Does a Robotic Vacuum Make Sense for a Small Apartment?

Hands-free cleaning is the dream. But is a high-tech, high-priced vacuum necessary for a home with only a couple of rooms?

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robot vacuum in apartment Sinenkiy

There’s something undeniably fun about watching a robotic vacuum circle the room(s) of your apartment.

If you have pets, they’ll likely befriend—or try to fight—the bot as it rolls under your couch or bed. And if you’re like me, you’ll befriend the bot yourself. You might even give it a nickname. Like “Roombie."

But despite the fascination factor—as I found with my own iRobot 690—a robotic vacuum isn’t always the most effective cleaning tool, even for a small space.

Robotic vacuums work by rolling around the floor in a programmed navigation pattern, sucking dirt into an interior chamber. Most can move between flooring types and rooms easily, though a tall threshold between rooms (say, 1.5 inches or more) could trap the vac in one area. Between cleaning sessions, the vacuum docks at its power station to charge once it has completed its cycle around your place.

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When it comes to performance, CR’s tests have found that a robotic vac’s suction power isn't very strong, and it might take more than an hour to clean your floors.

And though you won’t have to push a robot to vacuum, it’s not completely hands off: You will likely have to chase it around and unlodge it from tight spaces several times during its cleaning session. That means digging it out from between chair legs, from underneath your bed frame, or (if you happened to leave the door open) from the corners of a small closet. You also have to empty the dust chamber periodically.

Then there’s the price: Robotic vacuums can cost from five to almost 10 times as much as a good stick or upright vacuum. You could pick one of the lower-priced robotic models in our ratings—such as the Eufy 11S, $220—but you’ll sacrifice features like smartphone app connectivity, and it might not clean carpet as well as one of the more expensive, top-rated models.

If you’re willing to look beyond a bot, a corded stick vacuum could be a better bet for your buck. They’re not quite as powerful as a standard upright vacuum, but a stick can be easier to maneuver into nooks and crannies, they aren't bulky or awkward to store, and they don’t cost a fortune.

“Most sticks will provide a deeper clean than robots,” says Alex Nasrallah, the CR engineer who tests vacuums and says it takes only minutes to clean his small apartment with a stick vacuum, vs. 30 or more minutes with a robotic vacuum. “The only advantage a robot would have over a stick vac is the number of times it vacuums over the same spot, but this could be negligible depending on the power of each vacuum and the surfaces they are cleaning.”

The bottom line: Once the novelty wears off, a robotic vacuum can be a costly choice that won’t do as thorough a job as bigger vacuums. Depending on the type of flooring your apartment has (bare floors, carpet or rugs, or a combination) and whether you have furry friends, you may need additional cleaning appliances—and you can buy what you need for a combined total that’s still less than one robotic vacuum.

When a Robotic Vacuum Makes Sense

Apartments with only bare floors and no pets: In this scenario, a robotic vacuum would work quite well, though you may still want a second vacuum to get into spaces a bot can’t easily reach. Before you buy, evaluate how much clutter you have. Are there a lot of chair legs, loose rug tassels, computer cables, low-to-the-floor coffee tables? The more furniture and other items your robotic vacuum has to navigate around, the less likely it will clean everything thoroughly and the longer it will take. Here's one solid option, on the lower end in terms of price.

If you want or need more suction, consider a powerful corded stick vacuum to clean areas the robot misses. The Dirt Devil Power Stick can hold its own in this regard.

Apartments with only bare floors and pets: A robotic vacuum can work in this situation if your pet doesn’t shed a rug every day. It’s a low-effort solution for getting most of the dirt and pet hair up without having to grab a standard vacuum very often. The Roomba i3+ earns an Excellent rating in our pet hair test, along with a top score for bare floors.

For those with extra-furry pets, however, any decent stick vacuum will have a larger dustbin than a robot does—which means longer vacuuming sessions and less frequent dustbin-emptying for you.

To get into tight spots, try your stick vacuum’s suction tube attachment, or look for a highly rated hand vacuum that is easier to maneuver and has a retractable crevice cleaner. Even if you need a stick vacuum and a handheld vacuum, you can buy both for less than the cost of a robotic vacuum. This Black+Decker Max+ DustBuster should do the trick.

When a Robotic Vacuum Doesn’t Make Sense

Apartments with carpets and no pets: Though robotic vacuums can lightly clean carpets, it’s not their forte, and you’re likely to be disappointed by the lack of deep cleaning. Ditto for stick vacuums, which are lightweight and great for hard floors but generally not as impressive on carpets.

An upright vacuum is your best bet. It might take up more storage space than you’d like, but a top-performing upright model will get much of the embedded dirt out of the fibers of carpets and rugs. The Hoover WindTunnel Max is a nice option (and is still cheaper than the cheapest robotic vacuum on our list).

Apartments with carpets and pets:. It’s way too much for a poor robot to handle—and you’ll be stuck doing double duty. You’ll need an upright for all the same reasons listed above, and you may also want to look into purchasing a carpet cleaner if you have considerable storage space and your pets tend to muddy or soil your carpets frequently. (Though canister vacuums do perform well in our tests, they’re not easy to store, and a good upright will do the job.)

The Hoover PowerDash Pet is a little noisy, but if you’re using it only for spot-cleaning, you probably won’t have to use it for long periods of time. Otherwise, it did a great job in our cleaning and dryness tests for carpet cleaners, the two most important factors as to whether the cleaner would remove carpet stains.

Home Content Creator Haniya Rae

Haniya Rae

I​’m interested in the intersection between design and technology​—whether for ​drywall or robotic vacuums—and how the resulting combination affects consumers. I’ve written about consumer advocacy issues for publications like The Atlantic, PC Magazine, and Popular Science, and now I’m happy to be tackling the topic for CR. For updates, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@haniyarae).