Every pool needs to be cleaned regularly, and for most pools, that means bringing in an automatic cleaner. Customers are rarely content to hand-vacuum their own pools, as they did in earlier years.
Today, they expect automated machines that will comb the pool for
debris on their own, avoiding obstacles along the way.
Not every pool is suited for every type of cleaner, however.
Complex shapes, like L-bends or built-in spas, can present
navigational challenges to some cleaners. Tile and pebble surfaces
tend to wear down some machines’ tires. Debris comes in all
shapes and sizes. And the list goes on.
Here, we discuss the process of selecting automatic cleaners with
veterans from the manufacturing, construction, retail and service
sides of the industry. Each of them offers some tried-and-true tips
for matching the right cleaner with the right pool.
Getting in shape
When retailers and servicepeople speak with a new customer for the
first time, they often run through a checklist of questions to help
them gauge any unique features in the pool, and any unique needs
they may have.
Jeremy Gelman makes sure his sales staff keep an information sheet
on hand for every customer call. “We gather all the
information we can on the pool — whether it’s a
zero-depth entry, whether it has obstacles, whatever the case may
be,” says the general manager of Pool Cleaner Services in
West Berlin, N.J. “After we get all those answers, we know
exactly what kind of cleaner they need.”
It’s simple to cover the basics with such a questionnaire.
The most important questions involve the dimensions and
construction of the pool; as well as any unique obstacles a cleaner
“We try to get a feel for what exactly is the size and shape
of the pool,” says Josh Olswanger, vice president of sales
and marketing at Backyard Living Source Inc. in Meridian, Idaho.
“Almost always, they’ll tell us they have a floating
bar, or steps, or a bench in the pool, which helps us focus on
cleaners that are good at navigating around those tricky
Unique construction features, like a spillover spa or a set of
steps, can cause a pressure-side cleaner to become trapped in a
corner. For pools with sharp curves and built-in obstacles,
Olswanger recommends a robotic cleaner with an infrared sensor that
enables it to detect and avoid obstructions in its path.
“If you drop an object in your pool, the infrared sensor will
see that, and the cleaner will know to back away from the
object,” he explains. “Avoidance behavior is built into
these cleaners, so they’ll never get stuck on your main
drain, and they’ll never get stuck in a corner. They’re
For customers who’d rather not upgrade to the latest model of
robotic cleaner, some manufacturers offer an optional infrared
add-on to a less expensive model. “If someone has a bulkhead
or a fountain or whatever, the infrared eye add-on will tell the
cleaner to reverse instead of getting stuck on the obstacle,”
says Keith Whiten, owner of Whiten Pools in Carrollton, Ga.
Another common hang-up for some cleaners is a zero-depth entry,
where the deck slopes gradually down into the water. Some cleaners
come equipped with an air sensor, which lets them know when
they’ve broken the water’s surface; this keeps them
from rolling out of the pool.
On the other hand, a deep end with unusual depth can trap some
cleaners at the bottom, preventing them from reaching other areas
of the pool. “Some heavier cleaners don’t have enough
power to get up out of a deep end that’s really deep, so the
shallow end doesn’t get cleaned,” says Jana Garrett,
store manager at Hacienda Pools in Weatherford, Texas. “So
we’d recommend a more lightweight cleaner in those
Once you’ve determined the general construction and features
of the pool, it’s time to investigate the site’s
environmental conditions. Different types of debris and surfaces
are best addressed by different types of cleaners. Knowing which
type to recommend — and why — will help prevent
complaints down the road.
In terms of debris in the pool, the most important question to ask
is what size and type it generally is. For sand and other small
debris, we’ll usually go with a suction-side cleaner,”
Garrett says. “For leaves, we’d go with a pressure-side
cleaner, because they won’t clog as easily — they have
a larger intake throat, which lets bigger debris pass
Another issue that should be addressed is the pool’s surface
material. Tile and pebble surfaces often call for special cautions
and adaptations. “Pebble and plaster finishes can put some
wear and tear on the tires, and wear them out sooner,” Whiten
says. “That’s not a huge problem, but customers will
want to be made aware of it.”
If the pool has a tile surface, Garrett recommends offering the
option of specially designed tires. “We have them get a
special kind of tires with suction cups on them,” she says.
“We can put those on the cleaner, and they allow it to grip
the tile better, without getting damaged by its
Customers with tile pools may also be concerned about cleaner
brushes causing abrasion on a tile or plaster surface. Though this
is rarely a serious issue, brushless cleaners are available to
offset any concerns in this area. “We offer some cleaners
that, instead of using brushes, use power-washing jets,”
Olswanger explains. “Some little spouts on the bottom of the
cleaner spray high-pressure water on the surface — they work
really well in the grout lines of tile pools.”
Hitting the floor
Though robotic cleaners are versatile, and are getting smarter by
the year, some customers would rather avoid the hassle of caring
for a cleaner altogether. And in some cases, customers may find
automatic cleaners to be a bit messy, techs say.
“Some pressure-side cleaners have a tail that sweeps the
debris around, and that can spray water out of the pool when it
gets near the surface,” Whiten says. “So if a customer
has a lot of glass around the pool, they obviously don’t want
their cleaner splashing pool chemicals all over their
That’s why Whiten has been recommending in-floor cleaning
systems to his customers. These are built-in systems of jets that
pop up from the pool floor, and blow debris toward a VGB-compliant
suction drain. From there, heavy debris is sucked up a pipe into a
leaf basket, which is easily accessible from the deck. Meanwhile,
smaller debris gets kicked up into the pool’s water, where
it’s eventually filtered out by the skimmer.
Because these systems must be installed at the time of
construction, and add at least a few thousand dollars to the
initial cost of a pool project, they’re not for every
customer. But they do offer some advantages over other types of
cleaners. “They’re built into the plumbing
system,” Whiten says, “so you don’t have a hose
lying in the pool, and you don’t have to hand-vacuum
it.” Jets can also be installed on the pool’s floor and
walls, as well as on the pool’s steps or in a spa. This
allows them to clean areas that are known for tripping up other
types of automatic cleaners. And when the jets aren’t in
operation, they simply retract into the pool’s surface.
Aside from convenience and aesthetic reasons, in-floor cleaning
systems are popular because they’re quiet and unobtrusive,
even when swimmers are in the pool. “The other day, I sold an
in-floor system to a customer with two little boys that are scared
of a robotic cleaner,” Whiten says. “And I’ve had
another customer who wants in-floor because the dog kept barking at
the robotic cleaner.”
This all goes to show that no single cleaning solution is right for
every pool. But the more precise questions you ask your customers
up front, the more likely you’ll be able to recommend a
reliable, thorough cleaning process that’ll keep them