Floatron for a Low Energy Pool

I recently did an energy audit of my house and discovered that my pool was a major energy hog. Due to the salt chlorination system we need to run the filter/chlorinator for between 2 and 10 hours a day to maintain high chlorine levels. We run it longer in summer as the chlorine gets removed by sunlight (even with stabiliser chemicals).

We use a salt-chlorinated system (common in Australia) where about 20A at 12V is passed through a special salt cell that causes chlorine gas to be made from the slightly-salty pool water. You dump a few 25kg bags of pool salt into the pool every year to provide the chlorine ions, the salt cell adds electrons to make dissolved chlorine. If you keep the chlorine levels high enough, it kills the algae that would other wise make your pool bright green after about a week.

I attached my power meter to the pump/chlorinator and measured 860W (200W for the chlorinator cell, 660W for the filter pump). Based on an average run-time of 6 hours/day that’s over 5 kW-hrs a day or around $300/year at my current tariffs. Added to this is a new salt-cell every 3 years (at $300 each) plus a legion of algicides, stabilisers, and other exotic potions from the pool shop. All up I would estimate around $700/year, plus maybe $150 for every “green pool event” which occurs if (well, when, actually) we are not diligent.

But it’s the 5kW-hrs a day that really bugs me. You see I want to install a PV solar array for my house that will generate perhaps 9 kW-hr/day total. No way I want to use a good chunk of that power on a pool we hardly use. That sort of energy waste is just so 20th century! To be honest I would be happy to cover the top of the pool and turn it into a 60,000 litre rainwater tank, but on a good day it does look kinda nice:

So I started looking around for alternatives to chlorine. Some Googling brought me to the Floatron. This gadget uses a completely different principle to zap algae – ionisation. Rather than using chlorine it injects small amounts of copper ions into the water, which apparently kills algae but doesn’t bother us much. The cool thing is that copper ions last for 3 weeks, regardless of how hot it is. This also means that the copper ionisation process can be solar powered, as just a minute amount of electricity is required.

The testimonials looked good, so I tracked down the Australian distributor and bought one. It wasn’t cheap, about $450 delivered. There was much “wailing a gnashing of teeth” over the price by my wife, sick of spending money on that (add choice Italian swear word) POOL, but I convinced her that if it worked it would pay for itself quickly. I was a little bit nervous about the purchase, I mean, if it’s that good why can’t I buy one in my pool shop? More on that question later.

So I threw it in the pool about 2 months ago and duly followed the instructions. As the copper levels built up I reduced the chlorine by lowering the time we ran the pool filter/chlorinator each day. So far so good, the pool is healthy and my energy use is way down. After 2 months I now feel I know how to manage the pool using the Floatrons ionisation method.

With the Floatron you still need trace amounts of chlorine (about 20% of what is normally required). As well as killing algae chlorine also acts to keep the water clear. Initially, in my rush to reduce energy consumption I reduced the filter/chlorinator run time to just 1 hour a day. However the pool water tended to be a little blue-green and cloudy (e.g. objects on the bottom of the deep end were fuzzy). Any sort of green in normally a sign of algae breeding madly, so there was a moment of panic!

However I think it was more a case of dissolved (but benign) particles in the water rather than a run-away algae event. I upped the filter/chlorinator run time to 2 hours a day and after about 3 days: clear blue water, about as good as I have ever seen our pool. The chlorine level was still very low (maybe 0.3ppm, way lower than 1.5ppm required normally), but the water was clear. Normally at this time of year (November) we would be running the filter/chlorinator 6-8 hours/day.

Now this management of the residual chlorine level gives me an added level of control. I could drop back to 1 hr/day on the pump if I wanted to. I would get cloudy water but who cares if I am not using it? No risk of an algae attack so I can rest easy. Then, if we have an imminent party or kid invasion coming up, I just up the run time to 2 hours a day to get clear water. I like having this choice – previously I was forced to keep the run time (and expense) up, waste power and effort, as if my pool ever went green it would take me 2 weeks and $150 of algicide/shock treatment to fix it.

This got me thinking about the whole salt chlorination system and business model, and the reasons why using ionisation (rather than chlorination) isn’t that common. I mean the Floatron has been around for 15 years, so why aren’t we all using it?

Think about a salt chlorinated pool. If something goes wrong, e.g. the salt cell gets blocked or you flick a switch the wrong way and you don’t notice for a few days you get a green pool quickly, as the chlorine level drops immediately, especially in hot weather.

The warmer it gets, the more quickly the the chlorine breaks down, so the more you need to run your pump/filter/chlorinator. We varied between between 3 and 10 hours/day over the year, more in summer if the chlorine levels were low, or if the salt cell was nearing the end of its life. Plus you have the expense of a $300 salt cell every few years (we have gone through 2 in 7 years). Being chemically-challenged and slightly lazy we always end up with 1 or 2 “green pool” events a year. This means a trip down to the pool shop, $150 worth of shock treatments, algicides, and much stress and head scratching while we work out what we did wrong this time.

