Introducing the Unknown Control

Fountain automation circa 1939. See sidebar at the end of this story for more. (Click to enlarge)Fountain automation circa 1939. See sidebar at the end of this story for more. (Click to enlarge)

Not much has changed in control products in recent years. Yes, there have been minor adjustments and enhancements to products, but nothing that has fully addressed the needs of modern designers, builders and end users. This means that when discerning property owners need control solutions for complex applications, builders must often look outward to more expensive and sophisticated systems for controls that seem heavy-handed for the application.

To be clear, this is not meant as an indictment of the control systems available for the pool and spa industry, but instead more of an invitation to our manufacturers to respond to the controls challenges many of us see in today's more demanding projects.


The real issue is that attempting to control anything more complicated than minor temperature adjustments, turning lights on and off or rotating motorized actuators to reroute water in a different directions is reserved for a commercial-based industry that charges exorbitant costs for simple components. This major gap between industries has led us to "Frankenstein" products together to save thousands of dollars for our clients.

For example, public sprayground projects, especially in California, have firm restrictions on water chemistry and system control in different scenarios. The high-end control systems designed specifically for spraygrounds are outrageously expensive, while the cost-effective residential controls are able to only handle a small percentage of health code requirements.

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There was a time when spraygrounds and splash pads were unique animals, typically only found in affluent public parks in major metropolitan areas. Many years ago, there were only a few manufacturers that made products for these settings, and there was no agency code regulating how they were designed, built or operated.

Today it's different. Now there are many dozens of makers of such products, design companies like my firm, Holdenwater, that specialize in working with them and detailed regulations from county health departments on how to put the pieces together. Granted, the code restrictions are for public spaces only, but even residential applications should still maintain a similar level of sanitary conditions, which requires a certain level of control.

With the new regulations on public spraygrounds comes the need for expanded controls that will adapt to visitors pushing actuator buttons, use rain sensors to shut systems down and divert rain water and run complex sanitizer systems. Residential controls handle a couple of these needs, but need to have far greater capabilities.


Ironically, the best of both worlds can be found in the irrigation industry. Many commercial-grade irrigation controllers cost much less than the high-end sprayground units and handle about 90 percent of what code demands. Combining a residential controller with the commercial irrigation controller almost solves the problem and still at a lesser cost than the products available from sprayground companies.

What is so painful is that we see the individual parts of a glorious control system spread out in the industry, but there appears to be no desire to combine it all in a marketable package. As a result, we're pushed to look beyond the boundaries of our industry to find the components that get the job done at a reasonable cost.

In my research and use of irrigation controllers for over two decades, I have found tiny inexpensive devices, like the Hunter Irrigation I-Core or ACC models, which offer a world of unrealized benefits for the pool industry.

For about a couple thousand dollars, they pack the ability to control dozens of motorized actuators with a 24 volt signal; sense wind, rain and frost conditions with circuit shut offs; monitor water level using a tensiometer; activate relays for pumps; and automatically adjust everything seasonally or via a percentage function.

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When trying to set up complex programming in a system reactive to environmental conditions, residential pool controls have some of these functions, but sometimes not enough.

The abilities found in irrigation controllers seem like they would be simple for the typical residential pool control to integrate, since most of it is just new input sensors and revised programming. The pool industry already has digital water level sensors, but they are add-on devices and not integrated within the main controls. And while we have temperature sensors for controlling pool and spa heating functions, it seems like a no-brainer to allow for more sensing of wind and rain as irrigation weather stations do.

Basically, the technology is there, but there is not enough compatibility or ability to combine the various products into a unified expression of "control" of all scenarios. I know that much of this revolves around marketing and what is perceived as what the industry wants, but sometimes a population doesn't know yet what it wants and must be shown. When asked why people would want an iPhone, Steve Jobs said that it was his job to teach people what they need and want. Maybe with greater tools, the pool industry could do greater things.


Certainly, this issue of controls integration or lack thereof extends to a number of other areas, a big one being LED lights. The preprogrammed color-changing function within most pool industry controls is limited to a handful of color combinations that rotate through the cycle of pre-chosen colors. More complex requests for color changing programming from designers or property owners results in the need for drastically more expensive devices.

I am aware of only one LED light manufacturer in the pool industry that allows for manual control of the RGBW combination to produce custom colors, let alone have them cycle through a customized color sequence. Once the project requirements go beyond that, the control for a single unique function may cost the builder sometimes five to 10 times as much.

So while it's fair to say that manufacturers have done a good job providing systems that suit the needs for many, if not a majority of projects, particularly on the residential side of the market — smartphone user interface is a great example of continued innovation — there is little question that for many of us working in highly integrated environments, there's an evolutionary step waiting to unfold.



Historic Automation

MuhollandA current project of ours is a memorial fountain in Los Angeles for the Department of Water & Power. The fountain is dedicated to William Mulholland, known to Angelenos as the father of fresh water for Southern California.

This historic feature, completed in 1939, presented a predicament similar to those we face today. The lighting design demanded that 43 lamps oscillate through a series of colors as part of the presentation. Ingenuity prevailed and a custom rotary switch was designed and fabricated for the installation.

A geared motor turned a central shaft with oblong cams — much like the workings of a large public clock. As each cam rotated into active position it would make contact with two leads and energize each light in the system independently.

A range of colored lenses covered the lights. At varying points the fountain would be red, then green, then blue and finally white, with many combinations for secondary colors. To alter the program, someone could simply rotate the cams to new positions to have each light activate at a different time or for a longer duration. Genius!

Of course, today we are suggesting that this spinning device be reserved to the local museum, as all of the countless gears need regular oiling and cleaning to continue to operate, and the 1,000-watt lights consume almost 40,000 watts when fully activated.

Our goal is keep everything appearing as it was but with an integrated circuit and LED lamps for energy consumption purposes, longevity and more control. Currently our dilemma is whether to use a simple cost-effective pool industry controller or buy a $10,000 complex controller for the 43 lights.


Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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