How to Set Up a Robotic Vacuum

Regardless of the manufacturer, you can follow these tips for better robotic vacuum performance

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.

Two teenagers sitting on a couch and lifting their feet so a robotic vacuum can pass underneath Photo: Getty Images

Before these autonomous cleaning machines can do their thing, you’ll need to do a little planning. Robotic vacuum cleaners need a clear path in the room they’re cleaning and around their docking station, otherwise they’re likely to get stuck.

“Some robot brush rolls get jammed with tassels, and sometimes docks can slide around if they’re not up against a sturdy wall,” says Susan Booth, who oversees Consumer Reports’ robotic vacuum testing. “Even area rugs can be tricky, depending on the type and size.”

More on Robotic Vacuums

Booth and her team designed a multiroom lab to evaluate how well each robotic vacuum removes surface debris on low-pile carpet and bare floors, whether it can get into tight corners, and how well it navigates and cleans multiple types of rooms with common robotic vacuum pitfalls. All of that makes them pros at knowing what extraneous things to move and where to position the dock. 

Below, our experts share five tips on how to set up your robotic vacuum and its dock so that you can experience the (mostly) hands-free cleaning you’ve been promised. To see every robotic vacuum we’ve rated, check out our robotic vacuum ratings. Otherwise, read our vacuum buying guide to see whether a robotic vacuum is right for your home.

5 Tips for Setting Up Your Robotic Vacuum

Keep Your Robotic and Dock in Sync
All robotic vacuums come with a docking station that is typically only a couple of inches wide and tall, though some can be much larger—say, if they come with a self-emptying bin. It’s important to make sure the dock is properly situated, otherwise you’re likely to face charging and cleaning problems.

“Docks need to be placed on hard, level surfaces,” Booth says. “That means no thick carpets or rugs, or any uneven surface, because that could interfere with the vacuum’s ability to charge.”

The closer the dock is to the area being cleaned, the better the chance of the robot returning successfully. When a robot is cleaning multiple rooms, it can sometimes get lost and not make it back. This is especially common with units that use a random cleaning pattern. In this case, you may have to move the dock to the room the robotic vacuum is cleaning or stop the robot when it’s mostly finished and carry it back to the dock yourself.

Clean Up Your Cables 
A robotic vacuum can clean on its own, but it can’t differentiate between the floor and a power cord, and may get tangled or stop cleaning if it can’t clear the cord. Tie wires from the dock as neatly as possible to avoid tangling with the robot/moving base,” says Alex Nasrallah, who tests robotic vacuums at Consumer Reports.

Create a Docking Zone 
Try to give the dock 3 to 5 feet of clearance on each side so that the robotic vacuum can back out of the dock easily and start cleaning. The open space also allows for the robotic vacuum’s sensors to help the vacuum locate the dock with ease, because its sensors won’t be interrupted by other objects.

Open Up Your Space 
If you have a particularly big or cluttered room, clear it as much as you can so that the connection between the robot and the dock remains strong. “Moving the dock will help if you want to clean room by room, but keep in mind units with mapping capabilities need to have the base in a set location,” Nasrallah says.

Beware of the Barrier
For units that have virtual barriers drawn—say, if you wanted to keep the robotic vacuum from entering a room—give at least 8 feet between the dock and the barrier, if not more. If the virtual barrier is too close, the signal could prevent the robot from exiting the dock or returning to the dock.

Top Robotic Vacuums From CR's Tests

Below are some top robotic vacuum performers from CR’s ratings. For a full rundown of how these bots work, check out our reviews of the best robotic vacuums of the year.