Roomba in docking station

Roomba in docking station

Cleaning your home can be satisfying but it’s also very very boring. I’ve estimated that I have to vacuum my apartment at least two times a week (preferably more often) to keep it tidy. I’m way too lazy to do that. This is where the Roomba enters the picture. It’s a robotic vacuum cleaner that offers to do the dirty work for you. The Roomba has its limitations but I’m glad I bought it.

How it works

How the Roomba looks underneath

How the Roomba looks underneath

The European iRobot Roomba SE corresponds to the Roomba Discovery SE that’s available on the US market. It’s a small robot equipped with some brushes that pick up the big particles and a vacuum cleaner that picks up the smaller particles left by the brushes. You don’t have to program the robot in any way. Instead it uses an algorithm which decides how the robot should move to clean an area. There are sensors which make the Roomba change direction when it bumps into something, prevent it from falling down stairs (or table tops, where I tested it because I don’t have any stairs in my home) and detect dirty areas to make the Roomba clean that area extra thoroughly. If you don’t want the Roomba to go inside a room where you can’t close the door you can set up a virtual wall which projects an infra-red beam that prevents the Roomba from passing. When the cleaning cycle is complete the robot finds its docking station, plays a little melody and starts recharging itself.

The good

The Roomba does a good job at cleaning moderately dirty floors (dust, hair, breadcrumbs, etc.). It won’t clean up liquids, big rocks, a kilo of rice or dust bunnies the size of footballs (that they used in a test of robotic vacuum cleaners on a show on Swedish TV), but I never expected it to. Just like how I don’t expect it to clean my windows and wash my dishes.

It cleans well along the walls thanks to the side brush and a wall sensor which makes it clean along the walls a certain percentage of its cleaning cycle.The sound level is relatively low. It’s much lower than a normal vacuum cleaner. You don’t want to watch TV in the same room that the robot is cleaning, but it’s not really a problem as most of the time you’ll let the Roomba clean while you’re not home. The noise comes from the brushes. The vacuum engine is very silent.

  • If I can figure out how to disable the automatic normalization on my soundcard I’ll post an audio sample here comparing the Roomba to a regular vacuum cleaner.
Stuck? Not at all! It finds its way out

Stuck? Not at all! It finds its way out

The navigation algorithm used by the Roomba is good. It’s by no means “smart” in the sense that it has a memory of where it’s been and where it needs to go, but the strategy it uses to find its way around the room gets the job done. I’ve never had the Roomba get stuck in tricky areas like under chairs. It always manages to find a way out. It can also get over thresholds of up to about 1 cm.

I’m glad I bought the version that comes with a docking station because that means that the Roomba will have charged itself by the time I come home. Then I can use it straight away for cleaning the bathroom floor or any other part of my home without having to charge it first.

A big plus for the Roomba is its low clearance. It’s only 9 cm high which allows it to clean under my couch, my TV bench and it even fits under my radiators.

  • It cleans under here...

    It cleans under here…

  • ... and here...

    … and here…

  • ... and here too

    … and here too

The virtual walls are useful when you want to restrict the robot to a room where you can’t close the door or if you want it to clean only a part of an area. I currently use one virtual wall to direct it to one of the two areas I’ve divided my apartment into.

Emptying the dirt bin

Emptying the dirt bin

Emptying the collected dust, hair, etc. is very easy. You just detach the dirt bin and empty the dirt into the trash. You’ll also have to detach the filter of the vacuum cleaner and remove dust that has collected there.

The bad

The trade-off with having a robot that cleans your home is that you have to clean the robot. iRobot recommends that you remove and clean the brushes every 2-3 cleaning cycles to make sure that no hair or threads has become stuck. I like to clean it every two cleaning cycles, not because things get stuck in the brushes, but because the rubber brush gets dusty and may leave dust marks (that disappear after a while) sometimes when the Roomba turns. Removing the necessary parts for cleaning is very easy, but I suppose that it could be a problem for the technophobe. When you’ve done it once you’ll clean it in a minute.

It works great on heavier rugs...