There are other benefits apart from reduced energy costs. Running the filter and chlorinator for a only a few hours a day reduces lots of wear and tear on expensive equipment, perhaps as much as 80%. Using ionisation to kill bugs means less risk of the pool quickly spinning out of control and going green as the copper ions last 3 weeks compared to chlorine in summer that lasts just a few hours. Now all we really need to buy is a few litres of acid a month to keep the PH between 7.2 and 7.8.

So the Floatron is a great thing for a pool owner but a very bad thing for a Pool Shop owner. Just about every dollar we spend at the pool shop is related to chlorine in some way, for example pool salt, algicide, new salt-cell, stabiliser. It even saves on filter sand and kreepy-krawly (automatic pool vacuum) replacement parts as they wear in proportion to filter use. This works against the Floatron – what pool shop would stock a “product of death” to their other lines?

I have two minor criticisms of the Floatron. Despite paying for itself quickly I think at AUD$450 here in Australia it is too expensive. I would suggest something closer to the US price of US$270. Having said that I would happily buy another one tomorrow at AUD$450, just my gut feels says it should be a little cheaper. The printed manual is well written and tells you everything you need to know but is written entirely in UPPER CASE. THIS MAKES IT HARD TO READ GUYS :-) (note however the on-line manual from the Floatron web site makes good use of lower case).

So in conclusion I think the Floatron is a great product, and ionisation is a fantastic way of maintaining a pool compared to chlorination. I figure with energy prices rising the energy costs of luxuries like pools need more attention. Ionisation is low on energy, low on chemicals, less chance of algae, less irritants, and less visits to the Pool Shop!


Low Energy Pool – How I used an old salt cell and the Floatron to reduce my pool energy consumption by 75%!

Peak Oil

Yesterday I helped two other grown men push a small van up a slight hill. Together, the three of us moved it maybe 30cm before giving up. Have you ever considered how much energy is contained in a single drop of oil?

For the past few months I have been reading all I can about Peak Oil. The basic idea is that the global oil supply will soon (around 2010) be less than oil demand. As oil is so fundamental to our lives (all transport, manufacturing, fertilisers for agriculture) this will cause big problems. Some people think modern society will end (literally), others predict a global depression, and some the death of the suburbs as the world reconfigures itself for a low energy lifestyle.

Here are some common predictions that I rate as plausible:

  • Oil prices will sky rocket, like over $150/barrel, causing the price of everything to increase, i.e. high inflation.
  • Stock markets tumble as every stock is based on the assumption of continuing economic growth sustained by cheap energy.
  • Widespread unemployment as whole industries collapse, i.e. “demand destruction”. Starvation in less developed countries (no fertilisers)
  • People with very high debt levels (the norm in Australia) will be in deep trouble. Overpriced housing markets collapse. The “perfect storm” for a modern economy.
  • As the taxation base decreases the government will be less help. For example they won’t be able to fund a switch to renewables, pay unemployment benefits, fix blackouts.

After a few months of research I am convinced Peak Oil is for real. While I am not in the survivalist camp (I think modern society will pull through) my best guess is that there will be very tough times for the world economy.

A powerful DVD on the subject which I recommend is A Crude Awakening. A really good book is Half Gone by Jeremy Legget, which nicely explains both Peak Oil and Global Warming. Or just Google on Peak Oil.

Governments (except Sweden) are ignoring the problem. This means that if Peak Oil hits, we will be largely unprepared, as we will have squandered the time required to prepare for transitioning from fossil fuels. So it’s probably up to individuals and communities to do what they can to cushion the blow.

You know what scares me about the Peak Oil problem? As an engineer I am used to solving problems. Software doesn’t work, you fix it. Hardware bug? Start debugging. You know that there is always a fix, somewhere. Peak Oil scares me because I just can’t see the fix. Anywhere.

So I am thinking about what I can do to “kick the carbon habit” and prepare for Peak Oil. Tactics like reducing debt, an electric vehicle (EV) conversion, improving my household energy budget, re-arranging my stock portfolio, and getting a grid-connect Photovoltaic (PV) array for my household electricity. All good stuff, even if Peak Oil isn’t for real. More on this later.

I am also interested in the possibilities of using Free Telephony to help a post Peak Oil world. I figure if people are moving around less and have less money, then low cost, low power telephony based on open hardware and software may be very useful for connecting the world.
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Open Source Hardware

An important part of the Free Telephony Project is the idea of “open hardware”. The hardware designs that are being developed are being placed in the public domain under the GPL.

As a business model, it’s a bit of an experiment.

