The maintenance-free conundrum
Ever since the introduction of mechanical time clocks designed specifically for swimming pool control back in the 1950s, automation manufacturers have been steadily producing technology intended to reduce the physical effort required to operate and maintain pool and spa systems.
Nowadays, almost every aspect of pool/spa operation can be automated. From basic circulation system operation, automatic cleaning systems, heater control, spa operation and chemical maintenance to filter backwashing, landscape lighting and ancillary water feature functions, both professionals and homeowners can manage their systems with the push of a few buttons.
Much heralded in recent years, that level of control has now been applied using PCs, smartphones and iPads, an evolutionary step that affords close to comprehensive control from virtually any location.
For all of that pioneering innovation, however, there remains a conundrum of sorts: The more automated functions one has, the more complex the control systems become — the application and management of which in itself becomes a design and maintenance challenge.
With that in mind, we decided to ask savvy designers and builders just how close they think they come to creating the Holy Grail of automation scenarios: the completely ‘maintenance free pool and/or spa’. The responses in the following discussion reflect both the acknowledgement that there will likely never be pools or spas that require absolutely no maintenance; balanced by the fact that today’s technology has nonetheless afforded giant steps in that direction.
First things first
As suspected, the first thing we uncovered is that even the most ardent proponents of automation technology embrace the caveat that no matter how sophisticated automation becomes, there will never be a completely maintenance-free pool or spa.
Jeff Freeman is an automation expert based in Southern California who has experience in product development from his tenure at Balboa Instruments as well as his independent work designing and installing automation systems. According to Freeman, although the industry has made tremendous strides in technology, pool service is in no danger of going the way of Dodo bird.
“We’ll never achieve absolute maintenance-free operation. That’s a given,” he says. “However, when you look at chemical automation, for example, the systems today are really good and getting better. In a residential application, you can dial it in and walk away for maybe a month at a time, depending on a variety of factors.
“But ultimately, everything made by human hands breaks down: In the case of ORP or pH control, the probes have a finite life and will have to be replaced at some point. Even before that happens, the probes have to be cleaned and the system will have to be calibrated, so even when a system is working perfectly there will be some maintenance involved. That’s just one example of how you’ll never remove maintenance from the big picture.”
Paolo Benedetti, owner of Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa (Morgan Hill, Calif), a widely known designer/builder of high-end custom pools and spas, agrees that the complexity of today’s systems continues to challenge the status quo.
“We’ll never be completely maintenance free because we’ll always have some device interfacing with the water. When you throw down this gauntlet where you theoretically have a fully automated, seamless system that not only allows you to program and run your pools but also maintains water chemistry, I believe that’s where the industry effort is going,” he says, but quickly adds, “We’re certainly not there yet.”
That said, Benedetti is among builders/designers who see automation as indispensable for any installation. Regardless of how simple or complex a project may be, he sees control systems every bit as essential as pumps and filters.
“I install an automation system on every single project,” he says. “When I tell the customer what he or she would go through without automation, it’s a no brainer. I explain how the valves work, and how leaving them in the wrong place could drain the spa or burn up the pumps, those times when you might get a call from your wife when the kids want to use the spa but she doesn’t remember where the valves go — I don’t think I’ve ever had a customer seriously think about not putting in some level of automation.”
Freeman agrees: “In most cases, people who still do things manually are going to get sick and tired of it and will eventually upgrade when they can afford it. With today’s remote-control technology, you don’t need to do things like run conduit in anticipation of upgrading, so that’s not really an issue. In that way, wireless remote control has really opened up automation to a broad range of clients because it’s easy to upgrade their systems later on.”
Levels of complexity
Indeed, the issue is not whether or not today’s systems should be automated, but instead how sophisticated and complicated control systems should be, a factor that largely depends on clients’ wish lists of features. With the advent of systems that require multilayered control beyond simple on/off functions, such as the control of colour in LED and fibre-optic lighting systems or settings for variable-speed pumps, the challenge of integrating automation systems becomes ever more complex.
According to Roger Soares, owner of HydroScapes (Scottsdale, Ariz), a designer and builder of high-end custom pools, “In my opinion, the most serviceable, maintenance-free pool there is really comes down to ‘less is more’. If you can limit automation to simply turning things on and off, it’s going to be far more serviceable and less prone to problems.
“Where you run into trouble sometimes is when you have to branch out and integrate multiple systems. Manufacturers do provide interface modules that enable one system to communicate with another. But when you get into these complex systems where you’re controlling landscape lighting, changing colours of pool lighting, multiple water features or even having to interface with home automation systems, it’s very possible you’re going to run into glitches.
“And that,” he adds, “can be challenging and time consuming for the builder and especially frustrating for homeowners who want everything to be simple to use and work perfectly all the time.”
Freeman concurs that greater complexity presents challenges when interfacing between different systems, but at the same time is encouraged by the progress most major manufacturers have made in recent years.
