Pool Cleaners

'I was up in Carlsbad and stopped into a thrift store," chirped my friend Bernice, "and do you know what I found there? A Barracuda pool cleaner for $40 ! In perfect working order! Fitzgerald was right: the rich are different. One for your column, no?" That was five years ago. Bernice, who's even better at saving money than I am, was happy because she had just bought a house. A total fixer, but a real diamond in the rough -- it even had a pool. The water was green, and the plaster was etched from multiple acid washes, but still... And now she had an automatic pool cleaner to help with the restoration and maintenance.

But five years was all the life the old Barracuda had left in it, and after it broke, it didn't take long for visitors to notice the water looking a little cloudier than in years past. Bernice has always been generous with her pool, so a bunch of us decided to chip in for a new cleaner by way of saying thanks.

For guidance, I called Keith Zimmerman, the owner of Reliable Pool Service (619-384-4789), which services East County. He was glad we were replacing the cleaner. "If you don't have a pool vacuum, your pool is going to look like hell in five years, especially if it's white plaster. Even if someone's cleaning it weekly, it still gets dirty all week long, and the dirt gets into the pores of the plaster. You need to protect your investment."

For starters, Zimmerman laid out a pool's general workings. "A pump sucks the water through the skimmer -- that catches the big particles and objects. From the skimmer, the water is forced through a filter and then cycled back into the pool. Most pumps run four hours a day in the winter and six in the summer; it generally takes six hours for your pump to run all the pool's water through the filter."

Filters come in three basic styles: "In San Diego, the most popular one is the DE, or diatomaceous earth. It has eight vertical grids attached to a manifold. You put diatomaceous earth -- which is crushed-up seashells in a white-powder form -- onto the grid; it forms a coating that will filter the water down to four microns. Then you have the cartridge filter, which has a paper element. It's not quite as efficient as the DE. Third, you have the sand filter -- it's a tank full of sand, and the sand actually does the filtering. They work well, but they're labor-intensive when you have to change out the sand. Out of 100 pools that I care for, I've got only one sand filter."

But no filter can take care of things like pH and kids with excitable bladders, so you need regular chemical treatments as well. Zimmerman explained: "Each person swimming in a pool is continuously sweating into that pool -- Olympic swimmers sweat between one to one-and-a-half pints of fluid an hour. You need a sanitizer to kill off any organisms, because a pool is a closed body of water." (Hence the green water when Bernice first moved in.) "Chlorine does that. It oxidizes all the contaminants."

As for pH, "you want to keep the water neutral, 7.4 to 7.6. Water is corrosive to begin with, but if it drops below 7.4, it becomes acidic and starts eating anything it touches, things like pool plaster and swimsuits. It can even be hard on your eyes. To correct that, you add sodium bicarbonate -- baking soda -- to raise the pH. On the other hand, if the pH gets over 7.8, it starts to scale -- you get a white calcium buildup. To fight that, you add acid."

Finally, there is the matter of the stuff that sinks to the bottom or sticks to the walls. That's where your automatic pool cleaner comes in. "There are two different types -- the pressure side, which works off the return line, and the suction side, which works off the skimmer. The cleaners have a head and sectioned hose lines. I like only three brands: the Hayward Navigator, the Pentair Kreepy-Krauly, and the Zodiac Barracuda. They all retail between $300 and $400 (discounts available from Reliable Pool Service), and you can expect to get five to ten years out of them.

"The Navigator," said Zimmerman, "looks like a small rectangular box with a hose attached to it. It has two rocker arms on each side that rock back and forth and up and down. There are rubber-type shoes on the bottom. It's programmed to clean the whole pool -- two minutes to the right, two minutes to the left, and so on for the entire length of the pool. The Kreepy and the Barracuda are random cleaners; they won't get every square inch of the pool. They've got winged rubber bottoms that agitate the dirt so that it can be sucked up. They also pulsate, so the pool water moves. Sometimes, customers say they can hear the pulsating, but the Navigator is silent. It's also the number one performer for a pool with steps -- it won't get hung up on them. The downside is that you have to change out the rocker arms and shoes every two years -- they wear out. It costs about $60 . The other two have fewer moving parts," so the maintenance is cheaper, but you do have that danger of getting stuck on the steps, especially if the bottom step is at a really sharp angle. "Also, because the Barracuda has a diaphragm, something the size of an acorn can get stuck in it. Then you have to unscrew it and remove the object -- but it's not a big deal. Still, if I had a pool that got a lot of leaf droppage, I wouldn't get a Barracuda."

As for maintenance, Zimmerman warned me to never coil the hose. "It will get a memory, and stay kinked permanently. If you want to take the hose out, pull the sections apart and stack them, or lay the hose out full-length."

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