Automatic Advantage

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If you're looking for a manually operated television set with knobs and dials rather than a remote control, "Antiques Roadshow" is probably your best bet. Cars with remote-entry keys, coffee shops with WiFi Internet access and cell phones with built-in cameras are all commonplace, these days. Automated pool and hot tub controls are no longer out of reach for most homeowners. What's left to automate or digitize.

To hear folks in the home-automation industry tell it: plenty. The convergence of technological advances, infrastructure, lower prices and consumer acceptance is creating a rich environment for products and services we didn't even know we needed. Many pool and hot tub industry manufacturers have been watching this trend, and while the commercial and service sectors of the industry are the early adopters of the technology, an increasingly wide variety of companies offer products that are compatible with home-automation systems. The experts say it's coming, so even if you aren't ready to get involved yet, it's wise to understand what is available.

Piece Of The Puzzle

Pool and hot tub control and automation are just a part of a brave new world of home networks that can control everything from how much television the kids watch to the pH level in the pool. More than just remote control, these networks can facilitate communication from one machine to another, from a human to a machine and from a machine to a person. For example, on a chilly fall morning, a sensor in a pool might register a temperature of 78 degrees and send a message to the heater instructing it to raise the temperature to 82 degrees. The heater might then call the homeowner on her cell phone to inform her that it is raising the temperature. The homeowner, who is away on business, could phone the heater to cancel the command, since she won't be home to swim.

Steve Pazol of nPhase in Chicago, Ken Fairbanks of SmartHome in Irvine, Calif., and Mark Morgan of Control4 in Draper, Utah, three experts working on the cutting edge of wireless and automation technology, are optimistic about the possibilities their products hold for the pool and hot tub industry. They helped explain what's possible now and what will be possible in the near future.

Safety, Savings, Style

Home automation is more than just a convenience for sedentary Baby Boomers or a toy for tech-savvy 20-somethings — although those qualities certainly are part of the equation, according to Morgan. "There's really a story for almost every segment of society," he says. "You can talk about guys that are younger and hipper, and want all those conveniences and want to be able to hook their iPods into the system; there's a great story for aging Baby Boomers who are now at a point in their lives that they can make the choice to have this technology in their homes, and it just makes life convenient. But it's not all about gadgets and gizmos, it's about changing the way that your life actually works."

The advantages for the consumer are attractive: cost savings gained by controlling HVAC and lighting; increased safety from security systems, automated pool covers and remote monitoring of the pool area and savings on chemicals and maintenance gained by monitoring the pool and spa systems and making small adjustments as necessary to ensure efficient operation.

For service companies, wireless and home automation offer efficiencies of an even greater magnitude."By remotely monitoring pools on their routes, service companies can deliver better service, more cheaply," says Pazol. "The service guy goes to the pool on Tuesday. On Wednesday, something happens, but he doesn't know about it until he's out there the next Tuesday. He is looking at a point in time. But if he can take readings periodically to see what happens over time, he can see a trend and that's a lot more diagnostic.

"In the commercial market, for example, you can make sure a hotel swimming pool is within standards at all times. In theory, that should be reducing liability, because you should be able to go back and prove that the pool had certain readings at certain times. The residential service companies are saying, 'Now that I have the contract, I have the connection, maybe I can do a value-added service, so for $5 more, I'll let you adjust the temperature, or look at a video view over the Web.'"

How'd They Do That?

Like other consumer technologies — cell phones, microwave ovens, televisions — home automation has evolved exponentially, picking up speed over the last few years. "You've been able to do this stuff for 25 years," says Pazol, "But it was crazy expensive."

Or it just wasn't reliable. "X10 is the dominant home-control technology today," says Fairbanks. "It's a technology that was developed in the '70s. It uses the electrical wires that are already in the house, but it has many issues. It's like using an old 300-baud modem hooked up to your computer when today you can get DSL."

One issue is that it is wire-based. Running wire throughout new construction is expensive, and retrofitting an existing home with wire, whether it's electrical or ethernet, is even more expensive. So many companies have been working on wireless solutions for control and automation inside the home. WiFi is one system that's familiar to many people.

"WiFi or 802.11, is the network that's used to move content through your home," says Fairbanks. "You might have a wireless network for your computer, some might use it to route audio to different devices in the home."

WiFi is a protocol that sends large packets of information from the gateway to a device and back. "In typical WiFi, all the information has to go to the access point and then back to your laptop," says Morgan. That can be a problem if there are obstacles like walls in between the device and the controller.

