Cleaners 101

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Automatic pool cleaners have stormed the scene in a big way in the last few years, making pool ownership ever easier and more convenient. Cleaners run the gamut from in-floor systems, custom-designed and installed when the pool is built, to pressure-side, suctionside and robotic cleaners. With everything that's available on the market today, AQUA offers the following comparison of types of cleaners — how they work, what they offer and what kinds of pools they are best suited for — to help dealers decide which automatic cleaners best suit their businesses and clients' needs.

In-Floor Systems

In-floor systems are an oft-overlooked option in the automatic pool cleaner category. Installed at the time a pool is constructed, in-floor systems operate with a series of nozzles placed in the pool floor.

"When the pool is being designed, the plans for that pool will come through our door, and we lay out, in our CAD department, the exact placement for each of the nozzle heads in that pool," says Russ Ernst, marketing director for Paramount Pool & Spa Systems. "When the pool is laid out and the heads are put into the specific locations, the order in which the nozzles will come up will be based on our patented water distribution valve, a completely water-driven system. The water valve will activate each of the nozzles in a certain progression to agitate the water around the nozzle. It comes on any time the circulation pump comes on.

"It's part of the hydraulic system of the pool. The valve is in line with the main pump, and as the main pump is circulating water, it's activating the nozzles and it's cleaning the pool. It's taking all that sediment that's on the bottom of the pool, agitating it and putting it into suspension so that the standard cleaning system — the drain and the skimmer — can do the work they're designed to do anyway. Basically when a person is cleaning out their pool by taking the sweeper and brushing the pool, they're not collecting the dirt, they're brushing the dirt to agitate it to put it into suspension in the water so the skimmer can do the work. That's exactly what we're doing, with the nozzles, pushing the dirt and the sediment into suspension so that the skimmer can do its job."

The only thing owners really have to do, according to Ernst, is empty the skimmer. "An in-floor cleaning system gives you a reduced amount of maintenance," he says. "I hesitate to say maintenance-free because you're always going to have some, but what we offer is a 99 percent clean-pool guarantee. It is a reduced-maintenance pool, it's an always-clean pool and it's a pool that's always ready for you to swim in. With an in-floor cleaning system, all of the heads that circulate the water around the inside of the pool are retracted when the pool is not being cleaned, so there's nothing to move out of the way. It's part of the pool system itself."

This option is most popular for custom gunite pools, but Ernst stresses that it is available for other types of pools as well. Paramount offers five different in-floor systems, one for fiberglass pools, one for vinyl-liners and three for concrete pools. "In the Northeast, where you have a lot of vinyl-liners and a lot of one-piece pools, we do a significant amount of business; it's just a different kind of market," says Ernst. "The systems are designed specifically for the types of pools they're meant to clean." In the case of fiberglass pools, since the designs are prefabricated, Paramount already has nozzle placements created for the different designs. If a customer decides on this option, holes are cut in the fiberglass and the system is plumbed to the pool before it's placed in the ground.

The price of the system, running anywhere from around $3,500 to over $6,000, could be off-putting to some fiberglass or vinyl-liner buyers. "A concrete pool is typically more expensive than the one-piece or the vinylliner option," says Ernst. "So the incremental cost for adding an in-floor cleaning system at the time the pool is constructed is a smaller percentage of the overall cost of the concrete pool."

Pressure-Side Cleaners

Pressure-side cleaners, as the name implies, operate using water pressure. "With a pressure cleaner, you need to have a dedicated pressure line, and that's a separate line that's constructed when the pool's built," says Patricia Smith, marketing manager for Hayward Pool Products. "It dedicates a stream of water coming off of the filtration system, and it's at high pressure, so you can actually have a pool cleaner that's much more powerful, because it has a dedicated line and booster pump providing the pressure for the cleaner, and that's what moves the pressure cleaners around the bottom of the pool." The water pressure forces water through a hose, into the cleaner's body. "The cleaner uses the water to propel itself and to create a vacuum at the bottom of the unit. The debris that is vacuumed into the cleaner is deposited in an attached debris bag that needs to be periodically emptied," she adds.

