A robotic helper taking care of your vacuuming sounds like bliss. Has this dream finally become a reality?
What is a robot vacuum?
Robot vacuums are self-guided, low-profile cleaning ‘discs’ that can help keep your home clean by automating the vacuuming and, for some models, the mopping as well.
They are battery powered and have a dock they can return to for charging. Some of the more expensive models also have auto-emptying stations, which will empty the vacuum’s onboard bin into a larger receptacle, making emptying the dustbin only an occasional chore.
Robot vacs clean using a suction unit, combined with spinning rollers or brushes underneath that scoop up dirt and debris into the onboard bin. Most also have at least one side-spinning brush to help clean along edges and in corners.
Lower-end models will randomly bump their way around your house to clean, whereas more expensive models will intelligently map your rooms out using LIDAR (light detection and ranging), sensors or cameras, and then clean in a more logical manner.
Can they mop as well as vacuum?
Yes. Some models are hybrids that have onboard mopping pads, usually using some form of oscillation or vibration combined with water to mop your floors. Water is stored in a tank on board.
Many hybrids require manual switching of pads depending on whether they are vacuuming or mopping, otherwise you’d end up with wet carpets! But some models will automatically raise and lower the mopping pad depending on the surface being cleaned (yes, robot vacs can actually tell what surface they are on too). If you have areas of your hard floors that are particularly dirty, it’s recommended you do a manual spot clean first.
Why should you get one?
The functionality and performance of robot vacs is improving all the time, so they can actually do a pretty good job of keeping your house clean. In our tests we have found that most models do a great job on hard floors, but aren’t so good with carpets or pet hair, so you may well see a robot vac as supplementary to a normal vacuum cleaner.
Most of the models we have reviewed have the capability of mapping out your home, allowing you to send the vac to clean specific rooms whenever you like. You can also schedule cleaning using smartphone apps, allowing you to have a regular clean when you aren’t at home.
You may also find that you tend to keep your house tidier if you have a robot vac, picking up things off the floor to make sure your new family member can do its job properly. The low profiles of these vacuums also means that they will likely be able to clean under sofas and other areas that you can’t normally reach with your standard vacuum cleaner.
- Does your cleaning for you – mostly.
- Compact and easy to store.
- Cleans hard floors well.
- Programmable to run at a certain time, or start a clean remotely from your smartphone.
- Automatically docks and recharges when required.
- Ability to clean specific rooms with a mapping-capable vac.
- Can clean under sofas and other hard-to-reach areas.
- Some models can mop as well as vacuum.
- More expensive models will have auto-empty stations.
- Doesn’t clean carpets as well as a regular vacuum, especially deep pile.
- Our tests found some models struggled at picking up fur.
- Small dust collection bins need regular emptying if you don’t have a model with an auto-empty station.
- Advanced models can be very expensive.
- The vac can get stuck under furniture or devour objects such as cables, curtains or Lego. Models with mapping allow you to define no-go zones though, to solve some of these issues.
- Requires more maintenance than a regular vacuum.
- Noise – generally no more noisy than regular vacuums, but usually take longer to clean rooms, so better to set the vac to clean while you are out if you want some peace!
- Can’t climb or vacuum stairs.
- Battery life – if you have a big house to clean, a robot vac probably won’t be able to clean it all in one go without a recharge.
Our lab tests have seen plenty of robot vacs that can't handle pet hair
Check out our pet-hair removal scores before buying a robot vacuum.
Things to consider
Most models have a stair-detection feature that will stop the robot falling down the stairs – a must-have if you live in a multi-level home.
There might be areas you don’t want a robot vacuum wandering into, such as the fireplace to melt to death. Some robots let you create invisible barriers which they won’t cross, using either an app or external unit. The physical barriers are either a magnetic strip that you tape onto the floor, or a standalone unit that projects an invisible wall that the robot can detect. Standalone unit are more expensive but offer more functionality.
Cheaper robot vacuums use “dumb” bump-and-turn navigation that can leave areas of your home uncleaned. Smarter models build a map, which you can then access using an app and select specific areas for cleaning.
Many hybrid models can mop as well as vacuum, but most require you to switch pads when doing so. There are some models that will automatically lift the mop up when vacuuming carpet, though.
