Though it would be nice if customers always had specific, accurate reasons for service calls, that isn’t always the case. Just because the consumer begins by mentioning an automatic cleaner, that doesn’t necessarily mean the cleaner itself lies at the root of the trouble.
Clogged pipes and screens, faulty wiring and even old pump motors can all impair a cleaner's ability to do its job. So before throwing a cleaner away, take a moment to review the following tips from pool service veterans.
As they point out, many cleaner issues can be resolved on site with a single service call — and the reward may be a new loyal customer
Experts agree that the first place to search for a cleaner hang-up isn’t in the pool at all, but on the equipment pad. This is especially the case for pressure-side cleaners, many of which are dependent on a booster pump. Like any pool pump, a booster pump needs proper voltage and a dependable motor to do its job, so these are the top two spots on the checklist.
“The breaker is very rarely the problem — more than likely, it’s either the relay or the motor,” says Dan Kelley, owner of Kelley Pool and Spa Service in Overland Park, Kan.
Still, it’s a good idea to check if a breaker has tripped — if it has, this could point to several issues. For starters, the breaker itself may be faulty, in which case it will need to be replaced. Another possibility is that the pump motor — or another nearby part of the electrical system — got wet, causing the circuit to short out. One sign of this would be a breaker that trips whenever the system is turned on; another indicator is the telltale smell of burnt electrical wiring.
The breaker also may trip if the motor in the pump (or, in the case of a pressure-side cleaner, the booster pump) is wearing out, or if it wasn’t wired up properly in the first place. So it pays to use an amp meter to check the current flowing to the motor. If the motor’s drawing the correct amperage but isn’t turning on, it may need to be replaced — but if the amperage is too high or too low, this may point to a wiring problem.
“Some of these cut-rate builders will have two or three pumps running off 220 amps,” Kelley explains. “That’s not legal, but these guys do it anyway.”
In the case of incorrect wiring, the most prudent approach from a liability standpoint is simply to alert the homeowner in writing. If the motor itself is worn out, though, the only real solution is to replace it with a new or refurbished one.
Even if the breaker works normally, a bad relay can prevent a pump from working as intended. Though many older systems (including some still in use today) involve external relays, many modern pumps have relays built into their casings. In the case of an older system, it may simply be time to replace the relay with a new one — but if the relay is built-in, it may be necessary to contact the pump’s manufacturer for further instructions.
Other pump problems can be triggered by controls — a faulty remote system, or a programming problem with the pump’s timer or topside display. During an equipment pad inspection, it’s worthwhile to double-check that the pump’s programming lines up with the homeowner’s expectations, and that the system responds to commands from the controller.
Even if the system’s electrical components are all working as intended, mechanical issues still can prevent a cleaner from doing its job. Thus, the next step is to investigate the system’s hydraulics. Is the pump (or booster pump) producing as much total dynamic head (TDH) as the cleaner’s manufacturer recommends? If not, a leak or blockage may be the cause of the problem.
Techs recommend starting with the pump itself, because a stripped impeller is the cause of many TDH troubles. “We start by opening up the pump and checking whether the impeller’s in good condition,” says Brian Carroll, service manager at Aqua-Land Pools Inc. in Manasquan, N.J. “If the impeller’s working, though, the problem is probably a clogged line.”
Blockages can stem from different sources. If the cleaner is suction-side, it may have picked up debris in the pool, such as twigs or a golf ball. “I’ve even had a suction-side sweep suck a little pine cone up into the vac line,” says John Shonfield, owner of Shonfield Pools in Los Angeles.
A helpful solution for suction-side cleaner blockages is to force them out of the line with some concentrated pressure. Take the lid off the pump, and insert a drain jet, the nipple of a CO2 tank or a trigger attachment on a garden hose into the pump’s suction port — then spray away.
Pressure-side cleaner blockages tend to occur in and around the filter or against the cleaner line’s grate. “Usually the pool cleaner is plumbed in just after the filter,” Kelley says, “so if that part of the system gets blocked up, it can mean trouble for a cleaner.”
A healthy filter should display low pressure on its gauge. “Anything 25 or above, you’re probably looking at a dirty filter,” says Greg R. Jones, owner of Blue Water Pools in Los Angeles. Filter-related blockages are generally simple to fix by cleaning the filter media or performing a backwash cycle.
Blockages can creep into other areas of the system, though. Many pressure-side cleaners — especially those with a dedicated booster pump line — are equipped with a fitted grate designed to catch leaves and other debris. This screen is in the cleaner line that’s connected to the wall, but techs say it’s not uncommon to find a system where the grate is missing altogether. “Some cheap service guys just throw them away instead of replacing them,” Kelley says, “and then you’ll often find sticks or gravel in the cleaner’s orifices.”
In other cases, though, the problem can lie with the pump itself. “If a pump motor loses prime and runs dry for a while,” Shonfield says, “the threaded areas of PVC pipes can get hot and shrink until they’re no longer sealed.”
A little Teflon tape or pipe caulking can sometimes patch up such a leak — but if the damage is severe enough, it may be necessary to replace the pipe or union altogether. In either case, it’s important to double-check for any additional leaks before leaving the job site, to ensure that the current service call doesn’t lead to a less pleasant one down the road.
As service veterans like to say, no two pools are the same — which means that two pools using the same cleaner can run into very different problems. But it’s still possible to build up a reputation as a tech who always tracks down the true source of the problem — all it takes is patience, consistency, and a little expert advice about what to look for.