What Is a Roomba and How Does It Work?

Everything you ever wanted to know about the little cleaning robot

First debuting in 2002, the Roomba is a semi-autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner. Roombas can learn your cleaning schedule and make suggestions, and some models can create a floor plan of your home over time. A Roomba doesn’t have a mind of its own; you’ll have to tell it when to clean, and it’ll follow a preprogrammed algorithm instead of improvising on the fly.

How Is a Roomba Taught to Vacuum?

In most basic models, the Roomba uses a random pattern to clean the floor. It will change direction when it senses an obstacle using infrared sensors, but otherwise, it’s not following a specific order. More complex models will learn a floor plan over time and use that to offer more options, but there’s no artificial intelligence in the device.

However, it doesn't just clean the same place over and over again. Roombas have a piezoelectric sensor that sends electrical impulses when it touches dirt. If it doesn't find any after a set amount of distance, it'll return to its dock. Otherwise, it'll clean until its battery is low.

Do Roombas Really Work?

A Roomba doesn’t have the suction power of a standard vacuum cleaner. That's just a function of its size; you can fit a much larger motor in an upright. A Roomba is more equivalent to a Dustbuster or another personal vacuum cleaner.

However, that's balanced by a few key advantages. They have a low profile to slip under furniture and keep the floors underneath cleaner than they usually would be. They can pick up everyday dirt, dust, and debris, maintaining a better overall clean. And they’re easy to automate and schedule, so they can clean when everyone is out of the house and clean as often as you'd like them to.

This tradeoff makes them ideal for lessening the chore load and maintaining a base clean, especially in harder-to-reach areas where you’d have to move furniture or cleaning areas of your house that you’re not regularly in, such as guest areas or craft rooms. Allergy sufferers, in particular, tend to use Roombas to remove pollen and pet dander.

What Floors Can a Roomba Clean?

Any Roomba will be effective on hardwood or tile surfaces. More advanced models will include carpet brushes and other tools capable of getting dirt out of those types of flooring. Obstacles such as cords strung across a floor, or items like velcro that stick to the brushes, may foul these features, however. Nor should Roombas be used in any area where there's often water or other liquids on the floor; if that will be a situation, you should look into iRobot's mop, Braava.

Does a Roomba Need Wi-Fi?

While more advanced models have features that will only work if the Roomba’s on your network, Roomba doesn’t need to be hooked up to your Wi-Fi. Each model has a CLEAN button on the top; press that, and the Roomba will go to work.

Does a Roomba Learn My Floor Plan or Map My House?

Higher-end Roombas can map the floor plan of your house. Models with the capability include the i6 and later models, the s9 and s9+, and the m6.

It does this through a mix of odometry (tracking how far the device goes from a fixed point, like its charging dock) and a low-resolution camera that essentially scans for light and dark patches. 

This functionality enables you to, for example, tell the Roomba to only clean a specific room in your house if you mark it as such on the map. These features can be disabled in iRobot’s app.

  • How well does a Roomba work in a cluttered home?

    To get the best performance from your Roomba, it's a good idea to prep your house by tidying up clutter. This boosts the Roomba's ability to perform and also helps protect your device from breakage. For example, be sure to dock your Roomba in an area that's completely clear for about 1.5 to 3 feet from the device. This helps the Roomba line up and re-dock itself correctly. Get rid of tiny hazards on your floor, such as LEGO pieces, screws, nails, etc., as well as electronic cords; this kind of clutter can do some real damage to your robot vacuum.

  • How well does a Roomba work on tile?

    Roombas work very well on tile floors and can adjust to areas with carpets. Roombas have excellent suction power and rubber brushes suitable for tile floors, and their sensors can adjust when leaving a tile surface and hitting a carpeted surface. In particular, most Roomba models deal well with pet hair on tile surfaces and have filters that capture most pet allergens.

  • How well does a Roomba work on multilevel houses?

    While your Roomba can't climb stairs, it is very adaptable to changes in furniture and other objects and will have no trouble if, for example, you take it upstairs to clean when it's usually used downstairs. When you move the Roomba, bring its docking station to the new level and place it in a clear area. The Roomba will figure out how to get back and dock when it's finished.

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