The days of energy-wasting pool equipment are numbered.

Manufacturers, utility companies and government agencies are working together to upgrade energy-sucking equipment pads with smarter, more efficient pumps.

Here, Pool & Spa News takes a close look at several initiatives underway that could have swimming pools humming with optimal efficiency.

Get ‘connected’

If your utility provider has ever cut the juice to your air conditioner on the hottest day of the year, it wasn't a practical joke committed by a bored electrical grid operator. It was to help preserve precious power.

In the early 2000s, utility companies were straining to provide reliable energy due to record numbers of air conditioners operating at full blast. So they initiated time-based rate structures, allowing consumers to curtail energy use during periods of peak demand, the obvious benefit being a smaller energy bill.

But homeowners still have the option to override the utility’s settings. And on a hot day, you can be sure many of them do.

If only there were some other, less noticeable appliance utilities could control remotely.

Enter the pool pump

“The consumer impact of managing that load is very low,” says Douglas Frazee, a consultant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program in Washington, D.C. In fact, a utility could temporarily shut off a pump and the consumer — most likely — would be none the wiser.

Try doing that with an air conditioner.

That’s why utilities are investing in pilot programs to explore the energy savings potential of pumps with what’s called demand-response capabilities. San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are field testing pump prototypes that feature smart-grid connectivity, which allows for two-way communication between the appliance and the power provider. That would present significant benefits to the utility company, chief among them: peak period avoidance.

These pumps also would be capable of sending and receiving signals to and from a home’s smart meter, which records the energy use of multiple appliances, such as a refrigerator and HVAC, and sends that data to the homeowner and the utility company. With a smart meter, the homeowner can, for example, adjust the temperature on a freezer or throttle down the pool pump remotely through a communication hub called a Home Area Network.

SDG&E recently installed 1.4 million smart meters in homes throughout its service area, while several other power providers are in the process of modernizing their grids as well.

While pool equipment manufacturers have products that can be controlled via a smartphone, pumps with smart-grid compatibility are not yet commercially available. But the EPA foresees that they soon will be. That’s why it’s establishing a set of criteria that pumps would have to meet in order to be listed as an Energy Star product with “connected functionality.” Meeting this “connected” criteria would go above and beyond efficiency standards already established by the EPA and, therefore, are not a requirement to receive the Energy Star seal. Rather, these optional features would make the product more likely to be eligible for utility rebates, explained Christopher Kent, Energy Star’s product manager for pool equipment.

A matter of meters: As of March of last year, Pacific Gas & Electric has installed more than 9.6 million SmartMeter gas and electric meters. The San Francisco-based utility provider is among several other energy companies modernizing their grids, allowing homeowners to control appliances remotely.
Christian Haugen A matter of meters: As of March of last year, Pacific Gas & Electric has installed more than 9.6 million SmartMeter gas and electric meters. The San Francisco-based utility provider is among several other energy companies modernizing their grids, allowing homeowners to control appliances remotely.

“Utility companies are interested in identifying these products for incentive opportunities,” he explains.

We’re already seeing how rebate programs are effectively nudging homeowners to swap out poorer performing pumps with the energy-saving variety. As these programs gain traction, the wheels are already in motion to usher in this new generation of pool pumps.

Let’s call it Pump 3.0

Pumps boasting intelligent, smart grid-compatible features will have to meet a laundry list of requirements for Energy Star to acknowledge them as worthy add-ons. The criteria are still in the works, though an initial draft written earlier this year gives a good indication of the capabilities of connected pump systems.

Here are some of the requirements.

Energy consumption reporting: The pump will send data, such as how much energy it’s consuming in 15 minute intervals, to the homeowner and authorized third parties (the utility) via a communications link. The homeowner also could receive detailed reports, such as how much it costs to run the pump each month and actionable steps they can take to scale back on energy use.

Remote management: At minimum the consumer should be able to remotely control the pump, a feature already available on select models.

Operational status: To better manage energy use, homeowners should be able to receive reminders to clean/flush the filter or a notice that the pump is operating outside its normal range.

