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The Complete Guide to Automatic Pool Cleaners

by Matt Giovanisci | Last Updated: October 5, 2017

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You’ve been getting along pretty well cleaning your pool by hand. You’ve got a telescoping pole, a stiff pool brush for scrubbing, a skimmer, and a vacuum. You balance your pool water, keep algae at bay, and—most importantly—you enjoy your pool.

But you could spend a lot less time cleaning your pool and a lot more time enjoying it if you invested in an automatic pool cleaner. Between the three types—pressure-side, suction-side, and robotic—you’re practically guaranteed to find a model that fits your budget. Each type functions differently, so it’s worth learning a bit about how they work so you can choose the one that’s right for you.

Swimming Pool Circulation

Before you choose an automatic pool cleaner, it’s important to understand swimming pool circulation. This is important because each type of automatic pool cleaner interacts with your pool circulation and filtration system a bit differently.

Keeping your pool water moving is part of what helps keep it clean. No one wants to swim in stagnant water, no matter how much chlorine you put in it. Gross. So your pool—whether above ground or inground—has a system to move water around, and keep it filtered and swimmable.

The system starts at the skimmer where water is sucked out, and ends at a jet (above ground pools) or multiple jets (inground pools) where the water is pumped back in.

The pump pulls water into your skimmer and through some pipes to your pool filter. The filter catches sediment and gunk as water passes through it. Then the pump pushes that freshly cleaned water through some more pipes and back into the pool via the return jet(s).

Ideally, you’d want to run your pool pump 24 hours a day, but that would get very expensive very quickly. The second-best option is to run it 12 hours a day, which will turn all that pool water over at least once.

The part of your pool filtration system that pulls the water out of the pool is the suction side. The part that sends clean water back into your pool is called the pressure side.

And that brings us to automatic pool cleaners.

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Suction-Side Pool Cleaners

The best option for anyone on a tight budget, this type of cleaner hooks up to your skimmer or dedicated suction line. It rolls around your pool sucking up debris, sending it through your pool’s filtration system. It will pick up mostly medium debris, but some models can be set to pick up silt and small debris too.

Once your suction-side cleaner is hooked up to your skimmer, the power of the water being sucked through it will help it amble around your pool floor. Some suction-side cleaners will also climb walls, and some have wheels, while others have rubber disks that lay flat against your pool floor.

You can usually buy a suction-side cleaner for somewhere between $100 and $400. While they cost a little less to own and operate, remember they rely on your pool filter to clean the water. This means you may find yourself spending a bit more time cleaning your filter. It could also shorten the life of your pool filter.

Of course, you’ll also need your pump running for a suction-side cleaner to work. Be sure to select the model made to work best with your pool type and wall finish.

How to Install and Use a Suction-Side Pool Cleaner

Setup comprises several steps, but once you’ve done it a few times, it’ll become second nature.

  1. Turn off your pump.
  2. Vacuum your pool, then clean your filter and pump basket.
  3. Run your pump for five minutes to clear the lines after cleaning, then shut it off again.
  4. Close your pool main drain line.
  5. Aim the return lines downward.
  6. Install the wall fitting to your return line or valve assembly inside the skimmer suction port.
  7. Lay the hose across your pool from the return line or skimmer to the farthest pool wall. Trim or remove sections of the hose to eliminate excess length.
  8. Attach the leader hose to the pool cleaner end of the hose.
  9. Submerge the hose, allowing it to fill with water.
  10. Submerge your automatic pool cleaner, so it will also fill with water.
  11. If your model has a flow regulator valve, install it on the hose now.
  12. Attach the leader hose to your pool cleaner.
  13. Allow your cleaner to sink to the pool floor, then turn on your pool pump and let your suction-side cleaner get to work.

You can use your cleaner daily, if you wish, but you’ll at least need to use it several times a week to keep your pool clean.

How to Maintain a Suction-Side Pool Cleaner

In addition to their bargain prices, the simple construction of suction-side cleaners makes them easy to care for.

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Suction-Side Pool Cleaner Troubleshooting Tips

Something not quite right with your cleaner? You should be able to fix most issues on your own.

Storing a Suction-Side Pool Cleaner

When you close your pool, winter storage is a breeze. Disassemble all hoses and connectors. Drain all the water from the cleaner and hoses, then lay the hoses flat.

If you have a disc cleaner, lay the disc flat, too. Store the hoses and the cleaner out of direct sunlight.

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Pressure-Side Pool Cleaners

Arguably the most popular of the three types, this cleaner hooks up to the return jet(s) in your pool and uses water pressure to propel itself through your pool. Pressure-side pool cleaners have wheels, a filter bag, a sweep hose, and a return-jet hose. They’re great at picking up medium and large debris.

