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6 things to know about robot vacuums before you buy one

With the holidays approaching you might wind up with a cleaning robot in your home. I've been using one for weeks and have some tips that could make your experience far better.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
robot vacuum with cats
Iuliia Alekseeva/Getty Images

When I received a Narwal Freo vacuum/mopping robot, I was skeptical. Given my wife and I are serious about cleaning, we were both certain a small robot couldn't do a better job than us. It took one day to realize just how wrong we were. Since then we haven't had to sweep or mop the bottom floor of the house. 

The top floor? That's a different story.

Also: The best robot vacuum mops right now

And so, after using the Narwal Freo for a few weeks, I have some advice to share that could help improve your experience.

Are you ready? Let's clean.

1. For smart devices, they can be kind of dumb

Most robot vacuums or vacuum/mop combos are smart devices that use AI and machine learning to map your home so they know where to sweep and mop. And no matter how far those technologies come, it doesn't mean those devices are going to be perfect.

After the first two goes at sweeping and mopping, I realized I had to define a few "no go" zones because "Margo Robot" (our name for the Freo) continually found itself stuck under a couple of end tables. But even after defining those zones, the robot continued its attempt to clean them and would eventually get stuck. 

Also: Skip the Dyson: This $150 stick vacuum is just as powerful (and can mop, too)

Because of this, I've set the scheduled vacuuming/mopping for times when one (or both) of us will be home to give the robot a helping hand over those obstacles. 

To that end, it's best to go into purchasing a cleaning robot not thinking it's going to be able to perfectly navigate the maze of things that come together to make up your home.

  • It's going to get stuck. 
  • It's going to keep going places you don't want it to.
  • It's going to get blocked and may (or may not) be able to figure its way out.

Just because something is "smart" doesn't mean it's perfect. If you assume a cleaning robot will know the layout of your home as well as you, think again. You will have to rescue the device.

Speaking of rescuing…

2. Pick up the cords

I've already lost one laptop cord to the Narwal. Unlike humans, a cleaning robot cannot spot a cable on the floor, stop, move it, and continue on. Robots are going to keep on going until that cord is wrapped around a cleaning brush and they can't keep going. That's when you have to intervene, shift any cables from the reach of the robot, and then (and only then) let it do its thing.

Also: This robot vacuuming mop combo has a brilliant self-cleaning feature I didn't know I needed

This can be challenging, especially after you've set a schedule for the robot and grown accustomed to the robot's daily routine. You'll forget that, in ten minutes, the robot will leave its station and start the daily task. When you forget, those cables are vulnerable. 

Remember them. Save them.

3. Maintain your robot

We often forget that maintenance is an important piece of the puzzle. If you don't spend a bit of time caring for that technology, it will eventually fail. Given how much these robots can cost, it's important that you heed this advice. Here are my tips:

  • Always check the brushes for entanglements before they start the task.
  • Keep the robot clean.
  • If it doubles as a mop, keep the dirty water container emptied and the clean water container filled.
  • Keep the wheels (and their axles) clean (so they can maintain traction and don't wind up with unwanted tension).
  • Replace brushes and filters as recommended.

Also: The best iRobot vacuums

The documentation for your robot should offer plenty of suggestions for maintaining the device. Read and follow them to the letter. This is an expensive piece of equipment and you want it running smoothly for a long time.

4. Remap if necessary

If you make changes to the layout of any room in the house (moving major or minor furnishings), make sure to remap. If you don't, the robot will assume everything is exactly as it was during its previous run and will wind up getting stuck or confused. 

Although I wouldn't worry about remapping if you moved an ottoman two feet to the right. However, if you move multiple pieces in a room, remap. If your robot has the ability to remap only specific rooms, I would recommend using that option (instead of remapping the entire floor).

5. Clean the sensors

Your robot has sensors that keep it from falling or slamming into (some obstacles). It's important that you keep those sensors clean. Otherwise, the device might not spot that drop and fall to its demise.

Also: The best Roborock robot vacuums 

If this device is also a mop, the sensors can get covered in splashback of dirty water over time. Use a cloth that is safe for screens (such as a microfiber cloth) and wipe those sensors down weekly.

6. Read the documentation

Finally, it's imperative that you carefully read the enclosed documentation. Many businesses really go out of their way to simplify the onboarding process for technology. To that end, they'll include simplified documentation that could be little more than a collection of images showing you what to do.

Given you might have spent over a thousand dollars on the robot, locate the proper documentation (which might be a downloadable PDF) and read it. Don't assume those pictures tell the whole story and don't be afraid of over 240 characters.

Also: The best robot mops

RTFM (Read The *Fine* Manual) can go a long way to ensuring your robot lives a long and healthy life.

And there you have it. With a bit of care, your new cleaning robot will not only last a long time but won't frustrate you or have you thinking it cannot live up to the hype. As someone who was certain those devices were nothing but hype, I can tell you they are not only capable of living up to it but far exceeding it.

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