Peak period avoidance: By default, the pump would be programed to avoid high-speed operation during a six-hour period that the utility experiences peak demand (generally noon to 6 p.m. in the warmer months). Not only does this alleviate strain on the grid, but homeowners who participate in time-based rate structures would likely see some cost savings.

Demand response: The pump would respond to a signal from the utility in one of three ways:

1. Decrease power. During peak times, a variable speed pump would power down to a third of its full speed or flow; a multi-speed pump would be limited to its lowest available speed, while a single speed pump wouldn’t be able to perform any pumping.

2. Stop operation. The utility would shut off the pump for a period of time. This would allow utilities to quickly relieve stress on the grid to avoid blackouts or brownouts.

3. Increase speed or flow, or operate for longer durations. This would be offset later by operating in a smaller capacity to avoid a spike in energy use.

The draft states that the pump would not be required to respond to any request that could jeopardize the safety of the equipment, and customers could override programing at any time.

So, which manufacturer is ready to introduce the industry’s first “connected” pump?

“Although all of the major manufacturers have products that have connected attributes, none of them would meet all of the Draft 1 criteria,” Frazee says.

While there remain some infrastructure details and regulatory issues to iron out, manufacturers are largely in support of the initiative.

“I think it’s really good for the industry,” says Jeff Farlow, program manager of energy initiatives at Pentair Aquatic Systems in Sanford, N.C. “It drives us to more sophisticated products.”

The EPA, working in conjunction with utilities and pool industry stakeholders, expects to finalize its connected criteria this summer.

Giving pumps more ‘flex’

Manufacturers may soon have the freedom to develop products how they see fit.

The California Energy Commission currently stipulates that pool pumps must have cap-start cap-run or permanent split capacitor motors, which are said to be 5- to 8 percent more efficient than cap-start induction run motors.

That’s always been something of a sticking point with manufacturers who’ve felt restrained by these limited design standards.

“They took a motor configuration and said, ‘You can only use this.’ In reality, the motor manufacturer could make a cap-start induction run motor, currently outlawed, just as efficient — if not more efficient –— than one of the allowed technologies,” Farlow says.

The agency now is proposing to amend its Title 20 energy-efficiency standard for pool and spa equipment to allow, essentially, any kind of motor configuration so long as the pump meets certain performance measures.

“Now that motor efficiency performance is actually being reported in the CEC database, we have a basis on which to recommend a performance standard,” says Gary Fernstrom, who was instrumental in developing Title 20 and now works semi-retired as a consultant for the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco.

The California Energy Commission currently is working with the pool industry to help develop new standards. It expects to publish draft regulations in August, followed by a series of public workshops to gather industry input.

Opportunities in auditing

A variable-speed pump is a highly cost-effective upgrade; yet, the pool has been overlooked by those whose very job is to identify energy-savings opportunities.

Home performance auditors are contractors who typically work on behalf of a utility provider or state-funded energy program. They assess a home’s power consumption and recommend products to consumers who are in the market for greener, cleaner appliances.

“Traditionally, their focus has not been on the pool,” Farlow says.

Efforts are underway for auditors and the pool trade to collaborate on energy conservation programs.

“We’re trying to help them understand how much contribution the pool can make to the home’s energy savings,” Farlow says. “If you look at how home energy is allocated, it’s a big slice of the pie. It’s an opportunity to reduce that slice to a sliver.”

That’s why it’s something of a coup for the industry that Energy Upgrade California is incentivizing homeowners to modernize their pool equipment.

Funded by customers of investor-owned utility providers, under the purview of the California Public Utilities Commission, the initiative offers a $1,000 rebate on every improvement project that yields a 10 percent reduction in energy use. (The program caps off at $4,500.) Projects must be considered whole home upgrades, meaning you have to make several improvements at once to be eligible. As an example, a homeowner can upgrade the HVAC, hot water heater and insulation, achieving a 40 percent energy conservation. That’s a $4,000 rebate.

As of this year, pool pumps are part of the equation, bringing opportunities for the trade to sell and install equipment.

California could be a launching pad for similar efforts. As home performance initiatives gain traction nationwide, Farlow anticipates more utilities broadening the scope of their programs to include swimming pools.

“The thing is we're at the table now,” he says. “We’re being considered in the scheme of a whole home energy retrofit, which is huge for our industry.”