Once installed, your pool pump pushes water through a hose to jets located underneath the pool cleaner and along the sweep hose. These concentrated streams of water work to move the cleaner along while also loosening debris and pushing it up into the filter bag. Fine particles will flow through the filter bag and get cleaned out in the pool filtration system.

Some models of pressure-side cleaners, such as those created specifically for above ground pools, do not have a filter bag. Those models rely solely on your pool’s filter system to grab debris kicked up by the automatic cleaner. If you use one of these, be vigilant about scooping out large debris with a hand skimmer so your pool skimmer won’t get clogged.

Pressure-side cleaners are available across a wide price range, with most models usually falling between $200 and $900. Premium models include features such as rubber wheels that better grip pool walls and a zippered filter bag.

While less expensive models have fewer bells and whistles, most will still get the job done. Be sure to choose a model that’s safe for use with the type of pool walls you have.

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How to Install and Use a Pressure-Side Pool Cleaner

This process is very similar to installation and use of a suction-side cleaner, just opposite in some ways as it works at the end of the circulation cycle rather than the beginning.

  1. Clean your pool filter.
  2. Flush your return line by turning your pump on for five minutes, then back off again.
  3. Install a universal wall fitting into your dedicated return line or a return jet.
  4. Trim the leader hose so its length equals the deepest part of your pool.
  5. Screw the leader hose into the wall fitting.
    • Note: The leader hose is installed on the opposite end from suction-side pool cleaner installation.
  6. Attach the leader hose to the feed hose.
  7. Extend the feed hose across the pool surface to the farthest pool edge from the return line. If it extends far past the pool edge, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for trimming the hose. Typically, you’ll cut equal amounts from each section when making adjustments.
  8. Ensure all feed hose floats are evenly spaced.
  9. Connect the feed hose to the pool cleaner.
  10. Secure the filter bag per the instructions for your model.
  11. Prime your pool pump. If you’re using a booster pump, turn it on next.
  12. Important: Measure rotations per minute (RPMs) of the cleaner’s wheels to ensure they’re within the range recommended for your model. If your pressure-side pool cleaner’s wheels rotate too slowly, the cleaner won’t get around the pool well. If they’re rotating too quickly, the cleaner will lift off the floor, and won’t be able to vacuum properly. Ideal RPMs vary by model, so consult your manual before continuing.
    • Using a marker, put a small line on one tire.
    • Turn the cleaner on, and submerge it just below the pool surface.
    • Set a timer for one minute.
    • Count one tire rotation each time your mark passes the starting point.
    • When the minute is up, compare the RPMs you counted to the manual to ensure the total falls somewhere within the recommended range.
    • If it doesn’t, adjust as necessary, and repeat the test until you achieve a good number of RPMs.

Now your pressure-side cleaner is ready to roll! Use it at least twice a week, or as often as needed.

Booster Pumps

Some pools won’t have quite enough water pressure to run certain pressure-side cleaners. If you choose a cleaner that needs a lot of oomph, you may also need a booster pump.

This small, additional pump hooks into your pool’s circulation system and, as its name suggests, boosts the pressure of the incoming water. The booster pump ensures your pool cleaner will clean your whole pool effectively in the right amount of time.

Note: If you must use a booster pump, we recommend having a professional install it. It’s a little more complicated than just the pool cleaner.

Backup Valve

Many pressure-side automatic pool cleaners have this simple-looking little doodad that does a very important job. The backup valve is installed on the feeder hose, just a few feet away from the cleaner body. It helps redirect your pool cleaner so it will clean the entirety of your pool, rather than spend a few hours stuck by your stairs.

The valve kicks on every so often, stopping water flow to the cleaner and instead, blasting all the water through a tiny jet on the side of the valve. This produces a burst of force that shoves the cleaner to a new location so you can get on with your life and not worry about whether your pool cleaner is doing its job.

How to Maintain a Pressure-Side Pool Cleaner

Though they save you a lot of manual labor, you’ll still need to take a few practical steps to ensure your pool cleaner lives a full life. Keeping it clean is pretty simple, and routine maintenance will keep your pressure-side pool cleaner operating at peak performance.

Pressure-Side Pool Cleaner Troubleshooting Tips

Every once in a while, your pool cleaner may not work exactly the way it’s supposed to. You can fix most problems pretty easily.

Storing a Pressure-Side Pool Cleaner

Closing your pool for the winter? Rinse the cleaner off, clean the filter and filter bag, then allow everything to dry. Store the pool cleaner and all its parts and accessories out of direct sunlight.

