The housework survey from the introductory post in this series didn’t break down cleaning tasks other than washing dishes. In my experience, keeping the floor clean is a not insubstantial fraction of that. But, perhaps, not for too much longer:
The jumbo Frisbee circulating its way around the tiles is an iRobot Scooba 390, and it’s a combination vacuum and mop. You fill it with warm water and, optionally, a little vinegar or some proprietary cleaning fluid in the mix, put it on the floor, and let it rip. It’s smart enough to work its way around furniture and odd-shaped rooms, and not fall down stairs; if you need to block off an area for some reason, you can use a small battery-powered box sending out an (IR, I think) beam called a “Virtual Wall”.
As you can see from the video, the Scooba doesn’t perform its mopping in quite the same order as a human might; it’s really quite chaotic. But it works, and touch wood, it works pretty well. I can personally vouch for this, having recently bought one.
You don’t have to sweep everywhere beforehand, but I do a quick tidy-up near the cat’s litter tray and food bowl first, and lift the kitchen chairs off the floor. Then you let it rip; once it’s finished you have to clean out the dirty water tank and clean the filter and squeegee. That takes a bit longer than what cleaning a hand mop would, but not a lot. The whole process takes about five minutes of my time, and the floors are better than what I manage by hand.
Yes, it was quite an expensive gadget, and there are reports that they are less reliable than one might hope. But right now, in 2013, you can get a robot to do most of the work of cleaning hard floors.
The Scooba has a vacuuming older brother, the Roomba, which has been available for ten years, and there are a number of other vacuuming robots on the market. The Roomba is actually a good deal more independent than the Scooba; it’s able to find the charging station on its own, navigate its way from room to room and finish one completely before starting another, and run at pre-scheduled times. After initial configuration, the only thing you need to do to a Roomba is empty the dust bin when it’s full. However, while technology bloggers seem to give the Roomba the thumbs-up, the household drudgery professionals at Choice Australia have tested earlier (now superceded) models of the Roomba and other robotic vacuums, and found their vacuum performance wanting. In short, it doesn’t suck hard enough compared with a conventional, mains-powered vacuum cleaner.
But even if that’s also true of the current generation of robot vacuums, it’s unlikely to be true of their successors. The primary factor limiting the Roomba’s vacuuming is the power available from its battery. And, thanks to laptops and now electric cars, battery technology is improving all the time. By 2020, a battery of the same size and cost as the Roomba’s present battery will hold roughly twice as much charge, and thus the 2020 Roomba will likely be twice as powerful.
The Bottom Line
The current state of the art in robotic floor cleaning is expensive, and in the case of carpet vacuuming it’s not clear whether the state of the art is effective. But they are close enough to be confident that floor cleaning is likely to take people a lot less time in the future than it does at present.