Katherine Boehret

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The Little Robot Made to Clean the Icky Spots

Thanks to robots, there’s no excuse for a dirty floor.

This week, I took a break from my normal product testing to run a robot through the paces of washing, scrubbing and squeegeeing my tile and hardwood floors. The Scooba 230 is the latest model in iRobot Corp.’s large family of household-helping gadgets, which includes the popular Roomba robotic vacuum, introduced in 2002.

Sold in a $300 package with accessories, the Scooba 230 is the least expensive Scooba from iRobot; the earlier Scooba 350 and 380 cost $400 and $500, respectively. It’s less than half the size and weight of its larger and pricier predecessors, giving it the ability to scoot into tough-to-reach spots, like behind most bathroom toilets, where nobody wants to clean.

I like a lot of things about this robot, especially that it’s smart enough to separate clean water from dirty water as it goes—instead of just regurgitating the same water and pushing it across the floor, like a mop. Loading the robot with water and cleaning solution takes just a minute, robbing even the laziest people of an excuse for not cleaning. And its compact size makes it easy to store.


The Scooba 230 can scrub hardwood floors. But don’t expect it to vacuum first.

But to keep its price down, iRobot took away this Scooba’s ability to vacuum as it scrubs the floors like previous Scooba models, so users will have to sweep or vacuum before they place it down and hit the power button. This defeats the idea of letting the robot do all the work. And unlike Roomba, which automatically returns to its recharging base after vacuuming so it can charge itself, Scooba stays where it finishes the job. An iRobot spokeswoman said this design is deliberate because it forces people to empty Scooba’s bladder full of dirty water, rather than forgetting about it.

According to iRobot’s findings on people’s use patterns, the Roomba robotic vacuum is used three to five times a week, a stark difference from their normal cleaning patterns of vacuuming once weekly. In my experience, the Roomba study held true for Scooba, as well.

IRobot, which was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by two students and their professor, has sold more than six million robots in the past nine years. Specialty models include land-mine detectors for the U.S. Army, a robot that monitored the water in the Gulf of Mexico after last year’s oil spill and four robots that iRobot sent to Japan for help with recovery efforts at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The company’s future plans include AVA, a robot that uses an iPad or Android tablet to run apps created internally and by outside app developers. Though AVA is just a concept for now, it could function autonomously, running apps that offer health-care assistance, games and mobile music. IRobot operates on the philosophy that a robot isn’t a robot unless it interacts with its environment.

One of Scooba’s competitors, the $200 Mint Automatic Floor Cleaner from Evolution Robotics Inc. (mintcleaner.com), isn’t quite as advanced. It moves around the floor with wet or dry cleaning cloths attached to its underbelly, much like a motorized Swiffer Sweeper. Mint follows a projected signal beamed out from a separate device set in the room, and this is intended to help the device build a navigational map of a space, though it doesn’t prevent the device from leaving a specific area.

I tried the Scooba 230 in a large bedroom and a small bathroom, though it didn’t fit behind my toilet, which I’d estimate is over 30 years old. In my bathroom, I didn’t sweep first, and Scooba just pushed hair and dirt around on the floor as it cleaned. One eight-hour Scooba charge lasts for two 20-minute, small-room cleanings defined as 60 square feet each, or one 45-minute large- room cleaning measuring 150 square feet. When Scooba’s battery is dead, a red light on its lid turns on.


The Scooba 230, which sells for $300, can scrub tile.

Scooba comes with four removable bottom plates, which are plastic pieces that house its squeegee and brushes, and four packets of cleaning solution. This solution costs $12 a bottle when purchased separately, and one bottle lasts for 64 cleanings. Two small, battery-powered devices called Virtual Walls also come with the Scooba. When powered on, these devices project a beam that Scooba won’t cross, so they can be placed in front of an opened door or set up to restrict the robot to a certain area in one room.

One task that I gave to Scooba was washing my hardwood floors after I spilled a glass of juice. I soaked up the juice with paper towels, but the floor was still sticky and dirty with a scent of V8 Splash. I filled Scooba with one packet of cleaning solution and warm water. Using its flip-up handle, I carried the robot into a room and placed it in the center of the floor, pressing power, then Clean; holding the Clean button down turns on its shorter cycle, indicated by a different tone. Scooba made a whirring sound as its wheels propelled it across the floor with its underbelly brushes at work. A bumper on its front keeps Scooba from nicking walls.

Sometimes Scooba moved slowly then sped up quickly, or hugged walls, or spiraled out from the center of the room. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and as it moves it lays water down on the floor to loosen stuck-on particles. Once in a while, Scooba seemed to get stuck in a corner, humming and grinding for 10 to 15 seconds. It was tempting to want to help it get unstuck, but it used what iRobot calls “escape behavior” to eventually get back to zipping around the floor.

My grimy kitchen floor needs a serious scrub to get clean, which the Scooba alone couldn’t do. It could, however, be used to maintain a degree of clean—and pinch hit when juice is spilled. Just be sure to sweep your floors first.

Email katie.boehret@wsj.com.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com

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