The pool industry is entering an era of unprecedented innovation and evolution. With the advancement in microprocessors, data memory, touch screens, and other electronic components, automation is not only becoming more mainstream and more affordable, but equipment manufacturers are also starting to keep up with the innovation curve. That said, pool automation systems have evolved in the past three years to go beyond the pool, giving homeowner’s the power to orchestrate their entire backyard.
A little history of pool automation
Initially, the industry was behind the times when it came to the control of pools. In many cases, these devices were only able to turn an electrical device on/off—normally the filter pump—using mechanical timers. Millions of pools had, and many still use, these time clocks, which introduced homeowners to the world of pool automation. Time clocks were also integrated into other pool equipment, such as pumps, to make individual components smarter.
Approximately a decade ago, pool equipment started moving away from time clocks and, instead, manufacturers adapted and designed basic controls for pumps, lights, filtration, and electronic valves. These solutions, however, were mostly cost prohibitive to the average pool owner, and were really only available for higher-end pools.
Manufacturers then turned to simplifying the work-intensive task of keeping a pool chemically balanced. This included measuring and generating chlorine (Cl) with salt chlorinators and dispensing sanitizers through tab feeders and liquid dispensers. As an industry, the controls portfolio expanded to create a basic, yet highly functional level of control for smaller pools and state-of-the-art automation systems looking to leverage other technologies.
The next stage in the aquatic industries’ automation evolution is happening now, with manufacturers not only developing state-of-the-art systems for pools, but also for complete backyard automation.
Automation systems designed today are much smarter and have the ability to manage more in the backyard than ever before. These systems can now manage the pool, spa/hot tub, chemical levels, lights, water features, as well as the overall ambiance of the homeowner’s outdoor living space, including landscape lighting, fans, heaters, and other ambiance features. In addition, the integration with other technologies or ecosystems, allows amazing control over everything in the backyard, from anywhere, by anyone with or without user interaction.
Today’s backyard automation systems are further being revolutionized via integration with a variety of home automation systems. The latter, for example, manage occupancy, including locks, lights, shades, temperature, and outlets—pretty much everything and anything electronic in the house. As manufacturers in the aquatics industry further develop their systems, they look to seamlessly integrate these two ecosystems further. As this happens, incredible capabilities for autonomy can be generated.
Most pool controllers have the ability to interact with many mainstream home automation systems. This is in addition to their capability to interact with smart home devices like ‘learning’ thermostats such as Nest. For example, Nest knows when the homeowner is home or away based on sensors in the thermostat or programming by the user. When the homeowner leaves, the Nest connectivity allows homeowners to program an interaction with their backyard automation system to enable a particular theme. If for some reason the homeowner leaves and their water feature(s), heater, and pump remain running, the pool automation system will receive an alert from the thermostat, and the backyard would enable a ‘theme’ to turn off all of the equipment. It would also lower the heat and pump speed to save energy, which in turn saves the homeowner money. It takes all of the guesswork out of operating the backyard, as everything is done automatically.
The makeup of a backyard automation system
In reviewing these systems, a number of components can be found that resemble a cross between a computer and an electrical panel, which is essentially what a backyard automation system is. The ‘brain,’ or system processor, houses all of the programming for the entire system, including pre-set data, time clock information, communication with all of the internal components, as well as external products or systems. The system processor also allows smart communication with components that have been built specifically for these control systems.
Connecting the ‘brain’ to the Internet/cloud is probably the most important part in terms of truly automating the backyard. Backyard automation can be done without Internet access; however, these systems operate more efficiently when they are connected. Some systems come with a communication port, where the network cable can be plugged in directly to the controller. A Wi-Fi antenna/bridge can also be used to enable the controller to communicate with the router in the home to access the Internet.
The main electrical components comprise the relays, which enable electrical equipment to be turned on/off, and a breaker panel, where circuit breakers can be installed to distribute power to each of the devices in the backyard. These two components work in tandem to provide power to the electrical equipment. Finally, the power supply is another major electrical component of a backyard automation system.