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Robotic Pool Cleaners

These powerful little machines are as cool as they are useful. They pick up debris of all sizes. Even better, they don’t attach to your pool circulation system at all, so they don’t rely on your pool filter. They run on good, old electricity.

That’s right—you plug them in, and then put them in the water. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Don’t worry, they’re built to work that way.

Robotic pool cleaners run on very low voltage, so they’re submersible. They have very long power cords that can only be plugged into ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets. Those are the outlets that will automatically shut off if any electrical imbalance is detected, so you won’t get shocked.

Some models are also “double insulated,” which means they’re designed to work safely without the grounding prong plug. However, for safety’s sake, it’s best if you plug those into a GFCI outlet too.

You may have spotted solar-powered robotic cleaners on the market. Those can be more accurately described as robotic skimmers. They float around your pool gathering debris from the surface of your pool, just like hand skimming. While they won’t replace vacuuming or wall scrubbing, you may find them helpful in reducing the amount debris that sinks to your pool floor.

A robotic pool cleaner drives around your pool, scrubbing the walls and floor with little brushes and vacuuming up everything from silt to acorns. Most models will clean your pool floor and walls, while some can even scrub the water line around your pool. Because they’re not hooked into your filter system. Robotic cleaners have a filter bag or built-in cartridge for debris collection.

You’ll find a few robotic cleaners for less than $500, but most cost between $500 and $1,000. While the inexpensive models will certainly get the job done, premium models have convenient features such as waterline scrubbing, rapid water release for easy removal, remote controls, and programmable cleaning cycles.

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How to Use a Robotic Pool Cleaner

  1. After assembling your cleaner, plug it into a GFCI outlet.
  2. Select your preferred cleaning settings. These options will vary by model, but some common modes include Bottom Only and Waterline Only.
  3. Bring your robotic cleaner to the halfway point of your pool length to reduce cable tangling.
  4. Submerge the cleaner, gently shifting it from side to side, allowing all air to escape.
  5. Turn on your pool cleaner, and let it sink to the bottom of the pool.
    • Important: Do not turn your cleaner on before submerging it as it can damage the machine. Also remember to turn it off before removing it from the water.
  6. During its first wall-cleaning cycle, watch to be sure your cleaner is able to fully climb your pool walls. If not, you’ll need to make adjustments per the manufacturer’s suggestions.
  7. Always remove your cleaner after it’s finished working. Lift it from the pool, allowing all the water to drain out before storing.

How to Maintain a Robotic Pool Cleaner

Don’t let their high-tech design intimidate you. Routine cleaning and maintenance on robotic cleaners isn’t difficult. Some models even boast features that make cleaning easier such as quick draining to help you lift the robot out of the pool.

Robotic Pool Cleaner Troubleshooting Tips

Even high-tech gadgets can sometimes encounter problems. Most of them are easily fixed.

Storing a Robotic Pool Cleaner

Just like the other two types, make sure the cleaner and all its attachments are completely dry, and store everything out of direct sunlight.

Hidden Benefits of Automatic Pool Cleaners

You know you’ll be spending much less time leaning over the edge of your pool with a scrub brush once you buy an automatic pool cleaner. But you’ll get a few other surprising benefits, too.

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Don’t Forget!

Are you ready to invest in an automatic pool cleaner? Just a few more things to remember before you take the plunge:

Ready to Give a Little Robot a Go?

Any automatic pool cleaner should be able to clean your pool within about three hours, depending on your pool’s size. Its performance can be affected significantly by routine maintenance, such as keeping filters clean and valve settings optimized.

But even if you check every element of your cleaner after every use, the time and work involved in keeping it in tip-top shape will be insignificant compared to the time you’re currently spending bent over your poolside, scrubbing with a brush.

The only thing you’ve got to lose by investing in an automatic pool cleaner is that pain in your back.

Happy Swimming!

Matt Giovanisci, the founder of Swim University®, started in the pool and spa industry at age 13 and moved to bigger companies along the way, helping thousands of pool and hot tub owners every year. He wanted to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale, so he launched Swim University® in 2007. Since then, he's worked to make pool and hot tub care easy for over 10 million homeowners. And each year, he continues to help more people with water chemistry, cleaning, and troubleshooting.

Frustrated by adding chemicals and trying to keep your pool clear all the time?

We cut out all the confusion of pool maintenance in this easy-to-read illustrated ebook and video course. It'll help you save $100 right away on pool care!

Click here to learn more
The Pool Care Handbook

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