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Here's some good news: The hot tub industry has finally regained some of its swagger.
pHin is a water sensor that continually measures pH, ORP, and temperature. Once a month, the mobile app asks the customer to use a test strip, which it scans to access free chlorine, total alkalinity, total hardness and cyanuric acid.
Homeowners and/or service techs place the sensor in a pool or hot tub. Both parties can monitor water chemistry via smartphone or desktop. When water chemistry changes and needs attention, pHin tells the user what exactly is unbalanced and how to correct it. pHin offers a proprietary line of pre-measured chemical pods that ship directly to homeowners or service techs. When pool or spa water needs treatment, pHin tells the user which chemicals to toss in the pool. (For example: "Toss in two blue pods and a green pod.") However, recently pHin announced users are no longer limited to its chemical line, and can use whatever chemicals they like. If using Lonza chemicals, pHin will offer specific dosing information.
When the Uber app went live in San Francisco in 2011, no one knew it would grow into the global powerhouse it is today. Back then, it was just one of thousands of Silicon Valley innovations, each aspiring to offer something new and, to take a phrase from startup parlance, "disrupt" the marketplace.
Some might say pHin, the smart sensor that remotely tracks pool and spa water chemistry, also based out of Silicon Valley, is on a similar track. After two rounds of seed funding, pHin's parent company, ConnectedYard, announced in December that it closed $7 million in Series A funding, a milestone that merited widespread coverage, even from the Wall Street Journal. (For perspective, Uber raised $11 million in Series A funding.)
Even more notable is where much of that $7 million came from: Lonza, now billed as pHin's "strategic market partner."
All signs point to one conclusion: With a major chemical manufacturer on board, and a hefty investment to boot, pHin has established significant credence in the pool and spa industry and looks to be establishing itself as a permanent player in water care.
Here, we revisit pHin and learn what's new, what's changed and where the company plans to go.
When pHin made its debut, there was one big sticking point for retailers and service professionals: pHin units were only compatible with its proprietary line of pre-packaged chemical pods, which the company sells as subscriptions and ships directly to customers' doors. For owners of brick-and-mortar stores, the concept initially sounded like a threat to one of the most reliable sources of sales.
RELATED: A Close Look at the Smart Water Care Market
"It appeared to me to be competition, really," says Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas (Orland Park, Ill.), "…because we have a brick-and-mortar store and we service and we build, it concerned me that someone else is going to try and take away what little chemical sales we're able to do out of our store as it is."
Now, however, pHin devices no longer require the use of its proprietary chemical line. While the chemical line is still available to those who want it (via the pHin website), homeowners can now use the chemicals they've purchased from their local pool and spa supply store.
When pHin alerts the homeowner that the water chemistry needs adjustment, he or she can use a smartphone and scan the barcode on the chemicals they have on hand. If the chemical is made by Lonza, exact dosing information will be provided. (If the chemical is from another manufacturer, pHin will indicate what needs to change and by how much. For example, "Raise the pH by .4")
"We have reworked the system so we'll still offer our chemical subscriptions, and we think that's the easiest way for consumers to take care of their pool…But we've also designed it now so it works with the chemicals that customers can already buy in stores," says Justin Miller, co-founder and CEO of ConnectedYard.
As pHin's strategic partner, Lonza sees this as a big opportunity for its dealership base.
"Our customers will have the benefit of pHin recommending Lonza brands, which makes it an excellent tool to generate revenue," says Christian Wichert, SVP head of global water treatment for Lonza.
"Lonza had the foresight and the vision to look beyond the potential channel threat and say, 'Oh, this could actually be really, really good, not only for us, but for our dealers, our partners. Let's figure out how to work together to make that happen,'" Miller says.
Opening pHin to outside chemical lines also makes things easier for service techs (especially rookies), who can also use the bottle-scanning process for quick and easy dosing. (Or, of course, they can use pHin's chemical pods if they prefer.)
"There were a lot of service techs who were interested in our pods, but there were a lot of service techs who were also interested in just using pHin without our chemicals," Miller says. "And so it's really up to them on whether they want to buy pHin with the chemicals, or buy pHin without chemicals."
Currently, dosing suggestions are only available for Lonza products. However, there may be plans to eventually broaden the supported chemical lines.
"I think that's something that's open for discussion for the future," Miller says.
In the three years it has been around, pHin has rapidly evolved to meet the needs of its users — especially as it explores new channels on the trade side.
"Going into channels is kind of a two way deal. You've got to want to be in the channel, and the channel wants to have you," Miller says. "And so when we first started, there was obviously no demand from the channels to put us there. After [the industry] saw what we have and used it and played around with it, there's been a ton of interest from the different channels to have us there."
For example, the retail channel. As consumer awareness of pHin continues to grow, so too does demand from industry retailers. In response, ConnectedYard released pHin for retail, a device that has the same hardware and software as the classic model, but doesn't come with pHin's chemical subscription.
"[Retailers were] saying, 'Hey, we're really, really interested in this. We really want this, but we'd like to start with our own chemicals. And so we decided to go ahead and make that available for people," Miller says.
Naturally, Lonza dealers in particular stand to gain from the retail model; with recommended dosing for Lonza products, the retail model offers a new way for dealers to retain customers with regular chemical purchases.
"We think now, with this new model, it's a win-win for both the retailers as well as the customers," Miller adds.
In November 2015, pHin unveiled Pool Service on Demand, an Uber-like network that connects service technicians to homeowners who need help with regular maintenance or repairs. To use the service, homeowners visit poolservice.co or log into the pHin app and fill out a form that outlines what they're looking for. Shortly thereafter, the homeowner receives a call from a certified PSoD technician to schedule the service. (To learn more, revisit our August 2016 story: "Uber for Pool Service: Will On-Demand Service Take Off?")
For homeowners, PSoD makes it easier to get pool and spa issues fixed; for pros, it's a lead generation tool and a way to boost revenue.
As of August 2016, the network had 750 technicians signed up. Today, it's about 1,000 — though pHin expects rapid growth.
"Now, with the Lonza deal, we'll be adding their service techs to the network as well, which will obviously dramatically expand the size of the service network," Miller says. "…This is a big benefit and opportunity."
One service company that has signed on to the PSoD network is JFY Pools (Elgin, Ill.). The company was an early adopter and has now been on the service for about a year. Sales manager Nicole Ruble says she is especially excited about how her business has utilized pHin dvevices to monitor customers' pools, all without setting foot outside the store.
"We've actually dedicated a department solely for that on our service end," she says. "We've got a kid that works with us during the summertime; he's home in May and works until September. He's heading up the pHin department, and he loves it."
Once a week, Ruble sits down with her staffer to review the pHin-monitored pools and develop a route plan to take care of the service calls.
"He's a college kid, so he's tech savvy, he's smart. He's also a pool guy. So it worked out really well for us," she adds.
As technology continues to shape industry products — for everything from backyard automation to administrative tasks like record keeping and billing — Miller is working on ways for pHin to integrate with other programs.
"I can't go into specifics, but we have already started conversations with others in the industry about sharing data," he says, "so that we can make things much easier for service techs, homeowners and others to get a comprehensive view of not only their water chemistry, but everything having to do with their pool or hot tub."
When discussing the future, Miller is understandably coy. What he can say, however, is that big plans are in the works.
"There's a large roadmap. There's a lot of demand for pHin and a lot of new situations that require new features and new capabilities," he says. "…I think the future is very bright, and we're really looking forward to partnering with others in the industry to continue growing pHin and their business as well."
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