Sensors are another integral part of the equipment pad, as they allow the system to understand the environment and what needs to be done to control the pool properly. This includes sensors for air and water temperature, as well as sensors which measure the presence of water flow to confirm the heater or chlorinator will work properly and efficiently.
Low-voltage relays and valve actuators are a prime reason controllers are being adopted on high-end pools. These components give the controller the ability to change settings on the valves and to communicate with other devices. For instance, no homeowner wants to go to the equipment pad to switch valves every time they get in/out of their spa/hot tub. The ability to press a button and turn the valves for specific features (e.g. spa/hot tub, water features, or to use low-voltage relays to fire up the heater) are integral to daily pool operation.
Some automation systems even have built-in salt chlorination transformers to eliminate the need for a separate control box when using a salt chlorination cell on the equipment pad. These transformers and connectors make it simple to change the sanitation method—from chlorine to salt—simply by installing the salt cell in the plumbing and plugging it into the automation system. Many systems also have a direct connection for pH and oxidation reduction potential (ORP) sensors, which measure water chemistry and balance, and automate the production of chlorine or dispensing of acid depending on these parameters.
Ease of operation important
For pool owners, the most important component of a backyard automation system is the user interface. In fact, this is where the industry has seen a lot of innovation in the past five years.
Initially, pool owners used hard-wired control interfaces for many years before manufacturers moved to wireless remotes, which provided pool and spa/hot tub control from anywhere in the backyard, even while using other amenities.
Today, pool owners want even more convenience; they want to be able to control their pool and spa/hot tub from anywhere, with the devices they use every day. To this end, several advances have been made to provide the ability to control the backyard using any (connected) mobile device from anywhere in the world. Now, Apps for iOS and Android make controlling the pool almost second nature simply by sheer convenience.
For example, a couple could be enjoying a romantic evening out and then decide during dinner they want to hop into the spa/hot tub when they get home. Rather than turning the hot tub on and waiting for the water to heat up after getting home, a mobile phone can be used to turn on the spa/hot tub so it is ready as soon as they pull in their driveway.
As previously discussed, some controls have this telemetry capability built-in, while others have the ability to retrofit these capabilities at a small premium. With regards to home automation, the partnerships that have been developed between pool equipment and home automation manufacturers allows customers to use interfaces they are already familiar with to control the rest of the property (i.e. pools, spas/hot tubs, water features, outdoor lighting, etc.). Whether it is a wall-mount device, television remote, or home automation application, these partnerships have been making it convenient to control everything from an existing, highly used interface.
What can be automated around the pool?
If automation is the brain of the system, it is an ever-evolving brain since the latest automation products allow the system to be upgraded as soon as new features become available. It learns how to better control the other vital organs (i.e. components) in this system. The pump would be the heart, which also continues to get smarter, but when paired with the controller, there is no longer a need to understand when to turn the filter pump up or down.
Using pre-set times and speed throughout the day and week ensures debris is removed from the pool and the water has been properly filtered. Further, sensors guarantee the system is operating efficiently, while also reporting the pool’s and/or spa’s/hot tub’s water temperature, in addition to the surrounding air temperature.
An Internet connection, along with sensing and dispensing chemical automation technology helps to eliminate the guesswork in having a clean and clear pool. Lastly, all of the environmental, entertainment and play features (e.g. lighting, water features, and water levelers, etc.) are added on.
What is important to remember?
In the last five years, automation has changed dramatically and these innovations are only expected to continue. In fact, the controller that is available today will likely be dramatically different next year. Over the last few years, automation systems have become much smarter for their own manufacturer’s products and have started to communicate with controls from other parts of the home to make these systems even more intelligent. These controllers have done a much better job at integrating all aspects of pool management, including better control of lights, water features, variable-speed pumps, and even chemical automation.
With the addition of touch screen user interfaces and wireless remotes and the huge surge in Apps that are available to manage the controllers and connected components, it is expected backyard automation systems will only continue to advance.
This article was written by Greg Fournier and Tim Pettman and originally appeared on Pool & Spa Marketing [link].