High-tech vacuums and robotic mops are having their moment in a pandemic that has contributed to never-ending messes at home.
Brian X. Chen has tested dozens of products over seven years as The New York Times’s personal-tech columnist.
On a recent Friday night, I unpacked the newest Dyson vacuum to try it out (as people do with their free time in a pandemic). As someone who tests lots of cutting-edge gizmos, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away.
But when I pressed the trigger to activate the vacuum, my mouth gaped open and I began spewing profanities. Dyson’s $700 V15 Detect has a laser that illuminates dust normally invisible to the human eye. To my horror, the laser showed that every inch of the floor in every room of the house was blanketed in a light layer of dog fur.
My corgi, Max, who has a reputation for ruining clothing, bedding and car interiors with his incessant shedding, was no doubt the culprit. To live with him, I vacuum the house often and occasionally get help from a professional cleaner. So the sight of so much dog fur even after all those efforts was truly horrifying.
Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. It was like when Neo saw the Matrix, but instead of green lines of code, it was dog fur. And instead of gaining the ability to fly, I had newfound neuroses about cleanliness.
Dyson’s laser-equipped vacuum is one of the latest examples of cleaning tech, products that are designed to make our household hygiene as painless and efficient as possible. It’s an increasingly important category of technology now that the pandemic has forced so many of us to spend lots of time at home, creating messes that never seem to go away.
So along with the Dyson, I tested the latest automated cleaners — a robot vacuum and a robot mop — from iRobot, the maker of the Roomba. The robots were fussy to set up and staggeringly dumb at times, but once they learned where to clean, they were very helpful.
Becky Rapinchuk, the founder of Clean Mama, a website that offers advice and products for keeping homes tidy, said she had also tested many cleaning tech products and found they were ideal for certain types of people. Robot cleaners, for example, are a great fit for busy commuters but not for professionals who work from home and would be disrupted by the noise.
“There are so many people who will put it on before they leave for work and come home to a house that is beautifully vacuumed,” she said about cleaning robots. “For someone who works from home, it doesn’t have the same effect.”
After about a week of testing the cleaning tech, I concluded that there are convenient ways to fit these gadgets into our lives. Here’s a guide.
The Dyson Laser Vacuum
The V15 Detect, unveiled last year, is the latest stick vacuum from Dyson. Getting started is simple: You charge the battery, attach a cleaning head to the stick and press a button.
The device comes with seven cleaning heads for sucking up dust and dirt on hardwood floors, carpets and smaller areas like crevices. The roller attachment for hardwood is the one with the laser. It makes night vacuuming a thing — the darker it is, the more visible the laser. An attachment for carpet includes a cutter to slice up hair, which reduces the need to do maintenance on the head.
Stick vacuums have been popular because of their lightweight and cordless mobility, which makes cleaning less of a hassle than schlepping an upright corded vacuum around. Generally, though, the sticks have served as a secondary cleaner to a full-size vacuum because of their short battery life and relatively weak suction.
I can confirm that the stick vacuum has come a long way. The V15 Detect has a significantly more powerful motor, with stronger suction, than my Dyson V6 stick vacuum, which was released in 2015. Its battery lasted about 40 minutes before needing a charge, enough time to go through my modestly sized home. (My V6 lasted about 15 minutes.)
Lastly, the Dyson’s suction was not as strong as my extremely powerful Miele bagged vacuum. But after two weeks of vacuuming hardwood floors and carpets with the stick, I didn’t feel a need to plug in the full-size vacuum.
It takes a while to get accustomed to the Roomba J7+, the $850 robot vacuum, and the Braava Jet M6, the $450 robot mop, both from iRobot. The devices rely on cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence to create a map of your home. Once a map is created, you can label each room and tell the robots to clean specific areas or to clean everywhere.
I’m a Roomba skeptic — I returned one more than a decade ago after it bumped into a leg of a side table, sending a wine glass to its splintery demise — so the robots were a tough sell for me. It took the Roomba J7+ several runs to create a map of my home. For reasons that are still unknown, it kept skipping my master bedroom; only after I picked up the robot and started it up in there did it add the bedroom to its map.
The Braava Jet mop was even more finicky. It got stuck trying to go over a wood gap for a floor transition between rooms.
Spokesmen at iRobot said the robot mop was designed to be more sensitive so it didn’t inadvertently squirt water on areas like rugs, which is why it was unable to coast over the wood gap. They advised me to tinker with the threshold settings to teach the robot to go over floor transitions.
Even so, the robot mop rode onto my thin floor rug in the living room without hesitation. The company suggested that I set boundaries in the map to tell the robot not to mop in certain areas.
What a hassle. In the end, I found that the simplest solution was to share the Roomba’s map with the Braava Jet and instruct the mop to clean rug-free areas, like the bathroom and kitchen.
I concluded that assigning specific rooms to the robots was the sweet spot for people like me who work from home. So the next time I stepped out to take my dogs for a walk or went to the grocery store, I instructed the Roomba to vacuum the bedroom and the Braava Jet to mop the kitchen.
By the time I returned, both rooms looked clean. I was especially impressed with the Roomba’s ability to squeeze into areas where I normally wouldn’t vacuum, like inside the coat closet and underneath my bed.
Colin Angle, the chief executive of iRobot, said the pandemic had pushed the company to design features with remote workers in mind. It added the ability for its devices to clean only specific rooms and avoid colliding with objects like sneakers.
“The robots had to do something that Roomba never had to do before — listen and be able to execute a very precise cleaning mission,” Mr. Angle said.
Robot vacuums and cleaners cannot entirely replace manual cleaning. Because of their size and shape, they will miss some corners and crevices, and they lack legs to climb up staircases. And at $450 to $850, these cleaning gadgets are as expensive as high-end smartphones.
So if you buy just one cleaning tech gadget, it should be a stick vacuum. It makes cleaning easier and is likely to encourage you to vacuum more often.
There are also cheaper options than the V15 Detect. Wirecutter, The New York Times’s sister publication that tests products, recommends stick vacuums from Black & Decker and Tineco that cost $150 to $400. They lack a laser, which is fine, though a laser sure is cool.
Robots like the Roomba vacuum and the Braava Jet mop can be convenient, but they are best for people who have the enthusiasm and patience to deal with technology. Once put on the right path, they can lessen the load of endless house chores, which is a boon in a pandemic or out of one.