If there’s one fact about automation on which almost every builder agrees, it’s that no two systems are quite alike.
From the first discussions with clients to the final training walkthrough, it’s crucial to maintain a clear dialogue about what features customers want, how they expect them to work, and what expansions are being considered for the future.
Throughout this process, careful planning can make the difference between efficiency and confusion.
Here, we talk with residential automation experts across the country, and walk through the general design and execution outlines of an automation project.
As many pool builders know, customers in search of automation tend to fall toward the higher end of the price spectrum.
This can be both a positive and a negative: While such clients are often flexible on the finer financial points, their standards are likely to be as high as the project’s price tag, especially if they aim to impress others with their new backyard.
After determining the project’s overall automation needs, it’s time to select a suitable controller. While some designers try to save on costs by choosing a controller with just enough slots, most professionals advise stepping the controller up a size from the required minimum, to leave room for future expansion.
“I don’t ever want a customer to need to purchase an additional controller in order to add an automation feature,” says Gary Minor, vice president of operations at California Pools & Spas Inc. in West Covina, Calif., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder. “Two or three additional spaces represent a fairly inexpensive step up, and they allow the customer to feel like you left them room to expand.”
Selling a customer on a controller with expansion room is easier than it might seem. Experts say that as long as the customer understands the usefulness of such an upgrade, they’ll rarely push back against it.
“The customers’ main concerns seem to be ease of operation and the simplicity of the controller,” says Greg Dolzonek, project manager at Johnson Pools & Spas in Huntsville, Ala. “They usually leave the rest up to us, as far as putting the right piece of equipment in there to control the features they’ll want.”
Once all the automation components have been chosen, it’s time to begin running wires. Though the project’s layout is typically finalized by this point, it’s still crucial to keep a few basic principles in mind while linking up the system’s circuitry. Taking a little extra time on the wiring now can help prevent a variety of problems down the road.
When running wires to the equipment pad, underground is typically preferable to over-the-top. “If the equipment pad is by the side of the house, or close to some of those outlets, some people tend to cut corners by running up the house and then over the balcony, then out to the source,” Minor says. Instead, it may be better to run the wiring right to the footing underneath the house. As Minor puts it, “anything that can be hidden should be hidden.”
If electricians are working on new wiring for the house or yard, it’s helpful to communicate with them about the pool system’s wiring scheme. “We don’t necessarily want to run wiring through their framework,” says Rick Legnon, president of Advanced Pools in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Instead, talk with the electricians about running wiring out to a spot where the automation system can pick it up.
This is also the time to ensure that expansions to the wiring layout will be as simple as possible for future builders. One way of providing for this option is to leave extra chaseways — empty channels for wires — in spots where future crews are likely to need them. For instance, if the clients choose to add a solar heating component, it’s probably helpful to leave empty chaseways between the roof, the controller and the breaker panel.
Future crews — and the clients — will also appreciate the convenience of easily accessible junction boxes that are wired back to the main controller. “What we’ll usually do is oversize the conduit, and we’ll run that into a larger j-box,” Legnon says. “That way, if someone wants to add a component later, all they have to do is get to one of those boxes and hook the new wiring into it, which will allow the wiring to run right back to that original controller location.”
After the entire system has been installed and wired together, the final step is to teach the clients how to use their new automation components. Properly educating the customers helps prevent service callbacks throughout the coming weeks — and more importantly, it ensures their satisfaction with the design by reassuring them that the system they’ve paid for performs all the tasks they requested.
As with the early design phases of the project, the primary emphasis here should be on simplicity. “The mentality of today’s typical buyer is, ‘I want everything to be as simple as possible,’” Legnon says. “A customer told me just the other day, ‘I want to touch one button and have everything turn on the way I want.’”
If the system has been designed from the ground up with that idea in mind, this desire should already be met; all that remains is for the client to press the button. Still, in the interest of avoiding callbacks, it’s worthwhile to run through a quick quiz with the customer to ensure that all the basic adjustments that might be needed are simple and intuitive.
In the end, automation design all comes down to a simple principle: taking a system of vast complexity and joining its components together under an easy, elegant control scheme.
“Customers today are mainly worried about aesthetics and ease of use,” Dolzonek says. Satisfy those desires, and even the most cost-conscious clients will be glad they upgraded to a cutting-edge control scheme.