The Ultimate Pool Cleaner Buying Guide
A sparkling clean swimming pool is a fantastic, inviting place to be in the warm months. However, it doesn't get to be that way by accident! Picture the scene - it's a sweltering hot day and you're about to cool off with a quick dip. A nice cold beer or glass of wine is sitting in the cooler poolside. The only fly in the ointment: the pool looks filthy, full of leaves, dirt and debris. Are you going to spend the next hour manually cleaning it? Or is it time to get hold of an automatic pool cleaner?
Swimming pool owners have to choose between many different types, makes and models of pool cleaner to bring back the crystal-clear sparkling clean appearance. Different pool cleaners are designed for different sizes, shapes, volumes & materials of pools, and selecting the correct one for your pool is the key to hassle-free, minimal effort cleaning.
The backyard swimming pool is a harsh environment for any equipment to survive in. Water, sun and chlorine all have damaging effects on the pool cleaner over time. What appears to be a bargain may end up failing in a short time and having to be replaced. Take care and do your own research.
Most automatic pool cleaners can't effectively clean an extremely dirty pool, so you will need to do some manual cleaning. It's best to manually clean the pool in the following situations:
- At the start of each swimming season
- When you haven't run the pool cleaner for a while
- When the pool is particularly full of debris or dirt.
We'll begin by looking at the different types of swimming pool cleaners, how they work, and what the pros and cons of each type are.
Types of Pool Cleaners
Swimming pool and accessory manufacturers have come up with several methods over the years, to assist the pool owner in the quest for a sparkling pool. Various filters catch much of the debris and particles that land in the pool, but once leaves, sand, and dirt settle onto pool surfaces, they require more proactive removal.
The first choice to make is - manual or automatic?
Manual cleaners include vacuum units, surface skimmers, and brush attachments. These are used with a telescopic pole which lets you reach the deepest surfaces of the pool.
Automatic pool cleaners require manual hookup and placement in the pool and then operate independently. There are three main types of automatic pool cleaner available: suction, pressure and robotic.
Suction cleaners attach with a hose to the skimmer box, and use the suction created by existing pool pump to suck up dirt and debris, which will end up in your swimming pool's filter. Suction cleaners are the most common type of automatic pool cleaner.
There are two sub-types of suction cleaners:
- Inertia driven suction cleaners (e.g. Kreepy Krauly) clean in a random pattern. They will eventually cover every inch of your pool, however because of the random pattern, it will take longer than other types of automatic cleaners. Inertia driven suction cleaners are generally the lowest priced automatic pool cleaners. They are suited to pools with curved walls and no sharp corners.
- Geared suction cleaners (e.g. Hayward PoolVac) move in a pre-determined pattern and will clean your pool in less time than an inertia driven cleaner. They can easily get into tight corners which makes them suitable for smaller pools, or pools with many steps and sharp ledges.
Instead of using the suction provided by the existing plumbing of your pool to "pull" themselves around, pressure cleaners use the pressure of an external pump to "push" themselves around your pool.
Pressure cleaners are usually more powerful than suction cleaners. Typically they operate with an additional booster pump, which will require a separate hose connection in the pool wall - this is likely to be an expensive operation if your pool is already built. Pressure cleaners that connect directly into your existing pool pump may not work as well for you - your pool pump & plumbing was unlikely to have been designed for the extra load the cleaner will put it under.
Robotic or electric self-propelled cleaners
A robotic cleaner is the deluxe swimming pool maintenance accessory. Robotic cleaners operate independently of the pool's plumbing and filtration system. They have an internal motor, pump, and electronic control unit. The motor operates at low voltage, so there's no danger. The robotic cleaner can learn the size and shape of your pool, and can clean it faster and more efficiently than either a suction or pressure cleaner.
Before you buy a pool cleaner, make sure it is the correct style for your type of pool. Some cleaners have vacuum heads designed specifically for concrete, vinyl or fiberglass pool surfaces. If you buy the wrong type it may not be efficient or may even damage the pool surface.
Manual Pool Cleaners
Swimming Pool Vacuum
- Cheaper than automatic cleaners
- No moving parts
- Can reach parts missed by automatic cleaners
- Manual cleaning can take a long time
- You will need to backwash or clean your pool filter more often.
