Five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled inspection data from public and semi-public pools throughout the nation. What the CDC found was disheartening. More than 21,500 pool code violations were documented during 22,131 inspections. Approximately 8 percent resulted in the immediate closure of a pool.

Why are America’s public pools in such disarray? The CDC report cited poor maintenance and operation due to untrained pool staffs as one of the leading causes.

Remote monitoring may help change this phenomenon. While these systems have been around for a while, part of their recent growth in popularity likely stems from fear of liability by pool owners and operators.

The technology allows service companies to monitor a pool’s water chemistry, flow and other variables from miles away via computer.

“It’s a fast-growing market, and it’s growing exponentially,” says Bob Hedrick, regional sales manager for controller manufacturer Acu-Trol in Auburn, Calif. “We are seeing more and more demand.”

Hedrick cites the city of Houston as one example. It recently put out a bid for remote monitoring systems for more than 50 of its municipal swimming pools. “[Remote monitoring systems] are being specified as a requirement for more and more aquatic departments,” Hedrick says.

Such technology does not come cheap. But as the price gradually drops over time, the systems may become increasingly commonplace. (See "Cost of doing business").

In this article, Pool & Spa News takes a closer lookat remote monitoring.

Dialed in

The most common form of remote monitoring employs some kind of modem system. Resembling a typical automatic controller, the device comes from the factory with the modem in place.

To set up these systems, it’s necessary to install a telephone jack nearby. Once plugged in, the controller will need to be programmed with alarm parameters and phone numbers. In other words, the pool’s acceptable chemical and pH ranges, among other variables, are entered into the controller. Note: Remote monitoring systems come from the factory with default parameter settings, but most service technicians like to customize them for each individual pool.

“You can control anything and everything in the equipment room,” says Stephen Neville, senior project manager at Aquatic Quality Assurance in Carlsbad, Calif. “For the parameters, you set the highs and lows, and the alarms are set at a percentage rate. In other words, it will activate the alarm if it goes, say, 10 percent above or 10 percent below [the preset parameters].”

Those parameters are usually based on variables such as bather loads, the number of kids who swim there, and local weather and landscaping issues. When the parameters are breached, the alarm is sent out to the pager and/or cell phone numbers that were programmed into the unit.

Neville keeps a laptop with him at all times. When he receives a page indicating one of his pools is having a problem, he turns to the computer. “Once I receive the page, I use the software that comes with the controller, and I can physically dial into it,” he says. “No matter where I am, I can bring the controller up on the [computer] screen. What I am looking at is exactly what I’d be looking at if [I were in the equipment room].

“I can also activate relays,” Neville adds. “Anything an individual can do on site, I can activate from a million miles away.”

This often includes correcting the problem without having to visit the pool in person, which is critical for most commercial accounts. “It eliminates their downtime,” says Todd Noesser, president of Aqua Blue in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “We get online, figure out the problem and correct it right from where we are. We can usually fix it in a couple of minutes. If pH is the problem, for example, you can [have the system] add acid.”

Sanitizer residuals and ORP also can be maintained remotely. But Noesser says caution must be taken because some problems may be the result of a broken piece of equipment, such as a chlorine feed tube that’s blown off. To account for an equipment malfunction, the chlorine feeder is turned on for a few minutes. If levels don’t start to rise, then Noesser knows a physical inspection of the pool and its equipment will be necessary.

The applications go well beyond water chemistry. These systems can monitor water temperature and flow — and even backwash the filter automatically when the pressure exceeds the parameters. (See "Looking ahead" for future possibilities.)

The systems have helped cut back on customer complaints, Noesser says. For example, if a pool begins to cool off, the calls come from the monitoring system instead of the client, and the heater is quickly adjusted.

No wires attached

While dial-up modems are the prevailing technology in remote monitoring, wireless systems are growing in popularity. “It’s telemetry-based, like a cell phone. You don’t need a modem,” says Scott Lake, owner/president of Aqua-Man Aquatic Services in Tucson, Ariz. “It’s Web-based, so you just go online. With a fee, you’re hooked up to the controllers.”

Those who sign up for the service go to a Web site and register. They’re assigned an account number so they can log onto the site containing their pool’s data. However, the pool owner or operator has limited access, while the service tech can see and do everything.

“We don’t want [the client] messing with the controllers,” Lake says. “If there’s a problem, though, they receive [an alarm] that something is wrong with the pool, be it chemical, flow rate or temperature.”

These types of systems are usually used for more complex accounts, such as hotels with multiple installations. For facilities with more than one pool and/or spa, it can be costly to run a telephone modem line for each vessel. Wireless systems eliminate this need and provide significant cost savings.

Wireless technology has begun to spread past traditional hotels and resorts.

“The latest trend is RV parks,” says Michael Diaz, owner of Berry Pool & Supply in Brownsville, Texas. “We have a large number of them in this area ... a lot of people who winter in Texas [with their RVs].” (For more applications, see “In the backyard”)

To install a wireless remote monitoring system, a review of the pool’s size, its equipment and water must be done first. The unit is then installed along with its sensors, acid pumps and chlorinators. Like the modem systems, the controller is programmed for chemical parameters, passwords and other options such as temperature control.

Similar to a cell phone, the system uses a subscriber identity module (SIM) card. The controller’s manufacturer is given the serial number, and it programs it into the system. Now when the service company logs in with the predetermined password, it has access to all of the controller functions.

“We get reports every 15 minutes as to the status of pH, ORP, temperature and flow,” Diaz says. “We visit the pool once a week to make sure the chlorinators are working and then take readings to make sure they jibe [with the remote system].”

Facilities that have signed up for the service become converts, Diaz notes. “One hotel here had gone through three heat exchangers on its commercial heaters in just nine months,” he recalls. “It was a problem with their water chemistry — way too acidic.

“We explained this to their servicepeople,” Diaz adds. “But it still wasn’t working because these were the same guys who were mowing the lawns and fixing the toilets. When we suggested [remote monitoring], they were leery at first. But they tried it for 30 days and have been on it ever since.

“They tell us they don’t know how they did it without this system.”