Does This Window-Cleaning Robot Actually Work?

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April 20 2014 11:35 PM

This Bot Does Windows

It’ll clean your panes inside and out. But is it worth $400?

WINBOT W730, the Window Cleaning Robot.
Winbot W730, the Window Cleaning Robot.

Photo courtesy Winbot by Ecovacs

Cleaning windows is so arduous and dangerous that it earned its own 20th-century catchphrase. “I don’t do windows”—a warning that the speaker may be desperate but still has limits—was a frequent sitcom one-liner in the ’70s. The meme grew popular enough that, according to William Safire, it likely spawned the entire “I don’t do [mornings/Mondays/etc.]” phrasal construction.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

How miserable is the chore? I’ll let country songsmith Hank Cochran answer. In the 1980 ditty “I Don’t Do Windows,” he equated scrubbing panes with eternal damnation: “There’s some things that I just won't do. I think it’s time that I told them to you. I don’t do windows and I won’t go to hell for you.”

My own windows are a source of mild shame. Anyone in the building across the way can observe how flecked with schmutz they’ve become. I haven’t cleaned their exteriors since I moved in a couple of years ago. Partly that’s because I’m lazy (as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t cleaned their interiors either), but partly it’s because to do so I’d need to wager life and limb by dangling out over a four-story drop.

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Thus I was excited to borrow a Winbot—a robot that pledges to polish your windows, mirrors, and other glass surfaces without you rigging up a harness and going all human fly. This compact, square droid will vacuum-attach itself to a pane and then scuttle around squeegeeing off all the muck it encounters.

The approach is almost identical to that of the Scooba robot floor mop I recently reviewed, except the Winbot dares to get vertical. Like the Scooba, it’s programmed to automatically cover the entire surface you place it on, and then stop when it’s done, alerting you with a fanfare of beeps. Set it to work, go out for a walk, and return to a crystal-clear view of the world outside. Sounded fantastic to this fourth-story apartment dweller.

Before I exposed the Winbot to the elements, I tried it out on the large mirror that covers the wall above the vanity in my bathroom. I began by spraying cleaning solution onto a soft, fabric pad that’s attached to the Winbot’s base. Then I plugged the bot in, turned it on, and stuck it to the mirror. Amazingly, it stayed there. The motor created enough suction to let the Winbot cling to this sheer, vertical surface with seemingly little difficulty. When I hit the start button, the bot began to merrily crawl to and fro—like a very conscientious, domestically oriented Spider-Man.

When no catastrophes ensued, I brought the Winbot out to my living room. I slid open a window, reached around to the outside, and affixed the Winbot to the exterior. Then I used the remote control to launch the cleaning program. Again, the little bot did its thing without falling off. The front pad, soaked with the cleaning solution, sponged away dirt. The rear pad followed behind, sopping up the resulting detritus. Though I never saw the Winbot have any trouble maintaining suction, there is a special fail-safe retaining device—a tether rooted to the inside of the window by one of those old-school, nonelectrified suction cups—to ensure that, in the event of an unplanned dismount, the Winbot won’t free-fall and create a surprise for someone on the avenue below.

When the Winbot was done cleaning, I used its remote to steer it back to a reachable spot on the window. I turned it off, pulled it off the glass, and brought it back inside. Then I assessed the results.

The window was drastically less dirty. The bulk of the glass looked pretty fantastic. But just as the Winbot replicates the Scooba’s approach to cleaning, it also mimics the Scooba’s crucial flaw: It can’t quite reach all the way to edges or into corners. Its overhanging bumpers don’t let the cleaning pads get flush to the sides of your windows, so it leaves slender areas untouched. Using the remote control, I was able to maneuver the Winbot back to these spots and, by guiding it patiently and carefully, clean a few millimeters closer to the edges. But there remained schmutzy regions that simply could not be un-schmutzed.

Plus: streaks. The Winbot left swoops of filmy residue marking its path. In the bathroom, when the mirror got steamy during a shower, I could even make out the pattern of the Winbot’s little tank treads clearly marked on the glass. The fact that a chamois cloth comes packed in the box—with directions suggesting you use it to finish up each job—suggests that Ecovacs, the Chinese company behind the Winbot, is aware of the problem. But if I need to lean out a window 50 feet above street level to manually polish windows with a cloth, the very purpose of the droid is defeated.

Because it’s corded, the device also suffers from a more basic flaw. The cord needs to trail out the window, which means you can’t pull the window fully shut. Depending on the nature of your windows, this open position can leave a slim margin of the pane obscured. The Winbot has no hope of cleaning that area.

Live in a colder climate? The Winbot doesn’t work when the temperature outside is below 40 degrees. It affects the suction strength—the bot can’t find purchase on the cold glass. You’re out of luck all winter, Northerners with dirty panes.

And of course, the Winbot can’t leap over muntins. So it’s pretty useless unless you can sic it on wide swaths of uninterrupted glass. You wouldn’t want to keep reattaching the thing to each little square in your big gridded bay.

In the end, there’s no way I can recommend this as a product. For $400, you want a window cleaner who doesn’t miss spots, won’t leave streaks, and isn’t going to get cranky when faced with anything other than a generous expanse of undivided pane. You’re much better off hiring a person—preferably a professional—to do the job. (Unless you want to clean your windows with abnormal frequency and are OK with the abovementioned limitations. Or you just hate humans and strive to eliminate all service jobs.)

Still, given that—as far as I can tell—robots can’t yet tie shoelaces unaided, I have to marvel at how close we’re getting to creating effective domestic droids. There’s already a pool-cleaning bot, an aquarium-cleaning bot, a grill-cleaning bot, and a slew of bot vacuums. These devices may not be flawless yet, but they will without doubt improve quickly.

I can easily envision a cordless Winbot that manages to clean every cranny and leaves behind no streaky traces of its efforts. When this magical robot eventually arrives in stores, I’ll be the first in line. If there’s one thing I know about my future self, it’s that he still doesn’t do windows.

Want more info on keeping your home pristine? Read Slate’s new series on spring cleaning, including entries on why you should do it and why you should start with your closets and cupboards first.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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