Modern computer diagnostics have reached the spa service industry

Scott Webb Headshot

6 D 608 AqThe spa equipment industry is easing into the computer diagnostics age in a fashion similar to the way automotive and heavy equipment industries did in decades past.

For more than 20 years, cars have used sensors distributed throughout the vehicle to monitor its condition. These networked sensors constantly reply to a central computer's relentless fundamental question: "Is everything OK?"

For months, years, the answer is "Yes, yes, yes, yes . . ." until the day the water pump goes bad and the sensors begin replying, "No, no, no, no . . . it's way too hot in here," whereupon a light goes on in the corner of the dash, the car is brought in for service, and the computer makes a full report.

There is little doubt that one day the full capability of these automotive systems will be available on spas. The industry has made a good beginning, however, with the in.xm system, part of the Aeware group of spa-pack components from Gecko Alliance, Corona, Calif.

The Cause

When the spa is turned on for the first time, the in.xm system scans and learns the normal operating conditions for the main spa pack elements - the pump, the heater, the ozonator, etc. - in terms of each item's current draw.

Any time thereafter, if the computer sees a significant deviation from that healthy amperage, it recognizes a problem.

In order to identify the cause of that problem, the system takes the classic repairman's approach - the process of elimination, familiar to amateurs and professionals alike:

Most people have faced the challenge of a light that won't come on even after the bulb has been changed. There's nothing obvious to tell you what the problem is, but you do know that if electricity is flowing through the breaker panel in the basement, and if it is running through this particular circuit, and if the switch is closed, and there's no break in the wiring, and the fixture works, and the bulb is good, the light will definitely be on.

So you start testing the parts. And one of them turns out to be faulty, every single time.

In the case of a dead spa pump, says Sophie Tremblay, Gecko tech support manager, "you have three simple things to look at. You either have a defective fuse, pump or board. By being able to eliminate each of these one by one, you find the cause. The system can verify by testing that it's not the fuse, and it can verify by testing that it's not the board. So it must be the pump.

"Simply by process of electronic elimination, you can tell the owner, 'Here's your problem.'"

The system communicates its findings via display panel, which the customer can read and relay to the service company, if necessary.

"Even if you replace the pump," adds Sonia Faucher, Gecko product manager, "it will learn what the new pump amperage draw is, and adjust itself accordingly. If you have a component that is going bad, it will start drawing either more current or sometimes less, and it reads that and tells you that, as well."

That's the simple idea behind the in.xm. In most spa troubleshooting scenarios, there are only two or three possibilities. By eliminating one or two, the system can present the solution to the problem.

The Effect

Although technology gets the headlines, application pays the bills. For a dealer perspective, AQUA spoke with Anne-Marie Tessier, of Signature Décor, a Dynasty Spas dealership in Quebec.

Tessier has been managing spa sales for 11 years, but with the opening of a new store last fall, she and her husband have been fully occupied with outfitting and launching new retail space.

The business has grown to almost 200 employees and three stores, including the brand new facility that has been Tessier's obsession since the fall. Growth, she says, is exhausting.

"It begins really early in the morning, and stops late in the evening. And I can tell you," she says, "we are done opening new stores. This is enough."

The dealership is expanding because business is up 30 percent over last year, an increase due in part, according to Tessier, to the customer assurance that spa diagnostics provides.

"We have used the in.xm series for about one year," she says. "We decided to use the whole package, not just the pack, but the heater, the sound system, the power supply, the ozone system, everything, because we felt more secure knowing that the components were made to work together."

Tessier says her company is more effective at serving its customers due to the system's ability to determine the exact origin of spa trouble and recommend how to fix it. "It's less expensive for us to dispatch technicians once, instead of two or three times to detect the problem, because sometimes it is really hard to detect. But with this system, we can go only one time and know what to bring with us."

Along with the diagnostic capability of the system, Tessier likes the fact that it does not employ a flow switch. The flow switch is a safety feature that ensures enough water is flowing through the heater to keep it from boiling over. All too often on the systems she sold before, as the filter started to fill up, there was insufficient flow to protect the system from overheating, and the spa just stopped.

"But our customers didn't know about the flow switch. And if they didn't keep the filter clean, the spa would shut down, and we'd have to go there and flip this little switch. It would only take 10 minutes to fix it but we'd have to travel all the way to the customer's house, and we'd have to charge for it. I would say 80 percent of our problems before we started using the Aeware in.xm system came from the flow switch."

With a panel on the in.xm system warning customers before problems such as clogged filters become critical, she adds, a lot of warranty work can be handled over the phone.

"I think this is important not only for the first year when the spa is under warranty, but when the warranty runs out. At that point it becomes very expensive for customers if they don't have this kind of system. Especially if it's just a small matter of not cleaning the filter or something like that."

Easing The Strain

Creating such a comprehensive system required a fresh approach, notes Tremblay. The team had to start with the end in mind. "Before we started developing the spa pack, we decided what we wanted to achieve, instead of creating the pack and electronics and then thinking, 'How can we modify this so that it will do what we want?'"

What they wanted was a way to relieve the strain on troubleshooting expertise in the industry.

"In the spa industry," she says, "the workforce is reluctant to pay for training, and more than that, there is constant turnover. It's not the same guy repairing spas at the same store every year. So that was why we came up with the in.xm, which can do the troubleshooting instead of the technician."

Proactive Diagnostics | Troubleshooting before shipping

Balboa Industries, Tustin, Calif., has recently launched a couple of diagnostic tools for use by manufacturers to detect problems on new tubs before they are released for shipment.

The two products are Final Analysis Spa Test (eFAST) and RMA Tester. The eFAST system was designed to help OEMs identify defects at the factory, before equipment leaves the dock. The system automatically runs a specific series of tests to ensure proper operation of components, instead of simply having a technician turn components on and off at random.

"The eFAST not only checks whether a pump is operating," says Bob Spillar, vice president of marketing, "but it verifies that it is operating within the manufacturer's specifications. It captures the voltage and amperage draws of each device and flags any device outside of nominal operating characteristics. Additionally, the eFAST captures each tub's information in a database and creates a final test certificate with the entire pass/fail data and values, serial numbers of the equipment installed and other OEM specific information."

The other new diagnostic tool from Balboa, the RMA Tester, allows for remote factory testing of boards suspected of field failure. This diagnostic tool performs a complete functional output and sensor input test for all Balboa circuit boards using a step-by-step program that notifies the user when something is not connected correctly.

"We developed the RMA tester initially to re-create the same rigorous automated testing that is used in the factory and help our in-house technicians to reduce the cycle times for repairs," says Spillar. "Once we proved the technology, we began offering the systems to our customers as a way for them to manage the warranty process and reduce costs."

These two diagnostic tools are designed to help OEMs reduce shipping costs on returns, "no trouble found" diagnoses and wasted labor.

- S.W.

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