In the past few years, no other gadget—headphones, electric bicycle, literally anything at all—has improved as dramatically as the humble robot vacuum. The hardware and software have improved beyond all imagining (hello, self-emptying bins!), and prices have dropped significantly, to the point where robot vacuums are now an accessible, convenient household tool instead of a statement of bougie affluence or a potential cat car.
We've rounded our top picks in our Best Robot Vacuums guide. But even if the tech has dramatically improved, it doesn’t mean they’re always easy to use at first. If you're worried you're at risk of becoming the next Roomba “pooptastrophe,” read on. Here are a few tips that can help you get the most out of your new sidekick.
1. Decide Which Vacuum You Want
The hardest part of writing a robot vacuum roundup is deciding which vacuum is the best one. All of us have different houses, lifestyles, and desires. For example, a couple in a one-story, 2-bedroom apartment without kids would probably be fine with a much more barebones model than a family of five, complete with pets and Legos.
I recommend the Roborock S4 Max as the vacuum that's most likely to please the most people. But with multiple kids and a dog, I much prefer the Roomba i3+ over having to skip up every 10 minutes or so to empty a bin by hand. I know another parent who prefers a simple bounce robot because she only runs the vacuum for 20 minutes after dinner in the kitchen. The robot your friend likes might not always be the one that's best suited for you.
2. Do a Trial Run
It’s tempting, but you can’t open the box, start your new robot vacuum, walk away for three hours, and expect to come home to a clean house. It takes time for both you and the robot vacuum to learn what the potential booby traps in your house will be for the roving machine. I always stay home for the first run (or three) to make sure it can complete a cleaning run without a hitch.
It also helps to give your house a once-over before you start any cleaning. Dangling shoelaces, dog toys, fringed toddler skirts, and ribbons tend to trip up the smartest robot vacuum. In my testing, I’ve found iRobot’s most advanced series, like the Roomba S9+, does the best job of skirting potential traps. Vacuums like the Roborock S6 MaxV can also identify obstacles if you live in a house with pets or kids that are constantly leaving, er, surprises all over the floor. The more you and your personal robot vacuum get to know each other, the better.
3. Turn On the Lights
Robot vacuums use a number of different sensors to navigate around your home. For example, some of the more advanced models use lidar, or self-generated lasers, to navigate; others use stereoscopic cameras. These sensors usually work in conjunction with bumper sensors to tell them when they've run into something and infrared cliff sensors that let them know when they're about to fall off a step.
If you've determined your robot vacuum doesn't use self-generated light to navigate, it probably uses optical sensors to find its way around. Unfortunately, optical sensors require ambient light to operate. If you find that your vacuum is getting stuck a lot, don't schedule your cleanings at night. Try 9 am, just after you leave for work (unless you're working from home). If you have a dog, cleaning right after you leave will also give your pup less time to have an accident on the floor. If you're still having navigational issues, try wiping off the optical sensors with a soft cloth.
4. Empty the Bin
A few people have complained that instead of cleaning, their robot vacuum drags dirt around their house. Unfortunately, a robot vacuum’s dust bin is pretty small. Most robot vacuums have a bin size of around 0.6 liters. The dust bin on my Dyson ball vacuum is twice that, and I still need to empty it from room to room.
If you live in a house with multiple small children or pets and you have this issue, your robot vacuum is probably regurgitating dirt as it cleans. This is why I love robots with self-emptying bins. Shark makes one, and Ecovacs and iRobot make bases that are compatible with robot vacuums you may already own. However, if you don't want to spring for a base, you can also do regular deep cleans with a push vacuum to help ease the robot's cleaning burden. I also recommend scheduling cleanings for when you’re at home and can empty the bin. It also helps to regularly clean the vacuum's roller brush.
5. Create a Throw Zone
Ideally, you'd automate your robot vacuum's cleaning cycles, not give it another thought, and come home to a clean house every day thereafter. But you will still have to give your house a quick once-over regularly to keep stray pieces of dental floss out of your vacuum's way.
Some friends have told me they appreciate the regular reminders to pick up after themselves. However, I have also created what I call “throw zones.” If you don’t have time to put everything away every time you run your robot vacuum, you can designate an area to toss the toy necklaces and blankies to go before you leave the house. Most robot vacuums will let you draw a virtual boundary line in the app. For dumber ones, companies usually sell adhesive magnetic boundary strips you can stick on the floor, or just create a physical barrier around the areas in your house you want to cordon off.
Before the cleaning run starts, toss every iffy household item behind the boundary. You can then sort out everything that has landed in your own personal Bermuda Triangle, but you can get to that later.
With two kids, a dog, and a full-time job, robot vacuums are one of the few devices that helps keep my house in a semi-presentable condition. And unlike a push vacuum, it regularly cleans places I might otherwise overlook, like under the couch, beds, or oven. Soon, you too may find your robot vacuum has also become your best friend. At the very least, it still makes a fine tool for rolling the littlest of your cute critters around the living room.
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