My robo-vac family album
My experience after using these robots for about seven years has left me with plenty of opinions and tips to share. I ordered my first robo-vac, a Roomba 560, from HSN.com in 2009 (don't judge, it was a great deal). Then I went slightly crazy and ordered a Scooba 380 mopping robot the very next day. I was so pleased with how well the Roomba worked on the main floor that I picked up a Dirt Dog for the basement shortly after. Those three robots kept my floors tidy for over three years until I bought my first Neato.
In August 2012, my Neato XV-21 arrived and took over cleaning duty for the main floor of the house. I then moved my Roomba 560 upstairs. Just like that, I had robots roaming every floor of my house—at least, if you count my aquarium-filled basement lair as a floor. Sadly, not long after that milestone my faithful Dirt Dog went mad and I had to put him down (poor Yeller). Of course, once you've had robots cleaning your entire house, you can't go back to the vacuuming Dark Ages, so I got a second XV-21 for the top floor and moved the Roomba to the basement.
We moved a little over a year ago and that change required robot redeployment. Our new house has just two levels, so we relegated the Roomba to cleaning up spilled cat litter in the basement. The Neato twins were scheduled to work separate day and night shifts to cover the whole upstairs. That status quo ended a couple months ago when I decided that the extra attention and maintenance my Neatos needed after their own three-and-a-half years of service just wasn't worth the effort anymore. I couldn't bear to toss them, so I packed them up and shipped them off to a good home where I knew they would be properly repaired or at least used for parts. That meant it was time to pick out a new one.
The Neato BotVac D80
My new Neato BotVac D80 may have crossed paths with my old Neatos on their way to greener carpets. Even though my original Roomba outlasted my first Neatos, I chose another Neato for a few reasons. Cost kept me from even considering the Roomba 980. At $900 it's fully double the price of the Botvac D80, and its feature list just doesn't justify the difference (think AMD vs. Intel circa 2004). iRobot doesn't make another Roomba that can navigate a whole house without the use of its Lighthouses, and I didn't want to mess with those again (or have my dogs eat any more of them). I took a serious look at Samsung's Powerbots, too, but murmurs of spotty navigation and the lack of a side-brush steered me away.
It was an easy pick to choose the BotVac D80 over the other Neato models. The D75 doesn't come with a bristle brush for pet hair, and it ships with standard low-surface-area filters. It's compatible with a better brush and filters if I wanted to buy them separately, but that approach doesn't save any money. With the D75 out of the running, Neato only had one other option worth considering.
The high-end BotVac Connected's claim to fame is its onboard Wi-Fi transceiver. That radio lets owners control the Connected using a smartphone app. Since I'd never want my robotic vacuum to run off its schedule, that feature didn't appeal to me. The BotVac Connected can switch between an Eco mode that conserves battery life and Turbo mode that increases suction power. The Connected can't change between these modes intelligently like the Roomba 980 can, so it's not an earth-shaking feature unless one's home is too big to clean on one charge without the Eco-mode boost.
I am a little jealous of the Li-ion battery that the Connected comes with, though, especially because I can't replace my D80's NiMH battery with one later. My D80 can run for over an hour without needing to recharge, though. That's good enough to clean my home's entire floor, so I'm not losing sleep over it. The Connected does come with an "Ultra-Peformance" filter instead of a "High-Performance" one, but I can switch those filters out myself if I want. The bottom line is that the $250 price difference between the Connected and the D80 would be better spent on a PC upgrade of some kind.
This isn't a review, but I do have a few thoughts to share about the first month of living with the latest addition to our household. He's been doing a fine job. The D80's larger dust bin is great. The smaller bin of the XV-21s filled up too quickly with all the pets in our house, even though both vacuums ran daily. I think the one on the D80 allows the vacuum inside to work more effectively since it doesn't get packed as densely with debris during a cleaning run. I'm sure the greater surface area of the D80's newer filters help in that regard, too. The other observation worth mentioning is that the D80 gets stuck in things like chair legs much less frequently than I was used to with the XV-21. In fact, after a couple initial adjustments, it hasn't gotten stuck a single time except for the occasional tangle with a misplaced sock.
Repairing, modding, and hacking
With any new robo-vac comes new things to learn about it. For those with an enthusiast mindset, the immediate urge is figuring out how to make the vacuum better and how to fix it after your tweaking attempts fail. For questions or advice, there's no better resource than the Robot Reviews forums. That community has created countless threads with tons of detail, and it's made up of helpful people that are just as tuned into the world of floor-cleaning robots as our forums are to PC hardware. I couldn't even begin to cover all the cool mods people come up with, or the breadth of repairs that are possible, so I'll just share my personal tweaking and tuning efforts over the years.
Like the countless status apps out there for PCs, NeatoControl lets Neato owners get a full overview of what's going on with their robots. It allows control over many of the Neato's functions, and it can read the vacuum's sensor data, too. I should have made time to check it out, but I was too busy making animated GIFs of blinking RGB arrows and taking pictures of my phone taped to my vacuum. Hmm, does that count as a mod?
Any discussion about robo-vac repair and maintenance should start with a word about the costs involved. Robo-vacs will need more time and money to keep running than a normal vacuum. The time it takes to keep them in working order is more than offset by the time they save you from vacuuming manually, though. That said, the total cost of ownershiph is a bit high compared to a regular vacuum. I estimate that if I took all the money I've spent in seven years of using robotic vacuums and divided it out, my fleet has cost me somewhere around $25 per month. Expensive for a vacuum, but not bad for a hobby, right?
That money has gone toward a variety of items. Some was for replacing standard consumables like lifeless batteries, worn-out filters, and beat-up side brushes. Depending on the frequency of the robot's cleaning schedule and their chemistry, batteries will probably last about a year before their runtime is significantly diminished. Filters require maintenance and replacement, too. I toss mine in the dishwasher every couple weeks to keep them in top form, and I always have a hot-swap spare ready to go for when the other one is drying out. That treatment won't work for all filters, though. I'm already noticing that the D80's wider filter is losing some of its form, something that never happened with the XV-21's filter. I'll likely have to find a third-party one that holds up better. Side brushes can last years, or they can lose an arm in one night if they have an unlucky run-in with a furnace vent or a shoelace.
Thankfully, all modern robo-vacs are highly modular and fairly simple to repair. The non-standard repairs you have to perform and pay for do add up over time, though. I've probably replaced the Cleaning Head Module on my Roomba four times, not to mention the dozen times I've disassembled them to clean out the gears and extend their life. The CHM that I have now is an upgraded version that's designed to prevent gunk from getting into the gears in the first place. Before that, I used a modded version with sealed bearings. That module lasted much longer than the originals, but it wasn't cheap. I've also replaced wheels, motors, and bearings. The good news is that as robo-vacs improve, I'd expect the total cost of ownership to go down. Owners of older vacuums can benefit from what I've learned to save some money, though.