In-floor cleaning systems are designed to ease the ownership of pools by sweeping the interior surfaces, steps and benches of a pool while evenly distributing filtered water, heat and chemicals. In-floor systems are relatively simple; they consist of a multi-port distribution valve and “pop-up” cleaning heads.

Because many of these systems are integrated into the circulation and filtration plumbing, their operation can be adversely affected by problems not directly related to the in-floor cleaning components themselves.

It’s important to first check your circulation system and operating pressure. If your pool continues to experience problems, proceed to inspecting the valves for any malfunction.

Systems check 

When dealing with the operation of an in-floor system, it is extremely important for the service technician to do the following:

  • If an air leak is causing the pump to lose its prime, tighten all unions, pump lids, filter clamps and other connections to eliminate the leak.
  • Remove debris from all skimmers, leaf traps and the pump H&L basket. 
  • Clean, replace, recharge and/or back-flush all filters.
  • Clean the strainer on piston- and diaphragm-type distribution valves. (Note: These strainers may be internal or external depending on manufacturer.)

This process, in addition to improving system efficiency, will return the operating pressures to base line operating condition and allow the service tech to determine if the in-floor components are the actual cause of the problem. Note that normal operating pressures (measured at the filter) should be 20-30 PSI depending on the type of distribution valve, filter type, plumbing diameter/length, number of heads per line, and pump size.

Valve evaluation

Next, a visual inspection of the in-floor heads is required:

  • Proper cycling of the heads indicates that the distribution valve is functioning correctly.
  • Heads “floating” in the up position may indicate that a component in the distribution valve has failed.
  • If a head does not fully retract or no longer rotates, the head may be damaged or have debris lodged internally.
  • Replace or clean any affected heads. 

Some in-floor cleaning manufacturers offer a head pressure tester that can be used to determine PSI at the heads. Ideal head pressure for most systems is between 9- and 13 PSI. If the heads are functioning with proper pressure, a visual inspection of the distribution valve internals will be required.  There are several distribution valve styles available on the market, and each is slightly different. They may incorporate ball valves, piston valves or T-valves.

All of these valve types are actuated by an internal gear-train that can, over time, wear out. Excessive valve speed will often cause the gears to wear prematurely. Some valve manufacturers incorporate a speed control that can vary the rotational speed of the valve to mitigate this problem. For optimal cleaning and minimum gear train wear, it is generally recommended that the valve speed be as slow as possible without causing the valve to stall.

Depending on the type of internal valves used, the following should be noted in the troubleshooting process:

1. Ball valves:

Problem: Wear of the ball seat in the lower housing may result in “blow-by” and floating heads.

Solution: Lower valve housing must be replaced.

Problem: Excessive calcium build-up can cause binding that may result in stripped gears.

Solution: Remove calcium from rotating surfaces/components, replace any damaged components, and reassemble.

2. Normally closed piston valves (These valves require a pressure relief valve and bypass to prevent dead-head from piston failure):

Problem: A failed piston with the by-pass has either routed to an in-floor port, resulting in floating heads, or routed to a wall return, which results in continuous flow at the wall return.

Solution: Replace any damaged components, or the entire valve module, and reassemble.

3. Normally open piston types (These valves fail in the open position and therefore do not require a pressure relief valve):

Problem: A failed piston results in floating heads on the port.

Solution: Replace any damaged components, or the entire valve module, and reassemble.

4. T-valves:

Problem: This valve type uses a rotating cam to lift “T-pucks” that open corresponding ports. A loose T-puck can cause floating heads.

Solution: Replace any damaged components and reassemble.

Each manufacturer of in-floor cleaning systems produces a slightly different product and design.  For further technical advice relating to a particular type of distribution valve or cleaning head, and for proper replacement parts, the product manufacturer or authorized distributor should be contacted.