Rod Sterling is what you might call a true believer in the solar-energy cause. He’s the owner of Sterling Solar, a holding company that manufactures and distributes solar products, in addition to encouraging and investing in entrepreneurs that share his sunny outlook for the nascent solar-electric industry. You won’t find a bigger booster of solar today. Twenty years ago, it was a different story.
“In the middle ’90s, I was selling a lot of solar stuff for a distribution company I had,” Sterling recalls. “We were selling the hell out of it. The only problem was that none of it worked. Good marketing kills bad products, and we were bad at making the products.”
Years later, an equipment manufacturer commissioned him to write a white paper on solar and its potential in the pool industry. He took on the project, willing to have another look at the category despite his previous experience.
“After I wrote it, the manufacturer declined to move forward with it, but I saw technology had improved and it kind of piqued my interest again,” he says.
Now he’s back in the solar business, spreading the gospel of solar-electric power, or photovoltaics. Today’s products are better, he says, and consumers are embracing the widening array of devices offered by manufacturers, many of them small companies without long histories in the industry. But the trade, according to Sterling, has kept photovoltaics at arm’s length.
“Today, especially in the United States, the consumers are way out in front of the pool builders, retailers and service companies in wanting these products,” Sterling says. “The industry doesn’t want to take it on because it’s something new. And my fear is that if the pool industry doesn’t get behind it, then other people are going to take the lead on it.”
That scenario, he cautions, would likely equate to lost opportunity for the trade and a boon for companies without a real stake in the pool business.
“It breaks my heart, because this stuff really ought to be in pool stores.”
Rays Of Hope
One reason to be optimistic about solar-powered devices is the strong place solar heating holds in the industry. There’s a big difference between the low-tech passive-solar that’s used to heat pools (think water flowing through roof-mounted black tubes) and solar-electric, which supplies power for devices ranging from LED lighting and floating debris skimmers all the way up to wall-mounted chlorine generators and even pool pumps. The two technologies play well together, though, and attract a similar customer.
“It’s all about sustainability, about going green,” says Charlie Huntington, director, creative and brand, for Great American Merchandise and Events, Scottsdale, Ariz. GAME has long been involved in passive solar heating of pool water, especially for aboveground and smaller inground pools, but it recently began offering solar-powered-LED versions of its iconic Derby Duck and other floating products, including the Solar Globe chlorinator.
“These charge by day, then at night the ducks light up with white LEDs and the globe changes colors and rotates in the pool,” Huntington says. “We’ve been using LEDs for years, so that’s a core competency, and now we’re moving toward using solar.”
As cozy as the relationship can be between these small devices and solar heated pools, perhaps no photovoltaic pool product is better wedded with them than a pool pump that draws its power from the sun. That’s what they’re offering at Abernathy, Texas-based American West Windmill and Solar, the master distributor stateside for German-made Lorentz Solar Pumps.
“The beautiful marriage between them is that when there’s a lot of sunlight, that’s when you really want to be moving water through the filtration system, and that’s when your pump is going to be running at its peak,” says Cody Locknane, American West’s national sales manager. “A lot of people package the systems, but that’s not a requirement.”
But what happens when the sun’s not shining? The pumps won’t meet max flow, but they will still run at a lower speed. “That’s OK, as long as they’re still filtering,” Locknane says. “We haven’t seen any issues there. I’ve shown them to people on rainy or cloudy days, and they’re still running. People are always impressed by that.”
The pump was initially developed for use as a transfer pump in the groundwater industry, but American West saw its potential for circulating pool water. The technology has been around for 20 years, and Locknane and his associates are careful to point out to the trade that the technology is tried and true. As for questions about its capacity, Locknane points to Lorentz’s max flow of 1,365 GPM, many times the capacity needed to circulate water in a backyard pool. The company’s smallest unit moves 70 to 80 GPM, which will handle the average-sized pool, he says.
Locknane pegs the cost of the units between $4,000 and $5,000 for a typical installation. The cost is offset by two factors. First, there’s the energy savings. Customers in California, where the price of energy is high and the swim season is long, could see a return on their investments in about one year. In places where electricity runs at between $0.10 and $0.12 and weather shortens the season to just a few months, payback can take up to four or five years.
The second cost factor is the 30 percent federal tax credit, which is slated to remain in place through 2016.
Still, in an economy like we’ve seen the last five years, it can take a little coaxing to get customers to make the sizable investment in a solar-powered pump.
“When you sit down to explain it to them, there are two inarguable facts: it will always cost you something to run a pump, and the cost of energy will never go down,” Locknane says. “After you’ve reached the cost of the unit, though, it’s more or less paying you to own it.”
He says many residential clients have been able to take their pools completely off the grid because of the Lorentz pumps. Others use it in conjunction with an AC backup. In Hawaii, where electricity costs four times what you’ll find in some areas on the mainland, one homeowners’ association took its pool off the grid, saving roughly $1,000 per month on their electric bill. (For more on that pool, see “Nothing But Sunshine,” p. 53, January AQUA, or go to aquamagazine.com.)