Significantly cheaper than an automatic cleaner, a manually operated pool vacuum has a hose that connects to the intake pipe to the pool filter. It has a vacuum head on wheels and a telescopic pole.
You connect the hose to the vacuum head & the vacuum head to the telescopic pole, put the cleaner in the pool, and then hold the hose under the pool surface to allow all the air to escape, before connecting it to the suction port under the skimmer basket (if the hose is full of air it may damage your pool pump, or cause it to cut out). You then move the vacuum over the sides, steps and bottom of the pool to suck debris into the pool filter.
A manual pool vacuum has no moving parts and is a cost-effective way to clean your pool. However, depending on the size of the swimming pool, it may take you several hours to completely clean your pool. Backwashing the filter after vacuuming adds even more time to the task. Like all cleaners connected to your pool pump, the cleaner your pool's filtration system, the more efficiently the pool cleaner will work.
Swimming Pool Skimmer
A swimming pool skimmer is essential to pool maintenance whether using manual or automatic vacuum units. It uses the same long pole as the manual vacuum and consists of a net on a rigid frame. It is used to collect debris from the surface of the water before it reaches the basket filter in the skimmer box, or the floor of the pool. It is a good habit to skim the surface before cleaning the pool - even if you use a pool cover there will likely be some debris that gets through. The cost of a skimmer net is minimal. Using one regularly saves wear and tear on your filtration system, and makes cleaning a simpler task.
Swimming Pool Brush
Another cleaning attachment which typically uses the same telescopic pole as a manual cleaner head, is a stiff brush for removing dirt and debris from the pool surface (especially the steps). A brush can loosen stubborn dirt or debris, to enable a manual vacuum or automatic cleaner to remove them.
Automatic Pool Cleaners
Summary of Automatic Pool Cleaners
Uses pool pump
Uses booster pump
Scours pool surfaces
Collects small particles
Suction-Side Pool Cleaner
- Moderate cost
- Good for fine dirt / sand
- Few moving parts = long life
- No extra ports or pumps to install
- Uses more energy than more advanced cleaners
- May not work well if your pool's plumbing & filtration system is marginal
- Slowest automatic cleaner
- Drags all the dirt & debris etc. into your pool filter
- No skimming carried out while cleaner operates
This type of cleaner is generally the least expensive automatic type. It uses a long hose, connected to the inlet at the bottom of the skimmer box. The hose must be long enough to allow the unit to reach the farthest and deepest parts of your pool. Suction-side cleaners use your existing plumbing and filtration system. Be aware that all the dirt from your pool will be dragged into your existing filter, which will lead to extra work for you, cleaning or backwashing the filter. In addition, the more dirt and debris there is in the filter, the less efficiently the cleaner will work.
If your pool gathers a lot of leaves or other large debris, it may be advisable to buy a separate leaf catcher adapter that which connects to the hose and traps large debris before it enters the filtration system. However, if you have little or no large debris, but a lot of fine dirt or sand collecting in your pool, a suction-side cleaner is likely to be more effective than a pressure-side device.
Connecting & setup is similar to the manual cleaner described above. You may need to turn your cleaner upside down to allow all the air inside to escape, otherwise the cleaner may not sink to the bottom of your pool.
Once the unit is connected and the filter is running, the suction-side cleaner uses the suction of the water being pulled through it by the pool pump, to move itself around your pool - it basically acts like a moving drain. Most suction-side cleaners move in a random pattern across the floor and sides of the pool, however the geared / wheeled types generally move in a series of pre-determined left and right turns. Brushes or squeegees attached to the underside of the unit detach particles of sand, dirt and debris, and suction carries debris to the pool filter. Unlike other types of automatic cleaner, there are no separate filter bags to clean or replace with this type.
You can adjust the flow volume at the hose or on the unit to fine-tune the operation of your cleaner. Too much pressure can make the cleaner move too quickly, which can cause it to miss areas needing cleaned. Pressure above what the cleaner is designed for can also cause damage to the cleaner itself. Conversely, too little pressure will result in your cleaner not moving at all, moving slowly, or not being able to climb the walls of your pool.
Some pools have a dedicated connection for suction-side cleaners. However this is not common & is generally done when the pool is installed.
If your pool pump, filtration and plumbing system has been sized correctly by the pool manufacturer, this type could well be the best solution for your pool. On the other hand, if your pool pump and filter struggle to operate the pool in normal conditions, it may be best to look at another type of cleaner which doesn't use your existing plumbing.
