Remember that laptop you bought last year? Chances are, the hardware is already obsolete. Pretty soon, the same will be said of the latest pool pump.

Rapid technological advancements have infiltrated nearly every industry, from housing to medicine to publishing. For years, the pool industry was isolated from this trend, but not anymore.

“I feel like our equipment industry is heading in that direction,” says Vanz Steimle, distribution manager at California Pools & Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in West Covina, Calif. “Products are coming out and six months later, they’re last year’s trend. That’s good because it means we’re pushing that envelope and the ability to go farther with our equipment.”

At its most fundamental level, the equipment pad keeps a swimming pool running smoothly. In fact, a well-designed, efficient set of products makes maintenance a breeze and keeps the owners happy with their investment. Here, we examine six trends shaping the equipment pad market.

1“Core” equipment is more than the basic bundle.

For most of the 20th century, the equipment pad had two standard components: the pump and filter. Heaters were added to the mix in the early 1990s. Soon manufacturers were selling the three pieces as a single, cohesive bundle. While this trend continues, the majority of industry watchers say that the “usual suspects” comprising the pad are expanding.

“Today, the standard products are the pump, filter, heater, and now we’re adding lights and automation to the mix,” says Carlos Del Amo, vice president of marketing and product development at Pentair Water Pool and Spa in Sanford, N.C. “If the consumer is looking for cost reduction, they’ll take out a component. That’s a paradigm shift from before, when these were add-ons.

“It’s a whole different approach to selling,” he adds.

Steimle agrees: “As I look at what we’re distributing and putting on the equipment pad, the core equipment is now a pump, heater, filter, salt system or other alternative sanitizer — possibly a colored light, as well as a remote control and automation system.”

Still, people disagree about what today’s essential equipment includes. Some say that automatic cleaners are the most popular, with nearly 40 percent of new pools nationwide adding them. Others say colored lights, automated controls and alternative sanitizers now are the must-have items.

“Homeowners are busy, and those with the money and means to add convenience to their lives do so,” says David Nibler, vice president of marketing and business development at Jandy in Petaluma, Calif. “It’s following the same trend as home construction, where you used to have only an oven and sink.

“Today, consumers require the fridge, washer and dryer, dishwasher and microwave,” he adds. “Consumer expectations are higher.” (For more information on automation, see Remote Control.")

2 The pad is smaller, quieter and more attractive.

Concurrently with these changes, convenience has become a commodity. As such, the trend by manufacturers and builders is to make the equipment pad less cumbersome for service technicians and consumers alike.

“As much as we love our equipment, the consumer doesn’t want to look at it,” says Kevin Potucek, vice president of marketing at Hayward Pool Products in Elizabeth, N.J. “The consumer is looking for a less obtrusive equipment pad, so all the manufacturers have focused on how their products look, improving the industrial design.”

Builders are following suit. “First, it has to run quietly. Second, the pump, filter and heater need to look like they go together,” Nibler says. “So the gray pump, tan filter, white plumbing and fittings, and the PVC glue marks dripping down are going away.

“Builders are making the equipment pad pleasing to the eye,” he notes.

The driving force behind this movement? Local restrictions. As home lots shrink, municipal codes require that pool equipment be kept a certain distance from a neighbor’s home. Plumbing also must be painted to make it attractive and resilient to ultraviolet rays.

Simultaneously, the pad is shrinking. That’s strange, say some, considering that filters are larger and the number of pumps per project is growing. Manufacturers have managed to address this as well, designing taller equipment that fits the same footprint as 10 years ago.

“The basic principle in equipment design used to be functionality,” Del Amo says. “Now you have the element of aesthetics that you must satisfy in addition to functionality.”

Some builders have cut down the hassle of designing tightly compacted equipment pads by purchasing prefabricated concrete bases. Multiple 2-by-3-foot pads can be used to create the foundation for plumbing.

“The connecting points are more efficient and compatible. There’s tighter compaction between equipment,” says Jeff Fausett, president/CEO of Aquatech Corp., a buying group based in Huntington Beach, Calif. “These composite bases are becoming popular because they’re so lightweight and easy to install.”

3 Smaller heaters are the standard.

As the desire for a longer swim season grows, pool heaters — and heat pumps — are shrinking in size and becoming more popular. Manufacturers say heater sales grew 2.3 percent from 2004 to 2005.

“There’s a huge trend toward pool-spa combinations. About 65 percent of all projects have heaters because the pool-spa combo requires it,” Nibler says.

These heaters are smaller and designed with angled vent lines, minimizing their obtrusiveness.

“A heater today vs. 10 years ago is half the size with the same Btu,” Fausett says. “When pools were built 10 or 20 years ago, they didn’t think space on the plumbing side was so important. Now it’s imperative because lot sizes are smaller.”

Within the heater category, there’s been significant sales growth among high-efficiency models in the past two years. However, heat pumps have experienced an even bigger boost. Long the preferred heating choice in Florida, demand for the units is rapidly increasing in a number of other regions: the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Canada.

