adobe stock / V. Yakobchuk

Who names their automatic cleaners? According to manufacturers, plenty of homeowners choose to anthropomorphize their robotic cleaners, in particular.

These manufacturers understand why. Pool owners like to engage with the cleaners. They’re entertaining.

“The pool cleaner is the only swimming pool equipment that consumers interact with,” says Patrick Caty, global product manager, automatic pool cleaners for Hayward Pool Products in Elizabeth, N.J. “Most of the remaining equipment is static — it’s in the technical room or somewhere else in the backyard. The pool cleaner in general is the center of attention. In fact, most people will give their pool cleaner a name. It tells a lot about the emotional relationship they have with the object.”

That’s not why the robotic category seems to be outpacing other types of auto cleaners, however it does perhaps illustrate a point made by manufacturers — that this product naturally engages users, whether because of its capabilities, increasing inclusion of smart technology or plug-and-play attributes.

Across the board — suction side, pressure-side, in-floor, robotic or hand-held — automatic pool cleaners are no longer considered a novelty or luxury, manufacturers say. Instead, consumers increasingly see the systems as necessary, but they are demanding more function and technology. And robotic cleaners seem particularly positioned to answer those needs.

Active Category

When it comes to sales performance, manufacturers report different activity, based on the type of cleaner.

Suction- and pressure-side cleaners benefit from the replacement market, Caty says. They also appeal to pool builders, who see these cleaners adding value to their own projects, as they’re built into the hydraulic system. “From a new pool owner’s perspective, they’re probably not growing in popularity,” Caty says. “But from an existing pool-owner perspective, there’s such a big install base, and the life cycle of such a product is between five to seven years, so there’s a big replacement market.”

“It’s not a huge increase, but it’s not declining for sure.”

In-floor cleaners also are growing steadily, but are still seen as somewhat niche products for high-end construction, he says. “The appeal of in-floor cleaners is highly related to the installer who is used to install them,” he says. “For that reason I would say that is a more slow but steadily growing category.”

He and Jeremy Jones, Hayward’s director of marketing, expect sales to pick up as in-floor cleaners become less mechanically driven and include more automation.

But for the time being, manufacturers report, robotic cleaners are stellar sales performers. Producers have seen this category grow in double-digit percentage points year over year for some time now. Some have seen sales increases as high as 15% to 25% per year.

Estimates differ as to what portion of the auto cleaner market is occupied by robotic models. Hayward estimates that this category now make up 55% of the market. Maytronics research shows it closer to 30%, said Steve Skura, trade and brand manager of North America for Maytronics, which is based in Duluth, Ga. Still, he says, this represents a 10% to 20% jump in recent years.

Price plays a big role. As the robotic cleaner category has become more well-established, manufacturers have been able to build efficiencies into their production, driving prices down. Now, robotic cleaners don’t cost so much more than their suction- or pressure-side cousins, says John Rotundo, product manager for cleaners and sanitizers with Pentair in Sanford, N. C. “It’s now very similar if you want to buy a pressure-side or robotic,” he says. “The upsell is not a big jump from one technology to the next.”

Producers also are introducing more robotic cleaners for aboveground pools, making it more accessible to those who might not have been able to afford them before, Skura says.

Another factor in the increasing sales of robotics: The category’s increasing penetration into the global market, said Jeff Murray, art director of the marketing department for Aqua Products in Cedar Grove, N.J. “There are a lot of places where we were not doing business, and now we’re slowly penetrating markets that are finding money — countries that weren’t really doing that well but now are doing well.”

Robotic features

But one the biggest draws, manufacturers say, is the ability to integrate smart technologies with robotic cleaners. The ability to use apps and/or WiFi to control the cleaners is finding more appeal, especially with younger generations accustomed to such technology.

“It gives you a sense of real ownership of this product,” Murray says. “You can schedule the cleaner to do its job when you want it.”

The trend is only expected to continue, with more connected features added to enable remote control and scheduling of robotic cleaners, these producers say.

Consumers are increasingly attracted to energy-efficient alternatives, putting robotic cleaners in a good position.

Manufacturers have made other advancements in this category. They are being made for easier use and maintenance, manufacturers say, with the goal being to reduce as much handling of the collected dirt and debris much as possible. For that reason, more models are being designed with canisters that contain the debris and are easy to access and empty. This type of feature can be found on pressure-side units as well, says Mike McDowell, director of marketing for automatic pool cleaners for Zodiac Pool Systems in Vista, Calif.

Besides convenience and increasing incorporation of smart technology, manufacturers say they are updating technologies so the products better perform their primary function — cleaning.

“We’ve conducted many studies with consumers trying to understand their pain points,” McDowell says. “We’ve learned that consumers want the ability to really pick up not just the large debris, but they want to get that fine, stuck-on debris as well.”

In response, makers have integrated such features as better brushing.

In a similar vein, Hayward is rolling out a product that utilizes a version of the hydro-cyclonic technology that Dyson introduced to vacuum cleaners to add greater suction power that remains consistent as the basket or filter becomes full.

On the horizon

Manufacturers expect design trends to continue in the same direction.

As for smart technology, expect to see more robotic models controlled by WiFi and apps. Users would even be able to precisely steer their cleaners for quick spot-cleaning if they don’t have time for the unit to cover the whole pool.

There have been some battery-powered offerings, and manufacturers expect to see more in the future.

“It eliminates the cable, which is an eyesore [and causes] cleaners to get tangled,” says Guy Erlich, president of Water Tech, located in East Brunswick, N.J.

Rotundo sees this as a major upcoming trend. Not only does it follow the lead of robotic home vacuums, but it will answer one of consumers’ biggest objections, he says. “Although it’s a great technology, one of the biggest pain points that I see from consumers is, ‘I do not like to see that cord hanging over the deck,’” he says.

Skura takes it even further: Perhaps in the not-so-near future, we may see products that recharge themselves and empty their own bags.

Murray expects another convenient design characteristic to become more prevalent — modularity. At some point, he says, time-consuming repairs may not be needed, if the cleaners are designed and produced with easy-to-replace modules. When something goes wrong, rather than undergoing the lengthy process of diagnosing the problem, finding parts and making the repair, consumers will simply be able to purchase a module and pop it in. This would reduce not only frustration but also downtime for the cleaner, helping to ensure that the pool remains clean.

The industry can expect this all to come in smaller packages, as manufacturers continually strive to reduce the footprint of their cleaners so they are easier to handle. “So the trend is trying to not only develop technology and components to do that, but also find the right design and footprint,” Rotundo says.