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Pressure side cleaners are those that attach to the pressure side (return) of your pool's circulation system. Also called booster pump type cleaners, water that is pumped or "pushed" back to the pool propels these units, which have their own hydraulic power plant inside. Being on the pressure side and not the suction-side or vacuum side, pressure cleaners have distinct advantages. They are helpful in distributing clean filtered water around the pool and having their own debris bag means that they don't compromise the filter system by bringing dirt and debris into the pump basket and pool filter. Even with the bag full, a pressure cleaner still operates, stirring debris up; it just won't suck up much more debris until the bag is emptied.
There are some pressure cleaners that attach to one of the existing return ports and are powered by the pool pump. These are known as Low-Pressure cleaners, and include the Polaris 65/165 and Polaris 360, Letro Legend II, or the Jandy Ray-Vac.
Most pressure cleaner hoses are attached to a dedicated cleaner line with an additional Booster Pump. These include the Polaris 180, 280, 380, 480, and the 3900 Sport, or the Letro Legend models. Letro was purchased by Pentair, and the Letro name was replaced with Kreepy for the Letro Legend and Legend Platinum cleaners.
The water that flows into the unit splits into three directions; the sweeper tail, the thrust jet and the venturi. The sweeper tail is attached to the back of the cleaner, and acts like a little "stirrer-upper" as I call it, which helps to get fine debris off the walls and floor and into the suspension where it can then head towards the filter. The thrust jet is a jet on the back of the cleaner that helps propel and direct the unit. Similar to the exhaust in a car, the thrust jet is the exit point of water that has gone through the Water Management System, which is a series of ports and gears that drive the unit around the pool in a random pattern. The venturi is the port on the bottom where leaves are sucked up into the debris bag, as the unit rolls around the pool. An in-line back-up valve in the feed hose reverses the flow every few minutes to change the cleaning pattern and remove the cleaner from possible obstacles.
Booster Pump Cleaners: High Pressure
The Polaris 180, 280, 380, 480 and 3900 Sport and the Letro Legend models require a booster pump to power the unit. These cleaners need about 30 PSI to operate their hydro-gears, or water management system, effectively. A ¾ hp booster pump is used to deliver a consistent flow rate to the cleaner.
For plumbing a pressure side pool cleaner, the return pipe is cut (after the filter), and a Tee fitting installed. Feed water is diverted out of the return line to the booster pump which then pumps water through a dedicated pipe, usually installed midway down the pool wall. If you have no dedicated cleaner pipe, a new pipe can be run under the deck and through the pool wall, or for an easier installation, use the over the deck kit, where you bury pipe from the booster pump to the edge of a narrow section of pool deck. Install a valve and hose attachment above ground, and run a hose across the pool deck connects to the cleaner.
The booster pump can operate either 115V or 230V. Providing a dedicated 15 amp breaker and outdoor timeclock is the usual electrical set up. This allows you to set the cleaner to clean for 2-3 hours daily, while the main filter pump is running. The booster pump should not be operated when the filter pump is off, in most cases.
The main advantage to the booster pump models is that they have their own time-clock, and can turn themselves on and off automatically, saving energy and wear and tear from operating longer than needed. They are also more consistently powered and usually unaffected by full skimmer or pump baskets or dirty filters.
No Booster Pump: Low Pressure
Polaris 360 and Legend II and Ray Vac cleaners operate at only 15 - 17 PSI, and are not intended for use with a booster pump. They look nearly identical to their booster pump cousins, with the exception of a much larger, 1.5” diameter feed hose.
Their main advantage is a much cheaper overall purchase and installation cost. The 360 and Legend II can be as effective in cleaning the pool as the booster pump driven models, although they are dependent on the effective operation of your pump and filter system.
Low pressure cleaners operate in the same way as the booster pump cleaners except they connect to one of the existing wall returns. A pressure testing stick can be used to determine if the circulation system can deliver the proper amount of pressure to operate the unit. They will not work for pools with floor returns or "slit" returns of crushed copper pipe, or pools with small filter pumps, under 1 hp.
Low pressure cleaners work best in a typical Jandy Ray-Vac type installation, where water is drawn off to the cleaner before it reaches the filter, and diverted to the cleaner, connected to a dedicated pipe (not a return pipe). This avoids a lot of backpressure on the filter tank and pump. A 3-way valve is placed in between the pump and filter, and a small filter, the Jandy Energy Filter, is plumbed into the pipe, on the cleaner line after the 3-way valve. The valve is opened to divert water to the cleaner, and a pressure gauge on the Energy filter helps keep a consistent flow rate.
Low pressure cleaners can also connect to a regular return line; there are adapters to fit smooth and threaded pipes, from ¾” to 1.5” in diameter. In some cases it may be necessary to restrict the flow out of the other returns, to get more flow to the return that the cleaner is connected into. In this case, there are also adapters for threaded or smooth wall fittings of different sizes, or you can use eyeball fittings with a smaller eye size. When connecting to a return line that is on one end of the pool, larger pools will need another section of feed hose, a swivel and two connectors, for the cleaner to reach the other end of the pool.
The high pressure, booster pump driven pool cleaner has several distinct advantages over using the low pressure type, which does not require a booster pump.
