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 might encounter.

“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 spots.”

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 really smart.”

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 cases.”

Material matters

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 through.”

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 roughness.”

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 glass.”

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 satisfied.