Customers not willing to go completely off the grid have some other options for reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Solar Pool Technologies, for one, makes a solar-powered pool skimmer called Solar-Breeze, a device that skims across the surface of a pool and filters out fine debris before it has a chance to sink to the bottom.
The product, which Sterling’s company is invested in, is the brainchild of inventors Denis Rozsa and Terry Maaske.
“They had been involved in solar technologies for some time, and both were very interested in solar power and solar technology,” says Paul Sim, who is a partner with Rozsa in the company. “One day they turned their minds to using solar for cleaning swimming pools, and one of the obvious things that needs to happen to clean a pool is to clean the debris. They realized that the debris that ends up on the bottom usually floats on the surface for a few hours.
“So, why not get if off the surface before it sinks?”
After testing prototypes, they introduced Solar-Breeze in 2006.
“Then, as happens to many early-stage companies, they ran up against some challenges in bringing the product to market, and I got involved around that time,” Sim says.
Over the next few years, the manufacturer reengineered the product, which included replacing the motor with a more-efficient one and expanding the size of the solar panels to absorb enough energy to run the unit and recharge the batteries. Now, according to Sim, Solar-Breeze is able to run almost around the clock.
“We’re hearing from a lot of happy customers. They love it,” Sim says. “One thing they really love is that it eliminates the need to do any hand skimming. One of our customers coined a phrase for us: He said his pool is always ‘swim-ready.’”
According to Sim, customers have been able to reduce pump usage by as much as a half to two-thirds, since they can reduce reliance on their bottom-cleaning systems to once of week, or less.
“It gets you partway to a complete solar solution for cleaning your swimming pool, which is what we’re working on right now,” he says.
Solar-Breeze is sold consumer-direct from the company’s website, as well as through the Sharper Image and Front Gate, a national furniture, electronics and gift retailer. These channels are important for manufacturers of early-stage products like the Solar-Breeze – they help them gain market exposure and demonstrate market viability. Still, Sim and his associates long for wider acceptance by the pool and spa trade.
“We know that the traditional distribution channels are critical to our growth path over the next couple of years, and we’re working hard to develop those channels,” Sim says. “We will be in more traditional pool retailers this year, and hopefully that business will keep growing.”
Like Sim, John Stiglmeier, president of RecWaterTec, entered the solar industry from the marketing side of things. His company took the Solar-Clear, a solar-powered mineral purifier that was introduced to the marketplace 20 years ago, then improved it and provided some marketing muscle.
“I’m really trying to bring it more mainstream, because there are so many people who are conscious of solar energy and reducing sanitizer products in their pools, and that’s what our product does,” Stiglmeier says. “It takes solar energy and converts it to micro-current electricity, and through that process natural mineral ions are released into that water. Some of them kill algae, or reduce algae growth, and that reduces chlorine usage, sometimes substantially.”
And like Sim, he’s also disappointed by the industry’s slowness to come around to his way of thinking about solar-powered devices.
“I think the pool and spa trade has been slow to respond to innovation in general,” Stiglmeier says. “It’s just not an industry that embraces change. But things are changing, and the people in the pool industry who get out ahead of it are going to be the ones who’ll have the best opportunity to be successful. Consumers will drive this change.”
Sterling, for one, holds out hope that this change comes quickly. First, he says big equipment manufacturers need to change their thinking. If they’re afraid solar is a threat to cannibalize their current product lines, they’re not considering the full market potential of solar-powered devices.
“Nobody really knows the size of the solar market in the industry right now,” he says. “But I think it’s going to keep growing, because the heart follows the pocketbook.”
No matter what the rest of the industry does, though, Sterling is a crusader for the cause who’s not willing to sit back and wait for converts to come around.
“[Other manufacturers] always ask me, ‘Are your customers asking about solar?’ I respond with, ‘Well, are you asking them about solar?’ Pool guys aren’t always proactive, so you’ve got to guide them and direct them. But I’m convinced that consumers are going to be putting on more solar stuff – with the trade or without it.”
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Are Today’s Solar-Powered Pool Products Better Than They Were 20 Years Ago?
“When you look at solar technology, there have been a lot of improvements over the last decade, and even over the last four of five years. Photovoltaic cells have become better and cheaper. There are iterations and evolutions that any technology goes through before the effectiveness to the consumer and the cost-effectiveness make sense. I think we’ve gotten to that point with solar-powered products in the pool industry.”
Paul Sim, CEO
Solar Pool Technologies
“The efficiencies in the electronics and in the batteries have made a tremendous case for that. The technology just isn’t there yet.”
national business development
Barrett Kilmer, has been on the editorial staff of AQUA magazine since 2000. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and currently lives in Madison, Wisc.