It works great on heavier rugs…

... not so great on lighter rugs

… not so great on lighter rugs

The biggest problem I have with the Roomba is how it handles on lighter rugs. It works just fine on my living room rug. My other rugs are too “light” so there’s a chance that the corner of the rug is folded up as the Roomba goes over it. Some dirt gets stuck on the bottom of the rug and then the Roomba folds the corner back on its next pass over that area, literally sweeping dirt under the rug. iRobot instructs you to fold tassels under your rug to prevent them from getting entangled in the brushes, but that doesn’t really do any good if your carpet isn’t heavy enough to not get turned over. The Roomba still manages to go over the rugs and doesn’t get stuck, but it sounds like it’s a strain on the motors at times so I just remove those rugs before I let the Roomba clean that area. This is not a problem for me since I don’t have any furniture on those carpets.

In order for you to get the most out of the Roomba your home has to be furnished in a certain way. You shouldn’t have a lot of cables on the floor and there should be enough open space for the Roomba to move around. It will not reach all locations so sometimes you may have to move some furniture or whatever to give it access to hard to get to locations.

The Roomba will sometimes “drop” some dirt when it transitions from floor to carpet and sometimes it will miss a dirty spot. The strategy of the Roomba is to go over the same area many times and eventually it will catch most of the dirt. If there are many obstacles or if the floor is very dirty, the robot might miss some dirt during one cleaning cycle. However, if you let it clean regularly it won’t matter.

Confused by nearby virtual wall

Confused by nearby virtual wall

There’s a chance that the Roomba may become confused near virtual walls. If you place a virtual wall near a tight spot, the Roomba can get stuck since it tries to avoid the virtual wall at the same time as it tries to find a way out.

The documentation that comes with the Roomba is very brief. The legal disclaimer is lengthier than the manual, so if you want information you have to visit iRobot’s site.

Tips

  • Observe the Roomba the first few times you run it to identify problem areas and obstacles you didn’t think of.
  • Placing the docking station
    • Make sure the docking station is not obstructed and that there aren’t many obstacles nearby so that the Roomba can get back to it easily when it’s starting to run out of batteries.
    • Make sure that there aren’t any objects that can be pushed or “bumped” to get in the way of the Roomba when it tries to dock.
    • If you don’t want to crawl on the floor or start the Roomba before emptying the dirt bin I suggest you don’t put the docking station under the bed, under a table or similar.
  • Remove lighter rugs to make the cleaning easier for the Roomba.
  • Divide your home into cleaning areas of 1-2 rooms and make sure that there are as few obstacles as possible around the door so that the Roomba can change room easily.
  • If the Roomba can get in behind a door, make sure that you place something on the other side of the door to prevent the Roomba from closing the door and trapping itself in the room (if the docking station is in another room it can run out of batteries this way).
  • Occasionally move furniture and other items, like your laundry basket, to let the Roomba clean away dust that collects in these areas.
  • Don’t place virtual walls near areas that are hard to get out of, test how the Roomba reacts to the virtual wall (by letting it run or by running it with the remote control) and make sure to set the desired range of the wall.
  • This unstable looking thing won't fall over, but you should check this kind of thing

    This unstable looking thing won’t fall over, but you should check this kind of thing

  • Don’t place fragile objects on unstable coffee tables that the Roomba can bump into. Try kicking it lightly a few times and if the objects on the table move towards the edge you know what to do.
  • The dust bin contains the vacuum engine, so don’t bang the dust bin against the edge of the trashcan when you empty it.
  • If your stereo system is placed on the floor, make sure the volume isn’t too loud when the Roomba bumps into the play button :)

Conclusion

I’ve used the Roomba for well over a month now and I’m very happy with it. Apart from its poor performance on some carpets, it fits me and my home perfectly. That said it may not fit your home.

I have a total of two (2) cables on the floor (two floor lamps), the rest are hidden away in cable channels and under furniture. I also don’t have any furniture on “problem rugs”. The Roomba wouldn’t work as well in my parents’ house since they would have to move furniture to remove some rugs when cleaning or they’d have to block the Roomba from cleaning those areas and clean them manually.

It’s so nice to just let the robot do the work while you’re out shopping or playing video games in another room. Having this robot also inspires me to do other cleaning more often (dusting, etc.).

For me it was most definitely worth the money, but my advice to you is to evaluate your home and think about whether the Roomba, with its limitations, is suitable for you.

Feel free to use the comment form if you have any questions regarding this review.

Read about what happened months later…