Pressure cleaners often roll along on wheels. "It's a good way to move around the pool, it makes them go a little faster; it's almost like a vacuum cleaner, so it's better to have little wheels on the bottom," says Matt Crawford, marketing director for Zodiac Pool Care.

Pressure-side cleaners are available for both in-ground and above-ground pools, but there are a number of factors a potential owner will want to consider. Since most pressure-side cleaners require installation of dedicated lines for suction and return, and require a booster pump, the decision to go with this type of cleaner is most easily made when a pool is being built. Having a separate booster pump can be an advantage. "It gives you some options on how you can move the cleaner around; it's not tied to how well your pool's regular pump is operating," says Crawford.

Freedom of movement isn't the only advantage. "A pressure cleaner installed on a dedicated pressure line with a separate booster pump ensures consistent performance and reduces the wear on the pool system's main pump and filter," adds Smith.

Another factor to consider is the type of debris the cleaner will encounter most often. "Debris type is important since a suction cleaner is more appropriate for fine debris while a pressure cleaner is better designed to handle larger debris such as twigs, large leaves and other awkwardly shaped debris," says Smith.

Pressure-side units will take about three hours to clean a pool, and will clean up to 98 percent of the pool, according to Crawford. "In every pool, there's always some small space that just by its nature, the way a pool is designed, you may have to do something manually. A lot of people think 100 percent of the pool, top to bottom, will be always cleaned, but I don't think there's any cleaner that will do that automatically; there's always going to be a little space here and there, nooks and crannies like the stairs, stuff like that a pool owner might have to do."

Hayward's Phantom pressure cleaner bears a specific mention because it is different than all other pressure cleaners on the market today. "The Phantom is unique in this genre of pressure cleaners because of its patented ability to clean the pool bottom and sides and then automatically rise to skim the pool surface," says Smith. "It is also exceptional because of its high-performance vacuum, water-propulsion system and programmed steering feature, which allow for better customization to individual pool configurations." Just like other pressure cleaners, the Phantom requires a dedicated pressure line and booster pump. The unit has been available for the last two years.

Suction-Side Cleaners

Like pressure-side cleaners, suctionside cleaners are another long-time player on the automatic pool cleaner field. "The way it operates is with a vacuum hose connected to an automatic pool vacuum that is then attached either to the skimmer or a dedicated suction line, which allows you to both clean and skim at the same time," says Richard Garbee, vice president of sales and marketing for Cantar/Polyair Corp. The debris is vacuumed through the hose to the filter, and then the water is returned to the pool. Suction-side cleaners don't have a debris bag, and unlike the wheels that commonly move the pressure-side cleaners, the suction-side cleaners usually have a flat disc that creeps along the bottom and sides of the pool, creating suction.

One advantage of suction-side cleaners is ease of operation. "They are literally a do-it-yourself purchase that a consumer can take into their backyard, install in less than 20 minutes and be cleaning their pool," says Garbee. Also, a customer can purchase a suction-side cleaner at any time; though a dedicated suction line is an option, it's not a necessity, and there's no need for a booster pump. Since the pool's filtration system is doing the cleaning, though, the capability of the filter determines how clean the water gets.

The type of debris the cleaner will encounter is again a factor. "A suction cleaner works best with fine debris such as sand, pollen and pebbles because of the size of the hoses it must travel through and the size of the suction intake on the cleaner," says Smith. "Larger debris, such as twigs or large, waxy leaves may get caught in the hoses or cleaner itself, in the same way as a clog in a kitchen sink." Because of these different debris strengths, pressure-side cleaners often sell better in the Northeast, where leaves and twigs are an issue, while suction-side cleaners are more popular in the sandy Southwest.

Most suction cleaners move randomly about the pool, taking around three hours to clean it, and require owners to modify the pool's returns to ensure that the cleaner doesn't get pushed into a corner. Most suctionside cleaners, including Cantar's recently released Dirt Devil, come equipped to handle this modification. "Dirt Devil provides a return fitting that will allow you to adjust the flow, to allow the suction cleaner to get to various parts of the pool," says Garbee.

