Pool technicians: how to futureproof your job

Pooltrackr Limited

Monday, 19 March, 2018


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The Internet of Things (IoT) has enabled pool owners and managers to remotely monitor and control their pools. That automation enables pool systems to ‘make decisions’ independently and reduces the need for human involvement.

IoT technology is advancing at an exponential rate and artificial intelligence (AI) will take it to a whole new level. Customers today can do things like remotely monitor pool chemistry and adjust timers, while pools can even backwash themselves in response to high pressure. As the price of technology rapidly drops, it becomes accessible to the average pool owner. The question is: will we get to a point where pools can completely manage themselves, rendering pool technicians a thing of the past?

We’ve all seen the ‘Will a robot take my job?’ articles and wondered what the future holds for our profession. There are even websites that can tell you the likelihood of your job being replaced by technology. As an example, www.replacedbyrobot.info suggests there’s a 50% chance that pool technicians will be replaced — but its reality is not quite as clear cut. To do a true assessment, you need to break down your job into tasks and assess each component individually.

The real question is not ‘Will technology replace my job?’, but rather ‘Which parts of my job will be replaced by technology?’ So, what will a pool technician do in the future and how can you ensure that you stay at the top of your field?

Making an assessment

There are immensely complicated calculators and processes used to assess whether things will be automated, but it all comes down to one thing — what is the ROI? How much money will be made from the technology and will it be significantly more than the cost to build or implement it?

Here’s an example:

Say someone develops a machine that drives to a site and checks whether pool pump capacitors are operating at full capacity and — if not — replaces them. It would be expensive to build and operate and is likely to deliver low revenue levels. The upshot is a negative ROI, so the technology is unlikely to be built by anyone of sound mind.

Which parts of your job will be automated?

Pool servicing and maintenance can be broken down into a few key areas as follows. We’ve outlined the likelihood of each area becoming fully automated in the future, based on typical tasks and current versus future technology.

  1. Cleaning.
  2. Water chemistry.
  3. Repairs, hardware installations and maintenance.
  4. Dealing with edge cases.
Cleaning

Definition and tasks: Removing particles, leaves and debris, brushing walls, emptying baskets and backwashing the filter.

Current technology:

  • Pool cleaners remove debris and some also brush the walls.
  • Filters can backwash themselves when pressure goes above a certain level.
  • Baskets cannot empty themselves.

Future technology:

This technology is already fairly advanced, so the cost to build will be low, because improvements will just build on existing technology and systems. Pools can already clean themselves to a certain standard and filters already backwash in response to pressure. It won’t be long before pools will be able to clean themselves to the same level as currently provided by a technician.

Technology Remove leaves and debris, brush walls, empty baskets
Cost to build Medium
Cost to buy Medium
Potential revenue High
ROI High
Likelihood of build 100%
Time to full automation 2–5 years
Market saturation 5+ years

Conclusion: This is definitely the most ‘automatable’ component of pool servicing. The speed at which full automation achieves market saturation will depend on the time it takes to build the technology and how long before it becomes affordable and, therefore, appealing to the mass market.

Water chemistry

Definition and tasks: Regularly testing pool water and taking action to ensure the right balance. Actions include adding chemicals, changing sanitiser settings or even partially draining and refilling pool water.

Current technology:

  • Automated technology exists for basic chemistry such as ORP and pH.
  • Alkalinity and phosphates are more complex.

Future technology: Two things make building a system to test and treat everything virtually impossible:

  1. Many tests require the mixing reagents rather than the use of probes.
  2. Many of the chemicals are in solid form and cannot be pumped into the water without prior mixing.

Full chemical automation (based on today’s requirements) is unlikely to be made available to the mass market due to the following barriers:

  1. Upfront costs — technology capable of testing and dosing every chemical would be monumentally expensive to buy and maintain.
  2. Space — the area required to store and dose 20+ chemicals would require pool owners to build a second home to house the system.
  3. Maintenance costs — all systems would need to be professionally installed, maintained and serviced to ensure safe operation.
Technology Tests all aspects of water chemistry and takes action
Cost to build Very high
Cost to buy Very high
Potential revenue High
ROI High
Likelihood of build 50%
Time to full automation 5–10 years
Market saturation 10+ years

Conclusion: Given the current approach to water chemistry, full automation will most likely never be available to the average pool owner. However, we will certainly see this technology progress and a growing number of chemicals will be added to the automation list. The more likely outcome is a change in the approach to water chemistry, whereby new technology may negate the need to test or dose the long list of chemicals we do today.

