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A robotic vacuum can clean your floors all day long without your lifting a finger. One thing it can’t do is clean itself. Hair, dust, crumbs, and other debris can build up inside the vacuum’s components.
“It’s easy to forget that robotic vacuums require maintenance, because they’re a set-it-and-forget-it kind of machine,” says Alex Nasrallah, Consumer Reports’ test engineer for robotic vacuums. “But you should clean them once a week, or more often if they’re vacuuming more than five times a day. Otherwise, they might not clean properly or even start.”
In our labs we evaluate how well each robotic vacuum removes surface debris, like Maine coon cat fur and Cheerios, so we end up removing a whole lot of gunk from robotic vacuums. Every test requires a pristine appliance to ensure that our results aren’t skewed by an errant grape stuck in the vacuum or a blocked sensor.
Here, our experts reveal the best methods for cleaning your robotic vacuum. We also highlight the top robotic vacuums from our ratings, in case you’re in the market for a new model.
Hair—of the human or pet variety—is the most common thing that gets stuck in a vacuum’s brush roll, side brushes, and wheels. “Removing any hair from the inlets and brush roll is especially important because it can block airflow, weakening suction power,” Nasrallah says.
Many robotic vacuums come with their own comb or blade tool for removing hair. But in our experience, it doesn’t always get the job done. “In some cases, a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife works better to get hair out from crevices,” Nasrallah says. For tightly wound hair, a knife is your best bet for cutting it loose.
To use a knife, place the robot on its back on a flat surface. Gently pull the hair up so that the knife can get under and slice through. You can also cut into the grooves of the robot brush roll, depending on the model. Once most of the hair is cut loose, you should be able to tear the rest out by hand.
Hair can also get wrapped around the side brushes of a vacuum and cause them to stop spinning and create a tangled mess with the bristles, keeping them from doing their job properly by not allowing them to sweep into corners and crevices. “To avoid that, remove the side brush—most just pop off—and pull out the hair,” Nasrallah says. If the brush is bent out of shape, gently straighten it. Some manufacturers may suggest other fixes; for instance, Eufy recommends swapping the two side brushes until they bend back in the other direction.
If these methods don’t work or if the brush is worn out, Nasrallah recommends getting a new one. “They’re inexpensive and easy to replace,” he says. Some manufacturers may even provide extra brushes in the box.
Clear Up the Sensors
It’s equally important to keep the sensors on your robotic vacuum clean. After all, you don’t want it bumping into furniture or falling down the stairs because its “eyes” are blinded by a layer of dust.
First, find out where the sensors are located by checking your manual or going to the company’s website. Some manufacturers have specific cleaning instructions. For example, iRobot recommends using a lightly dampened melamine foam, such as a Magic Eraser, to clean the sensors and the camera, if the vacuum has one. For most robotic vacuums, though, wiping the sensors with a dry cloth is enough. “It doesn’t need to be wet, and you don’t need soap,” Nasrallah says. “You just need to give the sensors a thorough wipe to make sure they’re not coated in dust.” If stubborn dirt remains, you can then use a slightly damp cloth to get it off.
Check the Wheels
If your robot is moving strangely, there could be something stuck in the wheel cavity or on the wheel itself. If the wheels can be removed, do so and clean any debris you see inside the wheel cavity, and remove any dirt or hair from the wheel’s axle. Wipe the wheel itself before popping it back in. If the wheels can’t be removed, see if you can get out whatever’s stuck with a knife. Most of the time this will work, Nasrallah says. But if you can’t pop out the wheels, don’t unscrew the unit to remove them until you check with the manufacturer; doing so might void the warranty.
Dealing With the Gross Stuff
Our followers on social media have told us their robovacs have unwittingly spread their sick pet’s vomit, and, sorry to say, smeared dog poop all over the house. If your robot makes the same mistake, you should remove the dustbin and any other easily removable parts and wipe them down with a lightly dampened melamine foam sponge. Any noncorrosive cleaner suitable for electronics should work fine. If you need to disinfect the vacuum, you can use 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipes. You just want to avoid using anything that might damage the surface material of the robot. Carefully spray a tiny amount of cleaner or disinfectant (no more than a single spray) on a sponge and wipe.
When wiping the body of the robot to remove dirt, use a slightly damp (not dripping wet) melamine foam sponge and try to avoid any small openings where water can get inside. You can rinse the robotic vacuum’s bin in a sink (or hose it down outside, depending on the mess). Just make sure it’s completely dry before replacing it.
Filters should be cleaned every five to 10 cleaning sessions, or about every other week. Remove it from the vacuum and gently tap it in a trash can to release any dust. You can also use a hand vacuum to clean the filter, or use a soft brush to loosen dust (and prevent your hands from getting dirty) into a trash can.
If you suspect your filter got wet (say, it rolled over a spilled drink) or you can see that it’s covered in residue, it’s best just to replace it. “Many filters are made from paper, and getting them wet will damage them,” Nasrallah says.
Best Robotic Vacuums From CR’s Tests
Here, listed in alphabetical order—not by rank—are five standouts from CR’s robotic vacuum tests.
How CR Tests Robovacs
Robovacs have become a popular choice for helping to keep a house clean, but how well do they perform? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports experts explain to host Jack Rico how CR tests these handy vacs to find out which one is right for you.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.
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