Technology

Life in the Gutter with iRobot's Looj


0627_looj
Editor's Rating: star rating

The tiny robot gutter-cleaner keeps you from getting your hands dirty, but you need to monitor it closely

I'm on a robot kick. In the past year I've carved time from weekends and early mornings to put iRobot's (IRBT) creations through their paces. I've unleashed these automatons to vacuum rugs, scrub floors, and suck debris from a shop floor.

I had a harder time getting the chance to test iRobot's little green Looj, which promises to clean your gutters and spare you the dirty work. The mostly flat-roofed Victorians and Edwardians of my home city of San Francisco don't boast many of the rainwater- and debris-catching channels. Finding an accomplice for my test was tough. Finally my friend Matt, who lives in a San Francisco suburb, responded to my e-mailed query with an invitation: "Sure, you can come over and clean my gutters!"

I soon found myself standing on a rooftop in Brisbane at 11 o'clock in the morning amid a rare early summer heat spell, sweating while trying to maneuver an often uncooperative robot along the length of a pair of dirty gutters. Looj is intended to simplify an infrequent but messy task. Its spinning nose—or auger, to be more precise—is supposed to be able to dislodge even tightly packed dirt. But the machine's tendency to flip around inside drains requires a balletic series of maneuvers executed with the Looj's remote control to set it right, giving lie to the company's claim that you can control the machine from many yards away. This robot needs constant supervision.

In a Jam

The Looj, which went on sale last fall and sells for under $100, is among the less expensive home-cleaning devices from iRobot. My tests are part of a series of reviews of household robots. The device is a small, green rectangular tank that looks like it has been bred with a prop plane. It measures 19 in. long, 3 in. wide, and a hair over 2 in. high—not counting its pistol-grip handle, which doubles as the remote once you slide it off the Looj's body. The robot's four wheels are covered by gutter-traversing treads. The spinning auger sports rubber flaps. A tuft of brush whiskers resembling a washing machine agitator snaps onto Looj's nose to clear debris. Best of all, the robot isn't picky about its spatial orientation—it can drive along the bottom of a gutter or along its side. And it moves forward and backward even when it's flipped upside-down.

Good thing, since the Looj gets into jams quite a bit, a foible unfortunately common to iRobot's other products, such as the shop-floor cleaning Dirt Dog (BusinessWeek.com, 5/2/07). The Looj often flipped onto its side during my test, leaving its treads without anything to grip. That meant I had to scramble onto the roof and stay nearby, using the remote control to set the Looj right. That's certainly better than digging into gutter gunk with my hands. But the quirk also meant that while the remote has a range of up to 75 feet, my dream of being safely on the ground while the Looj sallied forth was nothing more than that. (iRobot claims you can control the device while standing on a nearby ladder, without frequent repositioning.)

Setting the machine up and breaking it down at the job's end was a cinch. I charged its battery for 12 hours overnight. (The instructions recommend 15 hours of charge time to power 30-45 minutes of cleaning.) To ready the Looj for its maiden voyage, I slipped the charged-up battery into a compartment on the robot's side and tightened two small screws. Then I popped a couple of AAA batteries in its handle to power the remote. I safely conveyed the machine to the roof using a supplied belt clip, set the robot in the bottom of a gutter, and switched it on.

One thing I like about iRobot's products—and the Looj is no exception—is the simplicity of their controls. The remote has three buttons: on/off; forward/reverse; and clockwise, counterclockwise, or neutral for the auger.

Obstacle Course

During the first test in a 12-foot gutter with a small helping of debris, the Looj got stuck a few times, but I didn't have to free it by hand; repeated reverse spins of the augur gave it the kick it needed to sit true. Then Matt and I subjected the robot to harsher terrain, turning it loose in a 9-foot gutter packed with dirt and debris after several years of neglect. Making Looj's task even harder, the trench was covered by the roof of a shed and boxed in by perpendicular beams on either end and the shed's wall on one side. Yet the machine freed half the dirt on the first two passes and dislodged even more on subsequent runs.

The Looj doesn't work in all gutters; they need to be at least 3.25 in. wide, though iRobot provides a printable template on its Web site that prospective buyers can use to ensure fit. And although the remote is designed to be held in one hand (you'd probably like the other one to be on your ladder or some part of the roof while you're up there), I found using the controls to be a two-handed affair: my right thumb on the drive button, and my left index finger on the auger switch to right the frequent upendings.

That didn't leave any hand free for the beer I thought I'd be holding while I made the robot do my bidding. But for $100 to tackle a job that doesn't get done more than once a year or so, the Looj clears an important threshold: It's easier than doing the dirty work myself.

Ricadela is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in Silicon Valley.

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