Roomba – 1, Dirt – 0

In my previous post on unwiring the house, I mentioned that one of the primary motivations came about because I wanted to give the Roomba clear berth to do its job.  I promised to write more about the Roomba, so here it comes.

I’m all about cutting the drudgery and complexity out of my life, so owning a Roomba is in perfect keeping with that philosophy.  I’ve wanted one of these suckers for a while.  After all, unlike Monica from Friends, I think it’s safe to say most people don’t value the time they have to spend vacuuming.  Or rather, it’s often more an issue of just how little time you spend vacuuming at all.  If there’s something I want to be remembered for, vacuuming isn’t it.  Have I said enough about vacuuming yet? Alright, good.

So the concept of some sort of inanimate object that vacuums for you is incredibly appealing.  The Roomba is a little rotund robot that zips and zooms around your house, vacuuming for you while you recline in a gold encrusted lounge chair and gnosh on peeled grapes and exotic cheeses and crackers.  Or at least, that’s what one hopes for.

Overall, I’d have to say the Roomba is a clear win…especially at the prices you can now get one for.  I actually had an item in my someday/maybe list to buy a Roomba, so when someone at the office mentioned that you could get one of the higher end models refurbished for just 135 bucks, I jumped on it without a second thought.  Well, yes, I stopped briefly by the Roomba Review to double check on what I was getting.  But in the end I bought a refurbished Roomba Discovery from Amazon.com for 135 dollars.

Incidentally, I seem to find myself buying more things from Amazon due to the whole Amazon Prime free 2 day shipping thing, which I’m riding on from someone else’s invite.  I guess that’s working out for Amazon.

Overview

Back to the Roomba.  It arrived in the expected time…2 working days  It supposedly had a high capacity battery installed and it came with two virtual wall units, a base station, two filters, and some other goodies like a remote which I’ll never use.  I think it was supposed to come with three filters, but whatever, right?

All of the newer Roomba models are essentially the same.  The
difference is the accessories.

The Discovery model has the very
important charging station which the Roomba can automatically return to
after a cleaning run.

The virtual wall units are also a nice extra ,and are basically directional infrared emitters that you place on the ground.  The Roomba will “bounce” off the infrared wall like a real wall.  As you might expect, the wall that gets created has some spread due to distance, so if you really want to pay attention, you have to do this thing where you angle the emitter slightly to compensate for the spread and straighten out the wall.  However, in most cases you probably won’t need to worry about that.

The remote lets you drive the Roomba around like a glorified remote control car with a vacuum.  I don’t find this useful at all.

Anyway, here’s the dope.  After running the Roomba for a bit, my general impression is that I really like it.

You have to make some allowances for the thing…it’s not small enough to fit through tight areas, and it obviously can’t clean areas where you’ve piled your junk, so you’ll probably want to reorganize rooms a bit to accommodate.  Still, it’s nothing you wouldn’t need to do with a big vacuum.  In some ways, this is useful because you probably have a ton of crap lying around that you ought to have thrown away months ago and haven’t.  Having a Roomba around kind of forces you to keep that part of your life under control.  Is that good or bad?  Well, I’ll leave that opinion up to you.  I personally think it’s good.

So after cleaning up a room for the Roomba, which seems oddly ironic, you turn the Roomba on.  While watching it, you realize that the Roomba is not a terribly smart device.  I’m sure I could code something up smarter on a PC, but then again, the Roomba ain’t running Windows, so I guess that’s pretty impressive.

The way it works is that the Roomba has a front loaded hydraulic bumper of some sort, and what it does is it generally whirrs forward until the bumper hits something.  At that point, it obviously knows something is in front of it, and then it backs off, or edges around the object, or whatever.  Because the bumper gives very quickly when it contacts something, there’s really almost nothing to worry about in terms of scratching walls…the bumping seems to be very easy on objects.  Just don’t leave any champagne glasses on the ground, OK?

What the Roomba doesn’t have is any sort of “seeing eye” that just lets it take the whole room in like a normal person could.  It is one’s natural inclination, I think, to assume a cleaning robot would be built this way, but I think the makers knew it wasn’t completely necessary.  The AI basically consists of blindly bumping off stuff in different ways.  One way is the wall hugging way, which causes the Roomba to edge along the wall cleaning.  Another mode is some sort of random bouncing mode, which seems intended to just get the Roomba to cover wide areas.  And yet another mode is the stuck in a small space mode, where the Roomba makes small, tentative rotations and advances to work its way out of a tight area.

