If you’re like me, you live in a constant state of disappointment that more of our world has not been automated. I mean, c’mon! It’s 2012, where the hell are my robots? Oh sure, I carry around more computing power in my smart phone than all the building-sized super-computers of the 70’s, but I still haven’t seen Asimo fetch my lunch or clean my house. All he does is creepily walk around and occasionally fall down stairs. A few months ago, my bleak outlook on automation was brightened by our discovery of the RoboReel, marketed as “the world’s first durable, portable, automatic extension-cord-manager for professional and home workshops.” RoboReel sent us a ceiling and portable model to test out here at HomeFixated, and they have also generously offered to provide a RoboReel of the winner’s choosing to one lucky HomeFixated reader in our August Free Stuff Givewaway!
The RoboReel Ceiling Mount
A few years ago I rewired the outlets in our garage / shop / man-cave. I prefer to over-build / over-engineer rather than languish in regret on most projects. As a result, I went outlet crazy, installing a zillion outlets, including two banks of outlets on the ceiling, just in case. Despite all these outlets, they can still be a pain to get to. The thought of being able to reach up and pull an outlet anywhere in the shop, (the RoboReel spins to service 360 degrees), or even into the driveway, had a lot of appeal. Despite the enthusiasm for a readily-accessible outlet just an arm’s pull away, I retained a healthy bit of skepticism going into this review. A part of me felt that automating an extension cord reel sounded like a bit of overkill, almost like waiting five minutes for Asimo to stumble over and tie my shoelaces when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself in a fraction of the time. There’s more to RoboReel than meets the eye.
I had two big advantage going for me with installation: 1) Our ceiling is open, so finding where to drill for the mount is no problem, and, 2) I already installed an electric outlet almost exactly where I wanted to install the RoboReel. If you’re looking to install a ceiling mount RoboReel, those two details will greatly determine how involved the installation process will be. If finding a ceiling joist where you need it is like like winning the lottery, or if installing an electrical outlet in or near the ceiling will result in a $500 bill from your electrician, you may want to consider the more flexible Portable RoboReel which we also detail below. If access to secure timber and electricity isn’t an issue in your shop (keep in mind the power entry cable on the RoboReel is just under six feet long), then follow along for our experience with the RoboReel ceiling mount.
Even though the RoboReel ceiling mount can swivel 360 degrees, for aesthetics I couldn’t bring myself to install it sideways on the ceiling. The mounting plate has three holes all in the same straight line. That’s great if your ceiling joists orient the way you want the RoboReel mounted, but in my case putting them all on the same joist would have meant a sideways install. Instead of making do, I cut a scrap piece of 2×6 to length, grabbed a framing nailer and blasted it into place between two joists. This enabled me to install one lag in the joist, and the other two into the newly-added 2×6. Problem solved! I pre-drilled for the 3 lags to avoid any drama and powered them into place using my Bosch impact driver.
RoboReel sanely made the base mount easily detachable from the actual cord reel assembly. The result was an incredibly easily installation given our easy joist and electrical access. Once the mounting plate was bolted on, the RoboReel simply slides right on and is held into place by a spring-loaded plunger and a large set screw to keep things from rattling or sliding around. If you have a sloped ceiling, now worries; the mount automatically adjusts to vertical even if your mounting plate is on an angle. Weighing in at about twenty pounds, this is not something you want to try to hang with drywall anchors. A nice, solid, structural connection is advised. Also take your ceiling height into consideration before diving into buying one of these. The RoboReel hangs down about 1.5 feet from the ceiling, so if you have low ceilings the RoboReel can suddenly become more obstacle than convenience. High structures are less of an issue, as the RoboReel is designed for ceilings up to 16 feet. How can a ceiling mount reel like this be reachable on such high ceilings?
Set Docking Height and Calibrate Cable Rewind
RoboReel offers two key ingredients to making the outlet and cord readily accessible. The first is a ball stopper. Don’t worry, despite the menacing name, the ball stopper merely tightens into place on the cord with four screws, thereby determining how far down the cord hangs from the RoboReel. This ensures your outlets are always at a convenient arm’s reach. The second step is to calibrate the height of the unit. This is done to take advantage of RoboReel’s ingenious no-whip, two speed cable rewind. You simply pull the cord down until the receptacle ball touches the floor. A series of simple key presses on the power button then let RoboReel know where your floor is located. This enables it to rewind at full speed and then slow down just before the receptacle lifts off the ground. This setting can be cleared and reprogrammed later if needed.
