Photo courtesy Pentair Water Pool and Spa

Families enjoy a variety of digital connections 24/7 these days. While the kids chat online, mom and dad conference via Bluetooth headsets.

When it comes time to buy a pool, these on-the-go families demand the same smart products. “Consumer demand for ease of operation has grown over the past several years,” says David Nibler, vice president of marketing and business development at Jandy, a Petaluma, Calif.-based manufacturer.

“There is a general expectation and comfort level with electronics in all parts of their lives,” he adds. “The industry [has to be] able to facilitate this consumer demand.”

Whether it’s salt-chlorine generators or sophisticated handheld remote controls, the market is constantly evolving and industry pros need to stay abreast of developments. Here’s a detailed look at some major trends in four product categories.

CHLORINATORS AND SANITATION SYSTEMS

Manufacturers estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of new pools include salt-chlorine generators, up from only 15 percent in 2002. Here are two trends affecting the industry in this category:

  • Consumer demand is unwavering.

In the past five years, requests for salt-chlorine generators have soared. Much of the interest has been driven by word-of-mouth referrals, with customers extolling the benefits to their neighbors and friends.

“The response is phenomenal; it grows every year,” says Ray Whitford, president of Lifetime Pools Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. The Pool & Spa News Top Builder puts chlorine generators on 90 percent of its pools.

Despite lingering questions about the possible degradation of stone and metals around these pools, sales have not faltered. In fact, salt-chlorine generator sales spur interest in other automation products.

“Even on basic pool projects, consumers are willing to invest in the salt-chlorine generator,” Nibler says. “From the consumer’s standpoint, once they make the decision to add [one] to their project, the added cost of the integrated system is a small price jump.”

  • New systems feature additional monitoring capabilities.

In some cases, salt-chlorine generators are being enhanced to monitor pH, ORP or ppm.

“Historically, this technology was only viable for commercial applications due to price constraints and complicated technology,” says Omer Eyal, president of American SPS, LLC, an Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based maker of chlorine generators. “But now prices are coming down on such products and early adopters such as high-end residential users are jumping on board.”

This mimics trends across the board. Some systems not only monitor water quality, but also offer remote operation and phone or voice communications, says Dave Button, national sales manager at Chemtrol, a Santa Barbara, Calif., manufacturer.

AUTOMATIC POOL CLEANERS

Approximately 58 percent of inground-pool owners currently have automatic cleaners, according to PK Data, a Duluth, Ga., research/consulting firm. This number is up 4 percent from 2004.

But manufacturers say 90 percent of new pools get some form of automatic cleaning system within one year of completion. Here are four trends affecting the industry in this category:

  • The cleaner is an integral pool component.

There are four types of cleaners: in-floor, pressure, suction and robotic. Ranging from $100 to $2,000, these devices are widely available for all pool types and price points.

“The automatic cleaner has become an essential component of the pool pad,” says Patricia Smith, product manager for inground cleaners at Elizabeth, N.J.-based manufacturer Hayward Pool Products. “For the minority of pools that don’t include an automatic cleaner, the homeowner is probably using a service company.”

This is certainly the case in Southern California, where nearly 80 percent of pool owners hire maintenance firms. Even so, many service techs promote and sell automatic pool cleaners to customers because the products make their jobs easier.

“Pool owners want simplification,” says Tom Willhite, president/CEO of AquaVac Systems, a West Palm Beach, Fla., subsidiary of Hayward. “Empty nesters over 50 are looking for [new] technology, so features include remote controls, speed, and the ability to skim and clean the bottom.”

  • Suction- and pressure-side cleaners remain solid standbys.

Pressure- and suction-side cleaners have alternately gone in and out of fashion over time. For instance, most pools had pressure-side cleaners in the early ’60s. Then suction-side cleaners emerged in the ’70s and dominated the market for the next decade. Today, both categories are going strong.

Manuela Rief predicts there will be a return to pressure-side cleaners as energy becomes a bigger issue. “This genre of cleaners is loosely termed ‘energy sweeps,’” says the vice president of Poolvergnuegen, a Santa Rosa, Calif., manufacturer. “The trend is green, and customers are becoming aware of energy costs associated with swimming pools.”

Plus, the cleaners will be more durable and simpler to operate. For example, some manufacturers’ pressure-side cleaners work with easy-to-replace, disposable bags similar to those found in vacuum cleaners.

Suction-side cleaners have evolved as well. “Homeowners are demanding unique pool shapes with distinct décor and features [such as] exotic beach entrances, swim-out tables and stools, niches and ledges,” says Allan Frankel, product manager for automatic pool cleaners at manufacturer Zodiac Pool Care Inc. in Vista, Calif.

“This makes it more challenging for manufacturers to engineer [products] that clean beyond consumer expectations. Some pool owners will even look for cleaners that complement their décor,” Frankel adds.

  • Robotic cleaners have generated a lot of buzz.

Robotic cleaners were popularized in Europe more than 20 years ago. But their high cost slowed adoption in the United States until the mid-1990s. Now, manufacturers say the category is growing 15 percent annually.

“We believe it’s driven by the desire for faster cleaning, plug-and-play simplicity and electronic features,” Hayward’s Smith says.

This product segment also has been a source of activity in the past six months. In December 2006, Hayward announced its acquisition of AquaVac. Then in April, iRobot Corp., the Burlington, Mass.-based maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, unveiled its own robotic pool cleaner.

Experts believe this will give the product a heightened level of consumer awareness.

  • In-floor systems have a dedicated following.

In a number of regional strongholds, in-floor cleaners are considered the best option available. For example, market penetration in Arizona, Nevada and Florida remains high. The product is making inroads in vinyl and fiberglass pools, too.