Be aware that if your pool only has one skimmer box, this will be bypassed while your cleaner operates, so the surface of your pool will not be skimmed during the cleaning cycle. This task may be ongoing for several hours.
As suction-side pool cleaners need the pool pump to run continuously, they are less energy efficient than other cleaners.
Pressure-Side Pool Cleaner
- Lower cost than a robotic cleaner (subject to the install costs of a separate pump)
- Increased longevity of pool filter & pump (when using a separate pump)
- Doesn't add stress to the existing pool filtration system, as it uses a separate filter bag.
- Works well if your pool attracts a lot of large debris
- Uses less energy & faster than a suction-side cleaner
- Potential additional cost of separate installation of a dedicated line
- No scouring / brushing / squeegee action
- Can't pick up very small debris / fine sand
- Can't clean pool walls
- More moving parts than a suction or manual cleaner = shorter life / more maintenance
- Extra filter to empty
More costly than a suction-side cleaner, but usually cheaper than robotic types, pressure-side cleaners also use a hose connected to a port on your swimming pool wall. In this case, they either use the existing outlets (where water flows into your pool from your pool pump & filtration system), or an external pump. Some pressure-side cleaners require an extra pressure line to be installed in your pool - if this is the case, it could add significantly to the cost.
Connection and setup is similar to the manual and suction-side cleaners mentioned above. It's not as critical to remove air from the plastic pipe (as the pump will not ingest the air in the pipe, it will exit through the pool cleaner instead).
The cleaner uses water from the pump to propel it round your pool (similar to how a jetski works). It diverts part of the flow to a waterjet, to force debris and particles through the intake on the base of the cleaner, and through its internal filter. Unlike a suction-side cleaner, a pressure-side cleaner uses its own internal filter and waste bag. This can be a good or a bad thing - if your pool's plumbing and filtration system has little or no spare capacity, this type of cleaner will not add any load to your system. However, as well as cleaning your pool filter, you will also have an extra filter and bag in your cleaner to maintain and replace.
Pressure-side cleaners are often more powerful than suction-side, and their intake port tends to be larger. These factors can make them good choice for pools that trap a lot of debris, or where the debris size is larger.
As the cleaner uses positive pressure instead of suction, it cannot attach itself to the pool walls, so you will still need to scrub the walls manually. In addition, as there is no brushing or squeegeeing action, pressure-side cleaners less effective at picking up very small dirt and sand than any other type of cleaner.
This type of cleaner uses a relatively high amount of power during cleaning cycles. However, as it is generally quicker than the suction type, power use per cleaning cycle may be lower.
Robotic Pool Cleaner
- Increased longevity of pool filter & pump
- Less cleaning of the pool filter
- Doesn't add stress to the existing filter as it uses a separate filter bag
- Works well with large debris
- More energy efficient
- Fastest type of cleaner
- Can pick up very small particles, depending on filter type
- Can reach into tight corners
- Cleans walls & steps as well as pool floor
- Most expensive automatic cleaner (purchase price)
- More moving parts / complexity
- Extra filter to empty
- Cable tangles / trip hazard
Robotic cleaners have a built-in low voltage electric motor. The electricity that powers the cleaner comes from a transformer plugged into an outdoor 110V outlet. The transformer converts your domestic 110V supply to a low voltage, so there are no electrical safety concerns. The transformer is connected to the cleaner using a long power cord which is supplied with the cleaner.
The pump pulls in water from the pool through the underside of the unit, filters the water using its own filtration system, then pumps clean filtered water back into the pool. The pump creates suction that propels the robotic cleaner around the surfaces inside the pool. The cleaner will suck up dirt and debris into its filter bag, while scrubbing the walls and floor of the pool with water jets, brushes or rollers. Like the pressure-side cleaners, robotic cleaners typically have a large inlet port, so are suitable for clearing large debris. Like a suction-side cleaner, they can also effectively clean small particles of dirt, sand or silt.
Robotic cleaners are programmable for different pool sizes, and are designed to complete a predetermined cycle of cleaning and then turn off. Your cleaner's internal microprocessor allows it to learn the size and shape of your pool, and calculate the quickest & most efficient way to clean your pool.
Some robotic cleaners come with a remote control so you can direct spot cleaning. This can be useful if there are any particular areas of your pool which need more thorough cleaning.
