Robotic pool cleaners are moving west.
After years of popularity on traditional East Coast pools,
technological advances have allowed the units to tackle an
increasing variety of pool styles, particularly the freeform,
aggregate-surface pools often seen in the Sunbelt.
Though the product category has been around for more than 20
years, a trend toward the robotic pool cleaner has begun to emerge.
Online visibility and homeowner research helped drive industry
interest, and the product’s energy efficiency has proved a
strong selling point, according to many industry experts.
Furthermore, new advances in technology have propelled the
category’s expansion into pool markets nationwide.
And while other types of cleaners remain viable, robotic pool
cleaners continue to trend from niche to norm.
Online to in-store
Much like salt chlorine generators, robotic pool cleaners have been
a consumer-driven product category. The industry, however, was
slower to embrace the new technology. Yet, the success of the
product on the web helped propel a host of interested dealers and
“The consumers were becoming well-educated on products and
categories that the industry, in certain markets, was not yet aware
of,” says Gil Erlich, vice president of sales and marketing
for Aqua Products in Cedar Grove, N.J.
As much as 50 percent of the company’s warranty card
purchases on the West Coast and Sunbelt region were through the
internet, he adds.
As online forums and product info flooded the internet, more
consumers brought questions to their service techs and retailers.
However, many companies continued to stock more traditional
cleaners for their customers.
“As an industry…we spend maybe too much of our time
trying to sell things to people that we think they need,”
says Bill Galuhn, vice president of sales for Maytronics US in
Norcross, Ga. “We need to spend a little bit more time
listening to what the consumer really wants to buy.”
But the industry has started to catch up with demand.
Within the past five years, the three primary equipment pad
suppliers to the industry — Pentair Water Pool and
Spa, Hayward Pool Products, and Zodiac Pool Care — have each added robotic
cleaners to their offerings. This is especially remarkable
considering the history these manufacturers have behind traditional
suction- and pressure-side models.
And though the marketplace is a little more crowded, competition
isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It tells you something about what they think about the
future of pool cleaning,” notes Stephen Shulman, director of
marketing for SmartPool, Lakewood, N.J. “Plus, any exposure
they bring to the public, in terms of robotic pool cleaning, is
really helpful to all of us.”
Although the recent economic downturn has affected the entire
automatic cleaning category, robotic cleaners are poised for future
“I think in the long-term, robotics—– because
they’re as robust as they are and they are coming down in
price — will give pressure cleaners all they can
handle,” notes Rich Garbee, vice president of sales and
marketing for GLI Pool Products in Youngstown, Ohio.
Savings along with energy efficiency should convince customers
to consider a robotic cleaner, he adds.
Of course, to succeed on any level, the customer had to get
something new out of the product. Selling points for robotic
cleaners are many, but one of the most important aspects to their
growth has been energy efficiency.
The trend of going green has gained exceptional momentum just in
the past few years.
“Robotic cleaners have always been energy efficient
because they’re low voltage, but I think the emphasis on the
need is stronger today than what it had been in prior years,”
Not only has the worsening economy placed an emphasis on
energy-related cost cutting, but energy prices themselves have
forced homeowners of all demographics to watch their meters.
“Technology is in our favor — people now want to
save money and still want to go green, under the premise that the
green is in their pocket first,” Erlich says.
Pacific Gas & Electric will conclude a study in the fall on the energy
efficiency of different cleaner types. Although the results
haven’t been released yet, early indications are positive for
“You can save in Northern California as much as $1,500 a
year in energy cost alone,” Erlich says. “Not only do
you not [have] a booster pump or a dedicated line or anything
restricting flow, it’s the opposite: you now have greater
flow in almost every circumstance.”
These benefits include longer filter runs, less total dynamic
head, and the potential for greater heat and chemical savings due
to increased circulation.
Of course, energy efficiency may simply be a pleasant surprise
for a homeowner buying the product on other grounds. Ease of use,
for example, is a strong draw for homeowners.
“The robotic cleaners are pretty much a DIY
product,” Garbee says. “You’re not hooking up a
booster pump or running any lines – you’re not tied to
anything other than your ability to plug it in, basically.”
The plug-and-play installation of robotics is another reason for
the proliferation of consumer-driven sales.
“What they really kind of fall in love with more is the
ease of retrofit and the intelligence of a robotic cleaner,”
agrees Kevin Braidic, Zodiac’s product manager for its
automatic pool cleaner segment.
However, like any cleaner, robotics need to back up any claims
of savings on electricity with steady performance. While the
products worked well on many pools, some adjustments were needed to
accommodate the country’s widening variety of aquascapes.
As with any product category, advancements in technology has been
key to the continued success of robotic cleaner sales. This was
particularly true on the West Coast, where sales were less
consistent because of the product’s relatively short lifespan.
Unlike the rest of the country, the majority of pools in
California have hard surfaces, consisting of marble, quartz, pebble
or some other aggregate mixture. Many robotic cleaner models
didn’t fare well on the abrasive surfaces of these pools, as
worn-out brushes and motors became too expensive to replace.
Furthermore, the pool season is a full year in California and
the Southwest, compared to a 3-month season in the Northeast and
Midwest. Add in a sunny climate and additional wear from UV rays,
and you have a tough sell in the long-term.
“When we went to California, we now had to face all these
harsh conditions that we didn’t face anymore…[and] we
basically incurred premature wear — as much as four-fold
— on the cleaners we were marketing,” Erlich says.
“Within 3 to 5 years, we lost our dealer base.”
Another reason robotic cleaners stalled in California was
because of the abundance of freeform pools. Much of the robotic
cleaner technology was tailored for Europe, where rectangular tile
pools were the predominant design.
“They basically map the width of the pool and then the
length, which is ideal in a tile pool,” Erlich explains.
“Now apply it to a setting where the topography is off
because there are actually slopes on the floor and the
Now that vinyl and fiberglass pools have followed a trend toward
freeform design, it became imperative for robotic cleaner
manufacturers to develop newer, more effective mapping
Technology has also been developed to help deal with raised main
drains, which are increasingly common because of the federal
Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.
Furthermore, the popularity of salt pools forced manufacturers
to reconsider the design of some cleaners because of the increased
buoyancy in the water.
“We’re able to make adjustments to the weights and
floats on our units to be able to accommodate, so our robot will
stay on the floor when it turns instead of lifting up,”
There is even technology to alert the homeowner when the filter
bag needs to be replaced.
The answer to addressing such a variety of needs, in part, lay
in offering several different attachments for the same model.
“In some cases, we’ll supply a couple different
brushes depending on what kind of finish your pool has,”
Shulman says. “[We] supply accessories to make sure your
cleaner will work optimally with the pool.”
Diversifying the products lines has helped bring the application of
cleaners to all homeowners, regardless of region. With the market
wide open, robotic cleaners appear poised for even more growth