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    Credit: GRAPHIC BY NICK ORABOVIC

Thirteen years ago, Eloy Sherlock and his partner, Bernard Zimring, sealed a deal for their pool-building firm by signing a contract on a paper napkin. A lot has changed since then. Today, Avanti Pools relies on the latest technology to operate its Los Angeles-based business.

“Any time people can access information quickly and easily it always improves not only the process, but also the relationship with the customer,” Sherlock says.

For starters, all members of the crew is equipped with smartphones and use them regularly to create videos and take photos for a recorded history of their projects. And after each walkthrough, the builder presents customers with a memory stick containing all the information regarding the project, from the warranties to the original plans.

Avanti approaches automation in similar style. Since 2010, the company has built nearly 125 pools powered by fully integrated automation systems. But instead of designing programs that in the past would have required multiple controllers, Avanti is relying on the popularity of sophisticated hand-held mobile devices to do the job.

Thanks to advancements by a number of manufacturers in the past year, consumers now have the ability to easily monitor and manage their automation systems using an application on their smartphones and tablets.

Several forward thinkers in the industry have quickly learned the many perks of installing automation systems controlled by smart devices.

1. Provides customers with an economic alternative.

In 2006, the first pool industry technology emerged that enabled consumers to control their automation from desktop and laptop computers. Other companies followed suit, and soon many builders regularly were offering this option to clients. These earlier products allowed consumers to monitor and adjust the settings on features such as their pool pumps, but they were still limited to using their computers. The latest incarnations provide the consumer with more manageable control over the settings to the most energy-consuming features of their backyards.

“If a customer has to walk outside of the house and change the speed of the pump, they are not going to do it as fast as if they have that remote in front of them,” says Tom Cucinotta, owner of Cucinotta’s Pool Service in Boynton Beach, Fla.

“It’s now even easier with their phone or [tablet]. I’ll say to them, ‘Remember when you were on your way to work and you realized you left the waterfall on? Now all you have to do is sign on with your phone and turn it off.’”

Embracing this trend has caused Avanti Pools to now give away an iPad with every pool the company builds. The gift adds credibility, impresses the customer and saves the homeowner money on the price of a controller, Sherlock says.

California Pools & Landscape also may start giving away iPads, though the firm’s customers seem to be already using the technology, say officials at the Chandler, Ariz.-based company.

 “I have yet to see someone who doesn’t have a smartphone,” says company President Jeremy Smith. “Now it’s nice to be able to use them to control your backyard.”

Annually, the builder is constructing or remodeling upwards of 800 pools, and 80 percent of those finished in the past year feature a control system to this effect.

2. Saves time and manpower.

Once the system is properly set up and connected, the homeowner will receive e-mail alerts regarding any potential issues. If the builder or service technician obtains the client’s WiFi network password and the serial number for the protocol adapter, he or she will receive the same alerts. This access is allowing builders and technicians to offer unprecedented service.

In many cases, they know about the problem before the client does, and can diagnose and fix the issue without ever having to leave their offices — or anywhere, for that matter.

Recently, with the help of the product manufacturer, Sherlock resolved an issue for a homeowner that previously could have eaten up three hours of his day. “It took us three minutes and we never left our residence,” he says. “The homeowner was ecstatic.”

The ability to view a home’s system is especially helpful for companies with clients based outside of the United States. Smith, for example, assisted a customer in Canada who owns a second home in the Phoenix region. The homeowner received an alert indicating the chlorine in his pool was off. Thanks to the setup, Smith was able to rectify the problem for the client before it became a major issue.

This new technology makes servicing pools affected by severe weather less stressful, too. In the event of an unfortunate natural disaster, the systems are easy to reset, Cucinotta says. Florida has a high percentage of hurricanes, which in many instances have caused power outages that inadvertently reset the time and dates on automation systems in the affected region. Before, he would have to visit each home and reprogram the units. That’s a lot to handle for someone who has nearly 550 accounts. Now, he can do everything from off site.

3. Adds revenue.

In March, Keith Zars began offering his customers the option of using a smartphone or tablet as a controller for their automation systems. Of the 44 pools his firm sold that month, 36 will feature this technology. So far, the crew at Keith Zars Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in San Antonio, has installed only three of the systems, but Zars says they are working as expected and with no complications.

“It’s what’s selling the pool,” he notes. “We’ve increased some sales because of it. The customers like it a lot. It has great sales appeal.”

Of course, the homeowners are attracted to the unlimited control, but they also enjoy the simplicity of the installation, yet another selling point for the builder.

“The older units were hardwired, and you had to mount it so the customer could use it, and there were issues like line of sight problems,” Zars recalls. “Now we don’t have to drill the walls.”

Instead, a contractor plugs a manufacturer’s protocol adapter into a home’s WiFi modem and connects a user’s hand-held device to the pool’s automation system via an “app.” The homeowner then can access his pool and spa, home theater equipment, security cameras, landscape lighting and other backyard functions from anywhere in the world.

Others are taking advantage of the system’s monitoring capabilities to add a new revenue stream to their business. Though it’s still a relatively new control system option, Cucinotta has recently started charging his customers $12 a month to keep tabs on their backyard’s many features. If a customer is out of town and wants to return home to a warm pool, for example, they can call him and he’ll take care of it from afar. Or, if the pool’s salt levels are off, he can contact the client and offer to take care of the problem.

“It’s in the beginning stages, but I’m not meeting any resistance,” he says. “In fact, what I am finding is my customers look at me with a whole different profound respect.

“It’s a no-brainer. Why anyone wouldn’t want it is beyond me,” he adds.