Illustration by Tim Bobko

Last summer, Russ Long, owner of Golden State Pool Service in Fresno, Calif., received a call from a satisfied client.

The homeowner had a second residence for his daughters to use while attending college. During summer break, electricity usage by the unused refrigerator and swimming pool at the empty house would increase.

In April 2006, Long replaced the pool’s 2hp, single-speed pump with a standard two-speed model. The following summer, the client’s energy bill decreased 42 percent from the previous year.

“This pool is actually flowing more water on low speed than it did with the old 2hp pump,” Long says, adding that 10 of the 90 pools he services each week have two-speed pumps. He has retrofitted another 15 pools with energy-efficient, low-hp pumps.

Not only did Long satisfy his customer, he also followed the law. In California, energy is so vital that the state’s nearly 1.1 million pools have been the target of recent legislation. New Title 20 codes establish minimum standards for pool filtration pumps and motors.

“Our goal has been to raise the quality of the lower-performing pools,” says Antonia Tsobanoudis, a project manager at Davis Energy Group in Davis, Calif. The agency contracts with utility companies to propose changes in standards.

“We assume that there are about 20 percent of these pools in the state that perform poorly,” she adds.

By Jan. 1, 2008, all residential filtration pumps with more than 1 total hp sold in California must be capable of two or more speeds. To help spur compliance, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and other state utilities are offering rebates ranging from $100 to $450 to contractors installing two-speed or variable-speed pumps.

“Everyone in the industry has the best intentions here,” says Gary Fernstrom, a senior program engineer in the Customer Energy Efficiency Department of PG&E in San Francisco. “The pool industry has never been regulated in this manner and isn’t tuned in, so it requires a special educational effort to make the information available to them.”

As dramatic changes sweep through California’s pool and spa industry, other states are taking notice. However, confusion reigns over the choices that are available to builders under the 2008 requirement. Here, Pool & Spa News examines the three main varieties of compliant pumps: high-efficiency one- or two-pump systems; two-speed options; and variable-speed pumps. We also address several questions raised by industry professionals.

Editor’s note: There are a variety of opinions about each of the following applications. Check with your manufacturer for clarification.

High-efficiency one- or two-pump systems

The first option available to builders is to develop an equipment pad around a single-speed filtration pump with a downsized, high-efficiency motor. The total capacity of the pump (which most define as “listed hp x service factor”) cannot exceed 1hp.

The state defines a high-efficiency motor as one that is either capacitor-start/capacitor-run or permanent split capacitor. This excludes capacitor-start/induction-run and split-phase motors, Fernstrom says.

The low cost of these pumps is ideal for pool builders servicing the entry-level and mass markets. The simpler pools built in this sector often need to do little more than filter the water. “Pool builders design different types of projects. More than anything else, the choice of the pump depends on the specific project being designed as well as the pool builder’s business model,” says Steve Gutai, product manager for pumps, filters, valves and waterfeatures at Petaluma, Calif.-based Jandy.

In California, Texas and other Sunbelt markets, most existing pumps are 11/2 to 2hp. “Those of us who have worked around hydraulics know that the majority of pools could be run on smaller pumps and be more energy-efficient,” says Kevin Tucker, a board member of APEC, an industry lobbying group in Austin, Texas.

Still, many pools have additional features that require more power to operate them. In those cases, California allows for two-pump systems. The lower-hp pump must be used for basic filtration, while a second, higher-hp pump can be installed for the purpose of running a waterfeature or spa jets. Because the lower-hp pump is on the majority of the time, the system will continue to achieve significant energy savings.

Scott Waldo, for one, is a fan of the two-pump system. “We always used to overkill, so typically we’d do [a single] 2hp for a pool-spa combo,” says the president of Platinum Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Houston. “The electricity is getting expensive in Texas. We need to make sure that when consumers buy a pool, they tell their friends it’s inexpensive to operate.”

Waldo builds approximately 700 pools a year. Recently, he fine-tuned a two-pump system to save his customers $700 on an annual basis, yielding a one-year return on investment.

But achieving those savings required work. Waldo dedicated a significant amount of time to re-engineering the way he plumbs his pools, switching from 90-degree elbows to systems with 45-degree plumbing. He also increased the diameter of the pipe size going to the pump to 21/2 inches.

Industry pros ask...

Will installing an energy-efficient pump on an existing pool maximize energy savings?

In general, a low-hp pump will not generate the same savings as some of the other options available under the Title 20 standards. Yet the reduction is significant compared with the hydraulic performance of current installations. For example, a large number of pools in California have 11/2-inch copper plumbing. “In those instances, to be safe, a 1/2 hp pump would be appropriate,” Jandy’s Gutai says.

