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Why a robot vacuum might not do the job enough

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Some people find vacuuming to be satisfying and, dare we say, almost Zen-like experience. No judgment here. All those neat lines on carpet – visible proof of cleanliness – can in fact feel quite rewarding. But for the rest of us, ridding our homes of dirt, crumbs, pet fur and dust bunnies is merely a chore that we’d happily outsource.

Enter robot vacuums, which for nearly 20 years have been promising to do the job while you work or play. Making the switch would seem to be a no-brainer, but experts say the matter is not that simple.

“When you use an upright or canister vacuum, you are in control, can see it cleaning and determine where to start and stop,” says Michael Silva Nash, the vice president of operations for Molly Maid. For example, he says, he’s seen a robot vacuum smear dog poop across carpeting and under furniture.

It’s also hard to beat a hand-operated vacuum’s deep-cleaning suction power, particularly on carpet. There are other considerations, as well. For example, Teresa Mears, of Fort Lauderdale, purchased a USD200 robot vacuum in 2016 to help tame the fur from her four cats. She says the device was easy to set up and did a moderately good job of minimizing cat hair, but it often got stuck on a threshold or under the sofa and couldn’t find its way out to finish the job.

“I would also have to pick up everything off the floor before letting it loose, because it wasn’t very sophisticated,” she says.

Over time, the robot stopped charging, so Mears switched to a cordless stick because it seemed more practical, could get into corners and under furniture, and efficiently picked up cat hair. Although Mears now uses a cleaning service, she says she wouldn’t rule out another robot model, depending on the price.

Here’s a look at the costs, strengths and weaknesses of hand-operated and robot vacuums.


Hand-operated vacuums

The robust suction power of a hand-operated vacuum makes it hard to beat for deep-cleaning a carpet. “Not only are you in control and can see what you are cleaning, but you can adjust the vacuum height for different surfaces,” says Julien Levesque, a vice president at SharkNinja. Attachments and tools reach under sofas and beds and allow you to clean furniture, window treatments and other surfaces, adds Silva Nash.

According to Mary HJ Farrell, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, models cost from USD100 to USD1,200, depending on features including attachments, filters, on/off brush roll switch and height adjustment. For most jobs, one between USD150 and USD250 should be sufficient.

Upright models tend to be loud, though, and heavy – weighing 10 to 20 pounds – and can be awkward to lug up and down stairs.

Stick models are a lighter option suitable for quick cleanups and surface cleaning. Prices for most corded models range between USD200 and USD300, with cordless ones costing from USD400 to USD900. The biggest complaint about cordless sticks is that older models tend to run out of power within 20 minutes, says Silva Nash. Newer ones promise 45 to 60 minutes of run time on a single charge.


Robot vacuums

Robot vacuums have come a long way since Mears’s experience. Newer models have become smarter, including some that use lasers and cameras to map and navigate rooms. Others can detect a full dust canister and return to the docking station to auto-empty before resuming their task. They are also easier to set up, making them an option even for the most tech-averse among us.

Entry-level plug-and-play models will do a decent job of surface cleaning. Many pair with a smartphone app, so you can tell them to clean a specific area while you sleep, and have built-in ledge detectors or sensors to keep them from toppling down stairs or bumping into furniture.

However, if you love technology and are willing to spend more money and time on programming, you’ll find ones that build a map of your home so you can tell the vacuum which room to clean. According to Silva Nash, the most expensive robovacs also feature voice command, AI-powered obstacle avoidance and a sensor to detect when the canister is full.

Because they lack the power to deep clean, though, robot vacuums are best for flooring other than carpet, such as tile, laminate or hardwood, says Farrell. And although they are relatively small – about 13 inches in diameter (the size of a medium pizza) – they can become stuck under furniture or tangled in electrical cords, says Levesque. They’re also typically limited to a single story of the home and have to be carried to other floors.

Robot vacuums range in price from less than USD200 for a basic model to as much as USD1,000 for something with multiple extra features. Expect to pay at least USD300 to USD450 for a decent one, says Levesque.

The upshot

Whether it’s human-operated or a robot, a vacuum has to clean, be easy to use and maintain, and fit your everyday routine, says Levesque. If you’re in the market for one, take into account your living situation and cleaning style: How big is your home? Is it one story or multilevel? Do you have pets? Do you want manual control or to be hands-off? Do you need a deep clean, or are you just looking to keep dust to a minimum?

No one vacuum will check all those boxes, but the answers can help guide your choice. And you don’t have to spend a bundle to get one that performs well, says Farrell. If you’re having trouble deciding and your budget allows, consider having both.

“A robotic is a good backup to a standard vacuum. It won’t replace your upright, but it can be an option between manual vacuuming sessions,” Farrell says.

It helps if you don’t get hung up on bells and whistles. More is not always better.

“There’s always something newer and better coming onto the market,” says Silva Nash. “All vacuums suction up dirt and debris, and you may not need an infrared light to tell you where the dust is. Instead, buy both types with fewer features and use accordingly. Maybe you can’t vacuum every day, but a robot can.” – LAURA DAILY