"> Main drains vs automatic pool cleaners in above ground pools – Above Ground Pools Know it All

Main drains vs automatic pool cleaners in above ground pools

As an above ground swimming pool owner(or potential owner), you may not be aware that main drains and automatic cleaners compete with each other. Those who are researching things like “what keeps a pool clean” and “improved circulation” will ask me about which to get.

Main drains and automatic pool cleaners for above ground pools will both help keep the pool clean and improve circulation. The main differences between them are cost, convenience, and longevity. A main drain will cost more, but last forever, and be out of the way. An automatic cleaner will cost less, but won’t last long, and get in the way a lot.


I didn’t want to make this info too “clunky” with pros and cons for each point. So then, here’s eleven things to consider in the battle of choosing either an automatic cleaner or a main drain.

1 A main drain will always work

Main drains are sturdy and made to last. They are(or at least should be) plumbed in with schedule 40 PVC piping, which should last longer than the pool does.

Once installed, it will work for the life of the pool. There are no moving parts and the only things that may need replacement are the drain cover and maybe the valve used at the equipment. Also, it’s almost impossible for a main drain to get clogged, unless the drain cover is off of it(which can be dangerous and should be replaced immediately).

2 Automatic pool cleaners for above ground pools will work good for the first year

There is a big difference between automatic cleaners made for in-ground pools and above ground pools. Auto cleaners for above grounds aren’t nearly as good.

There’s a big cost difference with them too. A good in-ground auto cleaner will set you back in the $300-$500 range, while above ground cleaners are usually in the $100-$200 range. And the quality and longevity reflect that.

Auto cleaners for above grounds last on average one season before they start acting up. Now, I know that there are some guys out there who will claim that their cleaner worked perfectly for years(there always are). What I am saying here is to only expect your auto cleaner to work trouble-free for about a year.

Most above ground pool auto cleaners that I come across have long been retired and are now taking up space in a storage bin or under a deck or somewhere out of the pool. Jus’ sayin’.

3 Auto cleaners can get stuck in a ladder

Above ground pools have very basic shapes. This means there aren’t any corners or weird angles in the wall to get moving cleaners stuck(like what may be in a custom in-ground pool).

There is a ladder though in an above-ground pool. And it’s common for them to get stuck around them. This can be a pain and some will opt not to use their auto-cleaner for this reason only.

4 Auto-cleaners take away skimming ability

Automatic pool cleaners use the suction of the pump to move around and suck debris up. This means that they have to be attached to the skimmer. And when you attach a pool cleaner to a skimmer, it takes away some of the skimmer’s ability to skim.

There is what is called a “diverter valve” that allows the skimmer to partially work while the auto cleaner is in operation, but it’s not ideal.

Note: This does NOT apply to robotic cleaners as they run independently on electricity.

5 Auto cleaners require some repair

As stated earlier, an above-ground automatic cleaner will work well for the first year or so, then it will start acting up.

When it starts slowing down, or needing more suction to move, or doesn’t stay on the bottom, etc., then it may need some new parts. Also, the hose sections will get pinholes in them and have to be replaced. Note: Most auto cleaners for above grounds aren’t worth getting parts for, so when they stop working well, most will just stop using them or buy a replacement.

6 A main drain can leak, but it’s rare

Main drains for vinyl pools are designed well and keep a good seal where the opening is. If they are installed poorly though, they can leak.

Knowitall tip: When installing a main drain, tape the screw holes first thing and keep them taped until it’s time to install the ring. This way dirt cannot ever get in the holes.

If the main drain’s screw holes stay dirt-free, then the screw will be able to tighten firmly and the drain will not leak.

7 When working well, auto cleaners clean better than main drains

A good working automatic cleaner is a wonderful thing. It will move everywhere around the pool and keep it clean while creating perfect circulation.

The problem here is that they don’t work well for very long.

8 Main drains cost more. Unless it’s a robot cleaner

You will typically spend more on having a main drain installed over buying an auto cleaner. This is for the traditional “movement by suction” type cleaners.

In the last few years, I have seen more and more robotic cleaners for above ground pools, and people seem to be happy with them. They cost more though.

I have seen the price come down for some robot cleaners, but cannot yet have an opinion on their value. They haven’t been around long enough for me to know how long they last working well. And I don’t yet know about any parts that may need replacing.

I will say that I like the idea of them and hope they become an affordable alternative to the traditional auto cleaner.

9 Main drains can empty the pool

You should only drain a metal walled above ground pool all the way when changing the liner, but it is nice to have a main drain when you do.

Draining an above ground pool can be a pain. Having a main drain will make it super easy though, so it’s worth mentioning.

10 Auto cleaners require a storage area

Typically, you don’t leave an automatic pool cleaner in the pool all the time. Most will install it and let it clean the pool, and then take it out.

An auto cleaner is somewhat bulky because it has a hose. With this, consider having a place where you can store it when not in use.

Note: Auto cleaners move around in the water and have parts that will wear. What this means is that the more it gets used, the less it will last.

As an example, if you keep an auto cleaner in the pool for 8 hours a day, it won’t last nearly as long as if you only put it in for an hour just to clean, and then take it out.

11 Main drains require extra winterizing steps

This can be a pain for those living in the north. The main drain line will have to be winterized.

This usually means that the line running under the pool between the main drain and the pool equipment has to be emptied so the pipe cannot get damaged by expanded frozen water.

This can be a fairly easy task as long as the main drain line is plumbed with the ability to do this. The biggest pain will be getting in the pool and plugging the line at the drain. And during the end of the pool season, the water may be cold.


Main drains are a great idea for an above ground pool, but people are super hesitant about getting one installed. THE REASON – They worry that it will leak.

In truth, it’s extremely rare for a main drain to leak. In the 34 years that I have worked on above grounds, I have seen maybe two that leaked. They are made for vinyl liners and have a design with eight screws and two gaskets that make an excellent seal.

THE SECOND REASON – They worry that someone can get trapped underwater from one. Over the past hundred years, there have been under a hundred fatal accidents involving main drains. These were almost all in commercial inground pools and a few residential inground swimming pools.

To my knowledge, there has never been a drowning in an above ground pool related to a main drain. My knowledge is extensive, but no one is all-knowing about anything. There might be one, but I’m not sure how it can happen. It would take a perfect storm of a broken drain cover with someone using a commercial pool pump. Not at all likely.

If you are the type that worries about things that have a very low probability, no judgment. You can install two main drains that tee into one line. This should make you feel safer.


If you have read this article, then you may already know how I feel. I am a fan of the main drain. This is mainly because above ground pool auto cleaners aren’t very good and people have to fight with them too much.

A main drain is clean looking, problem-free, doesn’t require storage, and always works like it did on day one.

And one big plus to a main drain is how well it works with round pools when a whirlpool effect is created. When that happens, the debris gathers right where the drain is. This makes for much easier pool maintenance. Plus, a whirlpool effect with a main drain sucking water to be filtered creates the best circulation a pool can have.


Dan writes with the knowledge of having 35 years (and counting) in the above ground pool industry.

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