Robot vacuums are pretty cool, but getting the maximum value out of them requires a little planning. Use these tips to ensure your little vacuum buddy can do their best.
Why Bother Planning for Your Robot Vacuum?
We love TV shows like Humans and Better Than Us, but the reality is the promise of super-skilled robotic domestic servants is a very long way off. Even the best current-gen “robots” used in the home like automated vacuums are extremely basic in terms of processing power, abilities, and even just navigating around without getting stuck.
So what should we do to get more out of our robot vacuums? We’re going to borrow from the early childhood educator’s playbook. People who teach young children will tell you the easiest way to get children to perform the tasks you want them to perform is to configure their environment so they can succeed at those tasks on their own.
While you can’t exactly teach your robot vacuum new skills, you can use the same techniques to ensure they can operate smoothly and efficiently in your home. So let’s take a look at all the tips and tricks you can use to increase the chance you come home to completely vacuumed and clean floors, and decrease the chance you come home to a vacuum stuck under the TV stand or upside down at the bottom of the stairs.
Begin By Observing Your Vacuum at Work
When you first get a new robot vacuum, the single best thing you can do to avoid headaches is to observe it at work for at least a few run cycles.
Why at least a few cycles? Because, save for the most basic bump-and-turn vacuums on the market, it will take a few trips around your home for your robot to fully map things out and begin to form a consistent routine.
On the first trip around, don’t focus on how good or bad of a job the vacuum is doing. Even devices with advanced mapping abilities look completely incompetent on the first run because they’re literally stumbling around trying to figure out your home’s layout.
Instead, focus on things in the environment that might trip the robot vacuum up (many of which we’re about to talk about). Then, as the vacuum gets better at navigating the environment, start considering things like where in your home the vacuum gets a low battery and where the charging dock is. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about all these things in the coming sections to give you ideas on remediating the problems you run into.
One last tip about observing your vacuum at work: If your vacuum has any sort of cameras, sensors, or room-mapping functionality built-in, resist the urge to hover over it. The vacuum has no idea that you’re a person and will interpret your presence as part of the physical layout of the room (like a floor lamp, couch, or even wall).
As hard as it is not to wander around behind a brand new vacuum—because watching it bump around is fun and nobody wants to find out after the fact it can knock a plant stand over—keep a distance and watch from a nearby doorway.
Stop Snags and Snares Before They Start
One of the immediate frustrations you’ll run into with a robot vacuum is how easily they are tripped up by things a person vacuuming would simply avoid, like a power cord or a curtain.
Loose cords are definitely one of the easiest things to overlook. Not only is it easy to not think about a USB charging cable or such draped across the floor beside the couch, but who really gives much thought to the tangle of cords under the TV stand or dresser? Out of sight, out of mind, right? That is until your vacuum slides under there and sucks them all up.
There are numerous ways to deal with the cords issue. First, get in the habit of picking up any loose cables so there isn’t a random lighting cable hiding in the carpet. Then, use organizers, ties, and clips to secure the cables so the vacuum can’t run them over.
For cables that dangle down on the floor on their way to somewhere else—like the power cable or coax cable going to your TV—you can use simple Command hooks just above your baseboards to keep the cables out of reach of the vacuum. You can also use the hooks on the back of furniture to keep excess cable from dangling down.
For power strips and situations where you have a lot of wires on the floor under or beside a piece of furniture, you might find it more efficient and tidier to use a cable management box. There are a variety of these boxes on the market, but the general design is the same. They contain the mess of wires you normally have pooled up under computers, TVs, and such.
D-Line Cable Management Box
It's simple, inexpensive, and will keep your robot vacuum from eating cords.
While most folks probably buy them just to make things tidier looking, if you have a robot vacuum it prevents the vacuum from even accessing the cables. Instead of sucking them all up, it will just bump into the box and then continue on its way.
Tuck Tassels Under Rugs
Robot vacuums generally handle the transition from hard surfaces up onto area rugs just fine, but decorative tassels are the perfect size to bind up the beater brush.
Rather than replace the rub, the easiest trick is to simply lift the rug and tuck the tassels beneath it. They typically stay put nicely, especially if you have a rug pad or gripper underneath.
If you don’t have a rug pad or gripper (or the tassels end up sliding out despite it) you might consider putting a line of rug gripper tape along the edges of the rug with the tassels. Then when you fold the tassels back there will be some extra “bite” to keep them in place instead of just the smooth back of the rug.
Raise Your Curtains
No curtains? Then no problem. But the lighter and thinner the curtains you have, the more important it is to secure them in a fashion that your robot vacuum won’t try to eat them.
Light and airy sheer curtains that touch the floor will get sucked right up into the vacuum. Really heavy curtains, like velvet blackout curtains, are less of an issue. Still, if your curtains pool at all, there is a risk they’ll get sucked up into the vacuum.
Use curtain ties to change the drape of the curtain so they don’t pool on the floor, or consider adjusting the height of your curtains (or the length of your curtain panels) if you want them to maintain their general appearance without getting tied back or otherwise lifted out of the way.
