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Extending the pool season for your clients no longer has to mean budget-busting energy bills. The last decade or so has seen innovations that improve pool efficiency, such as smartphone-controlled heaters, mechanical components designed to work together, and variable-speed circulation pumps. Propane can add value to pool building and remodeling projects too because it offers some key performance differences over a heat pump.

The Jandy JXi heater’s VersaFlo Integrated Bypass technology can run at a lower speed when the heater isn’t running, saving energy and strain on the pump.

When it comes to mechanicals, today’s components — pump, heater, and filter — are interconnected to achieve hydraulic efficiency. For example, equipment manufacturer Jandy’s JXi gas heaters have an automatic water bypass that skips the heat exchanger when the heater isn’t running, says Terry Doyle, product manager for Fluidra Pool Systems. “This allows the water pump to run at a lower speed while achieving the same filtration results.” It eases the energy use as well as the strain on the pump.

Pool temperature preferences have also shifted, Doyle says. “It used to be a standard of 82 degrees Fahrenheit was the most popular. But it has been changing over the last 6 years or so. We now see most pools in Florida wanting 86 degrees, with the other southern Sun Belt states going that way as well.”

In heating mode, the JXi has an 84 percent thermal efficiency rating and a low-NOx design. It runs on propane or natural gas.

For new construction, most pool companies are a one-stop shop for both pools and the equipment pads. However, propane provider Hocon Gas does a lot of pool heater retrofits in its coastal Connecticut market, either adding heat to existing pools or replacing outdated heaters that lack features such as electronic ignition. Although the region has seen an influx of natural gas in recent years, a lot of natural gas homes are maintaining their propane pool systems, says service manager Andrew Simon. “Propane is easier to keep track of and less costly in terms of changing the pressure system for the whole house and the requirement for larger meters.”

Features to looks for in a pool heater

While efficiency standards for gas pool heaters haven’t changed from the Department of Energy–mandated 82 percent in the last decade and a half, automation systems have made heaters easier to use, says pool contractor Marshall Weiner, COO of Longwood, Florida–based Holland Pools, which services builders and homeowners. “It’s nice, because in the old days, you’d have to come home and turn on the pump, or automation would control the pump but not the heating systems. Now you can set up for different hours or different heat.”

To raise the water temperature only 10 degrees or so in a warm climate, a heat pump is frequently the most efficient solution, he says. But for greater flexibility in Florida, Weiner installed a combination of a heat pump, propane, and solar panels to heat the water in his own 20,000-gallon pool and spa. These hybrid systems offer the best balance of efficiency and performance, although combining three heat sources has a higher upfront cost, he says.

There are several scenarios in which a propane or natural gas pool heater is more cost-effective than an electric heat pump or solar panels. It all depends on weather, climate, and demand. “If you’re looking for a quick heat-up, gas is the way to go because it puts out more Btus than a heat pump,” Doyle says. “The typical 400,000- or 250,000-Btu propane heater will always give you that Btu output, regardless of the weather.” By comparison, “the largest residential heat pumps put out 140,000 Btus but only under ideal conditions — 80 percent humidity, 80-degree water, and 80-degree air temperature.” That’s because heat pumps pull heat from the outdoor air. “When the temperature goes down, the output goes down, which is one of the downsides of heat pumps.”

Doug Hoffpauir, manager of Peoria, Arizona–based Propane Services LLC, explains the algorithm in the Southwest. “In the dead of winter, if you want to heat a pool, which happens a lot because people come from out of state to their second home or an Airbnb, a heat pump has to run 24/7 for five days and the water may only get to 62 degrees,” he says. “It won’t even get a spa to 82 degrees in winter. We also have time-of-day electric meters, so between 7 a.m. and, say, 10 at night, the electric company charges you more money.”

Propane pool heating may be even more in demand in the wake of the coronavirus as pool owners vacation in place. Hocon Gas began opening its Connecticut customers’ pools in early April. “With this pandemic, we’re seeing an early pool season, and the season may last quite a bit longer too,” Simon says. “That’s where these gas heaters will be more effective.”

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Cheryl Weber