“Integrating more complex functions is relatively simple if you’re brand specific,” he says. “In other words, say you’re matching brand with brand. It gets a little bit trickier sometimes when you’re using brand A to control brand B. But even there, manufacturers are talking to each other and making those interfaces simpler. Yes, there is still some funkiness here and there, but they are getting a lot better.”
Benedetti believes control manufacturers still have a long way to go on the integration front, especially when it comes crossing the divide between commercial and residential applications.
“Compatibility of components is still an issue,” he says. “We’re not to the point where it’s plug and play across the board. I see this in particular when have a residential pool that’s using commercial components.
“To the question about automation that creates close to maintenance-free operation, there are systems out there that include pH and ORP, as well as automatic backwashing for sand filters, but those systems are still mostly geared toward the commercial market and are still very industrial in their user interface. I don’t believe that interface has completely crossed over into the residential market.”
Benedetti’s comment points to the area where these experts generally agree there remains room for meaningful improvement: the user interface. As mentioned at the outset, manufacturers have been quick to adapt their systems to work with today’s growing list of personal electronic devices. Yet the complexity of many of today’s pool/spa and ancillary systems has meant software engineers continue to be challenged to find ways to simplify system programming for the user while still accommodating the growing demand for multifaceted control.
“On one project, we had 10 lights in the pool and seven transformers for landscape lighting. It also had three pumps, a heater, blower, salt system, water feature lights and water feature pumps,” recalls Soars. “In that case, we went through something like seven software revisions with the control manufacturer to run this one project because they hadn’t ever done a system like that. From the client standpoint, they don’t want to have think about any of that. They want to centralise all their controls in one system.”
Of the three professionals quoted in this discussion, Freeman was the most positive in his assessment of the user-interface challenge, based in part at least on his personal experience working for a time on the manufacturer side of the equation.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time and effort looking at the consumer, and I’m sure that’s true of the other major manufacturers because when you work with different systems, it’s obvious that the technology continues to improve. User interfaces have gotten a lot better as a result of the miles and miles of programming that goes on behind the scenes. Sure, some manufacturers’ systems are still a little bit confusing, especially on the initial programming side of things. Some are more intuitive than others, but once you get them programmed, it’s going to be pretty simple for homeowners to make adjustments, in most cases.”
While Benedetti also agrees that advances in programming have improved user interface over the years, he believes there’s still an evolutionary step needed that would dramatically increase user comfort.
“I’d like to see a more interactive, website-based format where a homeowner can pull up an application in their browser and simply go through a bunch of simple formatting questions, answering basic things like, ‘What time do you want the system to run?’ and ‘What temperature?’ Their answers would be extrapolated into the programming software and the system just runs.”
That’s very different, he says, from having to go in and deliberately set all time clock parameters. “Yes, the user interfaces have improved, but the technology doesn’t exist at that intuitive level,” Benedetti says.
As for the aforementioned advancement into personal device applications, there does seem to be wide consensus that remote interfaces represent a huge step forward.
“I do like what you can do with a smartphone or an iPad,” Soares says. “We deal with a lot of second homes where we’ll install the module in the system so the homeowner can start heating the pool or spa remotely so they don’t have to wait when they get home. That’s a nice feature that many clients really appreciate. But again, the simpler the better. I suggest to clients that they use their phone or tablet to turn the system on or turn it off.”
On the service side of the discussion, Freeman adds, “That really has huge implications for service companies. If they upgrade their clients’ systems to include the online applications, they can dial up different accounts and make adjustments without having to go to the pool. That’s probably more widespread in commercial work where service techs can set their automation system to send a text if something isn’t right, say with the pool chemistry, as an example. Usually an alarm is saying, ‘Hey, come check it out,’ because there’s no substitute for inspecting the system in person. So even in those scenarios, you still need a human being managing and overseeing the pool’s operation.”
With all of these comments in mind, one can reasonably argue that automation, while always a work in progress, represents one of the best examples of innovation within the pool/spa and aquatic industries. How far the state-of-the-art will advance in the near and more distant future remains anyone’s guess.
“Right now,” Benedetti says, “the biggest disconnect I see is in integrating chemical automation into ‘out of the box’ automation systems, especially on the residential side, but that’s largely because residential customers A: don’t understand the water chemistry of their pools, and B: If a service company gives control of the water chemistry portion of the pool, it’s going to end up causing more problems because most homeowners don’t understand the relationship of pH to alkalinity, or ORP to parts per million of chlorine. That’s why, regardless of the work manufacturers are doing to improve their systems, service and maintenance are likely always going to be part of the equation.”
“One thing that will never change,” adds Freeman, “is that every body of water is different and will need to be treated individually. We’re never going to come to a place where one size fits all. In my opinion, have automation manufacturers come a long way? Absolutely! Is there room for improvement? Sure — that’s true of just about any type of technology. What does that mean for the future of pool and spa automation? I really don’t know because what we have today is pretty darn good.”
As for the original question about achieving a truly maintenance-free pool or spa environment, at least for now it seems fair to say that although the industry has come a long way from the days of the first mechanical time clock or chemical feeder, the human touch will, in all likelihood, always remain irreplaceable.
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Originally published here.
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