Be good to your vacuum cleaner and it will suck, if you’re lucky

April 21st, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner

Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner

Japan’s vacuum cleaner market is bigger than you might think. About 5 million are sold a year, which could be considered a lot for a country of 130 million if you think about how long a vacuum cleaner should last. Then again, there is that age-old marketing concept of planned obsolescence. Until about 10 years ago, there was little reason to go out and replace your vacuum cleaner the way you would replace, say, a television or computer. The basic mechanism of a vacuum cleaner has never changed over the years, so as long as it worked there was never much reason to want a new one. When I first came to Japan, I was given a little red Toshiba vacuum cleaner by someone who was leaving and it lasted me another 15 years.

Since then, manufacturers have added features in order to encourage people to replace perfectly good VCs like that Toshiba: floor sensors, flea zappers (for tatami), quieter motors. Such filigree only complicates the machine, providing more reasons for it to break down. About ten years ago, the big sales point, introduced by Dyson, was the so-called “cyclone” cleaner, which means no need for bags, thus reducing maintenance costs and appealing to environmentally aware people who wanted to cut down on waste. I bought one of those a few years ago, made by Mitsubishi, and it’s turned out to be a lemon. Instead of a bag, it has a complex series of compartments and a self-cleaning fan that broke down several months after the warranty ended. As a result the sucking power is diminished and every time I remove the dust I also have to take the fan apart and clean it by hand.

The latest trend in vacuum cleaner technology is self-operating robots, though they aren’t entirely new. In 2002 Toshiba released a robot vacuum but it didn’t sell well, so they discontinued it. American maker iRobot’s Roomba has been much more successful, and among gadget otaku it’s something of an obsession at the moment. Since Roomba went on sale in Japan in 2008, iRobot has sold about 130,000 units. The goal for 2010 is 100,000 units.

The automation, which is based on mine-detection technology, sounds advanced. The disc-shaped cleaner senses floor type, adjusting the power accordingly and avoiding ledges. It can also detect the amount of dirt in a location and thus spend more time there cleaning. It will “cover” one room up to four times in a single session and return to its recharger base once it “decides” that everything is spic-and-span. It is not very good at cleaning narrow areas and corners, and though none of the promotional materials mention it, I would imagine you still have to carry the thing from one room to another. One full charge is enough to clean four rooms.

In September the price of all the models in Japan were cut by a little more than ¥10,000, and depending on the features (Japanese consumers have insisted on a separate remote control, which would seem to negate the whole point of having a robot) you can expect to pay between ¥50,000 and ¥80,000. Is it worth it, in the long run at least? That depends on how robust the mechanism and the software is, but celebrity economist Kazuyo Katsuma swears by it. A dedicated homemaking nut, she says it isn’t expensive if you compare it to the cost of hiring a housekeeper. I’d accept that argument if Roomba also did windows.


One Response

  1. Pretty pricy in Japan on these Roomba. I bought one for my bro-in-law when I was back in the state on vacation. I want one now. Looks cool. My cats will get a kick out of it.


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