Waking up to a bump in the night can be alarming, but it might just be the robot cleaning. Scheduled cleaning lets you instruct the robot to clean when it’s convenient for you.
This is a charging dock which also has an integrated vacuum and large dustbin to suck dust and debris out of the robot vac itself and store for later disposal. They can have up to 10 times the capacity of the robot vac’s bin for storing dust, therefore you won’t need to empty as often. Most use vacuum bags for dust storage, but there are some bagless options too.
All robots tested will return to the charging dock when the battery is low, but as it can take many hours for them to recharge it's worth paying attention to our recorded runtimes, so your vac has enough juice to do the rooms you want cleaned on a single charge. Current runtimes range from less than 50 minutes, to over 2 hours. If you are planning on cleaning your whole house in one go then you'll need a long runtime.
While noticeably quieter than corded or stick vacuums, robot vacs are still audible. If you’re sensitive to sound, look for a model that has a low noise rating in our tests. Most are noisier on hard floors than on carpet.
Robot vacuums can clean areas you can’t easily reach with a stick or corded vacuum. To ensure a robot will be able to get under your couch and other furniture, measure the gaps and check against its height.
Some vacs are bigger than others. Pay attention to the diameter measurements on our test results. Bigger vacs may not fit into tighter spaces, such as around furniture or next to your toilet.
Most current models have WiFi connectivity and can be controlled via smartphone apps. But there are still a few basic models with a standalone remote control to start cleaning, do a spot clean or send the vac back to its dock. Usually these models don’t have mapping capabilities.
Smart home integration
All our current tested models can be integrated into smart home systems such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa, allowing you to schedule cleaning via the respective app and use voice commands as well.
Some models that use cameras for navigation will allow you to access the camera remotely to spy on your pets and even talk to them. They may even have remote driving capabilities, Mars rover style.
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Carpet cleaning and suction
Robot vacs are currently tested using a similar setup to standard and stick vacs, and most don’t currently perform particularly well in the carpet cleaning test. Even the top robot models only have a suction rating of 5000 Pascals, compared to some stick and standard vacs that can suck with 20-30,000 Pascals, so the results are understandable. These figures are probably more useful for a comparison between models. In our experience most robot vacs do an ok job on carpet, and you will be more than happy when you see the lines on your deep pile rug showing that the bot has done its job. For peace of mind you should consider a regular clean with a standard or stick vac to suck up any extra dust that the robot might have left behind.
Batteries and ongoing maintenance
The expected life of a robot vac battery will vary depending on model and usage. On average, you should expect at least three years before requiring a replacement for a vac with a lithium-ion battery. Replacement batteries cost around $150 to $200.
To extend battery life you should use your robot frequently, make sure it’s always docked on the charger when not in use, and never let it run flat. Other components may need replacing in future, such as brushes, rollers and filters. If you have a mopping vac, you will also need to regularly clean the mopping pad(s) and replace them as specified. Models with auto-empty stations require the vacuum bags to be replaced when full, unless you have a bag-free version.
Will it clean a whole house?
Most models can clean for more than an hour on one charge, which is enough for at least four rooms. But if the robot does run out of juice, it will automatically return to its charging station and recharge until it has enough power to complete its cleaning programme. Bear in mind, though, that a full recharge can take many hours.
What if I have a multi-level home?
We aren’t yet at the stage where we have robot vacs that can climb stairs unfortunately, so if you have a multi-level home you will have to carry your robot vac up and down the stairs. Models with mapping capabilities usually allow you to map different levels of your home.
Can I just clean a specific area or do a spot clean?
Yes – it’s usually just a case of picking the vac up and placing it over the area that requires an extra clean, and pressing the appropriate spot clean button. The robot will then do a localised clean. Models with mapping will also allow you to draw an area on the map in the smartphone app and send the robot directly to clean that area, after which it will return to the dock automatically.
Will it damage my furniture or suck up my socks?
Robot vacs do collide with objects and furniture while cleaning, but all of them have spring-loaded bumpers to reduce the impact. The more intelligent models will learn to avoid furniture, and some use cameras to identify objects to avoid. They are unlikely to do any major damage, but it’s worthwhile tidying up cables and other objects on the floor before the cleaning starts.
What about my pets? Will they attack the vac?
Pets will be naturally curious about the new member of your family, but most will lose interest after the first few cleans or even ignore the device completely.
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