The future of backyard automation

March 1, 2010

Anyone with an iPhone/iPod touch and the free downloadable App for swimming pool and hot tub control, coupled with Pentair Water Pool and Spa’s IntelliTouch® and ScreenLogic® control system, can enjoy the benefits of today’s technology.

By David MacCallum

Remote control of pool and spa equipment is nothing new. Pool owners have been able to check and adjust water temperature from inside their home for decades. The latest trend in pool and spa automation, however, is the explosion of in-home and mobile Internet use.

Not so long ago, only the earliest adopters had dial-up Internet access and they couldn’t even make a phone call while they were online. The growth of high-speed broadband access in business and residential settings is astounding and is only expected to continue expanding.

Today, the web has a limitless amount of readily accessible information at the consumer’s fingertips. People are surfing for all types of information such as stock prices, weather forecasts, housing options and news, while an increasing number of people also use the Internet for online banking, shopping and file sharing.

These trends, coupled with Apple’s development of the iPhone/iPod touch, have even brought forward new levels of remote control capabilities for swimming pool and hot tub owners.

Last summer, for example, pool designer and salesman Joe Urmos with Aqua-Tech Pools in Winnipeg, Man., met a fun kind of customer—one, who like his company, qualifies as an early adopter of new technology.

In working with the customer on their backyard pool environment, which included a swimming pool, large rock water feature and water slide, it became clear the customer was excited about the prospect of being able to remotely control several components, including water features, synchronized waterfall and landscape lighting and water temperature. He was even more excited about being able to use his iPod touch, rather than a separate PDA, which would provide fewer control capabilities.

‘There’s an App for that’

That’s right, there is an ‘App’ for the remote control of pools and hot tubs, which intrigued Aqua-Tech’s customer, says Urmos.

The free App can be downloaded from the Apple App Store by anyone with an iPhone/iPod touch and when combined with the IntelliTouch® and ScreenLogic® control system, developed by Pentair Water Pool and Spa, it offers several functions for pool and hot tub automation.

Initially, Urmos’ first customer to use the App was mainly interested in the ability to control his pool’s temperature and lighting. However, in addition to these functions, from the ‘circuits’ page, they could also control water flow to the waterfall and slide.

The iPhone/iPod touch interface offers several functions for pool and hot tub automation.

The App’s temperature control features allows the customer to turn the pump on and off to trigger heating functions and is compatible with gas/propane heaters and solar heating systems. The App can also be programmed to run a solar heating system on its own and if the demand for heat cannot be achieved, it will automatically switch over to the faster-acting gas heater to bring the water temperature up to the desired setting.

The App’s ‘history’ page is important for those concerned with energy conservation and cost savings, as it provides several energy management functions. For example, Urmos’ customer can review the pool, hot tub and air temperatures graphed over a period of time. They can look at data for a specific day, week or even month. It also provides the run-time data for the pool pump, lighting and solar systems. These data points tell the customer, for example, the percentage of time their heater was running, allowing them to evaluate and adjust run times if the pool equipment is operating longer than necessary.

This is considered the “Prius factor,” says Joe Lautner, vice-president of marketing for Home Logic, a company Pentair partnered with to develop high-end automation systems.

For example, the Prius and other similar hybrid cars offer a live display (on the dash) to show how speed affects mileage, which in turn help driver’s adjust their driving behaviour to save gas and energy,” says Lautner.

Similarly, the App allows homeowners to see where and when the most energy is being used. It provides data in an accessible format for monitoring and allows usage habits to be easily adjusted to maximize energy savings. The ability to access and simply modify the schedule is the beauty of the marriage between pool automation, remote control capabilities and the explosion of wireless Internet access.

Pentair ScreenLogic Video[3]
Pentair’s IntelliTouch® and ScreenLogic® control system, along with iPhone/iPod touch functionality, can be further enhanced to offer live streaming video of the backyard and swimming pool area.

Urmos says his customer may someday appreciate the history functions the App offers, however, his pool was completed late last summer (August 2009) and in Manitoba’s short swimming season, he really did not have much history to track.

“He was very keen on having the ability to control pretty much everything in his pool environment with a slick handheld device, especially because the equipment is located on one side of the house and the pool on the other,” says Urmos.

“For him, it was all about convenience. The ability to control everything wherever he was. And, when he’s not using his iPod, he can also access his pool functions from a laptop computer or a wall-mounted control pad in his sunroom.”

This type of automation and control can also make maintenance a lot easier, too. For example, should salt or chlorine levels drop, the system can automatically send an e-mail alert to the pool owner or service company to add (or buy/deliver) more salt.

Quick and easy download

Rob Pyrz, co-owner of Aqua-Tech, was involved in putting the finishing touches on the customer’s automation system, which included downloading the App to their iPod touch. Shortly after that, it was fully operational.

“The customer can select ‘kid’s party’ mode and the water slide kicks on, along with the waterfall, lights and everything else we programmed into that setting,” says Pyrz, who also helped the owner customize the setting names. “In ‘serenity’ mode the lights change and the flow to the waterfall tapers off.”

In addition to these custom modes, the iPhone/iPod touch can also be used to operate individual pieces of equipment. To tweak the amount of flow to the slide or waterfall in any of the modes, the owner simply adjusts it via their laptop or the wall-mounted panel.

“The owner does not need to understand the swimming pool’s hydraulics,” says Pyrz. “They just know they want more or less water on the slide or waterfall and it can be easily adjusted with this system.”

Live streaming video

This technology also presents further options for pool and hot tub owners. By adding up to four cameras and the optional video and lighting protocol adapter, live video of the backyard and swimming pool area can be streamed to the iPhone/iPod touch.

Although Aqua-Tech’s customer did not adopt this feature, it allows homeowners to keep an eye on their property with the ability to pan cameras almost 180 degrees. The cameras can also be set up to detect movement, snap a still image and send the file to multiple e-mail addresses. For example, if an unexpected person or animal comes into view, the camera will detect motion, capture an image and alert the iPhone/iPod touch user via e-mail to warn that something might be amiss.

At the same time, however, the customer can also use the App to access the system at any time to inspect their backyard.

The heart of the matter

The heart of the system is a protocol adapter, which is essentially the translator from an ethernet network (still the most common point of access for home Internet connections) to the pool control system. This adapter allows users with an iPhone/iPod touch, laptop or desktop computer to access the automation system over the Internet. It consists of a small box, which typically sits in the homeowner’s office near the DSL or cable modem.

The same protocol adapter has been used for many years to provide remote control capabilities when using devices such as customized wi-fi tablets, special PDAs or in-wall touch screen systems. When the iPhone/iPod touch was introduced, Pentair and HomeLogic developed an interface to work with these devices to provide another option for swimming pool and hot tub owners in controlling and automating their backyards.

A scalable solution

Homeowners who want to expand this system to also control home heating and air conditioning, lighting, security, sprinkler systems, etc., already have the basics in place and can make this upgrade with the help of a home automation dealer/installer.

The swimming pool and hot tub automation system also has the capacity to connect to an integrated home automation system by using a special adapter. If the customer also has ScreenLogic, which is based on an open communication protocol that is network- and IP-based, then the whole system can be operated from an iPhone/iPod touch.


MacCallum_HeadshotDavid MacCallum is the senior product manager for lights and automation at Pentair Water Pool and Spa, Sanford, N.C. He can be reached via e-mail at[4].

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