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It wasn’t so long ago that the word “automated” referred mainly to cleaners and chemical monitors.

Today’s cutting-edge projects, on the other hand, are designed to perform all sorts of jobs with minimal human input. From maximizing pump efficiency to updating service records, an automated system can simplify almost every technical task.

“We have pH adjustment systems; we have salt generation systems; we have heating systems; we have very high-tech pumps,” says Rick Legnon, president of Advanced Pools in Rancho Cordova, Calif. “The convenience of automation means it’s standard for us now; we don’t even consider it an upgrade anymore.”

As more companies consider automation a standard feature, its benefits have become better appreciated throughout the industry. Here, we talk with pros in the construction and service sectors, and examine how their favorite automation products make their jobs easier.

Simpler construction

Builders find that the centralized wiring schemes of automated systems can make construction a much simpler process. Since a growing number of pool projects also incorporate a spa and deck design, such centralization of control is becoming not only helpful, but essential for many projects.

Scott Burton, president of Prestige Pools Inc. in Las Vegas, finds that being able to run all wiring to one board saves time and energy during construction. “Everything goes to one spot,” he says. “I like it vs. trying to put a time clock in, and different switches for all the other apparatus, like running switches for lights. If it’s all in one, I find it’s easier.”

A wireless automated system can make this process even easier for a crew. “We’ve been using wireless systems,” says Jeff Mossman, president of Mossman Brothers Pools Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. “So we don’t have to worry about running the conduits over to the spa, or running the wires into the house. It alleviates [a lot of] wiring problems.”

Even so, it’s important to bear one consideration in mind when wiring automation products: Keep your wiring schemes consistent across all in-house projects.

Bob Russell, vice president of pool services at Glen Gate Co. in Wilton, Conn., ensures that all his technicians are trained on the company’s automation wiring procedure. “Make sure that … remote No.1 is always, say, the pool light; and remote No. 2 is always the spa light,” he explains. “You can wire the same system in a hundred different ways; so in-house, standardize as much as you can. That way, you don’t have to spend the first half-hour figuring out how somebody wired something.”

Precise monitoring

Once construction is completed, the benefits of automation become even more apparent. Remote access and automatic reporting make it easier than ever for a technician to diagnose a problem — and sometimes even fix it — without having to leave the office. Thus, an increasing number of builders are making these products standard on all new installations, knowing that, down the road, the time and money they save will more than make up for the initial cost.

When Brian Morris gets a service call for an automated system, he checks its status from his own computer first. “People can call us, and I can log into their systems and read the salt level in their pool,” says the owner of the Phoenix-based company We Fix Ugly Pools. “I can read the temperature of their pool, or I can test their chemicals from a remote location — I don’t even need to be on the job site. We do that all the time.”

But those simple checks are just the beginning: The latest automated systems incorporate live cameras and uploadable programs, making many electronic repairs fixable at the push of a few buttons. “If someone calls up saying his waterfeature doesn’t work,” Morris says, “I can go in and turn on the cameras, look at my program, and see that waterfeature No. 4 is the one they’re having problems with.” Morris can then debug the program, check the results on-camera, and resolve the entire call without ever sending a tech to the site.

Then there are those customers who insist that nothing was fixed, even though a tech was dispatched to the job site. In those cases, Morris avoids any confusion by performing a few automated checks. “We know when [the system] was put into service mode, so I can just log in and see that: I can know the tech was there because they logged in and logged out.” And through remote access to the system’s chemical sensors, Morris can even monitor the exact changes his technician made to the water that day.

Sometimes, automated systems save human error from botching a job. One such system sent an email alert to Russell, who was able to resolve a minor mistake before it became a larger issue: “We got an email from one of our clients’ pools, saying, ‘The cord is disconnected from your jet pump,’” he says. “We went back to the site, and sure enough, someone had tripped over the cord and unplugged it. So that’s pretty nifty: We find problems before they become service calls.”

Greener energy

With the costs of electricity and water rising across the country, many in the industry think there’s never been a better time to take advantage of the savings automation can provide. Builders and techs agree that when automated controllers communicate effectively with a variable-speed pump, they can save a homeowner hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year.

“One of the things we like about putting in entry-level automation,” Morris says, “is that it helps simplify the operational programming of the pool, so we can maximize the efficiency and the energy savings that’s available through the energy companies here.”

Simply converting a two-pump system to a single pump can provide enormous savings, Morris explains. “Let’s say you have one pump that’s designed for a waterfall and one pump that’s designed for pool filtration,” he says. “If you take [the waterfall] pump out and utilize only a primary pool filter pump, it can have automated valves that are able to switch from returning water to the pool to using the waterfall. That pump can now deal with both jobs without having to worry about that extra equipment, and that extra electricity.”

A pool’s energy efficiency depends not only on the pump itself, but on the way it’s programmed to utilize its different speeds. “If you program it for a cleaning mode at 3,000 RPMs, and then for a circulation mode at 1,000 RPMs,” Burton explains, “you’re going to save energy by programming it for just what you need, rather than allowing the system to run wide-open for a full time frame.”

Thanks to the detailed efficiency readouts automated systems can provide, techs and homeowners can tailor a pool’s energy usage to their exact needs. Legnon works with his customers to develop an ideal energy plan for their pools. “[The system] allows the homeowner, from their wireless remote, to control the speed of the pump,” he says. “It’ll give a wattage reading, so they can see what the economy of the system is. It saves the buyer money [because] they can run the system for, say, a 4-hour cleaning period, and the rest of the time they can drop it down to a minimal flow.”

Saving money is only one side of the energy issue, though: As recent legislation mandates tighter controls on pump flow, automated variable-speed pumps are becoming an essential part of many projects.

Title 20 [energy legislation] is the reason,” Russell says. “Variable-speed pumps that can be programmed through your remote control are a huge thing right now.”

The customer’s choice

Perhaps the strongest argument for automated systems is the simplest one of all: Many customers have begun to request — and even expect — that their pool should be largely self-managing.

“As the price of these products has come down, customer demand has gone through the roof,” Morris says. “On every job, the customers want to know, ‘How can you make this easier on me?’”

Any technology that saves money and simplifies maintenance is likely to be popular with homeowners. But for Bob Moore, general manager of Burton Pools & Spas in Fort Smith, Ark., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder , there’s little doubt about the real reason customers love automated systems: “We talk about energy savings and better water sanitation,” Moore says, “but it seems to me that people purchase [automation] products primarily because of the convenience. They like to be able to control their lights and waterfeatures from inside the house.”

As Russell points out, even customers who aren’t as technically oriented are coming to prefer electronic controls over traditional systems. “Generally, people who are afraid of remote controls are way more afraid of going out and turning valves,” he says. “So I think a well done remote control system makes things extremely simple for them: Push the button and things happen.”

Though the technical nature of automated controls can initially lead to a few more service calls, Moore finds that in the long term, they make maintenance easier for both his techs and his customers. “[Sometimes] you’ll get some additional calls because they don’t understand how exactly to work their controller,” he says. “But on the other hand, when [customers] call in with a service issue, we can walk them through it on the phone and kind of tell them what to do. And that makes it easier.”