Booster pumps deliver consistent flow, for constant power
Booster pumps run with a timer, reducing wear by operating only 2-3 hrs per day
Low pressure cleaners create backpressure on the filter when connected to a wall return
Low pressure cleaners require 2 trips to the backyard; to turn on and off the cleaner
Booster pump cleaners are generally faster and more powerful than low pressure
The low pressure cleaner however, has a cost of under $600. That would also buy you a high pressure cleaner, but you also need a pump and a time clock, and some plumbing and wiring materials. This adds another $500 to the cost, not to mention the added labor to wire up the pump, and add or connect to a dedicated 1.5” PVC plumbing line.
Polaris makes two types, the PB-4 booster pump, redesigned in 2012, and the Halcyon pump, which runs a bit quieter and cooler. Pentair and Hayward also make booster pumps for their pressure cleaners that they offer. They can all be considered substitutes for each other if need be, and to that point, one could use a ¾ hp pool pump if desired.
A booster pump is simply a pool pump without a strainer pot attached, and they are wired and plumbed in the same way as a pool pump. For wire conduit from the breaker box to the timeclock and timeclock to pump, use a flexible wire harness with conduit connectors, and connect the timeclock to a dedicated breaker. Be sure to connect to grounding and bonding wires; pigtail to the booster bonding lug from the bonding lug on the pool pump.
For plumbing, it’s best to situate the booster pump at a point lower than the pool return pipe, so that the pump is constantly flooded, or filled with water – on the inside of the pump that is - be sure that the pump is in no danger of flood waters, and is shielded from weather and vegetation as much as possible. I like to use a reducing Tee fitting on the return line, pointing downwards to the booster pump, and then make connections with the Polaris flexible hose kit. They can also be hard piped, using ¾” Schedule 40 PVC.
Pressure side cleaners operate independently from the pool filter system, and are not usually affected by a dirty filter or full pump basket, but they can be, so this is the first place to look. If your cleaner is operating slowly, check the inline strainer, usually at the wall fitting, to make sure it is clean. This small steel strainer should be checked regularly. Some wall fittings have an adjustable pressure bleed-off valve, to allow excess water pressure to escape. Open this valve too much and your cleaner may become sluggish.
Next, inspect the hose from the wall to the unit, pulling it slowly out of the water, making sure there are no splits or holes allowing pressure [water] to escape. A small amount of leakage at the swivels is normal. When you get to the unit itself, lift it slightly out of the water to inspect the water flowing out the back through the thrust jets. A solid steady stream should spray out of the back, shooting 10-20 feet. Likewise, with the debris bag removed, the stream spraying from the venturi, out the top of the unit, should reach heights of nearly 20 feet. If either of these is lacking, there may be an internal loss of water, in the water management system. If yes, check that the sweep tail adjustment screw is in place (not lost), and inspect the tail for any holes or a missing tip. Any of these will allow too much to water to escape.
If the water pressure is fine, you will next want to inspect the wheels and the gears or belts that drive them. Sticks or sand can jam up the wheels, and wheels need to be occasionally adjusted to engage the gears or belts properly. Too loose or too tight and your cleaner just won't get traction. Drive belts or drive shafts will need to be replaced every so often, as they wear over time. Tires can become rounded, especially on rough plaster pool surfaces. This will affect speed somewhat and climbing ability. Finally, wheels or wheel axles can break, or for the model 180 and 280, the grooves or teeth inside the wheel will break off or become rounded, requiring replacement.
Adjustments to the thrust jet can create different cleaning patterns around the pool. Default setting is 11:00, but you can try 1:00 o'clock, to have the cleaner track in the opposite direction. The length of the hose is important; does it have enough hose to reach the far corners? Too much hose can also be a problem, creating a tangled feed hose, or disrupting cleaning patterns. Steps and loveseats won't get much attention from your pressure side pool cleaner. Just hit these with a brush or net regularly to keep them clean.
If your cleaner is having trouble with a deeper pool, and seems to get stuck in the deep end, make adjustments to the hose floats, possibly adding 1-2 new floats. Also look at the amount of water power the cleaner is receiving, checking for pressure loss at the wall fitting, in the hose, or in the unit.
If your pool cleaner gets stuck behind the ladder, you can use one of the many available ladder guards to prevent the cleaner from getting back there. Likewise, if stuck on the main drain of the pool, main drain covers exist that smooth the transition from floor to drain. Pressure-side pool cleaners use an inline back-up valve, or a hydrotimer device, in the feed hose. This hydro-timer allows water to escape the device every 3 minutes or so.
Back-up valves, or hydro-timers, work by disrupting flow to the cleaner. Every 3 minutes, escaping water from the back-up valve will lift the cleaner off the floor for just a few seconds. As the hydro-timer once again allows water to pass through the back-up valve to the cleaner, the re-positioned cleaner can now operate in a new direction and orientation.
Back-up valves and hydro-timers can malfunction or become clogged with small bits of sand, allowing the unit to become stuck. Flush them out with water, or open to inspect the mechanism. Another cause of back-up valve failure is actually failure of hose floats on either side of the valve, allowing it to drag on the floor of the pool, until a hole opens up in the casing.
You may have too much hose; follow manufacturer's recommendations for sizing the hose to fit your pool [important!]. The unit may be overpowered, allowing it to loop around wildly, tangling itself. The hose swivels may not all be functional, check each one to make sure they are "swiveling". Finally, the hose floats, are they still floating? Early versions were known to take on water after many years.
It is somewhat helpful for a tangling cleaner hose, to remove it from the cleaner and stretch it out straight in the sun for a day. If your hose has become very brittle and has a strong “memory” of coiling, it may be best to replace that hose section, with a soft new 10 ft. hose.