Auto-empty stations, otherwise known as self-emptying docks or bases, are one of the biggest innovations in robot vacuum design. They can make a huge difference to a robot’s usability and usefulness.
Instead of having to remember to empty your robot vac’s tiny onboard bin, it’ll be done for you, so you can set a cleaning schedule on your smartphone and forget all about it.
If the dream of robot vacuum ownership is a completely hands-off experience, this is how to get it. Or, at least, how to get much closer to it.
Self-emptying robot vacuums have a number of other advantages – but they also have a few disadvantages. They’re not cheap, so before you buy, you should know what you’re getting for your money.
To be clear – you can’t pair any robot vacuum with any auto-empty station. You’ll need to buy them together, from the same brand. Often you can get the same model with an ordinary charging dock or an auto-empty station.
If you already have a robot vacuum, you can check if the brand makes a compatible auto-empty dock.
In this article, we look at the pros and cons, so you can decide if they’re worth it to you.
Ecovacs T10 Plus in its auto-empty station
Emma Rowley / Foundry
What is an auto-empty station?
Instead of an ordinary charging dock, self-emptying robot vacuums come with a larger charging base that incorporates a vacuum cleaner bag in the tower.
Whenever the robot vacuum returns to its station to recharge, its bin is emptied via strong suction into a bag in the dock.
Typically, the bag has a 2.5-3 litre capacity, which usually means you’ll only need to change it every 1-2 months – but that depends on how much dust and dirt the robot picks up.
The advantages of an auto-empty station
Set and forget
The key advantage of an auto-empty station is that you can set a cleaning schedule and let your robot take over the daily cleaning, while you do literally anything else.
Onboard robot vacuum cleaner bins are very small (typically around 0.4 litres) and will need to be emptied every few days, at least. If your robot vacuum is scheduled to clean and you forget to empty it, your robot won’t be able to clean efficiently – if at all.
Avoid the dreaded ‘binteraction’
Another benefit is that an auto-empty dock will transform a robot vacuum from a bagless to a bagged system. This means there’s no need to go poking around inside the bin, dislodging hairballs and dust.
And instead of emptying the onboard directly into your kitchen bin and getting a cloud of dust in the face, you’ll just be removing the bag and disposing of that. This makes it a good option for people with a sensitivity to dust or pet dander.
Thanks to the station’s strong suction, the robot’s onboard bin will be properly emptied as well. It’ll wind up much cleaner than if you just tip the contents into a kitchen bin – and inevitably have to follow that up by getting all the trapped hair out with a chopstick.
Cleaning and drying mop heads
Some robot vacuum models come with an auto-empty base that does much more than just charging and emptying the robot.
The Ecovacs X1 Omni, the Ecovacs T20 Omni and the Roborock S8 Pro Ultra are combined robot vacuum cleaners and mops. Their stations will also wash the robot’s mop pads and dry them with hot air. This is another job they take out of your hands, with the huge advantage that you won’t be left with a dirty or mouldy mop attachment lurking somewhere in your kitchen. At this stage, though, these are among the most pricey robot vacuums you can buy.
And the disadvantages…
Auto-empty stations are much larger than ordinary charging docks. This may affect where you place them. A good spot for a robot vacuum is often under a sofa. But given the larger size of the station and the fact that there’s often a ramp that the robot climbs to access it, it may not fit in the same handy place and it may be harder to hide.
If you’re looking for a smaller dock, the iRobot Roomba i7+ has one that’s impressively compact.
The iRobot i7+ in its dock
Emma Rowley / Foundry
The do-it-all models that also clean and dry mops have even larger stations, to hold the clean and dirty water tanks and drying tech.
As well as being large, self-emptying docks can be less than attractive to look at. For our money, Ecovacs’ auto-empty stations are among the most attractively designed, with minimalistic shells that hide bags and tanks inside.
The Ecovacs X10 Omni and station
Emma Rowley / Foundry
There’s also the additional cost of buying the vacuum bags, as well as the environmental impact of buying and disposing of another part-plastic accessory.
Vacuum bags aren’t particularly expensive but their cost will add up over the life of the robot vacuum and there’s always the risk that the brand will stop producing them before you want to stop using your robot. Overall, we think it’s worth it, but it’s good to know what you’re getting into when you buy.
Finally, there’s the issue of noise. Auto-empty stations work by vacuum suction, which makes them effective at emptying the bin but extremely noisy. The jet-engine suction sound only lasts a few seconds but it’s loud.
Docks that also clean and dry mop heads are also noisy – and for a longer period of time. Typically, after washing out the mop pads, they’ll use hot air to dry them, which sounds a lot like a hand dryer in a public bathroom.
It’s yet another reason why you’d want to keep your robot vacuum dock away from rooms in which you spend a lot of time. If you keep your robot vacuum’s base in your living room, you’ll find that’s not be the best spot for it any more.
If you have a spacious enough kitchen, that’s probably the best spot for a self-emptying robot vacuum. And in some cases, hard flooring is a must: the ‘RockDock Ultra’, the auto-empty base for the Roborock S8 Pro Ultra, has to be placed on hard flooring for the robot to find its way back.
Anyron Copeman / Foundry
But bear in mind, you’ll need a strong Wi-Fi connection, wherever you base your robot.
What does a robot vacuum with an auto-empty station cost?
When they first launched, auto empty stations tended only to come with flagship or high-end models and that’s still the case where the Ecovacs X1 Omni, the Ecovacs T20 Omni and the Roborock S8 Pro Ultra are concerned. But part of the price here is the feature range: these models also clean and dry the robot.
The iRobot Roomba i7+ is a good mid-priced model and there are excellent budget-friendly models as well: the Dreamebot D10 Plus and the Ecovacs N8+ are recommended options under $/£400.
To get more recommendations and see our top picks, have a look at our round-up of the best robot vacuums we’ve tested.