Extending the Cable
While most spring-based retractable extension cord reels actively work against you extending the cord, the RoboReel glides out effortlessly. I was able to pull the cord from any direction in the shop and the unit pivoted and spooled out more cord almost as if it were reading my mind. Extending the cord is a drama-free event.
Using the Outlet
Once you have spooled out enough cord, simply press and briefly hold the button on the receptacle. You’ll then be greeted by a trio of cool orange LED lights to indicate power is ready to go. You can plug in a max of three power cords at any given time. To power off the receptacle, you press and briefly hold the button until the LED lights turn off again.
Returning the Cable
This is where the fun really begins! In fact, my five year old daughter couldn’t get enough of this thing (insert “Never Let Children Play with RoboReel disclaimer here). It’s not clear who enjoys playing, errrr, I mean using the retract feature more. To return the cable (once power is off to the receptacle) you just do a single button press and let go of the receptacle. It then speedily drags along your shop floor, slowing down before making its final ascent into the dock. While you might be used to an Indiana-Jones-caliber whipping action from other extension cord reel designs, I did not witness a single whip effect in our testing. There’s also a dome-mounted retract button, but given that this thing is mounted high on a ceiling, that button isn’t likely to see much use.
It’s not rocket science, but I actually found the button press procedure somewhat counterintuitive. I think it might have been more intuitive for the “press and hold” to initiate the cord rewind, and the single quick button press to turn the power to the receptacle on and off. Most power buttons tend to be instant and not “press and hold.” As a result, I had a few instances where I pulled the cord out and then gave the button a quick press only to be surprised by the receptacle flying out of my hand and back to the dock. Of course if you hang on to it, it will stop retracting anyway. It’s a fairly minor issue, and one that might be particular to how my brain is wired, but with a little practice the button press process becomes something you don’t really have to think about.
Safety Features Galore
Anytime you automate things, especially when electricity is involved, safety can be an issue. Extension cords are also notorious for their involvement in building fires. If you don’t believe me about the hazards of automation, read about the Automated Paintball Sentry. Luckily, inventor Jim Tracey seems to have thought of everything. A few of the many safety features include:
- No whip rewind action
- Redundant thermostats to prevent overheating
- Auto-stop rewind if stepped on or obstructed
- Fire-retardant plastics
- Circuit breaker
- Will not rewind when in use
- Auto-power shutdown if cord is severed
- Oil, gas and chemical resistant shell
These days it seems like many products are designed to go obsolete rather than be serviced for a long life. That appears not to be the case with the RoboReel. One thoughtful feature on the RoboReel is the use of a replaceable “wear ring” that is attached to the base of the receptacle. This ring serves to take the brunt of nicks as scrapes as the receptacle races back to the dock. Even with the wear ring, it’s worth noting that the receptacle itself can still take a beating depending on what type of surface it’s racing across. If you are using the RoboReel over rough concrete, expect to find some wear on both the wear ring and the receptacle head. So, what if the receptacle head or the actual cord itself get damaged? The entire 50′ cord and receptacle can be easily replaced thanks to a modular internal plug assembly. All you’ll need is a screwdriver. It’s really refreshing to see a product like this thoughtfully designed for long-term serviceability.
Before we dive into the RoboReel Portable, check out this promo video where you can see both models in action:
Despite my obvious enthusiasm for the ceiling mount, it’s not for everyone. If you don’t have a shop, or installation would be problematic, there’s another option available to you:
The RoboReel Portable
I was so excited about installing the RoboReel ceiling mount, I wasn’t really anticipating getting much use out of the RoboReel portable. Shortly after I unpacked it though, I needed to do some sanding on an exterior window I was replacing. With no outlet anywhere near the window, it was RoboReel to the rescue! Sure, I could have run a 50 foot extension cord, but that would have entailed the ritualistic untangling dance along with the tedious corkscrewing wind-up afterwards. Instead, once I was done sanding, I just unplugged my sander, hit the button, and marveled as the cord zipped along the ground and back to its dock sitting in the backyard. It was so effortless I had to make a concerted effort to remember to bring the RoboReel back in inside.