Some in-floor systems even can be combined with pressure- and suction-side cleaners, says Fred Schram, Zodiac’s product manager for in-floor cleaning systems. “Consumers can measure cost savings as a result of the highly efficient ‘bottom-up’ circulation. Chemical loss from the pool’s surface is minimized, and time and energy to operate a heater is reduced,” he adds.

Builders like the technical appeal of the cleaners as well. “I think it’s a superior way of circulating the pool,” says Michael Manley, president of Champagne Aquatech Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Sanford, Fla. He installs the in-floor systems on about 60 percent of his pools.

“When you boil water on the stove, you cook from the bottom up. [These systems are] similar,” Manley adds.

CONTROL SYSTEMS

Manufacturers say approximately 65 percent of pools were installed with automatic controls last year. Four years ago, they were on only 25 percent of pools. Here are three trends affecting the industry in this category:

  • Builders include controls in their basic package.

Control systems, which are particularly useful on pool and spa combos, have become widely accepted. Architects and home builders regularly request the products, and some health departments encourage their installation at public aquatics facilities.

Pool builders now offer them as standard amenities. “We added a handheld controller to our base pool about a year ago,” says Manley, who installs a management system on 75 percent of his projects. “It was a marketing decision. It’s a terrible down market [in Florida], so it was a good choice for us — especially as the market goes more toward automation.”

He is not alone. David Burton sees the consumer appeal of automation products, so he includes them in his standard project bids. “We’d rather they ask to take it out than try to upsell them. That’s the best idea,” says the CEO of Burton Pools & Spas, a Fort Smith, Ark.-based Pool & Spa News Top Builder.

  • High-end pools are integrated with home management systems.

Homeowners often install pools less for swimming and more for entertainment purposes. As a result, automation becomes a necessity.

“The smart technology is coming in big time,” Manley says. “More and more companies are offering ways to integrate the technology into the home.”

Most high-end home management systems operate indoor and outdoor lighting, HVAC systems, blinds or sprinklers. Plugged into such programs, pool controls also monitor water temperature, outdoor speakers, energy usage and safety features.

“[Another feature] is Web access, which is especially useful for second or vacation homes,” says Zuzana Prochazka, director of marketing at manufacturer Balboa Instruments in Tustin, Calif. “Pools can now be monitored remotely.”

  • Feature-filled wireless devices are big sellers.

Wireless controls now enjoy high consumer appeal. These gizmos are durable, handheld, incredibly user-friendly and can float.

“The wireless revolution [gives] the consumer the benefit of roaming the backyard while having complete control,” Jandy’s Nibler says. “Reliable wireless devices that are handheld [have] aided in reducing the installation costs of automation systems.”

Prochazka emphasizes that this trend is following that of home management systems, where Web access and online monitoring is possible.

“You’re seeing … multiple access points via the Web, a wireless panel and power center,” she notes, “as well as true wireless operation, which is rechargeable and long range.”

AUTOMATIC POOL COVERS

Manufacturers believe that 5 percent to 10 percent of pools today have automatic covers. While this number seems small, the growth has been dramatic — more than 60 percent in a three-year period. Here are three trends affecting the industry in this category:

  • Today’s sales are driven by energy conservation.

Consumers have long named safety as the No. 1 reason for investing in automatic pool covers. Lately, though, builders see heightened product appeal due to lower energy bills.

“This is a growing product for us,” Burton says. “People want to cut their operating costs as energy costs grow. And safety is always an issue, so we’re seeing more activity in that category.”

Homeowners looking to minimize maintenance costs are drawn to covers, confirms Lanny Smith, president of Coverstar Inc., a Lindon, Utah, manufacturer. “Automatic covers alleviate most of those concerns,” he says.

Lifetime Pools’ Whitford agrees. Many of his environmentally conscious consumers in California find automatic covers to be the most practical — and “green” — way to protect their children.

  • Automatic covers are more widely available.

Manufacturers attribute some of the growth in the category to the wider availability of automatic pool covers at distribution centers.

“With increased reliability in the product, distributors are more confident in providing an automatic cover to their builders,” Coverstar’s Smith says. But mass distribution can have its own problems because a larger number of professionals might try to install the systems without proper training.

Still, distributors encourage dealers to add the profitable product line to their inventories.

  • Covers are much more design-friendly.

Lack of design flexibility once was considered the limiting factor in automatic cover installations. No more, manufacturers say.

“Builders and pool owners thought covers only worked well on the standard rectangular vessel,” Smith of Coverstar says. “Now we have flush deck tracks and lids for all shapes, raised bond beam and vanishing-edge solutions, as well as extreme cantilever-deck edges.”

To accomplish such projects, most industry experts suggest consulting with the cover manufacturer before beginning construction. Others recommend researching new cover materials, such as those made of extruded PVC slats.

This trend toward aesthetics has infiltrated the vinyl and fiberglass segments, too. Builders of high-end vinyl pools, for example, can install architectural elements once found only on concrete pools.

“The new trend is design flexibility. There are alternative track extrusions and unique products for the package-pool side,” says Tom Dankel, vice president of Aquamatic Cover Systems, a Gilroy, Calif., manufacturer.

“[This includes] encapsulated, ‘in-wall’ track receivers designed specifically for fiberglass and liner pools, and pre-manufactured fiberglass mechanism housing with the drive units pre-installed,” Dankel adds.

Regardless of which product category you name, automation is a “necessary luxury,” Rief of Poolvergneugen says.

“The more the consumer is informed, the better his or her whole pool experience will be,” she adds.