Robot Vacuums Aren’t as Convenient as They Seem (or Why I Returned My Roomba)

Robot vacuums sound great. They do the vacuuming for you, saving time and hassle. And they’ve come down in price, too–you can get a decent Roomba for a little over $300. But while plenty of people seem happy with their Roombas, I decided to return mine. Vacuuming still isn’t fun, but a solid cordless vacuum is more useful to me than a gimmicky robot.

The Roomba is far from “set and forget”–in fact, it still requires a fair amount of manual work on your part, and you’ll still have to pull our the traditional vacuum for some spots. To me, this kind of defeats the purpose of a robot vacuum in the first place. Let me explain.

My Apartment Was Ideal for a Roomba, But Not Every Home Is

First, a robot vacuum isn’t going to work well in every home. If you have stairs, the robot can’t go up and down those stairs. It won’t hurtle down the steps–it’s too smart for that–but it would need you to carry it up and down the stairs. If you have a large home, the Roomba isn’t going to clean it all on a single charge. And, if you have thick, deep carpet, the Roomba isn’t going to be able to deep-clean that carpet properly.

But I had just moved, and my new apartment seemed like optimal Roomba territory. With less than 900 square feet to cover, no stairs, and floors consisting of tile and short carpet, the new apartment seemed like ideal Roomba territory.

I needed a new vacuum anyway, and robot vacuums were surprisingly cheap. At $324 for an iRobot Roomba 650, a Roomba seemed like a fine deal if it really saved me time.

You Have to Prepare Your Home For the Roomba to Vacuum

After plugging in the base station and charging my roomba, I turned it on. It whirred to life, rolled across the room until it hit a closet door with a little more force than I thought was necessary, made a left turn, and promptly got stuck on a power cable in the corner of the room.

Yikes. That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. That drove home a valuable lesson: Roombas aren’t set-and-forget appliances. You need to prepare your home for the Roomba to clean it. Before running the Roomba, I needed to do a quick walkthrough of the apartment and ensure there weren’t any cables the Roomba would have to tangle with, clothes on the floor in the bedroom, and other obstacles that would prevent the Roomba from working.

Roombas won’t dive off stairs because they have a ledge detection sensor. Roombas won’t go over dark carpets, rugs, tiles, or anything that looks like it could be a ledge to the sensor. To make my Roomba clean my bathroom, I’d have to lift the rug from the floor. Otherwise, the Roomba would be deathly terrified of the bathroom rug and refuse to go over it. There are ways to modify your Roomba, blocking the sensors so that it will go over dark surfaces. However, this will also cause the Roomba to throw itself off ledges and stairs.

You Should Clean Your Roomba Every Time It Runs

Traditional vacuums only require you to empty the bag once in awhile, but you’re supposed to empty a Roomba’s dirt bins after every use. You’ll also need to check your Roomba’s brush rollers and remove any hair that wrapped around them–something that will be a serious, regular problem if you live in a home with long-haired pets that shed, for example.

While the Roomba does charge itself and can be scheduled to run, you still have to perform some maintenance on it, which to me defeats the purpose of a robotic vacuum a little.

The Roomba Won’t Always Do a Good Job

All these limitations wouldn’t be a problem if the Roomba did a decent job when I ran it. But I quickly found that this isn’t guaranteed.

The less expensive robot vacuums basically wander around randomly. Only the more expensive models map out your floor and methodically cover every inch. Overall, the seemingly random wandering works fairly well. The first time my Roomba ran, it managed to cover every corner of the apartment before it went back to charge itself. I was impressed.

The second time the Roomba ran, it only cleaned about half the apartment. It spent a lot of time in the bathroom, bedroom, and office, poking into the kitchen and living room only once before returning to the other rooms. It cleaned those few rooms over and over before returning to charge itself. The Roomba only runs for about an hour on a charge, and then it tries to find the charging station and stops. It gets to what it gets to.

I wasn’t impressed with this second run. Now I had to go empty out the dirt bin, but I still had half my apartment that needed to be vacuumed. You can’t just run your Roomba again immediately, as the 650 model may need more than six hours to charge before you can run it again. You need to run your Roomba more often than you’d normally vacuum to ensure it actually vacuums all the corners of your home on a regular basis.

The Roomba Can Do Some Damage

Worse yet, the Roomba caused a bit of damage. I was initially concerned about the amount of force the Roomba bumped into things with, and worry that it might damage furniture in the long term.

But that wasn’t the problem–it was the Roomba’s brush. The Roomba has a brush that spins in circles as it slides along walls, kicking up dirt from the edge of the carpet so it can be vacuumed up. I noticed that brush had started to chip some of the paint from the bottom of the doors.

Maybe whoever painted these doors didn’t do the best job, but in a rental unit, that isn’t my problem. My concern is not damaging them so I can get my security deposit back when I move out. The Roomba didn’t do a massive amount of damage, but I was concerned about running it several times a week for a year when it seemed so forceful.

It doesn’t look that bad yet, but I only ran the Roomba a few times.

You Still Need a Normal Vacuum, Too

I was already regretting this whole Roomba experiment, and it seemed all the more ridiculous when I realized something: A Roomba doesn’t eliminate the need for a regular vacuum. Even people who speak favorably of robot vacuums seem to agree they can’t be your only vacuum.

When you spill something on the floor in the kitchen, or you want to vacuum a room before someone visits, you can’t just rely on your Roomba to do the job. You need to pull out a regular vacuum so you can quickly do a good job of cleaning a precise area.

Worse, if you have deeper carpets, you’ll need to regularly vacuum them with a more powerful vacuum to pull all the dirt out. A Roomba can do some cleanup work, but not all of it.

The Verdict: I Returned the Roomba and Got a Cordless Vacuum

It seemed crazy that I had just spent $324 on a vacuum and was about to spend even more. I decided to return the Roomba.

In its place, I purchased a Hoover cordless vacuum for $132 from Amazon, much less than a Roomba costs. Once a week, it takes me about ten minutes (fifteen maximum) to quickly vacuum the entire apartment.

I can do this all on battery power, so I don’t have to move the vacuum from outlet to outlet. I know I’m covering every inch of the floor, and I can do a targeted cleanup job every time. I don’t have to go through the trouble of preparing my apartment, as I can quickly move stuff out of the way while vacuuming if I have to. I’m not worried about it eating into my security deposit by bumping into things. I’m happier with this appliance than I ever was with my Roomba.


This is just my personal story. Some people are happy with their Roombas, even if they do have to pull out another vacuum on a regular basis. But a Roomba just seemed like a gimmicky gadget to me. Sometimes, it’s better to do something the old-fashioned way, especially if the newfangled gadget is this inefficient. I won’t tell you what to do–but at least think twice before you buy, and buy from somewhere with a good return policy in case you find it as lackluster as I did.

Image Credit: Karlis Dambrans

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.