Consumer surveys tell us that one of the biggest deterrents to buying a swimming pool is maintenance. While everyone would rather relax poolside than jockey a vacuum pole, routine maintenance is a reality for every pool owner. Fortunately, the task is much easier if you invest in an automatic pool cleaner (APC). The up-front cost of this unit will save you countless hours over the lifetime of your pool.

Many new pool owners underestimate the time involved in manually vacuuming their pool and later convert to automatic pool cleaners. This conversion process is much easier if your pool is plumbed during the construction process to handle one of the automatic cleaners. Many pool builders assume that their customers will eventually opt to purchase an automatic pool cleaner after a couple years of manually cleaning and routinely make their pools APC compatible during construction.

The best way to simplify your pool-cleaning regimen- whether your using manual or automatic pool cleaning equipment- is to maintain the pool properly between cleaning.

Cleaning Tools

Before you begin cleaning the pool, assemble all the tools you’ll need. Otherwise you’ll end up running back and forth to the pool storage area as you progress through the cleaning process. Here’s a list of essential equipment.

Telescoping Poles

Telescoping poles, sometimes called tele-poles, are a must-item for pool owners. They’re made from aluminum or fiberglass and consist of an outer cylinder that slides over an inner cylinder, so that the pole can be extended to twice the length it is when retracted. An 8-foot (2.4m) pool that extends to 16 feet (4.9m) should suit most of your pool-cleaning needs. The two cylinders usually lock together with a cam lock or a compression nut ring.

The tip of the pole may be fitted with a magnet to help you pick up metal objects, such as hairpins, that fall to the pool floor. Various attachments- such as vacuum heads and brushes- can be installed on the end of a telescoping pole. Some tools insert into the pole, while others slide over the pole. The attachments have locking devices that secure them to the pole.

Rakes

A pool rake is a small, sturdy net used in conjunction with a telescoping pole to remove leaves and other floating debris from the pool. The net can be made from stainless-steel mesh or plastic netting, and its frame is usually aluminum or plastic. There are many different kinds of pool rakes available; invest in a good-quality rake that will withstand being scraped against rough surfaces and lifting heavy loads of wet debris.

Brushes
Nylon-bristled wall and floor brushes are used in conjunction with a telescoping pole to remove dirt, stains, and other foreign matter from the pool’s interior surfaces. Most are about 18 inches (46 cm) wide; some are curved for easier access to corners and other tight crevices.

To remove rough stains and algae, you’ll need a brush with stainless-steel bristles.

Tile Brushes

Tile brushes usually have abrasive foam pads and snap into a telescoping pole so you can scrub the tile without getting down on your hands and knees. Use these brushes with cleansing formulas designed for pool tile, available from your pool and spa supply store. Other types of cleansers or soaps foam excessively and can wreak havoc on your pool’s circulation system.

Pumice Stones

Pumice is handy for removing scale, stains, and menacing deposits from tile and plaster without excessive scratching. Its sold in block form or as a bladed stone that attaches to a telescoping pole.

Water Test Kits and Chemicals

After you’ve cleaned the pool, you’ll need to test and balance the water.

Vacuum

You’ll need a vacuum to suck up debris from the bottom of the pool. Pool vacuums come in two different categories: manual and automatic.

Manual Vacuums

Two type of manual vacuum heads are used to clean debris from pools: suction-style vacuums suck debris into the pool’s filtration system; leaf vacuums use water pressure supplied by a garden hose to force debris into a mesh bag, both types attach to a telescoping pole.

Like household vacuum cleaners, many pool vacuums have adjustable heads that can be set to maintain a specific distance from the pool surface, enabling you to achieve maximal effectiveness for your pool surface. Some vacuum heads glide on bristles, while others incorporate wheels. Make sure you’re using a type designated for your pool surface; wheels, for example, can damage a vinyl-lined pool.

Suction-Style Vacuums

The suction-style vacuum features a hose attaches at one end to the vacuum head and at the other end to a special port below the pool’s skimmer. When you turn on the filter pump, water is pulled from the vacuum head to the skimmer, where debris is filtered out. The vacuum hose is available in many lengths; make sure you have one that is long enough to reach every corner of your pool. Some hoses have swivel cuffs, which help prevent the hose from coiling or kinking while you work.

