Pool professionals weigh in on in-floor cleaning systems
By David Conrads
Robotic. Suction-side. Pressure-side. In-floor.
Gone are the days when telescoping poles and handheld pool vacuums were the only tools for getting the job done. Gone, too, are the days when an automatic pool cleaning system was seen as a luxury.
With in-floor pool cleaning systems, jets are built into the bottom of the pool floor, steps, benches — even an attached spa — during the construction process. Similar to an automatic lawn sprinkler system, the jets pop up in sequential zones to force dirt and debris from all parts of the pool to the main drain at the deepest end, where it is carried to a container that traps the large debris. Dirt and fine particles go into the pool filter, which is cleaned by backwashing or cleaning the cartridges. The basket containing large debris is cleaned much like a skimmer.
Benefits and Drawbacks
One clear advantage of in-floor systems: They clean the entire pool floor as well as steps, benches, zero-depth entries and spas. Even lazy rivers and planter islands can be cleaned with an in-floor system. While robotic cleaners will clean almost all of a pool floor, manual brushing is necessary for the remainder and for these other features, which are becoming more popular.
For those who don’t like to look at an automatic cleaner lying in the pool when it’s not in use or don’t care for the inconvenience of putting in and removing the cleaner and hoses when cleaning is needed, the in-floor system offers more advantages.
Gregery Huber is a regional sales manager with A&A Manufacturing in Phoenix, which makes in-floor cleaning systems. Among other advantages, he touts the increased circulation of the water that an in-floor system provides, distributing chemicals and heat more efficiently.
“It is basically like putting a giant spoon in the pool as it stirs everything up, evenly distributing chemicals and getting debris into suspension for eventual drain or skimmer removal,” Huber says. “Think of a pond versus a stream: The stream, generally, has healthier water.”
Returning the water at the lower points of the pool improves the overall circulation and can translate into savings in energy needed to heat the pool, says Bill Burt, director of sales at Paramount, a manufacturer of in-floor pool cleaning and circulation systems located in Chandler, Arizona.
“It’s hard to substantiate a particular cost savings on energy because it varies so widely based on the environment the pool lives in,” Burt says. “We’ve heard numbers as high as 40% and 50% savings on heating costs in some cases.”
The amount of chemicals used with in-floor systems is also reduced, Burt adds, as the increased circulation distributes chemicals more efficiently through the pool.
“We call them in-floor cleaning and circulation systems, because, in addition to the automatic cleaning, they greatly enhance the circulation and turnover of the pool,” Burt says.
Joe Ayers, project manager and design consultant with Dolphin Pools in Phoenix has been in the pool business for more than 20 years. He estimates that about 95% of the pools he builds have in-floor cleaning systems.
“It’s a passion,” he says. “I believe in them.”
The systems can clean a pool so thoroughly that, for many pool owners, he says, they eliminate the need for regular service from pool technicians, as a great deal of routine maintenance is fairly easy to do, adding to the cost savings. In Arizona, where he is based, some pool maintenance companies even charge customers a smaller fee if their pool is equipped with an in-floor system, as these pools tend to stay cleaner.
Whether the in-floor system saves the pool owner money is difficult to answer for certain. Installing the systems is intensive and adds substantially to the upfront cost of building the pool.
Steve Edwards, owner of Edwards Pool Construction in Wichita, Kansas, estimates an in-floor system adds as much as 10% to the cost of construction. He says he always includes an in-floor cleaning system when he bids on a pool project and it’s the first thing to be eliminated if costs need to be scaled back. Still, he estimates that of the several hundred pools his company has built in the past 11 years, at least 85% have been constructed with in-floor cleaning systems.
Whether maintenance savings offsets the upfront costs is also debatable. In-floor systems typically use considerably more electricity in a year than robotic and other types of automatic cleaners.
“I wouldn’t say [in-floor] systems are difficult to maintain or service, but they do add a level of complexity,” says Daniel Brodersen, commercial service manager with Millennium Pool Service in Springfield, Virginia. He notes that in his market — which includes Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia — in-floor systems are only used in 5% to 10% of pools.
“Since these systems in my area are so uncommon, not many service techs have a lot of experience with them,” he says. “This can lead to very expensive service calls for the pool owner simply because they have to pay extra labor for someone to essentially learn as they go.”
In his experience, some manual cleaning is necessary even with an in-floor system, during the first few weeks of the pool being open, after a large storm and at the end of the season, if the pool is kept open into the fall.
“I would recommend [an in-floor system] on new builds that are not located in areas with a high density of trees,” Brodersen says. “If you have a new pool going into a fairly wide-open area where most debris getting into the pool is going to be dirt, mulch and sand, then these systems will work great.”
There is also a question of aesthetics. Depending upon the manufacturer, pop-up heads come in a variety of colors and can often be matched to the color of the pool floor, rendering them invisible when retracted. When a color match is not possible, or not achieved, the result is a pattern of dots on the pool floor, which may or may not appeal to the owner.
Installation and Repair
In-floor systems are most common on new builds. Retrofitting an existing pool with an in-floor system — if it’s even possible to do without compromising the integrity of the pool shell — is very expensive. Likewise, replacing an in-floor system is expensive.
“Repairs that do not involve any type of excavation can be pretty simple, as long as the techs are aware of the system they are working on, as each manufacturer may be slightly different,” Brodersen says.
“In-floor systems are pressure based,” Huber says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you want to have all of the water going to the in-floor system. That means no return lines opened, water features running or spa spillovers, at least during the cleaning cycle. You want to eliminate any water bypassing the in-floor system.”
Huber says to the uninitiated the in-floor system can appear very complex — with all the gears, heads, collars and drains — but they are actually quite simple. He says problems fall into one of two categories: a problem with the part or with the heads not receiving enough water flow.
There was a time when in-floor cleaning systems were looked on with skepticism, in large part because they were unreliable and difficult to service, plus costly to install. Virtually every pool professional who works regularly with these systems today agrees that, for customers interested in an in-floor cleaning system, the technology has improved exponentially.
“Today’s in-floor systems, with drains, skimmers and venturi heads, are not our grandfather’s pop-up pool cleaner,” Huber says. “A new in-floor system has great technological benefits over its predecessors of 10- to 15-year-old pop-up pools. New in-floor pools are capable of cleaning the entire pool, not just the floor, and doing a very good job at it. Not to mention the benefits of healthier water with better chemical distribution.”
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