Jody Resor has seen this in the field. The owner of Crystal Clear Pools in Sunnyvale, Calif., services about 50 vessels each week and has installed a number of low-head, low-hp pumps. These systems have significantly reduced homeowners’ energy costs.

“When has there ever been a time in the industry where you can tell customers, ‘I can save you money’?” Resor asks. “It promotes the industry and makes us all more professional.”

Two-speed pumps

One of the most cost-effective ways to achieve significant energy savings is to install a two-speed pump. In all two-speed systems, the pump has a fixed “high” setting of 3,450 rpm and “low” setting of approximately 1,725 rpm. A pre-programmed time clock is then used to control how long — and at what hours — the pump runs on either setting.

The pump affinity theory states that a system running at half the speed will produce half the flow rate, one-fourth the dynamic head and demand one-eighth the power. The result is counterintuitive: A pump on low speed will run twice as long to turn over the same amount of water, yet will use one-fourth the electricity.

The Title 20 research tested five two-speed models. It found that switching from a single-speed, high-hp pump to a two-speed will generate approximately 55 percent in cost savings. Conversely, a downsized, high-efficiency motor will reduce an energy bill by closer to 15 percent.

Including a time clock, the incremental cost of a two-speed pump is $1,200 to $1,400. This gives the product a payback in less than two years, Fernstrom says. “It’s not an easy sell, hence the merits of state requirement,” he adds.

Still, most manufacturers will tell you that for a mainstream pool-spa combination, two-speed pumps can be a cost-effective, reasonable upgrade.

Industry pros ask…

How efficient are two-speed motors?

California’s laws seek watt reduction to use less power, but not to reach electrical efficiency, says Rob Stiles, product manager for pumps at Sanford, N.C.-based Pentair Water Pool and Spa. “Two speeds are inefficient,” he adds. “They will cut total usage of power on a pool site, but they do it by sacrificing a couple of things.”

Stiles offers the following example: Say a two-speed, 3/4hp pump running at 1,725 rpm uses 300 watts of power. A two-speed pump has a motor efficiency of about 30 percent, meaning 90 watts will be used to move the shaft, while 210 watts will be utilized to create heat. Other products in the market more effectively convert watt usage to move the motor’s shaft.

A.O. Smith Electrical Products Co. is trying to change the way these systems operate. “We are working on improving our low-speed settings to achieve higher efficiency levels than they currently have,” says Howard Richardson, director of product engineering at the Tipp City, Ohio-based motor manufacturer. “We’re pushing to double the two-speed motor efficiency, if not a little more.”

But Long of Golden State Pool Service likes two-speed models. “They’re efficient, simple and relatively inexpensive,” he says.

Will the cost of two-speed pumps hinder their sales?

The high cost of competing variable-speed pumps actually helps Long sell the two-speed options, especially when he mentions California’s looming Title 20 deadlines.

“The variable speeds will probably do OK in the new pool market,” Long says. “But until the price comes way down, I don’t see a lot of success for the variable speeds in the retrofit segment.”

Variable-speed pumps

The variable-speed pump product category has exploded onto the equipment scene in the past five years. But because it’s so new, hands-on expertise in the field is still limited. This has led to finger pointing among leading manufacturers regarding specific features, energy-saving claims and product installation concerns.

“It’s kind of underneath the surface, all this back and forth between the manufacturers,” says John Small, a member of Pool Power, LLC, in Woodside Calif. He and his business partner, Eric Walters, specialize in energy-efficient pool renovations.

“Everyone is talking ‘green’ today,” Small adds. “I’d like to see the manufacturers develop an attitude of what is best for the customer and the pool, rather than just going after market share.”

Mike Geremia agrees. “I have to believe that … when it’s all marketing, people are going to get confused,” says the president of Geremia Pools Inc., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Sacramento, Calif. “I would recommend builders try and test the products — even if you’re selling them at cost, just to get some experience with them. Hands-on is the best way to learn.”

So what’s all the fuss about? What exactly are variable-speed pumps? “In a sense, they are similar to push-button tuning on your radio,” PG&E’s Fernstrom says. “You can pre-program the station to any one you want. Similarly, with the pumps, you can set the speed anywhere you want.”

In essence, all variable-speed pumps have motors that can theoretically vary from 0 rpm to 3,450 rpm. Pentair’s 4x160, IKERIC’s signature pump, Hayward’s soon-to-be-released TriStar and Jandy’s pending model all feature four to eight selectable speeds within this rpm range. They include low, filtration-only speeds to top-line settings for added power.