Before you start vacuuming, make sure all the suction power of your pool’s circulation system is concentrated at the port in the wall where you attach the vacuum hose. You may need to consult with a pool service technician the first time you do this to make sure you’re closing off main drains and multiple skimmers correctly to create the suction required. Also make sure the hose is filled with water before attaching it to the suction port. If too much air is allowed into the circulation system, the pump could lose its prime and stop operating.

Attach the vacuum head to a telescoping pole and work your way slowly around the pool. Don’t move too fast, or else you’ll merely stir up the debris instead of vacuuming it up. If the suction becomes weak, clean the pump strainer basket and filter. When you’re finished, remove the end of the hose from the suction port and lift the vacuum head from the water, allowing the water in the hose to drain back into the pool.

Leaf Vacuums

A leaf vacuum, which has its own filter, is designed to pick up large amounts of debris, but it won’t pick up the finer particles that a suction-style vacuum will collect. Despite its limitations, a leaf vacuum can be handy, particularly if you have lots of debris (such as leaves) to clean out and you don’t want to have to stop every few minutes to clean out your skimmer basket. After you’ve used a leaf vacuum to clean out the big stuff, you can follow up with a suction-style vacuum to finish the job.

To operate a leaf-style vacuum, you’ll attach a garden hose to a water supply (presumably your outdoor spigot) at one end and to the vacuum head to a telescoping pole. Place the vacuum in the pool and turn on the water. Move the vacuum head around the pool to pick up leaves and large debris, stopping to empty the leaf bag as needed. When you’re finished, remove the vacuum carefully from the water to avoid spilling any debris back into the pool. (You may wish to leave the water on until the vacuum is removed from the pool.) Then clean out the leaf bag.

If your garden hose has weak water pressure, a leaf vacuum may not perform well.

Automatic Pool Cleaners

Using an automatic pool cleaner (APC) can save you about 3 hours a week in routine chores. Plus APCs help pool water stay warmer by circulating cooler water to the surface, where it is warmed by the sun; conserve water by lowering the temperature of the surface water, thereby making it less vulnerable to evaporation; and save chemicals by helping distribute them evenly throughout the pool.

That said, it should come as no surprise that APCs have moved to the front and center of the war against sunken debris and tile scum. In fact, many pool owners now consider APC a necessity rather than a luxury.

Before you run out and buy an APC, you should know that there are several types, and each works best on particular pool surfaces. For example, you wouldn’t want to use a cleaner designed to scrub plaster surfaces if you have vinyl-lined pool, or you may end up having to replace the liner sooner than you thought. Also, some units are sized for smaller above ground pools; if you used one of these on your massive in-ground pool, you’d be disappointed with the results.

The basic types of pool cleaners include suction, pressure, electric, and in-floor. Here’s a brief description of each.

Suction

Suction cleaners are the least expensive type of pool cleaner. Simple to operate, they attach to the suction side of the pool’s plumbing system- the side that brings water out of the pool to be filtered. A hose connects the cleaner to one of the pool’s suction ports. This is usually the skimmer, though more and more new pools are being constructed with a separate vacuum port for the cleaner’s hose.

When the filter pump is running, suction is created on the underside of the cleaner. The cleaner then moves randomly around the pool, suck up debris. Large debris is caught in the pump’s strainer basket; small debris passes through to the pool’s filter, where it is trapped. Some tweaking of the device and the pool circulation system is necessary to achieve optimal coverage of the pool floor and walls.

The main problem with suction cleaners occurs in pools that have only one skimmer. In this situation, skimmer action must be suspended while the cleaner is operating, which means floating debris won’t be removed while the vacuum is connected. Also, unless you have an in-line strainer basket on the hose, the filter pump basket can fill up quickly, depending on how much debris has fallen into the pool.

If a suction cleaner is not moving as it should, check to ensure that the main drain and all suction lines except the one the cleaner is attached to are closed. Also remove any debris from the pump basket, and check the opening of the cleaner and remove any obstructions, such as leaves. Obstructions can also be found where the hose attaches to the suction line.