Use Physical and Virtual Barriers
One thing you’ll quickly figure out during the first observations of the vacuum at work is exactly what its limitations are in regard to height overhangs and ledge detection.
At my house, for example, there is a transition space between an area rug, the hardwood floor, and a perfect vacuum-sized gap beneath the TV stand. Before having a robot vacuum, I never once thought about the size of that gap between the bottom shelf of the stand and the floor.
Once I got a robot vacuum, however, I quickly discovered that if the vacuum transitioned off the rug towards the TV it would tilt down at a perfect angle to wedge itself under the stand in a way that it couldn’t self-extract. The simplest solution to gaps like this? Take some cheap black foam pipe insulation from the local hardware store and squish it into the gap—you can’t see it, and the robot vacuum bumps into it before becoming stuck and treats the space as a solid object.
For other areas you don’t want to construct physical barriers around or otherwise make unsightly, you can use features built into your robot vacuum like laying down the magnetic strip barriers supported by some vacuums or setting up virtual barriers in the control app to tell the vacuum to avoid those spaces.
I have an area in my home with a bunch of ferns on delicate plant stands, for instance, and it’s just not worth the hassle and the mess to have the vacuum try to bump around in there. Those little robot vacuums are stronger than they look and they’ve knocked over the plants before. So I simply marked off that space using the virtual boundary function in the vacuum’s control app.
Arrange Furniture to Be Vacuum Friendly
Speaking of getting stuck and furniture mishaps, you’ll quickly learn exactly which spaces in your house are robot vacuum size and which are not—and you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
I have a large ottoman in front of the couch in my den, for example, and if the ottoman is not centered on the couch, then it creates a gap on one of the sides that is too narrow for the vacuum to pass through. Either the vacuum will potentially get stuck going under the couch or get stuck trying to get out.
The same thing goes with the spaces around the chairs in my dining room. The spacing between the legs of any given chair is wide enough, but when all the chairs are together, the robot can get trapped under the table just bumping around until it gives up.
You can avoid these issues by making small adjustments like moving furniture slightly further apart, pulling the chairs out from a table to create more space (or flipping them upside down like they do in restaurants when they mop at the end of the day), or otherwise adjusting your home’s layout so the vacuum can work more efficiently.
Place the Charging Station Effectively
It’s tempting to put the charging station in an out-of-the-way location. Why wouldn’t you, right? But, if you put the charging station stuffed in a corner somewhere, you’re just asking for a hassle.
If the charging station is in the far corner of your home, the robot vacuum will spend a fair amount of time trundling all the way across the space to clean the farthest points and, when it runs low, it will waste more time trundling all the way back to recharge—because good vacuums don’t just run down and turn off, they save enough energy to go home and charge again.
An ideal location for your charging station is in a place roughly central to the cleaning area, and with a few feet of clearance so it can easily navigate in and out of the dock to charge.
Pre-clean to Prevent Mishaps
The whole point of the robot vacuum is that you don’t have to think so much about cleaning. But the poor little guy has no arms, hands, or any smarts, really, so you have to help out.
Get in the habit of putting things away that will interrupt the robot’s routine. At first, this is pretty annoying if you are at all like me and prefer to just set things down and forget about them. But, and I say this sincerely, I found it actually trained me to put things away because I didn’t want to deal with the robot getting stuck later or failing to clean a room properly.
If you have kids, this can be an extra hassle. Anthropomorphizing the vacuum can help. Kids are already inclined to treat robot vacuums like the Brave Little Toaster, so just give them an extra nudge and encourage them to pick up their LEGO blocks and such before the poor vacuum gets all jammed up trying to eat them. Slapping some giant googly eyes on the vacuum can’t hurt.
Set a Schedule to Avoid Surprises
Trying to remember to pre-clean can be a hassle, which is why using the schedule function is so handy.
If you know the vacuum cleans at a certain time, such as right after you go to work in the morning, then you can pregame your pre-cleaning. Either as part of your morning routine or your bedtime routine you can do a quick sweep to ensure nothing is out of order for the vacuum, including checking for clothes, cords, liquid spills, or other issues.
Who knew we’d all learn to finally tidy up on a regular schedule thanks to a bumbling robot sidekick?
Empty Frequently and Keep Up on Maintenance
The first few times you use a robot vacuum you won’t get a very good estimate of how frequently you need to empty the dust bin.
That’s because, unless you’re starting with a super clean house, there’s a good chance it’ll fill up quickly with all the dust and pet hair under the furniture you hadn’t quite got around to dealing with recently.
After a few days though, you’ll get a good sense of how often it needs to be attended to (whether it’s a budget model or a fancier model with a self-emptying charging station).
But from bin-emptying to cleaning hair out of the brush to replacing the parts that wear out like the filters, staying on top of basic care and cleaning will ensure you get consistent performance out of your robot vacuum.
If you take the time to get the cords and junk out of the way—and do a little tweaking to ensure your little robo-vacuum buddy has a clear flight path to and from the charging station—you’ll end up with fewer problems and cleaner floors.