Hayward's Navigator and Pool Vac Ultra are notable exceptions, as the only suction-side cleaners with a steering system, according to the company. "Our cleaner has a programmed pattern in it," says Smith. "Through mechanical devices, similar to a watch's gears, our cleaner will periodically spin; it will make little turns. It'll make three turns and then go straight, and then make three turns and then go straight. How strong the suction vacuum is will determine how quickly it makes those three turnouts, and how far it will go before it starts another turnout. In that way, we can cover the whole pool more systematically than a purely random cleaner." Most suction-side cleaners retail for $400 to $500.


The newest entrants into the residential automatic cleaners market are the robotics. These cleaners operate independently of the pool's filtration system and pump, and plug into a standard outlet, either 12- or 24-volt. "It's basically a tank, and all the robots have the tank tracks on the side, and on the front and back are scrubbing brushes, which helps to scrub the pool and bring the dirt in," says Guy Erlich, president of WaterTech.

The robots, which originated in large commercial facilities, now utilize a few different types of technology, explains Gil Erlich, vice president of sales and marketing for Aqua Products.

"Within the robotic cleaner category there are essentially three different technologies to move the cleaner about the pool that make them truly automatic. The first robotic cleaner was introduced decades ago to the commercial sector," he says. "It was heavy, weighing around 100 pounds, which required an operator to use a hoist to lower it into and out of pools, and operated on 110 volts in the pool, which powered its drive motor to rotate wheels to drive it about the pool floor and its pump motor to vacuum.

"The next type of robotic technology also uses a drive motor to move, a pump motor to vacuum and a filter system to trap dirt and debris. The drive motor rotates front and rear brushes, which the cleaners roll on to move forward and reverse while scrubbing as guided by an internal microprocessor. They are far more compact and lightweight, ranging between 16 to over 20 pounds, are able to climb walls and most stairs, have rotating scrubbing brushes integrated into their capabilities and are available with different types of reusable filters.

"The final technology, which is fairly new to the robotic scene, has only a pump motor, which it uses to provide both drive and vacuum capabilities to work without a separate drive motor or the familiar wear and tear components such as belts, tracks or brushes. This drive method is typically referred to as a 'jet' cleaner," says Gil Erlich.

While more expensive than the other portable options, ranging from around $900 to $1,500, robotics have become increasingly popular over the last few years, offering many appealing options. "They have independence from the pool system — you don't have to hook up hoses. You're also getting a true scrubbing of the pool, because the robots actually scrub down the pools. Another key element is that we clean the waterlines. A pool that's being maintained by a robot never gets a bathtub ring, and the robots will climb the pool stairs," says Guy Erlich.

Robotics work in any kind of pool, as well, with different models for above-ground and in-ground pools, and are able to handle many types of debris, but you have to be sure you get the right robot for the job, says Gil Erlich. "Each robotic cleaner manufacturer provides different filter types capable of filtering out different sizes of debris, different debris-holding capacities, different vacuum intake port sizes and positions, and even different technological features.

"This means that if sand, silt, pollen and other minute particulates are of concern then filtration as fine as 2 microns would be suggested, along with unique technologies such as powerwashing jets to flush up the finer particles out of porous surfaces and seams and corners where brushes alone can not reach. If many leaves, twigs and other larger visible debris are an issue, then a larger-capacity bag, such as one with a 19-quart holding capacity, should be considered along with large offset vacuum intake ports to avoid clogging."

Most robotics take from three to six hours to clean a pool, but many companies now offer one-hour cleaning machines, and there is minimal maintenance required of the owner, according to Stephen Shulman, marketing manager for SmartPool. "Robotic pool cleaners are extremely automatic. Simply plug them in and drop them in the pool. The only labor involved really is when the filter bag needs to be cleaned, which is a pretty quick and simple task."

With this brief overview of the capabilities of automatic systems, dealers and builders can examine their customer base to determine what's best to carry and sell. As more and more options become available, it's important for professionals to stay on top of trends so they can pass on the information to their customers. Automatic cleaners offer customers a way to spend more time enjoying their pools and less time cleaning them, and offer dealers and builders a good way to make some extra money on the sale.

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