The cleaner may move slowly if air is getting into the hose, so check the hose for cracks, splits, or holes. Air can also get into the system via a loose or cracked pump basket lid. Air bubble entering the pool at the return line are a sure sign that air is getting into the vacuum system.

Suction cleaners require a minimum flow rate to work effectively. If nothing appears to be wrong with the cleaner, consult your pool professional to make sure your pool circulation system is adequately sized for the cleaner you’re trying to use.

Pressure

Pressure cleaners attach to the pressure side of your pool’s circulation system- that is, the side that returns water to the pool after it’s been filtered. These units attach to an exiting return inlet or a dedicated port. The pressure from the water powers the cleaner. As water flows toward the unit, it is split into three directions: the sweeper tail, the thrust jet, and the venturi.

The sweeper tail helps stir up fine debris from the floor and walls so that it can be caught in the pool’s main filter. The thrust jet is a series of ports and gears that send the cleaner around the pool in random patterns. The venturi is a port to which the filter bag is attached. As water flows through the venturi, larger debris is trapped in the filter bag. The filter bag must be emptied when full.

Some pressure cleaners require a booster pump in order to ensure enough pressure power is created by the circulation system. In such cases, it’s best to have the booster pumps installed during the pool construction process so that the dedicated line from the booster pump can be installed under the deck and through the pool wall.

Your pool dealer should be able to help you test the pressure at the inlet port to determine whether your pool’s circulation system provides enough pressure to power one of these cleaners without the need for a booster pump. One advantage of systems that do require booster pumps, however, is that the booster pump can be set on a timer, so if the cleaner is left in the pool, the cleaning system is truly automatic.

One of the advantages of pressure cleaners in general is that they help distribute clean, filtered, and chemically treated water around the pool. Also, because they have their own filter bag to capture debris, they don’t cause excessive wear on the pool’s main filtration system. And a pressure cleaner will operate even when its filter bag is full; water still flows through the cleaner and stirs up debris, and the filter bag just won’t collect any more until it is emptied. If the debris were being caught in the pump filter basket- as it is with suction-style cleaners- the pool’s pump would have to work harder to keep circulating water.

Electric

Sometimes referred to as robot cleaners, electric cleaners are low-voltage devices that hook up to a standard GFCI-protected outlet. A transformer converts the electrical power to a voltage that is strong enough to power the unit but low enough not to create a danger of electrocution. These cleaners come with long- about 50 feet (15m)- electrical cords to ensure that the cleaner can reach the entire pool.

Electric cleaners typically have two motors. The pump motor sucks up water and debris into the cleaner’s filter; the drive motor moves the unit around the pool. The onboard filter is easy to clean. To improve performance, some of these units are controlled via a computerized system, which can be programmed to remember the shape and size of a pool. Some units even have remote control capabilities, so you can drive the cleaner around the pool from your poolside lounge chair.

The biggest advantage of electric cleaners is that they’re independent from the rest of the pool circulation system, so they don’t create any problems for the regular filtration process. However, they can cost a lot more than either suction or pressure cleaners.

Never pull an electric cleaner out of the water by its cord, or you risk causing a short in the wiring. Instead, always reach into the pool and lift that cleaner out by its handle.

If a unit moves along the pool floor but doesn’t suck up any debris, the pump motor may be shorted out. If the water is gushing from the cleaner but it won’t move, the problem may lie with the drive motor. In either case- and with all malfunctions in an electrical cleaner- it’s best to have repairs made by one of the manufacturer’s authorized service centers.

In-Floor

An in-floor cleaning system can be installed only during the construction of a pool. In-floor systems are more expensive than the other types of APCs but also offer the greatest ease of use. Essentially, an in-floor cleaning system consists of multiple jets installed in the pool floor, steps, and other underwater surfaces where debris is likely to rest. When the system is activated these rotating jets project high-pressure streams of water that “sweeps” sediment and debris along the floor and walls towards the pool’s main drain, where they can be removed by the pool’s filtration system.

Because of how they operate, in-floor cleaning systems are custom designed for each pool to ensure top performance.