The latest networks, though, work something like the Web, finding the best path for a smallish information packet to get where it's going; for example, a command to set the thermostat to 67 degrees. ZigBee Alliance is a wireless standard that many companies have embraced. Insteon, developed by SmartHome, is a standard that uses a combination of wired and wireless connections to perform essentially the same job: Controlling all the devices in and around the home. ZigBee and Insteon both aim to replace X10 — which is in an estimated 7 to 10 million homes — as the next standard.

"A Zigbee mesh network only has to find its way to the controller by whatever the best pathway is," says Morgan, whose company is part of the ZigBee Alliance. "It's just like the Internet. If one of the nodes disappears, it just finds another way back. So the great thing about that in the home is that every light switch or other device is actually a ZigBee node that helps the message get back to where it needs to go."

"SmartHome's Insteon combines radio frequency (wireless) with the powerline," says Fairbanks. "So for example, a signal from upstairs in the bedroom might start at a wireless controller next to your bed. You push the button and the signal is broadcast via RF, but it hits one of the network modules and it converts that signal into the power line. Then the signal goes through the normal copper wire all the way downstairs to turn the light off. The signal might also get there wirelessly, Fairbanks says: "So if it doesn't get there one way, it will get there the other way. Or if it gets there both ways, that's just fine. It can get there as many times as you like, the lamp will only turn on once. So it combines the best of both worlds."

Having an open standard may be the biggest boost to the home automation market. “Both Insteon and ZigBee share with anyone," says Fairbanks. "We try to make the technology very widely available. The developer's kit for Insteon is under $100." That means more manufacturers will be able to affordably integrate the technology into their products.

"Not that many years ago, all the pool valves were mechanical," says Fairbanks. "I had to physically go turn them. Now a lot come with some sort of motorized controller. It starts to make sense: It's already electrified, you just hook up a controller. Without the electronics, you were really limited, and automating them would have been a 'So what?'"

Morgan agrees that the pool and hot tub sector is ripe for advanced automation, whether in new installations or retrofitting older ones. "You can send serial command streams and talk to equipment with RS 232 serial connections," he says. "You tell it what to do and it tells you what it's done.

"There may be some that are infrared controlled, and we can control those too. Some of the newer equipment may start implementing ZigBee, which would be the best way to talk to it. There's also a sort of primitive but effective way, and that's with relays and contact closures. It's just like a light switch opens the connection and then closes it."

"This Is Your Pool Calling"

"You can do a local area network and you can put in sensors without having to rip up the walls, that's great. But the information is super useful when you get it to the consumer," says Pazol.

"Ten years ago, you didn't have cellular networks that could do these things. Now there's coverage all over the place," Pazol says. "It's finally cost-effective. It's cheaper than doing it with the phone lines. And it's easier. And as the market adoption goes up, the price keeps coming down."

"I think we're going to see a lot of sensor applications," says Fairbanks. "Sensors detect motion in the pool or spa, and with this network technology, I get a page on my cell phone to let me know there was something in the water. It may be that kids who were told not to go in the pool did, and I might be able to flip a video on to see. I think you'll see more in the pool and spa sector, letting the system detect when to fill, sanitize, how to heat."

"Consumers will be able to do things that enhance family organization. It's just a different experience when your home can adjust to the way you live," says Morgan.

Automation appeals to the same demographic profile as that of homeowners who have pools, hot tubs and backyard resorts. It feeds into the same lifestyle trends that have helped boost the outdoor living room concept, which, in turn, has had a positive impact on the hot tub and swimming pool market space. A perfect storm of increasing availability, affordability and consumer desire has launched the home-automation market space.

A New Breed Of Service Solutions

Phase provides one-stop machine-tomachine solutions under the clients brand identity. The company put together a fully automated system for Biolab Commercial Water that allowed the subsidiary of Great Lakes Chemical Corp. to focus on delivering value and customer solutions rather than commodities and price. The result is a fully automated system that is able to remotely monitor and dose water systems wirelessly via the Internet, with complete reliability and security, according to an nPhase case study.

In these commerical recreational water applications, sensors monitor the condition of the water in the pool, including pH and sanitizer level. Water treatment chemicals are automatically dispensed, and the impact measured and reported back to the nPhase operations center. BioLab customers can then determine if a service visit is required, dispatch that service call, and monitor the usage and even change the settings for individual chemicals, information that enables BioLab and its customers to better manage and control the supply chain.

Facility operators and commercial service providers can access their systems over the Internet with a wide range of common remote devices, such as PDAs, cell phones and pagers. Critical information can be automatically transmitted to any of these devices for immediate action or further review through a more comprehensive analysis of the system.

According to nPhase, some service contractors are planning to utilize the BioLab solution to create totally new business models for servicing their customers; a new breed of fullservice contracts, remote service and performance-based contracts.

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