Presumably, the Roomba might have been able to incorporate mapping of rooms.  But it does not do this, as far as I can tell.  Bumping uglies with the walls and the furniture is the rule.

Of course, because it’s a robot, it can afford to be dumb and repetitive…it’s going to vacuum a whole lot more than you ever would and it can afford to do the same areas a few times as a result.  Such is the beauty of these approaches…brute force works pretty well, thank you.

The Roomba has sensors to detect dropoffs, so it won’t fall down stairs.  This works, I tried it out.

The Roomba has some sort of swiffing spinning brush located on its front right hand corner which helps to kick out crap on edges and walls. It catches some stuff, so it’s a good idea for sure, but there’s probably plenty of room here for improvement…it certainly doesn’t attack edges or corners as hard as it needs to.  I think the Roomba actually needs some sort of air blasting nozzle to kick dirt out of the edges and corners…the brush simply doesn’t reach down into the carpet the way that it needs to.

The battery, in my estimation, probably lasts around 60 minutes.  I suspect the battery is worn down, as I seem to recall reading estimates of two hours.  Nevertheless, 60 minutes is plenty of vacuuming time.

There’s a scheduling accessory which you
can use to program the Roomba to head out at particular intervals.  I
didn’t buy that yet, but I might.

Where things go wrong

One trip up is a narrow passageway.  If your Roomba crosses through a door or some narrow area created by an arrangement of furniture, odds are naturally low that the Roomba will find its way back through that passageway on its own.  I think this is why it’s called a Roomba and not a Houseba.  It really does work best in a room.  Anyway, if you let the Roomba navigate through doors, it starts to become very difficult for that Roomba to just randomly bounce back within range of the charging station it left behind.

Rugs can be trouble for a Roomba…especially if they are thick.  The Roomba will bounce off them like walls, and therefore will often fail to clean the rugs at all.  I’m very utilitarian so I’d just get rid of the rugs, but your significant other may not agree with that approach.

Oriental rugs with the frills on the ends are like Roomba kryptonite.  The Roomba will get stuck vacuuming up the ends and has no way to recover.  One thing you would like the Roomba to do is stop vacuuming and try to move its way off the rug, but it seems like the Roomba can’t move without vacuuming.  So it gets stuck.

I’d have to imagine most pets will not like the Roomba.  I don’t know how dogs will react, but the cat that saw the Roomba when we tested it at a friend’s house was in fight or flight mode the entire time that the Roomba was running.  On the other hand, if you have a pet, you must be in dire need of a Roomba due to all the shedding of hair, so think about that for a bit.

Wires on the ground are also trouble.  It’s not hard to keep wires off the ground, but most likely you had no reason to worry about it before, so that’s where they are.  It takes a medium amount of effort to find off the ground spots and bundling strategies to stop the Roomba from sucking up wires in a similar fashion to the frills on a rug.

How I’d improve the Roomba

For starters, the Roomba needs to not get caught on rug frills.  If it would try turning off the vacuum or reversing it somehow when stuck like that, it could probably recover.  But you basically need to not have rugs that are too light or too thick with the Roomba around.  Thick rugs or other areas also give the Roomba problems…it needs more of a monster truck suspension to cross small boundaries presented by thick rugs or carpet to tile dividers.

I’d add a air blaster where the swiffer is.  The swiffing brush isn’t nearly as effective as it needs to be on edges and corners, especially since the dirt and junk tends to pile up down diagonally down into the carpet edge and the brush swings horizontally.  Blasting with air would shoot a lot of that dust and dirt out somewhere where it could be cleaned.

Mapping seems like a really obvious way to improve the Roomba.  Bouncing around is OK for a first shot, but moving past that needs to happen at some point.  The Roomba, as I said before, is really only best on a single room due to this problem.  Ignoring cost, I think this is the only way to turn the Roomba into a more viable whole floor cleaning machine, since narrow areas tend to trap the Roomba from crossing into other areas and returning to its home base becomes unreliable at that point.

Conclusion

And those are my notes.  Overall…wow, it’s worth it.  I normally can’t be bothered to vacuum, but pressing a button is A-OK with me.   The Roomba, once you get through the one-time prep of a room to make it “Roomba friendly”, vacuums a room thoroughly, to the point where I can pretty much ignore the other few percent it didn’t get.  It’s not totally hands-off and invisible, which is the ultimate goal…but it’s way better than life before, which essentially amounted to no vacuuming at all.  Until they produce a Roomba ready house with Roomba alcoves, automatic cleaning schedules, and some sort of integrated bin dumping system, I can settle for pressing the Clean button on the Roomba every so often.

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