The whirs of automatic pool cleaners sound in rows of tank after tank at manufacturing plants, running cycles under “normal conditions” to test what goes wrong and when. As technology continues to automate many aspects of life, sales of automatic pool cleaners have increased. The industry continually finds new ways of responding to the no-touch pool philosophy.
With the ownership of automatic pool cleaners comes the eventuality of repairs. But homeowners don’t want to be without their handy pool vacuum any longer than necessary. Shipping the unit to a manufacturer for repair is not an appealing prospect.
To minimize downtime, more manufacturers work to make repairs achievable for local dealers, through product design and training. Here’s how.
Prevention is key
The first step to help customers and clients keep their automatic pool cleaners running longer is helping them understand how to use it correctly and maintain it to minimize the long-term repairs needed.
“You don’t want to leave it in the pool,” says Devon Hyman, customer care agent for East Brunswick, N.J.-based Water Tech Corp. “… We do say take it out of the pool. You want to spray it off with fresh water from the hose, just so all that stuff is off of the wear-and-tear parts, off of the body of the cleaner. And when it’s being stored [in the off season], you want to store it in a cool, dry place.”
Cleaner care also includes reminding pool owners not to run it when opening their pool because the high amount of debris is too much for an automatic cleaner. In addition, owners should store the unit out of the sun during the season to prevent damage to wear parts, such as belts, that can be wrecked by rays.
But operating an automatic pool cleaner according to manufacturer instructions is only part of routine maintenance. Much like cars, which need regular oil changes and tune-ups, pool cleaners should be looked over by a professional to keep everything running smoothly.
“We suggest that a pool cleaner be brought in at least once a year for a quick check to determine if wear parts like belts and tracks and brushes need maintenance or replacement,” says Richard Panzella, president of Westbury, N.Y.-based Aquaquality Pools & Spas and Tomcat Replacement Parts. “The seasonal rush that pool repairmen run into is going to be sometime from April, May and June, so I would suggest to bring it in sometime outside of that period if possible, if the machine just needs a check out.”
Manufacturers know regular maintenance can prevent a host of issues, so some design their cleaners for upkeep simplicity. For instance, Zodiac Pool Systems makes the filter canister in the Polaris robotic line to be accessible and easy to empty.
“The rigidity of it allows the user to remove the canister, tap it out to clean it — much like a skimmer basket or pump strainer basket — and then put it back in,” says Scott Ferguson, director of strategic accounts, regional sales manager for the Vista, Calif.-based manufacturer. “You never have to touch the debris, and it’s just a couple of simple steps. ...”
While a visit to a professional can ensure that needed repairs fall into the manufacturer’s warranty requirements, there are plenty of fixes that owners can undertake themselves with the industry’s help.
For instance, Aquaquality designed its website to simplify finding the right part. In its pool cleaner parts pages, the company lists all the parts in a cleaner, with their OEM and Tomcat replacement options. It even references substitutes for those OEM parts that have been discontinued.
“I’ve been told by many automatic pool cleaner repair companies that they actually reference our website on a constant basis because it’s quite detailed,” Panzella says.
Acknowledging that some pool owners will attempt their own maintenance and some repairs is a given at Zodiac.
“We know this,” Ferguson says. “We take phone calls every day from consumers, and we guide them through very simple repair procedures. However, our first goal always — in every interaction with a consumer — is to drive them back to the dealer whenever humanly possible.”
To that end, the company’s website hosts a few videos aimed at consumers explaining very minor repairs, though most Zodiac’s materials for pool cleaner repairs are meant for pool and spa professionals.
While they may provide some guidance for consumers, manufacturers say they first seek to enable professionals to make automatic cleaner repairs.
“The more people that can service our units, the better,” says John Phillip, vice president of sales for Norcross, Ga.-based Maytronics, which manufactures Dolphin brand pool cleaners.
This begins with product design.
“The design philosophy behind our products is to make them easily repairable in the shortest amount of time, so the customer is not without their product for extended periods,” says Brian King, product manager of cleaners and sanitizers at Sanford, N.C.-based Pentair Pool Products.
The company makes some of its cleaners with snap-off covers, thus eliminating screws, to make them quickly accessible.
For Zodiac, minimizing hardware is a primary strategy to simplify repairs, as is using different types of screws for different parts of the cleaner.
“This is all with the mindset of not having the service provider mixing up the screws during service and to try and make their life easier,” says Mike McDowell, product manager for automatic cleaners at the company. “That’s first and foremost.”
