It wasn’t long ago that robot vacuums were something of a joke, more a statement of affluence or potential cat car than a convenient household tool. However, both the hardware and software have improved enormously in the past few years. Innovations like smart maps and self-emptying dust bins have made robovacs more useful and more ubiquitous than ever before.
Along with Velcro and routers, I count a good robot vacuum as one of my favorite inventions of the past half-century—we’ve rounded our top picks in our best robot vacuums guide. But even if the tech has dramatically improved, it doesn’t mean they’re always easy to use. If you’re worried you’re at risk of becoming the next Roomba “pooptastrophe”, read on. There are a few ways that we can help.
1. Do a Trial Run
It’s tempting, but you can’t open the box, start your new robot vacuum, walk away for three hours, and expect to come home to a clean house. It takes time for both you and the robovac to learn what the potential booby traps in your house will be for the roving machine. I always stay home for the first run (or three) to make sure the robot can complete a cleaning run.
It also helps to give your house a once-over before you start any cleaning. Dangling shoelaces, fringed toddler skirts, and ribbons tend to trip up the smartest robot vacuum. In my testing, I’ve found that iRobot’s 900 and I Series, like the Roomba 980 and the Roomba i7+, do the best job of skirting potential traps.
2. Turn On the Lights
Robot vacuums use a number of different sensors to navigate around your home. Bumper sensors tell them when it’s run into something and to head off in a different direction. Infrared cliff sensors on the edges alert robovacs to when they about to fall off a step.
Many smart robot vacuums don’t have cameras (don’t get a robot vacuum with a camera!), but they do have optical sensors that track obstacles in the robot’s path and measure how far it’s traveled. Unfortunately, optical sensors require ambient light to operate.
If you find that your vacuum is getting stuck often, don’t schedule your cleanings at night. Try 9 AM, just after you leave for work. If you have a dog, cleaning right after you leave will also give your pup less time to have an accident on the floor. If your robot is still having trouble navigating, you can also try wiping off the optical sensors with a soft cloth.
3. Empty the Bin
A few people have complained to me that instead of cleaning, their robot vacuum drags dirt around their house. Unfortunately, a robot vacuum’s dust bin is pretty small. Most robot vacuums have a bin size of around 0.6 liters. The dust bin on my Dyson ball vacuum is twice that, and I still need to empty it from room to room.
If you live in a house with multiple small children or pets, your robot vacuum might be regurgitating dirt as it cleans. I usually do a deep clean every week or so with a push vacuum to ease its burden, or you might want to schedule a cleaning for when you’re at home and can empty the bin. It also helps to regularly clean the vacuum’s roller brush. You can also spring for a robot vacuum with its own self-cleaning base.
4. Create a Throw Zone
Ideally, you would automate your robot vacuum’s cleaning cycles, not give it another thought, and come home to a clean house every day thereafter. But you will also have to give your house a quick once-over regularly to keep stray pieces of dental floss out of your vacuum’s way.
Some friends have told me they appreciate the regular reminders to pick up after themselves. However, I have also created what I call “throw zones.” If you don’t have time to put everything away every time you run your robot vacuum, you can designate an area to toss the toy necklaces and blankies to go before you leave the house. For smart robot vacuums, you can now usually draw a boundary line in your app, but for dumber ones, you can stick a magnetic boundary strip at the areas in your house you want to cordon off.
Before the cleaning run starts, toss every iffy household item behind the boundary. Ideally, you would then sort out everything that has landed in your own personal Bermuda Triangle, but you can get to that later.
With two kids, a dog, and a full-time job, I credit robot vacuums with being one of the few devices that helps keep my house in a semi-presentable condition. And unlike a push vacuum, it regularly cleans places that I might otherwise overlook, like under the couch, oven, or beds. Soon, you too may find that your robot vacuum has also become one of your best friends. At the very least, it still makes a fine tool for rolling the littlest of your cute critters around the living room.
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