These days, many companies seem to be facing an unusual choice: “Go green” or go away. More and more consumers expect the products and processes they use to have minimal impact on the environment.

But which products actually deliver on that promise? Pool professionals throughout the country consistently named products within three broad categories: Variable-speed pumps, robotic cleaners and solar heating systems. Though these products often come with higher price tags, those who sell them explain that this cost is soon offset by the savings they bring.

Here, industry insiders share their top techniques for closing sales of energy-efficient products, and keeping conscientious customers coming back for more.

Variable-speed pumps

I’ve been selling energy-efficient pumps since they were introduced, but for the first few years, I had no personal experience with them. Then in May of ’08, I had a problem with the pump on my own pool, so I decided to go ahead and upgrade to the energy-efficient model.

Prior to putting in that pump, I was running my 2-hp pump for six hours a day. When I put in the new variable-speed pump, I doubled my run time from six hours to 12, and my first electric bill was down $100 from the month before.

I let three months go by, because I wanted to make sure the first month wasn’t just a fluke. But as time passed, I found that I was saving about $75 a month on electricity consumption alone.

So I said to myself, “I owe it to my customers to at least let them know about this.” And I sent a mailer out that said, “Look, we’re not just trying to sell you a new pump. This is what I personally experienced, and this is what I perceive my payback to be. And I think you owe it to yourself to at least look at it.”

I really don’t know of any other product that you can just replace, and see it not only pay itself off, but continue to pay dividends down the road.

In our showroom, I keep a variable-speed pump mounted right next to a standard two-speed one, so I can bring a customer over and say, “Let me turn off this noisy one,” and let them hear for themselves how much quieter the energy-efficient pump sounds.

I also keep laminated printouts of power bills from customers who have purchased an energy-efficient pump and filter. That way, I can show new customers that people who have purchased these products are seeing real savings every month.

I tell customers that I’ve bought many items for my own home that I was told would decrease my power bill — such as an energy-efficient air conditioning filter — but I never really saw a change. But when I installed the energy-efficient pool pump and filter, my power bill dropped by about $70 per month. I was really impressed by that.

Here in Palm Desert, we have a law that says that you have to have a two-speed or variable-speed pump with a digital interface that makes the best use of both the available speeds and times.

When I talk to potential customers, I aim to offer them a full return on their investment within 12 months. I do it with a thorough scientific evaluation and analysis of their needs, and a deliberative written response. I show them mathematically that the pump I install will pay off its own cost, through reduced energy consumption, in the course of a single year. If I can’t do that in 12 months, I don’t even attempt the job.

I have a 100 percent close ratio on my sales leads. When I show customers my scientific analysis of their system, and I say, “Allow me to reduce your energy bill by this much,” the pump gets sold every time.

Robotic cleaners

Electricity is a lot cheaper in Oklahoma than on the coasts, so most of our customers run their pumps 24 hours a day. One big selling point for robotic cleaners is that when you’re running one, you can turn off your main pool pump. A lot of new customers don’t realize that.

Robotic cleaners have a bag inside that collects all the debris, so none of that goes to the customer’s filter. That means they don’t have to backwash, which saves them even more on their water bill. They’re also saving money on chemicals, because as a robotic cleaner runs, it circulates the pool’s water — and the chemicals in it — more than a pump alone does. So you see fewer problems related to poor circulation, like algae and scaling.

So we pitch robotic cleaners mainly in terms of the chemical savings, and the amount of wear and tear they’ll save on the system. Most people don’t like running their pool pumps all the time anyway, because it’s so loud. So if they can turn the pump off at night and run a robotic cleaner instead, and they’re saving money on water and chemicals on top of that, it makes the pool much more enjoyable to own.

Solar heating

The thing about solar is, it’s the best application in the world for a low temperature gain at high efficiency. You can only heat a pool so much anyway — about 15 degrees above the outside air temperature — even if you put a heat-retaining cover on it, so there’s a limit to how much you can raise the temperature. I explain to customers that that limit is the same for solar systems, heat pumps or gas heaters.

I also explain that our state energy center says the minimum water temperature for recreation is 80 degrees. A lot of people who swim in the evening, with the sun going down, want a temperature closer to 85 degrees. Now, most of the swimming pools in Florida are inside a cage with a light screen around it, to keep the dust and bugs out. Without a heater of any kind, a screened pool will probably never have any days where the water temperature rises above 85 degrees. An unscreened pool might have about 30 days over 85. I explain to the customer that if that’s the temperature they’re shooting for, a solar system will add up to 200 days a year to their swimming season. That’s a dramatic increase, to say the least.

I normally start by showing customers a sample of the [solar] collector. And people say, “Is that all it is — just some plastic?” And I say, “Yes, but we put five of these collectors on a roof, which is over a mile of tubing.”

We’re sucking out all the heat that could be accumulating on that customer’s roof tiles, and putting it into their pool. And as soon as you put it in that perspective, they think of how hot their attics are, and they understand. In Virginia, I can go out in the middle of a 45-degree day, and the roof’s still 120 degrees. You can literally see the heat waves rising off the roof. So apart from the initial cost, solar energy is free heat.

The biggest hurdle for some customers is the thought of having all those black panels up on the roof. When that comes up, I say, “Well, let’s look at your roof — what do you see up there?” They say “Nothing.” And I say, “Are you sure? What about those three big galvanized metal vents sticking up? And the white plumbing vents?” They’ll answer, “Oh, I never noticed all that.” And I tell them, “After a few days, you won’t notice the solar panels either.”

The bottom line is, green technology makes people feel good, but what it really comes down to is helping them get more out of their investment. If I can show them a solar heating system will enable them to use their $30,000 pool for two more months out of every year, that’s a significant increase in return on investment.

As one of my customers put it, “If you don’t heat it, it’s just expensive landscaping.”