The environmentally-minded recent graduate realised that something had to be done. As luck would have it, a family friend happened to be an expert in solar energy studies, and Mr Boadle jumped at the chance to investigate this promising source of renewable power. He quickly realised that “it would be a good idea to be in at the ground floor,” and began experimenting extensively with solar power on his own.
During a public demonstration of one of his inventions, he was bowled over by the audience’s excitement – and by the flood of questions inquiring as to whether he could heat their swimming pools with the sun’s rays. “Virtually no one in Australia was heating swimming pools using solar in Australia,” he remembers. “It appeared as if I had a ready market.”
He immediately began manufacturing solar panels by hand in an old wool shed. The business took off, and Mr Boadle’s humble start-up soon grew to become Australia’s leader in solar pool heating and pool covers. Mr Boadle’s engineering partner, David Lindner, has been with the company since its early beginnings and has been instrumental in establishing its manufacturing processes.
Mr Boadle believes that part of Sunbather’s success is simply due to the fact that the sun is an ideal energy source for heating pools. “Using solar energy to heat a pool is probably one of the most sensible uses of it,” he explains. “All you are trying to do is to raise the temperature of the water by five or ten degrees to make the pool more comfortable.” The equipment needed, and the entire process, is extremely simple. Water is drawn from the pool to a nearby roof, then pumped through rooftop tubes that have been warmed by the sun. The water is then returned to the pool, ready for swimmers to enjoy.
The benefits are obvious. Warming the water doubles the swimming days each season. Solar energy is completely renewable and environmentally friendly. And, after the initial cost of installation, the system will continue to heat the pool for fifteen to twenty years with virtually no maintenance – for free. “It has always been the most cost effective way to heat a swimming pool,” Mr Boadle points out. “It is not a hard sell because it works.” Not surprisingly, sales skyrocketed throughout the eighties and nineties, and remain high to this day.
Strategies for Success
Sunbather has also utilised several long-term strategies that have been major contributors to the company’s success. Having a close knit management team who all share the same vision has been key. “We all wanted to build up a renewable energy industry,” Mr Boadle says of their early years together. “We were all passionate about that.” Frequent international travel has also been important in order to ensure that the company stays abreast of new industry trends and ideas. Frequenting other countries, Mr Boadle remarks, “certainly enabled us to import some interesting products and gave us confidence that what we were doing was world class.”
The company’s organisational structure has also been crucially important. “We are totally vertically integrated when it comes to providing the product,” Mr Boadle explains. Most competitors must rely on a third party to produce their product, “whereas we are cradle to grave here. We actually manufacture our own products under our own roof.” As a result, the company has complete control over its products and consumers know that they can trust the Sunbather name. “It gives people a lot of confidence that they are dealing with a company that is actually backing their product,” Mr Boadle points out. The business has also successfully retained its family atmosphere, with Simon’s son Tom taking the company forward as General Manager.
Manufacturing in-house has also enabled the company to be at the leading edge of industry innovations. In fact, innovation has been a hallmark of the company from the beginning. “We were absolutely relentless with early innovation because there were really no known [solar pool heating] products at the time. One had to experiment on the run, and if something proved to be successful it would be adopted, whether that be in the design of the equipment, the way it was installed, or the way it was sold. So we were incredibly innovative.” To this day, Sunbather enjoys a reputation as the most progressive and innovative solar pool heating company in Australia.
Sunbather has made a number of innovative contributions to the industry. The first was to introduce flexible tubing as a viable solar collector material in place of the standard copper or steel. Switching to the less expensive plastic provided the industry with much needed cost savings that could then be passed on to the consumer. “The industry would not have taken off if the cost of the collector had not come down dramatically,” Mr Boadle says.
The second crucial innovation was to pioneer a solar heating system that was simple and easy to install. This required working completely outside of a pool’s pumping and filtration system. An interconnected system is far too complicated for the mass market, Mr Boadle explains. The team worked with pool builders to educate them on the value of preinstalling a separate flow and return pipe in every pool they constructed, regardless of whether or not a solar heater was being installed. As a result, it became standard for builders to include the foundational plumbing needed for a solar heating system. “That got the concept of solar pool heating to the customer very easily. Then the builders began to include the solar heating systems in their contract. The pool builders became our best salesmen. Then we had massive growth.”
Sunbather’s next two major innovations were driven by aesthetics. In the late 1990s, people began to shy away from having an unattractive, black collector on their roof. In response, the company began manufacturing coloured collectors. “We sold very heavily on the concept that the solar collector could blend into the colour of the roof,” Mr Boadle remembers. “Because we were extruding our own products in-house, we could actually change from one colour to another very quickly. So if we got an order for a green solar collector, or terra cotta solar collector, we could produce it very quickly and install it because we were vertically integrated. That was a little bit more difficult for our competition at the time because they had to buy in bulk from a contract extruder.” Around the same time, the team developed a way to flatten the collector so that it was not nearly as visible from the ground as it had been previously. “That always put us a couple of steps ahead,” Mr Boadle reports.
The team also began developing pool covers in the late 1990s. Over 90 per cent of a pool’s heat is lost through its surface, Mr Boadle points out. “It was just common sense that if we were going to heat someone’s pool that it was not just about collecting the renewable energy, but also about retaining it in the pool. It was a no-brainer really.” Currently the company’s sales are about 80 per cent solar heating systems and 20 per cent pool covers, but the pool cover sector is growing rapidly. “We are very well positioned when it comes to providing complete energy management systems for commercial pools,” Mr Boadle adds. “In the last ten years, that has become a fairly important part of our business.”
Pool cover systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and more and more consumers are willing to pay top dollar for the highest tech cover. “People want the very best,” Mr Boadle points out. Today’s upmarket pool covers will even open and close automatically – a wireless remote control is all that is required for operation. These covers will also prevent water loss through evaporation, which is important both environmentally and for decreasing operating costs. Perhaps most importantly, Sunbather pool covers provide a unique safety assurance. “A dog or a toddler could walk right over them,” Mr Boadle reports.
Forty years ago, the solar pool heating market was a mere vision. Today, thanks to Sunbather’s innovative market leadership, Australians are taking full advantage of renewable energy to warm their pools. Mr Boadle estimates that at least 80 per cent of Melbourne’s pools have a solar heater attached. domain mentions Half of Sydney’s pools are solar heated, and around 20 per cent of pools in Queensland. Compare this to the solar pool heating market in, for example, environmentally conscientious California, where only 10 per cent of pools harness the sun’s rays. “Australia really does lead the world,” Mr Boadle insists. And Sunbather has been behind this leadership every step of the way.
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