The technology being developed has very strong business possibilities – for example the ability to build a powerful IP-PBX for a couple of hundred dollars, much less than current IP-PBXes and even less than a low end analog PBX.

I have had to fend off several corporate dudes who wanted me to join them in ventures to make lots of money. It’s hard to turn them down but as I was not interested in “closing” the hardware they ran away fast. This makes sense if you want to build a large business, you need “secret sauce”. In other words: Intellectual Property (IP).

What I would really like is some sponsors for my work who can work with the open hardware concept, but so far they all want to lock up the IP. Which of course is the right thing to do if you want to make lots of money.

This has made me think through the concept of open hardware:

  1. I think open software has been a good thing for the world, so I think open hardware is also good.
  2. If closed IP makes a small amount of people a lot of money – does opening the IP make a moderate amount of money for a large amount of people? The latter seems a better outcome to me. It also suggests that open hardware benefits small companies more than large ones.
  3. I think the specific benefit of open hardware is lower R&D costs. This is what is happening with my project – there is a small team of people designing DSP boards, BRI-ISDN hardware, doing Asterisk ports etc. So far I would estimate about 5 man-years of hardware R&D I now have available for free. If I like I can now re-use this open hardware in my local market, potentially without hurting the business of my co-developers. There is a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.
  4. A common perception is that “if the hardware design is open, people will just copy it and put you out of business”. Well after some thought I disagree. A business is much more than just the product design – for example you need support, capital, manufacture, service, and relationships with customers. So even if the whole design is open, you can still build a nice little business (but perhaps not a $100M business). You can also add proprietary components and build on the open technology, or focus on your local market.
  5. My pet favourite – open hardware allows us to invent new business models, for example developing countries could build advanced telephone systems for cost price. This is so much better than buying technology from a first-world profit-oriented business that must charge a 70% mark up to cover their overheads. This is the business model behind the one laptop per child project. A $100 laptop is possible if u remove the overheads, use community input and sponsership for R&D and build volume. Well a $100 IP-PBX is also possible. Another benefit is that the hardware can be built locally (remember the hardware design is free) overcoming import tariff problems and building local industry. Combining these elements means lots of people getting connected cheaply. And that is a very good thing for the world.


I have had some great discussions on this topic with Rich Bodo. He has coined the phrase Intellectual Antiproperty on his blog.
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The YouBox – Hardware for YouOS

I have been following an idea I originally discovered in a Paul Graham essay about the advantages of placing applications on the web server rather than the desktop PC. Hot mail and Gmail are good examples. The application and the data for that application (your email) are stored on a server.

YouOS is an interesting development along this path – it is an entire operating system that runs on a server, complete with an IDE for application development and some really powerful collaboration models. One very powerful feature is the ability to move from one computer to another, fire up YouOS on the browser, and there are all your applications and data – just as you left them.

Looking into the future a little there will come a day where ALL your applications, and ALL your data can be stored on a server.

This transition seems to be already happening in some parts of the world. This point from the Ajax web site really interested me:

  • Web as the only Platform Thanks to the widespread adoption of public internet access, the so-called technology gap between countries and between socioeconomic groups is closing. Many people don’t actually own a PC, but do have regular access to the web at internet cafes or schools or friends’ homes. For this diverse category of user, there’s no point installing applications and keeping their data locally. The web is their only platform.

So we have a large number of people who use the web as a platform for economic reasons. YouOS will increase the power of the web platform. What would also help is lowering the cost of web access.

With YouOS the only application you need to run on your PC is a browser. Which suggests to me that you don’t need a PC anymore, just some bare-bones hardware with internet connectivity capable of running a browser.

One thought I have had is adding a monochrome LCD display and keyboard to an embedded linux platform (like the hardware in a WRT54G router). These little routers retail for $60, so must cost about $20 to build. Add a keyboard and LCD and you still have a device that still costs less than $50 to build. Then you would have a small, Wifi connected computer with plenty of CPU power/memory to run a browser, basic command line tools etc.

Combined with ubiquitous connectivity we have a YouOS-Access-Device (YAD? or maybe “the YouBox”) and can replace the desktop in many applications. In a laptop form factor the YouBox could be really light and thin and almost disposable. It would be very portable and lightweight and would use much less power than a regular laptop. It’s more like a larger version of a Palm. For a few extra dollars you could add sound-blaster type audio and the device is also a telephone.

I know there is a sub-$100 laptop project out there, the YouBox is another approach that uses the web as a platfrom paradigm to optimise the hardware. One advantage of the YouBox is that it can be put together in small quantities using off the shelf components.

The YouBox concept still has many questions – for example the need for an internet backbone to connect the YouBox to a server and also the YouOS servers. However these may be a little easier to solve, for example if one backbone/server can handle X YouBox clients, you amortise the backbone/server cost by X.

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