Cleaning strategies: These ARE the (just smart enough) droids you’re looking for

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In the last six or so years, I’ve worked primarily from (and often on the) home. As a man about the house and caretaker for a very furry cat and pug, I’ve become a huge fan of discount and just smart enough robotic cleaning assistance, as I’ll explain. I won’t say I’m the cleanest or even the primary house cleaner in my marriage, but we agree that it is good to have some basic cleaning droids on at least my team.

In 2016, I took a gamble on an ILIFE (???) A4 robot vacuum cleaner available via Amazon — when it was on sale for under $200 with shipping:

ILIFE A4 Robot Vacuum Cleaner —  slightly scarred after nearly three years of regular use.

Yes, there have been some issues with this lesser-known / mystery robo vac, which I’ve addressed with the occasional deep internal cleaning of the ‘bot, as assisted by YouTube — cleaning especially around the roller brush motor and bearing when it becomes jammed with pug hair, causing our A4 to spin in circles. I’ve also had to “hack” some replacement roller brushes by cutting the end off the cardboard tube from a spent dog poop bag roll (HAH!) to make an adapter collar for one end of the new rollers (smaller than the original brush).

Those issues aside, I had enough success with our A4 to buy my elderly parents the updated ILIFE A4S in 2017. Theirs keeps going, too, and without ever needing to disassemble (no pets) or to replace the roller brush. In our experience, the bearings in the replaceable roller brush eventually seize, causing operational errors. If buying today, I would likely go with the A4S or possibly even bet on the cheaper A3S.

This is what I like about our ILIFE and my parents’ A4S:

  • it’s possible to disassemble these with basic tools (more or less just a screw driver) and purchase replacement parts, including batteries, via Amazon;
  • as far as I can tell, no WIFI, cameras, Bluetooth or app — I’m not down with IOT (yeah, you know me). Let a vacuum be a vacuum;
  • it works with or without a handheld remote;
  • it cleans far under furniture like couches and beds;
  • It runs relatively quietly and for over an hour (in our case) on one charge;
  • there are only a few places that ours gets stuck. Before using it, I have to put up any dangling cables and put a makeshift barrier in front of the fridge to keep it from trying to clean under it (how ours got that cool scar);
  • It’s smart enough to return to its base (most of the time) to recharge on its own;
  • it does not need expensive smart barriers to operate;
  • my Mom LOVES hers, and she swears it does very well with staircase edges, etc;
  • it provides a bit of a power outage warning.  When the charging base loses power, the robot emerges, spins in a circle and beeps.

The A4 and A4S each came with an AAA x 2 battery powered remote that apparently allows for timed or programmed cleaning (along with other features/modes), but I don’t use it — and from reviews, it sounds like these features might not always work. I find that it’s easy enough to launch our A4 with or without the remote before leaving the house and after checking for possible obstacles — or to run it when I’m home, as it is not particularly noisy.

Our A4 does not seem to detect our black pug or my feet in black socks, and it does bump into other stuff. It seems to navigate mainly by bumping and moving about randomly (it does not seem to map rooms in any way) but senses some edges. Regardless, it seems to get the job done, and I feel safe using it with both pets in the house and when I’m not home. No, the cat doesn’t surf it, but she does sometimes treat it as a fantastic toy and hasn’t been mangled yet.

My wife liked the A4 enough to invest in a sidekick iRobot Braava Jet 240 Robot Mop — aka “Spongebob” — and some washable attachment mats for mopping smaller area floors:

iRobot Braava Jet 240 Robot Mop — in our house, known as “SpongeBob” — that is also going after nearly three years of use.

I like that the Braava also keeps going, isn’t particularly “smart” (no remote, etc.) and bleeps out a delightful little song when finished working. However, t I sure wish it had a better battery and/or that spare batteries were available for purchase — not cool, as I think the Braava could clean more floor area with more battery.

To note, the A4 and Braava together have NOT replaced weekly cleaning by us humans, but they sure have been a great backup duo. For “regular” vacuuming, we have had good luck with a discount Bissell Zing bagless vacuum. Somewhat depressingly, our robo vac still finds stuff even immediately after we’ve cleaned, and it seems to operate very effectively with a low power draw.

This post was prompted by a recent Twitter exchange between @brokenotpoor and @ApathyEnds — two FIRE folks who happened to be chatting about robo vacs. I tend to side with Vanessa (aka @brokenotpoor) in seeking cheap and durable rather than higher-end, shorter product lifecycle-by-design products. I don’t want my vacuum cleaner to text me, access my wifi router, etc. (for a late 90s take on all of this, see High Tech/High Touch) — but I do appreciate some help with pet hair and my own mess Roughly $400 total for nearly three years of robo vacuuming and mopping assistance so far seems to have been a good investment and has brought about a little more domestic bliss!

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