Photo courtesy Aquazona Pools & Spas/APSP

When it comes to controllers and automatic cleaners, sometimes the biggest mistakes can be avoided with a basic awareness of how the machinery works. Installers and service technicians need to have respect for the equipment and understand that it can be unforgiving.

If you’ll be installing this cutting-edge equipment, prepare to avoid the following 10 mistakes

CONTROLLERS

1.Don’t be stingy with the functions.

Today’s controllers can manage more functions than ever before. Don’t short-change clients by using the wrong unit. “Some builders or service techs undersell the actual unit. It may only have a four-function, when you may need a six- or an eight-function unit down the road,” says Bob Wilkinson, service manager at Swim Chem in Sacramento, Calif.

“A lot of times, it’s not an easy retrofit,” he adds. “You need to replace the whole circuit board all over again.”

Before installation, discuss which functions your client would like to control. Then add a few. “You want to plan ahead for future expansion of things such as landscape lighting,” Wilkinson says.

Make sure the controller also has all of the sensors you need. “Some sensors come with the controller, but there may be other options that the customer might want,” says Michael Orr, owner of Michael Orr Solar in Manteca, Calif., and executive director of the Foundation for Pool & Spa Industry Education in Sacramento.

“For instance, most controllers come with a water-temperature sensor, but they might not have an air-temperature sensor,” Orr adds. Ask the client if he or she wants to have the ability to read the air temperature. If the controller doesn’t have the right sensor, purchase one.

2. Don’t just plug it in.

Some installers plug controllers in without checking basic site conditions to note if the unit will work optimally, Orr says. That may compromise performance.

Take a few minutes to see if you have everything you need. “I check the voltage source to make sure that those circuits — wherever they happen to be — are putting the right voltage out there,” Orr says. “If not, I may have to relocate the controller or get an electrician to make sure that the right service is available there.”

Proper wiring also is important for each piece of equipment that hooks up to the controller. Find a place for the unit that offers adequate access for future upkeep.

3. Use appropriate wire sizes.

Consult the manufacturer’s manual and National Electric Code to determine which size wires should plug into the controller. Brown, who performs warranty repairs for various manufacturers, frequently sees jobs where the wiring is too large. “We’ve got this mentality that bigger is always better,” he says.

But, as in pool hydraulics, bigger often is not the best solution. An electrical wire is sized to tolerate a certain load before it gets hot and the breaker trips to prevent a fire. “If they use too large a wire, it takes so much more heat to get the wire to heat up,” Brown says. “Chances are the appliance could spark and smoke, and the breaker never trips.”

Low-voltage wires and data communication cable don’t carry this same risk. However, using the wrong size still has its consequences — namely, poor or dropped signals. If the cable between the equipment and in-home control panel is mis-sized, the connector won’t fit correctly into the plug. The connector may break, and cause miscommunication and dropped signals because of the poor contact made in the plug.

“So it’s not a hazard per se. It’s just stopping the electronics from working correctly,” Brown says.

4. Don’t splice wires.

Sometimes the wires that need to connect to a particular component are too short. If this is the case, set the wire aside and get a new one, says electrician Daryl Brown.

“Every time you make a splice with electrical or electronic wiring, you’re going to create extra resistance on the lines,” says the president of Aussie Electric in Phoenix. “If it’s not a good splice, you’ve got the potential for those lines to drop. In the case of electronics, you can just drop information or data. Then you don’t have a good, clean signal.”

The products are made to work with a reasonable amount of resistance. But splices, and even unnecessary wire length, can add too much. Then the in-house panel will miscommunicate with the other components, producing inaccurate readings about things such as temperature.

Even if the spliced wires work right after installation, they may still wear down over time. Exposure to moisture or humidity can cause them to deteriorate prematurely, and it may take a few years for the problem to become apparent. In fact, Brown’s gone to 5-year-old installations where the connection is weak or nonexistent. All he had to do was replace the wire.

