Robot Vacuum Cleaners — What were they thinking?

Today I hit a point of total disgust with my Roomba 560 robot vacuum cleaner. It replaced an older Discovery model that had been in use for several years before it started to fail (that did not seem unreasonable). The 560 has been in service for roughly six months — but it seems like longer.

When we first got it the thing seemed wonderful — quiet and effective, it pulled dirt out of places that seemed clean after being recently hand vacuumed. We put it on automatic with three cleaning cycles per month. The honeymoon lasted for a few weeks. Then it started… (or more precisely, stopped.). We would find it on a scheduled work day stalled someplace — usually under a bed or other easy to locate place. When we pushed the go button it would give two plaintive beeps and demand that the brushes be cleaned before it would do anything more. We did this for a while but got tired and complained to the vendor — iRobot, Inc. The first answer was that there were technical issues with the brush module, so they sent us a replacement. Then it was — we know there are problems and we are working on fixing them, please be patient.

Today I was on their site and saw that the new recommendation is that the user must strip and clean the machine after EVERY cleaning cycle. It is no longer a problem — just a documented user maintenance shortcoming. Now, let me be clear as to what is involved: There is a spinning side brush held on with a screw — this must be removed and the dirt and pet hair that accumulates removed and the area wiped clean. Then the main brush assembly must be opened and the two rotating brushes removed, disassembled, cleaned meticulously of all dirt and hair (mostly hair) and then reassembled. The front wheel also needs to be pulled off, the cavity wiped out. And of course, the dirt catcher and filter (where the crud ends up) should be cleaned. This is roughly a 30 minute job with a screwdriver — save that the side brush mount point is not designed for repeated unscrewing so will likely be another major module replacement. Not bad for six months of use.

What really upsets me is that it is actually easier to vacuum our house by hand then to use the robot and then painstakingly maintain it. At least a vacuum cleaner can be used multiple times before requiring the messy job of changing/emptying the bad and cleaning the brushes. But not this new and improved robot. The maintenance time mounts up real fast and in truth I cannot disagree with my wife when she makes fun of this ‘labor saving’ contraption. Maybe the design objective was not to reduce the labor requirements for cleaning the house, but just clean me of $500 for this object. Its predecessor the Discovery model was not this neurotic.

So clearly, the question of ‘what were they thinking’ needs to be answered by someone. We have other robots at work and none of them are as neurotic and demanding as this thing. I am certainly hopeful that some Korean manufacturer will release a competitive model. I am certainly annoyed enough that I will no longer suggest to my friends that iRobot cleaning robots are assets. (Unlike the dilligent and undemanding italian robot that cuts our grass…)

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