What is the most popular type of automatic pool cleaner in your area?
What is the average price your customers pay for a cleaner, including installation?
What is the most common customer complaint with automatic cleaners?
What type of automatic cleaner do you consider the most energy-efficient?
Do you think robotic cleaners have become more popular or less popular over the last two years?
Do you think in-floor cleaning systems have become more popular or less popular in the last two years?
Is the booster pump necessary for effective operation of a pressure-side cleaner?
What is your preferred onboard filter for robotic cleaners?

With new automatic cleaner products regularly hitting the market, it’s easy for service technicians to become overwhelmed and just stick with what has worked for them in the past. Most seem to have strong preferences for the automatic cleaners they recommend and plenty of reticence to try something new.

Some minds, though, have been changed in recent years, as evidenced by the continued growth of robotic cleaner sales. Furthermore, techs — and their customers — are hearing new marketing messages from manufacturers that may be making a greater impact on sales. On top of these new trends, service techs are being driven to meet the needs of an increasingly informed customer base that is extremely price conscious and careful about researching its options.

To explore the sales and marketing trends experienced within this product category, Pool & Spa News recently polled industry professionals and turned to a handful of experts to provide their insight. Here is what we found.

Trending up, trending down

In general, all ancillary pool equipment sales have had to deal with the realities of the weakened economic climate. But, for all intents and purposes, automatic pool cleaners still are considered a must-have item. On average, 73 percent of the pools the survey respondents build or service are equipped with an automatic cleaner.

Most customers are willing to invest in an automatic unit if it effectively and efficiently cleans their pools, is durable and is priced well, respondents report. Those polled say the majority of their residential customers pay between $250 and $500, on average, for a cleaner. However, others are willing to make a larger investment to keep their pools clean: A full 26 percent of respondents say their customers will pay $1,000 or more.

In making their cleaner recommendations, service techs are encouraged to tailor their cleaner choice for each individual pool.

Those polled say suction-side and pressure-side units remain the most popular type of cleaners in their area (at 42 percent

and 37 percent, respectively). However, robotic cleaners are making greater headway in the market.

While robotic cleaners have been around for nearly 30 years, most respondents believe this high-end product line is enjoying increased popularity. In our survey, 52 percent of respondents reported that robotic cleaners have become more popular over the last two years. And, other reports show a near 100 percent increase in robotic cleaner sales in the past four years.

The reasons behind the trend are multifold. Some pool professionals simply like the idea of installing a cleaner that operates independently of the pool’s hydraulic system. In addition, recent models have been engineered to clean freeform pools better, which has helped spur the growth of these models among installers.

Greater customer awareness of this option also has helped build interest in the category.

Advanced design and programming options — which include floor, wall and surface patterns — help make the sweep more comprehensive. Furthermore, the inexpensive operating cost proves a significant perk.

As popular as robotic cleaners have become, their in-floor counterparts have not fared as well. Only 25 percent of survey respondents believe in-floor cleaning systems have become more popular, with 39 percent convinced of a decrease.

Some cite the systems’ expense as a drawback. Others are concerned about poorly installed systems that result in pop-up heads that are too far apart, leaving “dead spots” where debris collects on the pool floor.

For others, the very nature of the product makes it a poor fit for efficient cleaning. Since in-floor systems do little to alleviate debris on the water’s surface, stains can easily form on the walls as algae has a chance to build along the pool’s edge.

Through “static electricity, debris will form to the outside edges of that pool,” explains Deon Nesson, owner of All Clear Pool & Spa in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “By the time debris drops to the bottom of the pool, that’s not the debris that’s really the biggest problem.”

There are builders and techs who still swear to the product’s efficacy, but robotics appear to have the current edge in popularity.

Promoting energy efficiency

Energy costs have been a focal point for a number of industry products, as the importance of being green has become embedded in the consumer conscience.

Of course, automatic cleaners are no different. Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. began a study on the energy efficiency of automatic cleaners. The goal is to eventually develop a rebate program for the state of California.

While those study results are still pending, our survey respondents overwhelming indicated the importance of energy efficiency in the category.

When asked which type of cleaner was the most energy-efficient, 38 percent of survey respondents indicated suction-side cleaners, compared to the 28 percent voting for robotic models.

However, the presumption of one model’s advantage over another may be premature.

But either way, the prospect of selling products based on rebates makes some techs nervous.

“It causes people to make decisions based on how much money they can make — taking slightly factual information and overwhelming the customer with it,” Nesson says.

Addressing customer concerns

Unlike other products, picking the right automatic cleaner is just as important to the pool professional as it is to the homeowner. Both groups want an effective product at a reasonable cost that will last. And, both run into issues if the units don’t hold up well.

In spite of advances in technology and energy efficiency, homeowners still have one major complaint about their cleaners: The units get stuck or break down too often. Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents marked this as their customers’ chief concern.

Many of the 10 percent who marked “other” commented on expensive repairs, which manifest all too quickly after the product is purchased. John Balistreri, owner of Balistreri Pool Service in Petaluma, Calif., recalls this in a recent bout with a robotic cleaner for one of his commercial clients.

“They had to send the cleaner back because the cord kept tangling up on itself,” he recalls. “It finally came back and its propeller was broken.”

Many cleaners wear out their gears too quickly as well. These repairs not only anger the customer, but also suspend the much-needed assistance of the cleaner, which serves as the service tech’s off-duty janitor.

And increased maintenance may go beyond repairs. Cleaning out some cleaners can double the length of a service call.

“They’re not easy to clean. It’s not like emptying a bag,” Balistreri says. “You gotta flip them over and take it apart … it takes maybe 15 or 20 minutes.”

Ultimately, service techs and customers have to be willing to compromise on price, durability, effectiveness and aesthetics, among other key factors.