Repairs, hardware installations and maintenance

Definition and tasks: Everything from installing a pump, to leak detection, to MPV valve replacement.

Current technology: This technology is basically non-existent. There are self-cleaning cells, but that’s about as automated as it gets. In the commercial space, there is technology that monitors hardware and identifies faults, such as impeller blocked or pump running hot etc. Automation exists, but only to slow the pump or kill it in the event of an issue.

Future technology: We will certainly see basic levels of automation in this space over coming years, but the focus will be monitoring and reporting, with action from a technician still required.

Technology Install, repair and maintain hardware
Cost to build Extremely high
Cost to buy Extremely high
Potential revenue Medium
ROI Low–Medium
Likelihood of build 10%
Time to full automation Unknown
Market saturation Unknown

Conclusion: The high level of complexity associated with automating installs and repairs means we won’t see a huge amount of automation in this space. With the constant development of new technology, an increasing amount of hardware will need to be installed, maintained and repaired. This is one aspect of being a pool technician which will grow rather than diminish in the face of new technology releases.

Dealing with edge cases

Definition and tasks: A rare occurrence or incident, such as acid washing, flocking or dealing with a tree that has fallen into a pool.

Current technology: Automation or monitoring solutions in this space are basically non-existent — and for good reason. These are rare occurrences and quite often are difficult to assess and manage. Therefore, the ROI on something in this space would be minimal.

Future technology: We won’t see any real movement in this space. Nobody will develop a device that identifies a fallen tree, jumps in, chops it up and places it out by the curb for pick-up. Even if someone did, no-one would ever buy it.

Technology Deal with edge case scenarios
Cost to build Extremely high
Cost to buy Extremely high
Potential revenue Extremely low
ROI Negative
Likelihood of build 0%
Time to full automation Never
Market saturation Never

Conclusion: Edge cases are, by definition, rare events and they are usually hard to fix. From an investor perspective, this makes for the worst possible automation scenario. While the nature of these cases will change, they will always make up part of a pool technician’s job.

What is the pool technician of the future?

There are a few key factors driving the evolution:

  1. Automation technology replacing certain tasks.
  2. An increasing amount of complex technology for pools.
  3. The increasing emergence of remote monitoring and control technology.

So... will a robot take your job?

Absolutely not! You just need to stay ahead of the curve, as some aspects of your job will become less important. Here’s how to ensure you remain relevant in an increasingly automated world.

Get training, repairing and installing: It’s important to cross train and to understand how to install, fix and maintain all equipment including pumps, cleaners and chlorinators. This technology will become increasingly complex, so you need to build a foundational understanding now.

Be an early adopter: If you see Internet of Things (IoT) hardware emerging, grab yourself a unit and offer to be a tester. Manufacturers will often provide this for free or at a reduced rate in return for your feedback. If this piece of tech becomes the next big thing, you’re already ahead of the game.

Educate your customers: Get your customers up to speed on the newest technological advances, particularly when it comes to the IoT. Those who roll out first will roll out best when the numbers start to grow.

Develop a suitable business model: IoT connectivity presents a significant opportunity to transform your business and create a very lucrative revenue stream. Start to model a remote monitoring solution with SLAs in place to fix things within an achievable time period. This is a great way to minimise seasonal revenue fluctuation, optimise your business and improve customer satisfaction.

Plan Price Details
Basic $
  • Remote monitoring
  • Notification on issues
Standard $$

Basic features plus:

  • Critical tech response — within 4 working hours
  • Non-critical tech response — within 2 working days
  • Monthly pool service
Advanced $$$

Standard features plus:

  • Fortnightly pool service.
  • Remote control of pool to optimise timers, pump usage, sanitiser optimisation, seasonal changes etc.
Pro $$$$

Advanced features plus:

  • Weekly pool service.
  • All chemicals supplied.

Have fun with it: The best way to learn more is to do it yourself. Grab a starter kit like a Raspberry Pi, Arduino or any of the many others available and build your own solution. For less than $100, you can build your own remote temperature monitoring solution. Take it to the next level and develop a device that monitors ORP and pH for a couple of hundred bucks... the possibilities are endless, so buy a kit and get designing.

The world as we know it is changing faster every day, with automation replacing humans in an increasing number of roles. Understanding how those roles will change, rather than fearing the change itself, will be the difference between staying alive or getting left behind.

Image credit: © stock.adobe.com/au/Olesia Bilkei

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