In the 1980s, a newfangled contraption had many service technicians understandably nervous. Automatic cleaners, boasting a then-revolutionary technology that eliminated the need to manually brush and vacuum pools, were viewed as a threat to their livelihoods, and perhaps signaled the coming robotic invasion.
Of course, those fears were unfounded. Today, automatic cleaners not only make the pool professional’s job easier, they provide a source of revenue in sales and repairs as well.
So it could be again, depending on the reception of another technology that promises simplified pool care.
This time it’s coming from the land of all things hip and cutting edge, Silicon Valley, where venture-backed innovation labs are churning out all manner of so-called “smart” devices. Everything from toothbrushes to thermostats are now equipped with Wi-Fi sensors, allowing consumers to keep better tabs on their hygiene and exercise regimens and manipulate appliances remotely through their smartphones. It was only a matter of time before some of the tech hub’s brightest minds looked at a swimming pool and asked, “Now how can we manage that through an app?”
At least two companies are preparing to go to market with Internet-enabled, free-floating, chemical monitoring devices that take the guesswork out of balancing water. Sutro and pHin are two such products that continuously measure pH, chlorine, hardness and other levels and alert the homeowner through proprietary apps when something needs to be addressed, along with easy-to-follow dosing instructions.
Both feature a chemical delivery component, ensuring consumers have exactly what they need when they need it. In pHin’s case, consumers can subscribe to receive monthly shipments of treatment products. With Sutro, it’s buy-as-needed, either through its app or Amazon’s new Dash button, a small device that makes ordering supplies literally as easy as pushing a button.
That might not sit well with brick-and-mortar retailers who already are struggling to stay afloat in the Amazon age, so it’ll be interesting to see how many will want to stock these devices.
Service techs, however, have less to worry about. In fact, they could stand to benefit.
A solution for techs and homeowners
In addition to streamlining the water treatment process, the apps associated with these monitors promise to take the headache out of hiring contractors.
“It’s kind of difficult to find one that you can trust, that you know is going to do a good job and give you good rates,” says Justin Miller, co-founder and CEO of ConnectedYard, maker of pHin, in Palo Alto, Calif.
Both pHin and Sutro are building networks of qualified contractors that homeowners could tap into for occasional needs, such as equipment repairs and filter backwashes. In this way, the developers believe they’re helping bridge the divide between the DIY crowd and skilled professionals.
Techs, apparently, are seizing the opportunity to partner.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the inbound requests to be in the network,” says Miller, whose tech credentials include roles at Apple, eBay and Comcast where he was the founder of its Silicon Valley-based Innovation Lab.
For pros, both platforms offer customer leads and provide backend support to schedule visits, optimize routes and process payments, among other things.
This is what makes these companies a little different than anything the industry has seen in the past. They aim to please two masters: Consumers looking for easier ways to care for their pools themselves and service pros looking for more pools to take care of.
Not everyone, however, sees the appeal of marketing their services through an app. Some professionals prefer to grow their businesses the old-fashioned way through word of mouth and relationship building. That’s why Willan Johnson, CEO of Los Angeles-based Vivo Aquatic Group, which has a residential division serving major markets in California and Nevada, passed on an opportunity to partner with a startup that promised a pipeline to customers.
“If the app is providing the homeowner five different service providers and your company is one of them, that’s something that becomes less and less interesting,” says Johnson, a former Yahoo! executive who left the tech field to bring innovations to pool management.
That’s why he’s more inclined to develop his own mobile app that customers can leverage as part of an overall service package. “We’re more focused on owning that client relationship and building those tools ourselves, rather than outsourcing that,” he says.
Routine or sporadic?
Still, for the independent pro who just wants to supplement his route with the odd job here and there, homeowner/contractor matchmaking programs make sense. This, coupled with software intended to increase efficiency, could make booking gigs more manageable, developers say.
Conversely, it could also make it easier to throttle back on weekly site visits, if a pro chooses to do so. Some pool techs report a strong desire to transition out of the janitorial end of the business to focus on providing services that have more profit margins, such as equipment repairs and upgrades.This is especially true in the Sunbelt states, where weekly pool maintenance is being offered at rates so low, it’s pricing some techs out of the game. Using multiple platforms feeding quality leads could be a way to rise above the fray.
While professionals determine the best ways to navigate the so-called “gig economy,” there’s also the future to consider.
For some, arming consumers with an easy way to maintain their own pools is a frightening prospect, especially if the remote-monitoring technology that pHin and Sutro represent goes main stream. Can a chemical-monitoring device really replace the expertise of a certified professional?
In a word, no.
No matter how advanced things get, there always will be a need for weekly service — even at pools equipped with the latest gadgets. That was true of automatic cleaners, inline chlorinators and whatever innovations lie ahead.
“Every time you add anything automation-wise, what you’re really doing is increasing the complexity of the business,” says Bill Kent, Ph.D, CEO of Team Horner, a pool supplies distributor and equipment manufacturer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It just increases the skillsets required for the people who are going to support it.”
And so long as there is a large segment of pool owners who want to be completely hands off, you’ll have a job.
That’s good news, because Silicon Valley probably isn’t through with pools just yet.
The synergy between investors and developers tends to spawn all kinds of wild ideas. Sutro, for example, is funded by Bolt, a hardware incubator that’s investing in such things as a smart door monitor and a device that allows people to feed their pets remotely. These tech geniuses sometimes work under the same roof.
Collaboration is inevitable.
“You get so much conversation happening there … on how to get to market, how to build a business and what people actually want,” says Sutro founder and CEO Ravi Kurani.
Who knows what they’ll think of next. PSN