Monday, November 13, 2006

RUST NEVER SLEEPS

When I first started cleaning pools, back in nineteen hundred and mumble-mumble..., one of the first things I learned about cleaning pools was to know the difference between debris that you could vacuum out, and the stains that you couldn’t. You saved yourself a lot of time knowing the difference. Part of noting that set me to wondering why there were these little rust stains on the pool floor around all the returns. I asked the guy I was working for and he gave me the old civil service salute - a shrug of his shoulders - and told me not to worry about it. We were working out of his garage, both of us cleaning pools part time. Me, I was just trying to hustle up some extra Chirstmas money. I was sure pools were just a passing thing. I knew there was just no way I was going to be doing pool work even a year later. So, I followed his advise and quit worrying about it.

A year later, I was cleaning pools full time for another guy. Funny how life works.

He built pools, too. Had a pool store, a design office and a fading showroom with dusty tile samples and plaster plugs and even a hot tub - an old redwood hot tub - on display. Yes, it was that long ago. Tub O’ Gold was a big seller back in those days.

So, I asked my new boss, who was a lot more serious about taking care of pools than me and my buddy had been, why most of the pools had those tiny rust stains on the plaster near the returns. In those days, almost all plaster was white, and that made those rust spots really stand out.

His eyes started to roll back in his head until all you could see were the whites, and drool slipped out of the corner of his mouth. His hands began to tremble and I got the coffee cup out of his grip just in time, and he collapsed backward into his chair, gasping for breath. His mouth gaped open and I knew I was witnessing a man in the throes of a heart attack or someone about to Speak in Tongues.

Instead, he said, "Well, you see, it’s because these sons-o-bitchess who build pools for a living sell heaters on the cheap and won’t pop an extra hundred bucks for bronze headers. And the sons-o-bitches who build the heaters shouldn’t be sellin’ them damn cast iron headers to begin with. By God, I’ll tell you what, they oughta take the whole lot of them crooked bastards out and..."

Perhaps you begin to see where I learned to be, shall we say, critical of our industry.

My old Mentor taught me lots that morning, and lots more as the months went by. Once he saw that I was interested, he would take time out of his day every now and then to show me this and teach me that.

Like that day. He explained that the problem with cast iron headers is that they’re made of cast iron. Even though they have a ceramic coating over the internal waterways, they’re still made of cast iron. You know. Iron. Of Iron Oxide fame. Rust.

Problem being that cast iron and ceramic have a different expansion/contraction coefficient when heated and cooled. Pretty much cast iron expands and contracts, and ceramic doesn’t. Eventually, the ceramic cracks, them flakes away, exposes the cast iron to corrosive chlorinated pool water. The cast iron rusts, flakes away and gets blown into the pool via the returns, where it settles to the bottom and sets to making rust stains.

That’s all water under the bridge these days. Now all the heaters have space age polymer headers. Pretty much, anyway. And I think the few cast iron headers left are internally coated with a resin epoxy that expands and contracts along with the cast iron. And the rest are bronze.

But getting back to the pre-polymer, pre-resin/epoxy days.

When I left my old Mentor’s shop and went out on my own, I knew that when I got a chance to sell a heater, the only thing I was going to sell was a heater with bronze headers. No cast iron for me or my customers.

To me, that made sense. The builder might have screwed the customer by starting them out with cast iron headers, but there was no reason I had to perpetuate the situation by repeating that mistake when it came time for a new heater. In the builder’s defense, maybe he’d just been living under a rock somewhere and hadn’t noticed that every remodel he went to bid on had funny little rust stains clustered around all the returns, or maybe he’d never had a single conversation with a pool cleaner in his life and so really didn’t have much of a feel for what a pool looked like a year and a day after it was built, or maybe he just figured that the ceramic got him through a one year warranty and the heck with what happened on day 366.

My idea was, sell them a heater with bronze headers and a light acid wash, or new plaster if they were due, and you made it all better.

