Monday, 30 March 2009

Vacuuming while you sleep

Since we have four kids and two cats, things tend to get a little messy at our place. Having four kids also means that you've got better things to do than vacuuming the floor almost every day. That (and the fact that I'm a bit of a gadget freak) led me to start investigating other possibilities...

I spent some time looking for alternatives to our trusty Dyson, and ended up ordering an iRobot Roomba 560 on eBay (thanks to the current exchange rates for the UK pound to the Euro, I was able to buy a new one for € 270, including delivery). So, there I was, eagerly awaiting delivery of my new toy. About a week later, it arrived and then there's a disappointment, as always with battery powered appliances... you need to charge them thoroughly before you can use them. If I didn't know better, I would think they do that on purpose, so you have some time to ready the manual.

Once that hurdle was taken, with the lighthouses in place, I could start vacuuming the lazy way... just press the clean button, and off it goes on a seemingly erratic path across the floor, sometimes following the walls and edges of obstacles on the floor, then suddenly taking a sharp turn, driving diagonally across the living room straight into one of the legs of the table. It may seem strange at first, and you even find yourself trying to see the logic in its actions, but the truth is that it's movement is dictated by an algorithm which seems to work very well. It rarely (almost never, really) misses a spot.

When you look for information on Roombas, some people mention the following disadvantages:
  • It takes almost as much time to clean the Roomba as it does to vacuum the floor yourself.
    In my experience, this far from true. I just clean the dustbin and filter after every run (or 'mission' as iRobot likes to call it in the manual), which takes about one minute. Once a week, I clean the brushes (the bearings tend to collect hair) and wipe the unit clean with a moist cloth, which takes about 5 minutes. YMMV of course, especially if you have pets that shed a lot of (long) hair
    This may however be true for older models, since iRobot apparently changed the Roomba 500 series to be easier to maintain.
  • It doesn't like it when there are cables lying on the floor.
    True, it just tends to drag the cable around. On the other hand, I don't like it either when the floor is littered with cabled, so it's not really a problem for me. It doesn't tend to get stuck on cables however, they just aren't where you left them any more :-)
  • It gets stuck easily.
    This may or may not happen, depending on the room where it's used. For example, when Roomba drives into a narrow corridor, which is just high enough for it to enter (the Roomba is approx. 9cm high), it can take some time for it to escape. Another place where it can get stuck is underneath low furniture, and more specifically when it's just high enough for it to go underneath on one place, and too low on other places, or when the bottom slopes downwards.
    Where it can also get stuck on is on chairs which have bent metal tubes (with a horizontal part resting on the floor) instead of legs. Sometimes it manages to get stuck on those. Just put the chairs on the table, and that's solved.
    Luckily, we don't have any spots where it gets stuck, so no issues there
  • It breaks down far too often.
    Some people complain about this, others say they have theirs for quite a while without ever experiencing problems. We only have ours for about a month now, so I can't really say anything about that, but I think that it's also a matter of maintenance and luck. If you keep the brushes clean, and remove the hairs that tend to get tangled around the wheels (only the small front wheel really), that should help at preventing excessive wear.
    They also say that the 500 series is specifically designed to last longer than its predecessors.
  • It takes far longer to vacuuming the floor than with a traditional vacuuming cleaner.
    Yes, it does, and significantly so, but since it roams around freely while I'm in my bed, sleeping, I couldn't care less. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to vacuum the kitchen (about 12m²), and about 40 to 50 minutes for the living room (about 32m²). When it's done it automatically returns to its charger (if the mission was started in the room where the charger is, and you haven't carried it through a virtual wall/lighthouse), and docks with it, so it's fully charged again after a few hours (which is a nice idea, but doesn't always work).
  • It doesn't (always) recharge itself automatically.
    Indeed, although ours doesn't have a problem to find its charging station, and always docks with it, it seems to be a bit picky about the correct positioning. The contact points don't always make contact properly, so you may have to give it a slight nudge with your foot to get that amber charging indicator pulsating (happens to me about 30% of the time). Since I empty the dustbin after every run, I don't really mind, since It still has enough juice left anyway in case I want to clean the kitchen again (which is the place that needs cleaning most frequently).
  • It doesn't go everywhere.
    True, if an area is too narrow or low, the Roomba can't get there. That means that your traditional upright doesn't have to feel completely neglected, or that you have to move some pieces of furniture around every now and then.
  • Its vacuum isn't powerful enough.
    While it's true that the vacuum isn't very powerful, it's only an issue on deep pile carpets and very uneven floors (e.g deep grouts, uneven wooden floors with grooves). If your floors are even, you'll be impressed by the result. We only have tiles and a small low pile carpet, and Bender has no problems keeping it clean.
  • It doesn't do stairs.
    Well, what did you expect?
What most people seem to agree on:
  • It's fun to watch
  • It does a (very) good job on hard, even floors, a decent to good job on low-to-medium pile carpet, and isn't suitable for use on high pile carpet.

Overall, we're very satisfied with our Roomba. The floors are cleaner than ever before, withouth too much hassle. Now, let's try to find a good deal on a Scooba :p

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