Once the stuff of science fiction — remember Rosie on The Jetsons? — robot vacuums have been roving floors for two decades now.
The first robotic vacuums, from Electrolux, went on the market in the mid-1990s but didn't last because of their expense and imperfect ability to avoid furniture and other objects. Then another company, iRobot, launched its version in 2002, which also had the ability to avoid tumbling down stairs.
Now the vacuums’ popularity is growing: The industry is projected to be valued at almost $47 billion within five years, in part because we are aging. Such practical technology is especially useful for those with diminishing mobility.
If you haven’t joined the robot revolution, this is what to know before you buy.
You need some light technical skills. Because it is a smart home device, the vacuum will have to connect to your Wi-Fi, and you’ll need to use a phone app to set up and manage the device. The good news is that most apps are simple to use, says Derek Hales, founder of the website ModernCastle, a product-review site that put 64 different robot vacuums to the test.
They don’t replace a regular vacuum cleaner
Don’t get rid of your current vacuum. Even though robot vacuums have become more effective, they still should be used as an addition to your cleaning arsenal, not a substitute for a standing vacuum. The robots are best for maintaining cleanliness between regular vacuum sessions, says Susan Booth, who oversees vacuum testing for Consumer Reports.
Robot vacuums work better on certain floors. Hard-surface floors are the easiest for robots to clean. Even inexpensive models do this well, Hales says. Carpets are a bit trickier.
“You may find that the thicker the pile, the more difficulty the robot has and the more battery power it uses, which means it may dock to recharge before it has cleaned the entire space,” Booth says.
Some of these robots will do more than vacuum. A two-in-one model can mop floors, too. But these can be expensive to operate. Hales recommends buying this type if your home has less than 40 percent hard flooring.
They map your house as they vacuum
They won’t run into your stuff. Make sure the vacuum you buy is equipped with obstacle detection, Hales says. It will sense the location of furniture and other items on the floor and steer clear of them. Also look for a feature called lidar, a laser system the robot uses to create a digital layout of your home.
In 2021, Consumer Reports evaluated 39 robotic vacuums on data security and privacy. Because most need to be connected to Wi-Fi, they may have been among the first devices in your home that are part of the internet of things, which also includes home security systems, smart light bulbs and video doorbells.
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All of the manufacturers that CR tested encrypt users’ sensitive information, such as usage data and logins, but don't rate as highly on privacy. That's in part because they are vague about what data they collect about you and your home and how it is collected, the nonprofit says.
If you have a dog or cat, vacuums with “poop detection” are good to have. They’re programmed to avoid pet waste, so you won’t find a bigger pet mess when you return home. (Enough said.)
Self-emptying dustbins can save effort. Vacuums with this feature empty their dustbin into a receptacle in the docking station, instead of hanging on to the debris for you to empty into the trash. You still need to clean out the docking bin but less frequently than with standard robots.
Expect to spend a few hundred dollars. While you don’t necessarily need to get a higher-end robot vacuum at $500 to $900, Hales recommends buying a model that costs at least $300, to ensure quality.
Jenna Gyimesi was an associate editor for the AARP Bulletin, working as part of a Columbia University fellowship.