Pentair also is promoting its Intelliflo variable-speed pump for its flow-control features. Rather than fixing the pump’s speed, you can set a specific flow rate — say, 100 gallons per minute. As pressure in the system builds, the motor will speed up or slow down to maintain a constant flow rate.

Manufacturers are careful to point out that variable-speed pumps are more than “multispeed.” “In essence, a two-speed is a multispeed pump,” says Mark Normyle, director of marketing for inground pumps and filters for Elizabeth, N.J.-based Hayward Pool Products Inc. “In theory, someone could come up with a pump with three fixed speeds. It’s more appropriate to call this generation of products ‘variable-speed’ pumps.”

Industry pros ask…

Would flow control be better suited for commercial installations?

There is much debate about whether or not flow control is useful in a residential setting. Ike Hornsby, whom some name the “father” of the variable-speed pool pump, says his models can be engineered to allow for flow control. However, he prefers to provide untrained service technicians and consumers with simpler systems.

“I think flow control is the greatest thing in the world for commercial applications, where they’re governed by the public health code requirements,” says Hornsby, CEO of IKERIC Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif. “[But] in the backyard, we would like to educate the consumer to clean their filter and not use more electricity.”

Some manufacturers agree. “Think of it as a light dimmer,” says Kevin Potucek, Hayward’s vice president of marketing. “If the customer knows exactly which button has the lighting scheme they want, they can easily return to it. If you’ve got a dimmer, how will you ever know when you’re back to that preferred setting? You don’t.”

Pentair, however, believes that flow control offers service techs and pool owners a great deal of flexibility. “Because everyday filtration in a pool is so dynamic, you need the ability to monitor and control flow,” Stiles says. “It’s like hiring a hydraulics expert to make constant adjustments to the system. The pump will give you what you need.”

Is a variable-speed pump too pricey for certain installations?

Compared with a low-hp single-speed or two-speed model, a variable-speed pump is a big investment. “Some builders sell low-cost, high-volume pools to middle-income families,” Gutai says. “For this target consumer, the higher cost of plumbing and higher cost of the pump could price some pools out of the range of this market.”

But manufacturers claim a quick ROI for homeowners. Hornsby says his pump’s ROI is between 12 and 18 months, depending on the region. Pentair says that at peak efficiency, the Intelliflo’s ROI can be one year, especially in California where significant state and manufacturer rebates make the products more affordable.

“Because of the initial cost, the service techs and builders need to get educated,” Hornsby says. “They need to show their consumers how quickly they can get their money back and how much lower their energy bills are going to be.”

Still, some builders aren’t convinced. J.R. Richard, CEO of Richard’s Total Backyard Solutions, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Houston, installs Pentair’s 4x160 on about 10 percent of his new projects. “As soon as the manufacturers start going national and advertise them, you’ll get a lot of consumers asking for them,” he says. “But I’d like to be able to sell them at a more effective price and make them more affordable.”

How difficult are the pumps — and their controls — to program?

One of the more expensive components of the variable-speed pump is the required controls. These systems have multiple settings and are more intelligent than those used for single- or two-speed pumps, so a simple timer will not suffice. Controls are necessary to simplify programming and monitoring.

“On the pump, you can see what speed it’s traveling at any time, what percent the filter has filled up and if the circuit has any problems. All of this can be conveyed to the homeowner’s internal controls,” Stiles says. He adds that some systems also will enable service techs to remotely monitor settings.

Stiles compares the control’s menus with those found on an average cell phone. However, some builders and service technicians have experienced a few challenges learning the technology. “These products were a quantum leap for everyone in my company,” says Geremia, who installs Pentair variable-speed products on nearly 40 percent of his pools.

“There’s been a learning curve at the installer level, as well as at our service level,” he adds. “Everyone in my system has to be educated on it, and it takes a little while.”

Pool Power’s Small feels the same way. “The Pentair product we’ve put in — the Intelliflo — is a complicated item. With the controls, it becomes a much friendlier machine. But because of the programming, it’s almost as if you need to take a class ... to become proficient in using it,” he says.

Small has successfully mastered the technology, though, and feels comfortable installing variable speeds on retrofits.

Is there any data to support the energy savings claimed by manufacturers?

Several studies have been conducted on two-speed and low-hp pumps by state agencies and utilities in California. However, until recently, little independent field research was available for variable-speed pumps.

Pentair and IKERIC state that their models can reduce energy consumption by up to 90 percent over a standard, single-speed pump. This is more the exception than the rule, though. “It’s usually 60 percent to 70 percent over a standard single-speed pump, with 70 percent being the average,” Hornsby says.

Replacing a two-speed pump with a variable-speed option also will achieve savings. “In our testing, we found that a two speed had an average savings of 30 percent over a single speed, and there was an additional savings of 30 to 40 percent when replacing that two speed with a variable speed,” Hornsby says.

