Match Game

Aq 404 69pg 0001

It's hard to imagine a car without air conditioning, a kitchen without a microwave or a TV without a remote. And does anyone still use a typewriter?

In so many big and small ways technology has changed the way we live. More things are digital. More are automated. Why? That's simple. These advances are appealing, sometimes require less energy (ours and that from the local power company), and consumers today are comfortable with technology. Many are woken by an alarm clock, click on a coffee maker, catch some headlines on TV or online and double-check to make sure they've got their cell phone before hitting the road.

With consumers like these, selling pool and spa controls should be a cinch. But for those customers who may need some persuading, Robyn Gabel, electronics, water purification systems and lights product manager for Petaluma, Calif.-based Jandy (Water Pik Technologies), suggests explaining that "the purpose of controls is to eliminate the drudgery of operating all the equipment, such as which valve to turn, which switch to .ip. If a pool has a light or a water feature or a spa, builders will want to provide ease of operation and low maintenance for their customers. And a control system does that."

In addition, Gabel says controls can help alleviate homeowners' worries "because the systems today have safety precautions, such as freeze protection for your plumbing and equipment and flow control to make sure you have proper .ow to operate a pump."

"For anyone that owns a pool," Gabel adds, "it's a luxury, and a control system just makes it easier to command that luxury. Plus the cost is minimal."

Once consumers understand how much controls simplify the operation and maintenance of a pool, they usually want a system. So really the decision builders more frequently face is: What control should I specify. Basic controls offer less but also cost less than more sophisticated models, and basic automation may be all some homeowners need or want. But rather than choosing for the customer, builders are better off explaining all the features and benefits of both low-and high-end units and letting the consumer choose.

Nuts & Bolts

Essentially all controls do the same thing: They turn something on or off. But how customers interface with their control and how much convenience is offered to homeowners in the process separates the lower-end and higher-end control systems.

The most basic controls offer the ability to automate four circuits. These controls may be programmable, but they're most likely not transceivers (devices that transmit a command and then receive notification that the command has been executed).

In fact, with most lower-end controls, the only feedback consumers get regarding the status of their equipment is an LED light, instead of the LCD screen found on many highend models, which can provide homeowners with alphanumeric messaging, including letters, coded messages and sometimes even entire phrases. "With your least-expensive wall interface, there would be simple on/off buttons with LED lights," says Allen Ustianowski, pool/spa marketing manager for Intermatic, Spring Grove, Ill. "If the device is on, the light is lit; if the device is off, the light is not lit. That's as simple and as inexpensive as it gets."

Many basic controls offer the convenience of an in-home wall panel, but in some cases, says Joe Stone, vice president of marketing for Balboa Instruments in Tustin, Calif., "the keypad is located in the equipment area, so you're going to have to hike over to the corner of the yard and possibly crawl behind the ivy and then activate whatever you need to do."

All that said, a basic, inexpensive control may be all some pool owners want or need. "Most of the controls today really only need to control four pieces of equipment," says Ustianowski. "If the control is on just a pool or spa, a four-circuit control is more than capable of handling it. On a pool, you're only controlling a pump and a light and then sometimes there's a second pump for a cleaner, so that's the third circuit. And the fourth is an auxiliary, kind of whatever you want it to do. Some people hook it to garden lights or outdoor lights. In a spa, you'd have one circuit for your light, one for your pump, one for your jets and one for blower. That's all you need."

For a pool/spa combination, Ustianowski says a six-circuit control could do the job. "A six-circuit would handle it just fine because you've got a pump and light for the pool and that's two, and you've got a pump, jets, lights and a blower for the spa, that's four. That's six, you're done."

Up The Ante

More-sophisticated pools, however, require more-sophisticated controls. And, in some cases, even if a pool doesn't require a sophisticated control system that can accommodate 20 or more pieces of equipment, pool owners may want some of the features it provides anyway.

"Consumers want everything automated these days," says Barry Brunye, executive vice president of Goldline Controls in San Diego. "Nobody wants the labor and hassle of having to go out there, clean the pool, chemically treat the pool and so forth, and that's why everything is automated, from automatic cleaners to automatic chlorination and controls. You get a virtually maintenance-free pool by adding all these things."

Even builders who stick to one brand can usually offer their clients a range of controls at various price points. And explaining all the available options is critical since "consumers often don't know what they want when it comes to controls," says Stone. "They don't even know what's available, generally speaking. So they'll usually rely on the recommendation of the builder."

When customers understand all the benefits of the more-expensive control, they may choose that — because even the most price-conscious consumer can appreciate the conveniences high-end controls provide.

For example, in addition to offering the ability to program filter pumps cycles and other equipment, some high-end controls feature macro buttons, which are single buttons that turn a few things on at once. According to David MacCallum, general manager for automation at Pentair Pool Products, Sanford, N.C., "With your basic control, you get on/off. Push a button, something comes on, and push it again and it goes off. Whereas with a higher-end control, it may have macro capabilities so you push one button and it triggers multiple events to happen: lights come on, spa goes on, etc."

"How convenient is that for homeowners when they can push one button and it creates a party mood," says Gabel.