5. Respect the electronics.

When working with controllers, you’ve moved from electrical to electronics. These systems are much more delicate. “You need to treat controllers with the same caution that you would [when] opening the back of a TV set,” Brown says.

In his warranty work, he’s seen many units ruined because of simple things. For instance, the installer or repair technician may not realize that the chips work like phone jacks — they only go in one way. So he or she may try to wedge a chip in. “I have a million and one examples of those,” Brown says.

If it doesn’t insert easily, don’t push on it. Make sure you’re putting it in the right direction.

Another key error occurs when low-voltage wires are involved. Some technicians try to work with the unit plugged in because they know there is no fire hazard. “But that would be the same as working on a computer that’s turned on, and you started unplugging and plugging in boards,” Brown says. “Chances are, you’re going to short one little edge of the board, and that’s it. Now the chip’s blown.”

6. Avoid installing spa controls underwater.

Manufacturers may say their spa-side controls are water-resistant, but that does not mean they’re waterproof, says Bill Peck, owner of Peck Pool Services in San Diego. The buttons are essentially moving parts, so they can’t be completely waterproof, he says.

It doesn’t hurt if spa controls are exposed to occasional moisture, but they shouldn’t be immersed. Place them to sit above the waterline even when the spa jets are on. “Sometimes they install them just above water level when the system’s off,” Peck says. “Then, as soon as it comes on, the water rises and it [damages] the buttons.”

AUTOMATIC CLEANERS

7. Don’t overpower robotic cleaners.

Be careful not to hook robotic-type cleaners up to too much suction. The unit may begin to vibrate, bounce or shake. “I’ve actually seen them jump out of the water, suck air and fall back in,” says Robert H. Foutz Jr., owner of Purity Pool Service in Huntington Beach, Calif.

The unit also will clean less effectively. For example, it may not cover the whole pool floor. “Sometimes you get a radical circle, where it goes in one big [loop] but won’t clean the middle of it,” Foutz says. “Or it goes up and down the middle, and won’t clean the sides.” Plus, the unit will wear out prematurely. Read the directions to determine the range of suction that the unit needs, and stay within those parameters.

Some cleaners come with a gauge that helps monitor suction. If not, provide your own. “Once you get the pool vacuum adjusted to the proper operation, mark the gauge,” Peck says. “If the filter gets dirty or, say, the customer pulls it out because the kids are all swimming, it’s easy to readjust it to its proper place. Just turn the adjusting valve until the vacuum is at the predetermined level you want.

“Otherwise, you’re eyeballing it and trying to remember where the valve was set.”

If you find yourself on a new service job where the cleaner is behaving erratically, divert a little water away from it and then gauge the pressure. In many cases, the cleaner will calm down and do its job, Foutz says.

8. Properly position the suction line.

If you can’t use a dedicated suction line for the cleaner, the manufacturer’s instructions generally tell you to install it about two-thirds of the way toward the deep end of the pool. This doesn’t mean it should go two-thirds of the way toward the floor.

Peck says most installers have learned where to position these lines horizontally. But then they place them too far in the water. “This makes it especially hard to work on,” he says. “You have to lean over the side of the pool and stick your arm in the cold water, when it should be up near the tile line.” This proves problematic if the unit has a locking closure on it, he adds.

Place the connection as close to the tile line as possible.

9. Take precautions with the skimmer.

If you can’t install a dedicated line, invest in a skimmer adapter. This might happen if you’re doing a retrofit and need to hook the cleaner up to the skimmer.

In Peck’s area, it only costs about $50 extra. It allows you to adjust the amount of suction and prevents the pool from losing any skimming action.

10. Don’t overtighten the parts.

On automatic cleaners, you don’t need to tighten gaskets and seals until they can’t move anymore, Brown says. This will crack the plastic and strip threads, and the items then need to be replaced. “Instead of being a nice, round little rubber seal to protect, it’s now completely squished flat .... and almost doesn’t function anymore,” he says.

When putting them in place, only apply pressure until you feel a bit of tension. It will feel as if it’s beginning to flatten a little.