Until recently, such data has been based on manufacturers’ internal product testing. In September 2006, however, Southern

California Edison embarked on a six-month field study of energy-efficient pumps. The report, which will be published this summer, describes a two-tier test at four typical residential pool sites. First, engineers monitored the pool’s energy usage. Next, they replaced the existing pump with a two speed and tracked its performance. Finally, they replaced the two speed with a variable-speed model.

“On one test site, the actual energy savings with the variable-speed pump was right at 70 percent. The others were at similarly impressive levels,” says Jim Hodge, a project manager at SCE in Irwindale, Calif. “Based on this research, we created an energy-savings calculator for our Palm Desert Project, where we want to reduce energy consumption citywide by 30 percent over five years.

“The calculator shows that there are substantial savings to be gained by switching out your single-speed pump with a two-speed or variable-speed pump,” Hodge adds.

What’s the difference between the pump motors?

The current variable-speed pumps on the market operate on different motors. This has led to significant debate over which product is safer and more suitable for the backyard.

Single-speed and two-speed pumps use single-phase electricity. Variable-speed pumps utilize a variable-frequency drive to convert from single-phase to three-phase electricity. Because most residential homes are fitted with single-phase electricity, the controller does the reverse conversion for a variable-speed pump.

In some cases, the location of the controller has caused controversy. Pentair places its directly on the pump for safety purposes, but some service techs, such as Resor, find the design difficult to work with in the field. Hayward’s new product and IKERIC’s model have mounted wall controllers, but this means the conversion from three-phase to single-phase electricity occurs over a few feet.

“There are heat and voltage spikes built into the controller to protect everything,” Hornsby says.

In addition, some systems use traditional AC induction motors, while others utilize permanent magnet synchronous motors adapted from the automotive industry. There are a number of pros and cons to each type.

For instance, experts agree that induction motors are widely available and operate efficiently at high speeds. On the other hand, they have low efficiencies with lighter loads. Meanwhile, a permanent magnet synchronous motor is highly efficient at all speeds and capable of high pull-out torque. Yet it also requires an internal drive that cannot be operated directly from a power line.

In the field, though, service techs are more concerned about keeping motors running smoothly. “Some motors are not happy at certain speeds,” Resor says. “When you have a certain number of pre-sets, you can find an appropriate spot without starving the pump.”

Do builders know how to properly plumb these high-hp pumps?

Most hydraulics experts agree that high-hp pumps, such as the variable speeds, require large plumbing to properly flow water through the system. Houston pool builder Richard has seen this firsthand.

“If you’re going with a variable-speed pump, you have to upgrade your pipe size to 3 inches,” he says. “A lot of pool companies don’t know that and will install regular 2-inch plumbing, so they’re not getting enough water to the pump for the high speed.”

IKERIC’s Hornsby agrees: “If you’ve got small plumbing, you need to dial the pump down to fit the hydraulics.”

Other manufacturers are concerned that the 3hp variable-speed pumps will flow more water than is safe. “A pool builder installing this pump on 2-inch piping must use caution,” Jandy’s Gutai says. “This is because the pump can generate a high flow rate that exceeds the minimum line velocity criteria for suction entrapment safety avoidance.”

To address this concern, Pentair says its Intelliflo will internally sense cavitation and automatically dial down the pump. The company also is working on an SVRS addition to its variable-speed models.

Are variable speeds a “one-pump-fits-all” solution?

Clearly, manufacturers believe in variable-speed technology as each of the leaders develops their own products. Yet there’s concern that the buzz around the category has given builders and service techs the sense that it is the only solution they should offer.

“We believe there is no one answer for all pools,” says David Nibler, vice president of marketing and new business development at Jandy. “There is a wide range of pump applications in the pool business. Our approach is to offer a variety of models that can be applied appropriately to the specific application.

“Of course, as energy conservation becomes more important, we should do anything we can as an industry to support it,” Nibler adds.

To help clarify the confusion, manufacturers are increasing their educational efforts by notifying their California dealers of the new law. Meanwhile, Pentair and IKERIC have developed training seminars in conjunction with state utilities to promote the rebate programs. Jandy and Hayward plan to launch similar seminars when their variable-speed products appear on the market.

“I think we’ll continue to see two tiers of options,” Richardson of A.O. Smith says. “A basic two speed can serve the majority of applications, but there will also be the high-end market for the variable speeds.”

In the end, builders such as Geremia will determine which products they prefer. “With the payback period they have, I think the variable-speed pumps are well worth the investment,” he says. “But, really, all the products work. Anything that’s going to save the consumer money and make the industry look better is good.”