So, finally, my phone rang one day and it was one of my customer’s wanting a new heater. She was tired of just looking at the spa part of her pool/spa and wanted to start using it again. I told her my story about cast iron versus bronze and told her to just look at the stains in her pool to see what I talking about. She did and came back to the phone - they had cords on them back in the olden days - and signed up for the whole program; the heater with bronze headers and the acid wash.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the supplier next morning and asked them to load up a 400,000 BTU with bronze headers onto my truck and they looked at me and said, "Oh, bronze headers. That’s a special order. We don’t stock those. Everybody just sells cast iron."

"Even though cast iron rusts and blows chunks back in the pool after a couple of seasons?" I asked.

"Yeah. You want a heater today or not?"

I puzzled over that for a long time. I mean years. And I suppose I still do. Because none of it made any sense to me.

Cast iron headers weren’t as good as bronze headers, because they had that problem of eventually breaking down and blowing rust chunks into the pool. Granted, not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things. Just some small rust stains on the plaster finish. The heater still worked just fine. I mean, I never heard anybody say, "Gosh, I can’t heat my pool because the interior waterways of my heater headers are rusty".

But in my mind, it was still a problem. It was a misrepresentation, plain and simple. It was a manufacturer saying, "this ceramic coating works and it will continue to work for the anticipated life of this heater". When in fact, they knew that within a couple of years, it was going to start blowing rust chunks into the pool and marring an otherwise beautiful plaster finish.

It’s like knowing you have a problem going in, and knowing that the cost to fix the problem once it starts occurring isn’t going to be cheap - front and rear headers being just about the most costly parts to replace on a heater - and choosing to inflict the problem on your customer anyway.

It’s just like saying, "We’re a cheap company, with shoddy engineering practices and you can’t trust what we say".

Or, if you’re the builder, it’s just like saying, "I’m selling you equipment that’s built on the cheap, and as long as it makes it through the warranty period, then I’m home free".

And as harsh as that may sound, that is exactly the perspective that homeowners who have accomplished enough in life to be able to afford a pool think about you when, two years after the sale, their weekly pool cleaner guy tells them that the reason they have a bunch of stains on their plaster is because, even though bronze headers were available, the heater company chose to use cast iron, and the builder saved a hundred bucks or so and made a conscious decision to saddle them with the cheap headers.

In fact, their perception is even worse than that, because up until it’s explained to them how easily the problem could have been avoided - spending an extra couple of hundred bucks up front on a thirty-five thousand dollar swimming pool - most of them had been pleasantly surprised to find that the pool industry wasn’t the fly-by-nightmare experience that all their friends had warned them it was.

And then their pool guy tells them about the rusty headers and they nod and start to feel just like the guys at the office said they would, the guys who warned them that it would happen, that they would get screwed. It just took the screwing a couple of years to show up.

Why did we keep selling those heaters with cast iron headers? Is it because we just got so used to looking at those rust stains as we came up through the ranks from pool cleaner to repairman to remodeler to builder that we just accepted that those stains were part and parcel to having a pool and having a heater? Is it because we were afraid our customers would balk at the upcharge for bronze, even if we explained to them why they ought to get it?

I don’t know.

But I do know this. The Big Three can’t field a product that’s bad for your customers unless you help them. You may say that’s not true. You may say that they can advertise right around you and create the buzz that has your customers asking you for this or that product. And that’s true.

But you’re the Gatekeeper. If you say, "I wouldn’t buy that, and here’s the reasons why. Oh, and I have pictures in my office I can e-mail to you, too," then they’re going to believe you.

Because every time I ever told a customer about cast iron headers, when it came time to buy the next heater, they always bought bronze.

Like salt systems. If you have pools with damaged coping, take a digital photo and blow it up to 8 X 10 and show it to people when they ask for salt. If they want soft water, tell them to buy sodium tetraborate. If they’re tired of red eyes, and they have ten kids, tell them to buy a bucket of non-chlorine shock and shock the pool twice a week in the swimming season.

Soon enough, you’re going to need to have some answers for your customers about these salt systems. My customers with the weathered limestone and the ruined decks and the one with the dead pecan tree? What do you think I say to them when they ask me, "Why would they sell me this thing if they knew this was going to happen?"

Right now, all I can do is give them the old civil service salute and say, "I hate to admit it but... It’s the Pool Business".

Kinda like, "We have met the Enemy, and He is Us."

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