robot could, but since it runs independently, it seems like a nice time saver. You could have it clean your floors every day if you so desire, so your house stays a little cleaner than usual.

Some of the most positive reviews of the Roomba come from pet owners. They love that the Roomba helps clean up the dog and cat hair. It won’t clean your sofa, but as least it will get the hair off the floors.

I haven’t had the Roomba very long, but it seems promising so far. There are tons of online reviews posted about it, so you should have no trouble finding opinions from long-term users. I’m mainly sharing this post this to raise your awareness of the potential for cleaning robots. It seems like a cool technology to keep an eye on as it continues to evolve. When I first put it to work, I felt like George Jetson for a moment. :)

If this iRobot works out, I might get a Scooba as well. The Scooba is designed to scrub floors with a cleaning solution. I think it also works with water and vinegar. Since my downstairs has lots of light-colored tile, it shows dirt very easily, especially in the kitchen. It would be great to have a robot wash those floors every few days, even if it can’t scrub that hard.

I hope to see further development of these cleaning robots. It will be cool to have a general purpose household cleaning robot like Rosie from the Jetsons, although perhaps without the sarcasm.


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