Functionality between the ceiling mount and the portable unit are pretty similar. I found the ceiling mount slightly easier to pull the cable out of, but I think that’s because gravity is helping the process more than when the portable is on the floor. The portable unit can also be wall mounted either with a small included hook, or a larger optional bracket accessory. Once its on the wall, you can program it similarly to the ceiling mount, or you simply lift off the whole RoboReel and carry it to wherever there’s a convenient (or inconvenient) outlet. The RoboReel portable has a curvaceous frame that looks like it was designed by Frank Gehry. Soft touch corners serve as sturdy feet and minimize movement of the base, even during cord retraction. The frame also doubles as an easy carry handle. Like the ceiling mount, the turret-like sphere rotates smoothly 360 degrees.
Since there’s a picture of the inventor standing on the RoboReel on the packaging, I felt like I had to do it too. Although I could see the frame flex a bit, it didn’t crumble. If you weigh more than I do, pulling the same stunt is probably not advisable. I did notice a slight split in the straight part of the frame. It wasn’t clear to me if this is just the way the frame is manufactured, or if my crushing 150-ish pounds actually did minor damage. Either way, it doesn’t effect the appearance or functionality unless you’re really inspecting the frame carefully.
Both the ceiling and portable RoboReels play a little start-up tune when first powered on. It’s not really noticeable on the ceiling mount since it stays plugged in and powered on all the time. Since the portable gets moved around and plugged in and out more, you’ll likely notice it. It’s entertaining in a cutesy way, but I think I would have preferred no sound at all.
While the safety stop works really well if the cord is stepped on or obstructed, you’ll want to take extra precautions with the portable RoboReel indoors to make sure no Ming vases, newborn babies or kittens are in the path of the retracting cord. Although I think their rewind speeds are the same, the speed on the portable unit seemed a little faster than necessary to me. With so many potential obstacles indoors (vs an open shop), I think the retract speed could actually benefit from going a touch slower on the portable. If the cord is in a straight line to the base, then the speed is great, however I found a straight line to rarely be the case with the portable unit’s usage. Corners are often enough to trigger the safety stop during retraction, so if you have tight corners, keep in mind you may have to bend down and hit the retract button again after clearing the snag (the horror!) While the wear ring serves a very useful purpose, a more streamlined receptacle head might reduce unwanted stoppages, although likely at the expense of wear and tear on the receptacle. A small, teardrop addition right before the receptacle, similar to the ball stop, might also help kick the cord out a bit right before corners or other obstructions. Here’s how RoboReel compares themselves to their competition:
Overall Impressions (For Both Models)
The RoboReel has managed to pack more technological advancement, safety and features into a single device than just about all other cord reels combined. Once you use a RoboReel, going back to a spring-powered cord reel, or (gasp) a regular extension cord, will seem downright antiquated. The nice, tidy package of the RoboReel also makes the neat-freak in me very happy; the jumbled and often tangled mess of extension cords plague me no more. Which model is right for you will depend largely on your needs. Since I’m constantly plugging and unplugging things in the shop, the ceiling mount has been amazingly useful. With it mounted near the center of the ceiling, I’m never more than a few quick steps to an outlet that will go exactly where I need it to go. When finished, the outlet whisks itself away, eliminating trip hazards from extension cords that may not have been stored immediately in the past. I was also really impressed with how tangle-free the system is. While most extension cords quickly turn into corkscrews rivaling your office phone’s handset cord, the RoboReel’s cord is specifically designed to stay straight. This feature alone should be on every extension cord and extension cord reel in existence.
So what’s the biggest obstacle to RoboReel becoming a widespread household item? Without question: price. At $329 for the portable model and $349 retail for the ceiling mount, you have to be pretty serious about your extension cord / extension cord reel usage to pony up more than three Benjamins. In the words of one of the reviewers listed on RoboReel’s site, “Well, my wife freaked out when I told her how much it was.” Then again, while there are many cord reels available under $100, believe it or not, some of the more industrial electric cord reels from Reelcraft top out at a retail of over $500. For workshops (both residential and commercial) that rely heavily on cord reels, spending over $300 for a product as useful and full-featured as the RoboReel ceiling mount seems reasonable. For the average homeowner, spending that much on a cord reel, automated or not, is much more of a stretch.
If you’re ready to automate more of your life, you can find the RoboReel Portable for $329 and the RoboReel Ceiling Mount for $339 via Amazon. Oh, and RoboReel also has a water hose model (for your yard) and an air hose version (for your shop) on their way soon!