For most backyard pools, the full cleaning cycle for robotic cleaners runs between 2-4 hours. Unlike a suction or pressure cleaner, a robotic unit should not stay in the pool when it is not active. After use, you should remove the unit's filter bag and clean it, or replace it with a disposable filter bag ready for the next cleaning cycle.
As they are the most technologically complex pool cleaners, robotic units are also the most expensive to buy initially. However, they save energy in 2 ways:
- By not running the pool pump when the cleaner is in use
- Reduced run time due to the more efficient cleaning pattern
These savings can offset the higher purchase price, over time.
Tangled power cables can be a problem with robotic cleaners. The cleaner will make many turns in the course of cleaning your pool. There are devices available which attach to the cable and prevent it from becoming tangled. Be aware also of the potential for the power cable to be a trip hazard.
Because there are no hoses to measure, no dedicated piping to add, and no suction readings needed on your existing pool plumbing, robotic cleaners can easily be installed in almost any pool.
If you are looking for the ultimate pool cleaning system with all the features, functionality and convenience, an in-floor system may be what you need.
In-floor systems use a separate pump and water circulation system that pumps water to a series of directional jets in the floor of the pool. These jets rise from the floor of the pool during a cleaning cycle, similar to lawn sprinklers in an irrigation system. The jets blow all the debris on the pool floor to a collection point, where it is removed from the pool. Once the cleaning cycle is complete, the jets sink back into the pool floor.
With an in-floor cleaning system there is need to vacuum the pool, and the water should be crystal clear all year.
As there is a lot of plumbing involved, this type of system is best installed at the same time as the pool. The cost of retrofitting this type of system to an existing pool is usually prohibitive. If you are interested in an in-floor system, Paramount is the world leader.
Cleaners Designed for Smaller Pools
For spas, hot tubs, above-ground pools and kiddie/wading pools, compact pool cleaners are available. These are self-contained, battery-powered units that are small enough to maneuver in limited areas. There are no power cords to get tangled, or hoses to connect to your pool pump. These cleaners can also be used on fountains, ponds, birdbaths, and virtually any other type of water feature.
Battery-powered cleaners can also be used to spot-clean larger pools – think of this as the equivalent of a dust-buster compared to a normal domestic vacuum cleaner, you wouldn’t use a dust-buster to vacuum your entire house, but it’s quick and convenient for spot cleaning. If you just need to clean up a bit of sand from the steps, or the occasional leaf or bug that has landed in the pool, a quick touch-up with a battery-powered cleaner will be much faster than setting up any other type of pool cleaner. If this suits you, look for a battery-powered cleaner with a telescopic pole attachment.
Generally the cleaner will use disposable filter bags and rechargeable batteries. When comparing cleaners, make sure batteries will last long enough for your needs. Also, check that the shape of the cleaning head is compatible with the curves or corners of your pool.
Solar-Powered Pool Skimmer
Solar-powered pool cleaners are a relatively recent development. They harness free energy from the sun, floating around the surface of your pool all day, collecting leaves and debris before they have a chance to fall to the floor of your pool.
This type of cleaner will not clean the floor and walls of your pool; however in certain circumstances (smaller pool, no trees nearby, not a lot of dirt or debris collects in the pool), the combination of a solar pool skimmer and a battery-powered vacuum could cover most or all of your pool cleaning needs.
A solar-powered pool skimmer is the most energy-efficient & cost-effective to run of all pool cleaner types.
Other features to look for when buying a pool cleaner
Your automatic pool cleaner should be able to adjusted to suit your pool shape and size, by adjusting hose buoyancy and incoming water pressure.
Make sure your cleaner is supplied with a long enough hose to reaches from the skimmer box to the far end of your pool, with at least 5-10 feet extra.
Step and wall climbing ability
Make sure your cleaner can climb the walls and steps of your pool.
Most cleaners cannot be used while there is a cover on your pool, however some can - if this feature is important, check before you buy the cleaner.
A backyard swimming pool is a big investment, which you would expect to provide years of enjoyment for your family. With the correct cleaning tools, you can maintain a sparkling clean, inviting swimming area with minimal effort, so you can spend more time swimming and less time cleaning.
Also, check out our articles on how to clean a pool after winter and some reviews on the best above ground swimming pool covers for addiotnal maintenance of your pool.