Getting customers to spend substantial amounts of money for improved pool electronics can be a tough sell. Modern digital setups allow pool owners to control water features, lighting and other accessories as well as pool and spa settings. This convenience hasn’t been enough to sell customers on the upgrade. But in some cases the economy has actually helped companies close sales.

“With the cost increase in everything, people have gotten more price-conscious,” says Eddie Porter, CEO of West Meade Pools in Nashville. “We’ve seen more of a push for conservation in the last six years.”

West Meade Pools has been able to capitalize on that. “It’s kind of a niche that we got into early on, and we feel very comfortable with it,” Porter adds. “Not a lot of other dealers [in the area] are doing it.”

Part of the reason Porter is sold on the idea of controller upgrades is because he saw the benefits first hand when he had a new system installed in his own pool. “I changed my pool over to a controller and two-speed pump, and it’s amazing how much less electricity it uses. I know I’m saving 50 percent on my pool electric bill,” he says.

Utilities giving rebates

Some electric utilities are granting rebates to customers for installing two-speed or variable-speed pumps, but the pump often must be accompanied by the installation of an appropriate controller.

In Phoenix, power companies APS and Salt River Electric charge based on demand which allows service techs to program their customers’ controllers so that the pool pump runs most when electricity is cheapest, usually at night.

Many local professionals have seen the benefits of new controllers.

“[Personally] I was saving $30 to $40 a month because I could run the pool for about four hours on high speed, and 10 hours a day at the wattage usage of a floodlight,” says Tom Good, service manager of Swimming Pool Service and Repair in Phoenix.  “It was very inexpensive to get the turnover necessary to keep the water clear on a very low speed.”

Good says his company is getting a lot of work from customers who are purchasing variable-speed pumps and the controllers to go with them.

The savings are real. A pool owner can reduce electrical costs by up to 75 percent by combining a variable-speed pump with a controller set for maximum efficiency, according to a study by the Center for Energy Conservation at Florida Atlantic University.

In Sacramento, some firms are seeing a decrease in digital controller sales because of variable-speed pump purchases that come with basic controllers. Many consumers are getting utility company rebates with the new pump/controller combinations. In addition, some have seen an increase in sales of units that control solar heating systems, which are popular in that region.

Solar controllers are used to regulate the temperature of the pool water. With no controller, the solar-heated water will flow into the pool whenever the pump is running, which might cause the pool to be too hot or cold, depending on climate conditions.

When paired with an electronic controller, a variable-speed pump can be set to deliver only the amount of flow needed to do the task at hand, whether it’s merely turning over the water for sanitation or running a pool/spa combination during a party.

Remote monitoring

The new controllers aren’t just saving money for customers. In some cases, they’re saving time for the pool service company as well. “I’ve got six units that we can take care of remotely from the shop, check the pH and chlorine, and we can diagnose it over the internet,” says Porter. “It saves trips for us, absolutely.”

Porter gets an email from the system if one of those pools is out of balance. He then calls the customer and informs them of the problem. “They appreciate the preemptive action. I think that’s a real good selling point.”

Some companies have customers who want to take control of their own pool. For them, a controller linked to a smart phone is the way to go. “I know for several customers, it’s their second home and they use it to monitor their pool when they’re away,” Good says. He reported that the remote monitoring came in handy for a customer who owned a rental house. The owner was able to keep an eye on the pool temperature to ensure his tenants didn’t use too much energy heating the pool.

Andy Huber of Complete Pool Care, a pool service and retail store in Semmes, Ala., says most of the controller business he has seen has been in the new pool market. However, he has done a few upgrades of older controllers to newer units, using a conversion kit.

The switchover is fairly easy. “It depends on how complex the programming is, but typically it’s something you can handle in half a day,” Huber says. Porter reports similar installation times with his customers.

For Huber, the still-recovering economy is keeping the upgrade business slow, but he sees it improving. “We’re just now getting to the stage where there will be a lot of remodels in the next year-and-a-half to two years, and I think that you’ll see some upgrades at that point,” he says.

Peach State Pools in the Atlanta suburbs does about six or seven upgrades a season, according to Mary LaHouse, vice president of operations. One of her most recent jobs came when lightning burned up a control board for a customer’s pool. “Replacing the board was so expensive, they just got a new system,” she says.

Others agree that customers often seek upgrades out of necessity. “We see it more as, when something breaks a customer will say ‘What are my options? Is there anything that’s more efficient or that makes it easier for me?’” says Cliff Chapman, owner of Allen Pool Service in Atlanta.

Those installing remote controllers do need to be aware that they’re dealing with radio transceivers. This means correct placement is vital. Manufacturers recommend that remote units be mounted away from large metal objects and within line of sight of the receiver.