But often the diagnostic stage of repair is the most challenging. Zodiac provides dealers with a solution to streamlining the process.
“The servicing technician truly just plugs the cleaner into the diagnostic box and presses a couple of buttons, and they’re able to verify or diagnose the trouble with the cleaner, as opposed to having to execute voltage tests or replace parts repeatedly to see if that solved the trouble,” Ferguson says.
Maytronics also has fine-tuned its diagnostic systems to simplify repairs. The Dolphin cleaner line already had an easy process that took 10- to 15 minutes in the retail store. The cleaners have three major components that can be tested with the firm’s diagnostic kit and swapped easily. But the manufacturer improved that process for techs and retail locations. A new app, DolphinTech, allows professionals access to the same information from its Dolphin cleaners that previously was only available when a unit was sent back to Maytronics’ Atlanta center and hooked up to a computer analyzer. For instance, if a customer brings a unit back to a retail location claiming it didn’t work out of the box, a staffer can use the app to find out what that cleaner did for the last five cycles it operated.
“It’s really going to get to the meat of the story on what’s truly going on with the unit,” Phillip says.
The newest models have the same three major internal components, but the motor unit isn’t sealed. With prior models, a problematic sealed motor unit could have led to out-of-warranty replacement costs of $300- to $400. Now, the app tells dealers exactly which component within the motor must be replaced, saving repair costs.
“You could replace just the drive motor inside the motor box, for possibly a consumer cost of $99,” Phillip says. “It’s more affordable to fix the new Dolphins out of warranty.”
Knowledge = sales
Ability to perform repairs is one strategy all manufacturers stress to increase automatic pool cleaner sales and reach consumers who haven’t purchased one.
“The remaining potential market for pool cleaners is quite significant,” Ferguson says. “Estimates range from about 25- to 35 percent of pools that don’t have any kind of automatic pool cleaner.”
But in many areas in the United States, where the pool season is limited by seasonal weather, a cleaner repair that takes the unit out of the water for an extended period of time can be frustrating.
“If a customer spends $800, $1,200, $1,400 on a robot and something happens, even out of warranty, they don’t like down time,” Phillip says. “We said we have to make it easy for the dealer to be able to fix this unit instantly.”
That mindset — for both manufacturers and consumers — means streamlining the repair process as much as possible. And manufacturers say they plan to oblige.
Getting instruction to dealers and techs is part of the ongoing training effort that manufacturers are improving.
The Internet has become an important ingredient in that part of the strategy.
“Because of its relative simplicity, training for cleaners works really well in webinars and online and video formats,” Ferguson says.
Of the 12 webinars Zodiac will host this year, at least a third will focus on automatic cleaners. That same proportion is reflected in the manufacturer’s video library, which currently contains 35 videos, but will stand at about 50 by the end of the year.
Pentair dealers searching for automatic-cleaner repair instruction can consult Pentair University, where dealers and partners can become certified online to repair Pentair automatic pool cleaners and other equipment, along with a library of training videos.
“We’re putting more up each year,” King says. “Mostly right now those are on the Racer.”
Videos are becoming one of the most popular ways to convey this information.
Hayward Pool Products has a YouTube channel that features a series of troubleshooting and installation videos. “With almost everybody having a smart phone or tablet, it is very easy to go online and research all of our products in an instant,” says Mike Massa, vice president of sales for the Elizabeth, N.J.-based manufacturer. “We also have digital troubleshooting guides for suction, robotic and pressure cleaners that are available for the trade to download.”
Last year, Hayward acquired cleaner brand Poolvergnuegen, adding it to the company’s product offerings. The addition is reflected in Hayward’s education calendar, which now includes more than 20 Poolvergnuegen-only training sessions. Troubleshooting videos for the brand soon will be added to Hayward’s YouTube channel, Massa says.
Manufacturers also continue to offer in-person training. “We do go out and train people at their stores or at distribution branches, and it’s a simple training,” Phillip says of Dolphin cleaners.
Dolphin’s sales team trains dealers as they sign on to the company. Additionally, the company offers Powerpoint presentations and other training materials showing repairs step by step. Webinars are available in the off season.
Last summer, Zodiac chose to embrace all formats. It launched a new training program that delivers education to pool professionals in four ways: in-person technical service schools, webinars, on-demand training videos and an online learning system. Information about automatic pool cleaner repairs makes up a large percentage of instruction in all formats.
Automatic pool cleaners still are a prevalent topic at Zodiac’s in-person technical service schools as well. Participants in the two-day course spend half a day on cleaner training.