“The biggest growth area is the mid-Atlantic to the upper Atlantic states. It has a strong presence in Virginia and Maryland,” Fausett says.

What’s more, specific types of heat pumps that reverse to chill water are proliferating in desert markets such as Palm Springs, Calif., and Phoenix. When pools are too warm to enjoy, these units offer a solution.

“Smaller pools on smaller properties, shallower pools and darker-surface pools [that] heat up more seem to be creating the growth in chiller products,” says Bruce Aubrey, product manager for heaters at Hayward. “Just to knock 5 or 10 degrees off and get the temperature down from the low 90s into the mid-80s is worth it.”

4 In filters, bigger is better and cartridge is king.

In the past, projects required multiple filters to keep monthly maintenance at a minimum. Today, a single, oversized filter — up to 600 square feet in some cases — accomplishes the same task. As a result, filter sales in 2005 dipped slightly by 3.4 percent overall, according to industry data.

“The major trend is larger, larger, larger,” Nibler says. “It’s driven by the homeowner’s need to enjoy the pool more and work less.”

Simultaneously, builders design pools with greater efficiency and easier accessibility. Larger plumbing allows for lower water velocity, which makes servicing the pool easier.

In addition, cartridge is the preferred medium in many markets for the same reasons. “The cartridge business is taking a larger percentage of the mix between the three current types of filtration,” says Mark Normyle, director of marketing for pumps and filters at Hayward. “For all pools, including aboveground, cartridge is in the low 40 percent range, sand is in the low 30 percent range, and then DE gets the rest of that.

“Looking at it broadly, we see sand as still being the premier type of filtration in the Southeast and Midwest, whereas cartridge dominates in Florida and out West,” he adds.

Still, sales of cartridge filters fell in 2005 after a weak aboveground pool season failed to spur growth. Meanwhile, DE has seen a decrease in popularity, thanks to increased reports of droughts in the West and a higher level of environmental consciousness nationwide.

As a result, manufacturers are developing products that address these concerns. For instance, Pentair will launch a product this fall that gives DE clarity with a sand filter.

5 Projects have multiple pumps with a variety of speeds.

Manufacturers report that pumps grew 3.4 percent industrywide from 2004 to 2005. Driving that growth is an increase in the number of pumps installed per pool.

“It used to be 1.3 pumps per pool, and now we’re at 1.5 pumps per pool and growing,” Nibler reports. “More spas, waterfalls and accessories are being built, and so pumps are exceeding pool growth rate. There are now even specialty pumps — ones that are designed specifically for waterfeatures, for example. Those are seeing some significant growth.”

Russ Watters, for one, installs an average of three pumps on his projects. “I like to see different pumps for each feature,” says the owner of Watters Aquatech Pools & Spas in Las Vegas. “In our market, the in-floor cleaning systems are popular. Those, when they’re hydraulically designed, rob the valves of water.

“Multiple pumps solve that problem,” he adds. “It’s the best design for our customers.”

In such cases of multiple pump installations, each model on a pool is dedicated to a specific function. That way, if the booster pump operating a pressureside cleaner needs repair, another one will keep the vessel’s circulation running problem-free.

Another trend moving the industry in a different direction: multiple-speed pumps that allow builders to divert water, or increase or decrease flow to a number of applications, with significant energy savings.

“In California, they are mandating that energy consumption be reduced,” Normyle says. “And they’re encouraging it through rebates, the use of two-speed and other pumps.”

Indeed, energy efficiency is an issue. The variable-speed pump, which was only introduced to the pool industry a year ago, addresses those concerns. Yet it often costs significantly more than a standard pump. (See “Weighing the variables” for more information on variable-speed pumps.)

6 The future is environmentally friendly and energy-efficient.

Most industry members agree that the design and installation of pool equipment in the next decade will be dictated by environmental concerns.

“The consumer is looking at everything that is affecting them — the energy prices, increased costs of fuel and electricity, and global warming,” Del Amo says. “They want to do more for energy efficiency and environmental awareness.”

As a result, manufacturers have begun a process of increasing efficiency and operation, from selling more low-NOx heaters to developing better pumps. While those products are costlier today, consumer popularity and government mandate will increase demand and reduce the price of these products.

This trend also is forcing the acceptance of alternative products. “The cost of energy is rapidly driving us into solar heat,” Fausett says. “For years and years, it’s always been a niche market — the rubber-mat solar panels on the roof. We’re not trying to replace the heater, but to supplement it because of the high cost of fossil fuels.”

As the movement toward environmental consciousness continues, product innovation will follow. Steimle, for one, can’t wait. “The industry has changed so much in the last five years,” he says. “Our customers’ demands are greater. We’re starting to catch up to the technology out there.

“We’re on the cusp of seeing great growth,” Steimle adds. “I am absolutely excited about the future of pool equipment.”