By Scott Webb
Two of the biggest objections to pool ownership are ongoing costs and maintenance hassles. Both of these complaints may be answered to a large degree by the growing use of affordable, user-friendly pool controls, which make pool maintenance much cheaper and easier.
Pool controls have done just that for wealthier pool owners for decades, but their exclusivity meant only a few pools benefitted, and thus their impact on the industry was small.
But now, for something like 2 or 3 percent of the purchase price of a new pool, an average homeowner can acquire this tool and use it to dominate his aquatic environment with ease.
Concurrent with this dramatic drop in price, controls have become much simpler for consumers to use, as near and familiar as the icons on a computer screen that do word processing and e-mail.
By weakening two primary challenges to the attractive ideal of a backyard family recreation center, controls will help lead a resurgence of the pool industry as the recession abates.
The Two Percent Solution
A great deal has changed quickly in pool control. Yes, they’re more fun to use and they do a lot more, and they’ve been set free from their poolside box to roam the world unfettered, but the main reason for the renaissance in pool control is the fact that the great majority of pool owners can now pay for them without wincing.
They’ve become a very practical reasonable pool accessory, says Ray Denkewicz, global product manager for sanitization, automation and solar for Hayward. “If you’ve paid $15,000 to $30,000 for a new pool, why wouldn’t you consider investing another $500 to $700 if it’s going to make it more convenient to use and maintain your pool, and it’s going to save you money on your utility bill?” he asks.
The logic is clear to a growing number of pool owners, says David MacCallum, senior product manager for lights, automation, Acu-Trol, and sanitizers for Pentair.
“Today, if you’re buying a $30,000 to $40,000 pool,” he says, “most people are going to go with at least an entry-level system, which would cost about 2 percent of that purchase price. That’s a minimum.
“That entry-level system gets you around having to go out to the equipment pad and fight through the spider webs and flick a couple of contacts. It only handles three or four circuits, which means one light, a cleaner and a filter pump, something like that.
“After that you jump up to the mid-level automation control system, which is probably 75 to 80 percent of the market today if you look at APSP data. These systems dominate because they hit an acceptable price point and you have more-sophisticated wireless remotes and indoor control panels, spa side remotes, and they handle more circuits. These all have programming which makes them smart.”
Current market penetration is a tough guess for control products. There are no official figures. With his arm firmly twisted behind his back, MacCallum reluctantly takes a stab at it.
“We’ve heard numbers thrown around like, maybe 10 years ago one in 10 new pools got automation, and that perhaps today its more like three or four or five out of 10 new pools get automation.”
Even though new pool construction is down, the retrofit side is doing well, he says, due to owners of existing pools discovering the lower cost of controls and looking to save money with the energy efficiency they offer.
“Many of them are replacing their single-speed pumps with variable-speed pumps, and at the same time, taking that old time clock and replacing it with a mid-level control system,” MacCallum says.
It’s an easy retrofit, because the wiring is usually already in place. The installer simply rips the old time clock off and uses the existing wires for the new system.
As MacCallum points out, controls and new energy-efficient pool pumps make great partners around the pool. The two work well together to bring down costs.
Control programming can make the execution of an energy-saving circulation plan simple. For example, the pump can be set to run at a high speed from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., providing enough pressure to run a cleaning system, and then reduced to low rpm until 4 p.m. for filtration to save money.
Controls can optimize the time period and power setting for every component of the pool system, from heater to pump to lights, and execute that plan with perfect consistency every day. No human being can come close to that, and the difference is a huge savings.
“Through consistent day-to-day operation, you’re going to save money on the operation of your pool,” MacCallum says.
“Because if you’re doing it manually, you’re going to turn that pump on, and then go off and start working on something else, or something comes up and you forget to turn it off. It happens all the time.”
It’s all well and good to make controls affordable for mainstream pool owners, but without dramatically enhanced usability, you’re still only winning over the people who are willing to devote hours to learning how to use their pool control. On the other hand, products that users can pick up and use immediately have a much greater chance of acceptance.
For this reason, manufacturers have directed their efforts toward making controls more user-friendly by mirroring the electronics with which consumers already are familiar, building on the foundation of training begun in the home computer and iGadget revolutions.
In short, the way we do controls nowadays is to make them look like something people already know about, says MacCallum, like Windows. “People know how to use Windows, they know how to use Microsoft Word, and these programs all have the ‘minimize’ button in the same place and the ‘x’ to shut down the application.”
New control programs now have that same look and feel. Handheld electronics such as iPhones and BlackBerries now sport applications that make them into pool controls as well, ones that consumers feel very comfortable with, MacCallum adds.
“There are over 100 million iTouches, iPhones and iPads out there, and we’re looking to take advantage of that. Because using this devices allows the homeowner to manage the pool from a remote location.”
This detail is likely to become the most powerful element of the new pool control paradigm.
Many people now take care of a host of previously homebound activities through their mobile devices or work computers. This includes everything from managing soccer teams by e-mail to planning vacations over the Internet. Pool control may soon become another of these tasks performed at work or on the fly, much to the relief of pool owners who until now had been forced to march to the rear of their homes at awkward times in order to perform necessary pool tasks.
And very soon, the range of pool tasks will be increased to include not just equipment control, but water treatment.
What Does All This Mean?
Essentially it means that the average homeowner’s perception of the amount of time and effort and expense needed to keep up a pool is about to change, says Denkewicz.
“That perception is one of the reasons people don’t get a pool. So if they are intimidated by the prospect of maintaining a pool, we can shift that paradigm by showing them that it’s not hard to maintain a pool with modern controls because the electronics can do a lot of the thinking and babysitting for you.
“And all of a sudden we’ve taken away that sales objection, and we can get more people to consider getting a pool.
“Let’s put the pieces together,” he adds. “I’m Joe Public, and I like swimming and being around water but I perceive that owning a pool is a pain. But here you are telling me that managing it has become easy because the think-work is being done by inexpensive computer processors that can monitor everything.
“And you’re telling me I can now manage my pool where and when I want, with tools I already know how to use, instead of making a place and time in my life to go into my backyard to do it?”
That is exactly what the pool industry is telling Joe Public.
This man is no idiot. With modern controls making it cheaper and easier and better, he will realize that pool ownership is now a much more attractive proposition.
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Scott Webb, joined AQUA in April 2001, became a freelance writer for the magazine in the fall of 2002, and then returned to the staff full-time in October 2007 as senior editor. Scott has a degree from University of Cincinnati with a degree in Aerospace Engineering and lives in Madison, Wisc.
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