More-sophisticated controls also offer homeowners alternative ways to communicate with their equipment beyond the standard wall-mounted keypad. "In a lot of cases now there's interfacing to a cell phone or a PC," says Stone. "So from your PC or desktop computer, you can be at home or work, and you can glance at or even in some cases adjust your pool or spa functions. In some cases you can have your pool begin to communicate to you. It'll send you an e-mail alert that says something about your pool or spa has changed. Maybe it's the water chemistry or it's gotten to a point at which, because you can set up alarms and alerts and the water level, chlorine level or temperature moves beyond a range, it sends you an e-mail to let you know you should look at it."

These methods of communicating via controls are made possible through wireless technology, which has taken off in the last few years in the pool and spa industry. A wireless hand-held control, in particular, is the kind of option many consumers are willing to pay for even if they don't need it. "Wireless controls give you one great feature that a wired cannot, and that is portability," says Ustianowski. A wireless control allows homeowners to turn lights and other features on and off anywhere in the backyard. Well, within limits. Users are generally limited by a 300-foot range, says MacCallum.

Wireless controls can also accommodate established backyards. "If the home is already built and then the homeowners decide they want a pool, there may already be a big patio and you don't want to rip it up," says Stone. "So builders can install wireless controls for the pool and you can usually put them anywhere you want. That's very convenient."

One drawback to wireless controls used to be that they were only transmitters, but now manufacturers are introducing wireless transceivers. This technology has revolutionized the market, says Ustianowski. "The whole philosophy behind wireless is that you can turn on a piece of equipment from inside your house or in your backyard and not have to walk out to the pad. But there's only one problem — when you hit the button, you don't know if the equipment is on or not, so you might actually be turning it off.

"So when they came out with bidirectional, where the equipment actually talks back to the unit in your hand saying, 'I'm on,' and a light illuminates to let the user know it's on — that's when the wireless market really took off. Because now you've got information about what's going on outside in your hand without actually having to walk out there."

Getting feedback from controls is key, and that's why some other control innovations are related to it. "On our Intellitouch, which is a transceiver, we were the first to come out with some moving graphics on the LCD screen," says Tom Schoendienst, western division specialist for Pentair Pool Products. "There's a .ame next to the word 'spa' or 'pool' and the flame starts flickering back and forth when the heater is on. This is the type of technology homeowners are gravitating to, even on an entry-level pool. They realize technology has come a long way and they'd like to have that in their house."

Even More To Offer

"Another difference between the most-basic and more-sophisticated controls has to do with diagnostics and serviceability," says Stone. "The more-sophisticated controls usually have a lot more diagnostic information available to a pool service guy so he could walk up to it to see how it's doing, what's going on, and the control will tell him."

These diagnostic signals are analogous to the diagnostic dashboard lights in cars. "They're getting pretty sophisticated, just like cars," says Gabel, "where you've got your lights that come on that say 'check oil' or 'check engine,' the one that everyone hates."

Equipment protection is yet another feature some higher-end controls offer. Gabel says Jandy's AquaLink RS controls offer freeze protection and heater delays, which allow the heater to cool down before you completely shut off water to that system. Gabel says the controls also have .ow control, so that if for some reason the flow of water is halted, the indoor control alerts users and shuts down the pump so the equipment is not damaged.

Another safety feature that both Gabel and Brunye say their controls offer is a kill switch. "Because of all the liability issues out there, people are concerned about entrapment," says Brunye. "So we have a one-button kill switch that turns off all functions on our unit."

To keep consumers' energy bills low, Pentair built automatic countdown timers into the Intellitouch line of controls. According to Schoendienst, this is how they work: "If, for example, someone inadvertently turned on the spa, it would only run for 12 hours — or whatever amount of time the timer was set to — and then it would fall back into normal programming mode.

"I call that a redundant program in that there is a countdown timer that will automatically take care of itself, so if a mistake is made, the homeowner doesn't end up consuming too much more energy."

Chemical Control, Too

Automating lights, pumps and other equipment definitely simplifies pool operation and maintenance, but a control that can direct equipment and chlorine production is icing on the proverbial cake. And, luckily, this technology is now available. Both Jandy and Goldline offer multi-function controls with electronic chlorine generators.

Says Brunye, "Aqua Logic includes all the multi-function controls with the chlorine generator in one unit. So it reduces installation time, it reduces the cost for electricians to install it all and it's less expensive than just a stand-alone multi-function control."

Electronic chlorine generators significantly reduce the cost of owning a pool, says Brunye, because owners are not required to add chlorine — it's generated by the equipment. Salt does need to be added "once or twice a year depending on where in the country you live," says Brunye. "But salt is very inexpensive. It's $3 for a 50-pound bag. And salt doesn't evaporate or wear out. It only gets out through backwashing the filter and splashing.

"In the past, price was the big objection to buying controls," adds Brunye. "People didn't want to spend $2,000 or $3,000. But now for the same money, you can get all the automation plus chlorination, which allows the unit to pay for itself in a couple of years."

Pool owners do still need to test their chlorine levels with reagents or test strips, but then "rather than adding chemicals, they just increase or decrease their chlorine level by pushing a button."

Something For Everyone

Even though high-end controls offer many conveniences and safety features, some customers will still opt for a less-expensive control. And that's fine. Not everyone drives a Lexus, but almost everyone does own a car. So chances are good that builders who explain the range of controls available will profit from installing a control system of some sort.

Whatever system the homeowner chooses, "they're going to want a nice steering wheel for the backyard," says Schoendienst, and controls provide that.

Aq 404 69pg 0002
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library