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Everything You Need to Know About Pool Skimmers

By Matt Giovanisci | Updated: November 20, 2018

Isn’t it frustrating when two things related to the same area have the same name, but are totally different? That’s the case with pool skimmers. One type is the net you attach to the end of a telescoping pole and use to fish leaves and other debris out of your pool. Pretty simple, but it’s an essential piece of equipment you should have on hand.

The other type actually serves a few purposes, and is a more complex part of your pool, whether it’s built into your inground pool, or mounted on the wall of (or floating around) your above ground pool. Either way, they’re an important part of your swimming pool’s functions, so you need to know how they work and how to use and care for them properly.

What are Pool Skimmers, Anyway?

For an inground pool, skimmers are sort of like little buckets built into the side of the pool. They hold baskets, which performs a similar function to the handheld leaf skimmer, keeping leaves, twigs, and other debris from making their way into your filter. Or, if you have an above ground pool, you likely have the kind that float around in the water doing the same things.

Inground Pool Skimmers

These are usually rectangular shaped and are placed around the pool, toward the tops of the walls. The water level usually covers about the bottom half of the skimmers.

Inground pool skimmer

They’re most often made of white plastic, and some have a door called a weir over the front that opens and closes according to the water level and movement. When you turn the pump off, the weir closes so the debris collected in the skimmer basket doesn’t float back into the pool.

Above Ground Pool Skimmers

These are either mounted on the side of the pool with a plastic arm, or are floating models that attach to your pool vacuum and then float around the water randomly collecting debris.

Depending on your pool brand and model, there may be a precut opening in the pool wall where you can install an integrated pool skimmer. However, this requires you to cut into the liner, so if you’re not confident about doing that, you may want to consider one of the other two types to avoid having to replace your entire liner.

What Do Pool Skimmers Do?

With no motor or other moving parts, how can a skimmer keep your pool water clear? It’s got a few tricks up its sleeve.

Circulation and Filtration

Pool skimmers are the starting point of pool circulation, and act as a gateway to your pool’s filtration system.

Your pool pump sucks water into the skimmers. As the water passes through the skimmer basket, it’s cleared of larger debris that would cause a blockage if it made it all the way to your pump or filter. It also allows the filter to do its job of pulling the smaller contaminants out so the water that makes its way back into your pool through the returns is cleaner.


In addition to just collecting yucky stuff from your pool water, the skimmer also helps keep your pump and filter in tip-top shape by ensuring the water that passes through them is clear of things that could cause major problems for that expensive equipment.

Water Cleaning

Is your pool getting a lot of use? If so, a lot more than just your friends and family are getting into the water.

The more people who swim, the more sunscreen, makeup, shampoo, soap, and other foreign contaminants are left behind in the water. Sure, your filter will take care of some of them. But if you want to go a little above and beyond, place a few tennis balls into your skimmer basket. Their fuzzy exteriors will absorb a lot of those surface oils.

You can also increase your skimmer basket’s effectiveness by covering it with pantyhose. The finely knit fabric will catch some of the smaller debris that would normally tax your filter.

Replace the tennis balls and pantyhose when they start to look worn out.

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Adding Chlorine Tablets

You could spend a little money and buy a floating chlorine dispenser. Or you could just add a few chlorine tablets directly to your skimmer basket.

The advantage here is that because water is pulled through the skimmer, it will run over the tablets, dissolving them more quickly than if they were just floating around the pool. This means a higher concentration of chlorine in your water, which translates to cleaner, more sanitary water.

Just make sure you remove the partially dissolved tablets from the pool skimmer when your pump isn’t running to keep the highly chlorinated water from sitting in one place, possibly damaging equipment. Or, get a variable-speed pool pump, if you don’t already have one, to keep your water circulating without using a lot of energy or running up your electric bill.

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Pool Vacuuming

It’s great if you have an automatic pool cleaner, but there will be times when you’ll need to manually vacuum your pool. When that happens, you can put your pool’s circulation system to work.

Once you have your vacuum put together, you can insert the vacuum hose into the skimmer’s suction hole, or use a skimmer vacuum plate, and the water will be forced through the pool’s filter system as you vacuum, resulting in cleaner, clearer water.

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When to Clean Your Pool Skimmer

Conventional wisdom says to clean out your pool skimmer at least once a week. Think about it. That basket is catching all kinds of funky things that fall into your pool. You don’t want it just sitting there for long, right? The longer it sits, the higher the probability that it will start to break up and then decay, and then you’ll have tiny, nasty bits floating around in your water. Blech.

So yes, once a week is good advice. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?), if you have a lot of trees in your back yard, if it’s been windy, you’ve had storms, or if any other condition exists that gives you reason to believe your skimmer may fill up with debris pretty quickly, you’ll want to check it more often.

How to Clean Your Pool Skimmer

This is probably the easiest task related to your pool maintenance. All you have to do is take the cover off the skimmer, reach in and pull the basket out, and discard whatever is in the basket. Then put it back in the skimmer, replace the cover, and you’re done.

If the basket looks dingy, or it’s caught some particularly yucky things (dead bugs, anyone?), you can give it a spray with the hose before replacing it. If you feel it needs to be cleaned further than that, a mild multi-purpose spray will do the trick.

Important: Make sure you rinse the cleaner off completely, or you may end up with foamy bubbles in your pool water, and a bigger problem than you started with.

The Skimmer in Winter

Whether you’re closing an inground pool or winterizing an above ground pool, you won’t want to skip the skimmer prep, or you could open your pool to a bit of a mess next season.

For an inground pool, once you’ve blown out the lines, you’ll need to insert a rubber plug or an ice compensator like a Gizzmo into your skimmer to keep it closed and prevent anything from sneaking into your filtration system over the winter.

Same goes for an above ground pool, but in that case, depending on the type of skimmer you have, you may be able to just install a cover over it.

Either way, make sure you take care of your skimmer so it can keep taking care of your pool when you open it back up.

Skim Your Way to a Cleaner, Healthier Pool

From keeping your pool’s circulation going, to helping clean your pool, pool skimmers are one of the most unassuming yet important parts of your swimming pool. Keep the skimmers clean and clear of debris, and half the work of keeping your pool clear is done.

Remember they also play an important role in closing your pool each winter. Skip that one little step, and you could have a big job waiting for you in the spring. Knowing just how important they are and how to care for them means your pool skimmers will do their job for you for years to come.

Happy Swimming!

Matt Giovanisci is the founder of Swim University® and has been in the pool and spa industry since 1995. Since then, his mission is to make pool and hot tub care easy for everyone. And each year, he continues to help more people with water chemistry, cleaning, and troubleshooting.
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