Builders and service technicians report that upscale clients are actively seeking more advanced automation options, while middle-class consumers are becoming excited about entry-level control systems.

“We’ve seen a 200 percent increase in automation upgrades over the past few months,” said Steve Stubbs, president of Riviera Pools and Spas in Culver City, Calif. “We’ve seen our clients collectively spend more than $10,000 on control panel upgrades alone.”

Though not all pool professionals report such a drastic rise in automation purchases, many have noted that homeowners have become significantly more proactive about seeking out these options.

“Since last season, I’ve noticed about a 20 to 25 percent increase in customers calling our office and expressing an interest in automation,” said Les Greenfield, owner of Hydro Blue Pools in Phoenix.

Industry members agree that the trend is most noticeable in the Sunbelt, where utility costs run higher than in other areas. However, service professionals on the East Coast also say they’ve noticed a rise in the popularity of automation upgrades this season.

“I’m definitely selling more automation add-ons this year than last year, but it’s not really the norm in this area,” said Chas Bogardus, service manager at Budd’s Pools and Spas in Deptford N.J. Bogardus says that in his region, the improving affordability of automation, combined with customers’ increasing willingness to spend money they’d been saving since the start of the recession, seem to be working together to drive an increase in purchases of automation add-ons and upgrades.

At the less affluent end of the market, these upgrades typically take the form of small automation controllers, which can adjust several types of equipment settings from a central control panel. Customers are seeking out these controllers to automate a previously non-automated system. “We install a lot of low-cost basic remote automation systems with two or three auxiliaries,” Greenfield said.

Meanwhile, higher-end clients are making the transition from yesterday’s button-based automation controllers to today’s sleek touchscreen devices.

“Clients are not happy with a lot of the older automation systems, so we’ve been having a real run on the new ones,” Stubbs said. These customers are mainly driven by two desires: To integrate their pool automation with the rest of the property’s automated functionality, and to bring the simplicity of an iPad-style interface to their pool controls.

In fact, many of the latest systems can interface directly with a smart phone or other handheld device, allowing pool owners to take their control schemes on the go — an ability on which many affluent customers insist. “Most of my clients have become intolerant of anything that doesn’t have the intuitive simplicity of a touchscreen,” Stubbs said.

As might be expected, cost isn’t as much of a driver for these customers as it is for those purchasing the more entry-level automation systems. “The costs are 22 to 30 percent higher than the existing systems that many clients already had,” Stubbs said. “Clients are willing to pay more to get a more intuitive interface.”

Even so, energy efficiency has proven a major selling point for cutting-edge automation upgrades — particularly in the Southwest. “It’s been easy to sell those to our clients when we tell them how efficient the pump can be,” said Rick Chafey, owner of Red Rock Pools in Gilbert, Ariz. “And then to piggyback that with the level of control automation adds, we can really maximize the savings our customers can see.”