Troubleshooting Automatic Pool Cleaners

When you purchase an automatic pool cleaner, keep the owner’s manual handy. Here you’ll find instructions for proper care and operation of you pool cleaner, as well as troubleshooting tips should something go wrong. Also, many manufacturer’s offer troubleshooting advice on their Web sites.

To alleviate wear and tear and to prevent breakdowns, check your cleaner periodically to make sure it’s working properly and fix any small glitches before they develop into major problems. Always replace worn parts, or else you risk having to replace more expensive components down the road.

Though it’s impossible to predict everything that might go wrong with an automatic pool cleaner, some general advice for improving the performance of your cleaner may be of assistance.

Make sure the cleaner you purchase is designed for the type and size of pool you own.

Make sure the hose (or electric cord) is long enough to reach every section to the pool easily.

If the cleaner misses spots or gets stuck, make sure the strong current from the return jets isn’t forcing the cleaner into a pattern or preventing it from moving. To remedy this situation, adjust the return fittings or replace them with adjustable eyeball diverters that you can angle in different directions. In most cases, it helps to angle the fitting downward.

Make sure proper vacuum pressure is maintained at all time. Vacuum pressure is affected by clogs in filters, skimmer baskets, and pump baskets. Air leaks in the hose, pump basket lid, or other points along the circulation system can also cause a drop in pressure.

To keep hoses from twisting, don’t coil them up in storage. If possible, allow the hose section to lie flat. Hoses perform best when they’re straight. If you do have a coiled hose, stretch it out in the sun for an entire day to relax the coils.

Cleaners will have trouble climbing walls coated with slippery algae. Maintain the proper water chemistry at all times and brush walls thoroughly. Many cleaners also have trouble climbing wall if the angle where the wall and floor meet up is sharp and not sloped.

If the cleaner moves to quickly or too slowly, check the pressure at the inlet or outlet (depending on whether you’re using a suction or pressure cleaner) to make sure it’s in the range recommended by the manufacturer.

Don’t use an automatic pool cleaner on a newly plastered pool until it’s had at least three weeks to cure or the cleaner will mar the surface.

Step-By-Step Pool Cleaning

Cleaning a pool is a simple matter of following a few basic steps.

Clean the deck area so that debris doesn’t blow or get tracked into your newly cleaned pool or spa.

Use a leaf rake to remove floating debris, emptying the rake into a garbage bag as needed. Don’t dispose of the debris you collect in your garden, because it might blow back into your pool when it dries out. Also, the small amount of chemicals in the wet debris could be harmful to your plants. You may need to rake daily if your pool tends to collect a lot of blowing leaves and debris.

Use tile brushes and an appropriate tile cleaner to clean the tile surfaces of your pool. Be sure to scrub both above and below the waterline. If necessary, use a pumice stone to remove stains. (It’s important to clean tile before the rest of the pool because debris scrubbed from the tiles, as well as particles from a pumice stone, will settle to the bottom as you clean. You can vacuum up these particles later.) Some automatic pool cleaners claim to brush the waterline for you, but they won’t do a perfect job or reach tight corners. Needless to say, a little elbow grease is always needed.

Bring the water level up to where it should be. You may need to add water weekly to compensate for evaporation and “splash out.” If you have an automatic water leveler attached to your pool, it should do the job for you.

Empty and clean the skimmer basket and the pump strainer basket. Then check the filter’s pressure. If the filter’s pressure is high, you may need to clean it before vacuuming. Also take this time to clean the area around the equipment pad. Observe the equipment to make sure everything is operating as it should. Look for leaks.

Brush the pool walls. Brushing removes algae from the walls and helps expose them to the sanitizing chemicals in the water. Start at the shallow end and work toward the deep end, brushing toward the main drain so that debris is sucked into the filtration system. Some automatic cleaners climb walls and brush them for you, but again, they never do a perfect job or reach tight spaces. If you have one of these cleaners, you should manually brush the spots your cleaner usually misses.

If debris is visible on the bottom of the pool, vacuum the pool using either a manual or an automatic pool cleaner. If you use a suction-style cleaner, clean the pump strainer basket and filter again after vacuuming.