Sunday, May 27, 2007

Comments On The Comments

I was re-reading the comments from the WFAA survey about salt water damage to swimming pools. You can find the survey results here:

This was one of the first comments posted.

“First of all, a salt system is a sanitizing system, not a filtration system. It cleans the water chemically, with chlorine. The difference is the chlorine is produced by molecular seperation [sic] of the chlorine from the sodium once salt is added to the water. Secondly, water chemistry can be harder to maintain in salt pools, and those issues (especially low pH) are much more likely to cause corrosion than salt. Finally, people need to start taking responsibility for their property. It's too easy to say ‘I didn't know’ and blame problems on other people. Bottom line - if you're not willing to do your homework and put in some effort, you don't need to own something like a swimming pool that requires regular maintenance.”

It’s a pretty ill conceived argument for salt, and it points out how difficult it is to defend salt. They concede the first thing that I always like to point out about salt; that even though the reps say how easy salt pools are for the pool owner to maintain chemically, in their own words, “water chemistry can be harder to maintain in salt pools...”. Having conceded that, they try to move on to the assumption that, since the homeowner is incapable of handling this harder to maintain water chemistry, that it’s these issues, especially low pH, that are causing all of the corrosion issues.

Now, I want to speak a truth here, a truth I challenge you to disprove; you can Google salt and stone damage and get thousands of returns that cite salt damage to all types of stone and cementitious materials. If you click on those returns, you’ll read what I’ve been reading for nine months; salt damages stone and salt water splash out from salt water swimming pools has been cited from here to Australia as being THE REASON that stone and cementitious materials will show signs of aging within a few years.

Then, Google stone damage and low pH, and what you’ll find is thousands of reports that talk about, for the most part, acid rain being a culprit in the premature aging of stone, and they point out that acid rain in the US varies in pH from 3.9 to 5.6. Now, how much muriatic acid would you have to pour into a salt pool to, first, overcome the inherent high pH of salt pools, and then, drive the pH down to a range of 3.9 to 5.6? THEN, consider this; the same acid rain falls on salt pools and tab pools. How come only salt pools are showing signs of corrosion after one and two years?

It's not the pH. It’s the Salt.

Getting back to the Salt Rep’s - I mean, the pool owner’s - survey comment: After they blame everything on their fairy tale of running pools on a pH below 3.9 - a fairy tale designed to help them dodge any responsibility for the millions of dollars of damage that salt has done to swimming pools nationwide - they turn right around and chastise pool owner’s for not “taking responsibility”, summarizing that if folks aren’t willing to “put in some effort” then they just shouldn’t own a swimming pool.

As I’ve pointed out so many times in this blog, they spent years and years building their market by extolling the ease of maintenance of salt systems, and then when things go south, they blame it on the fact that “it’s hard” and “it’s your fault, not mine”. These are things five year olds say.

Then, there are several comments from pool service folks - who, incidentally, identify themselves as pool service folks - and they say things like:

“I have been maintaining\repairing pools on dallas for 17 years now and I have seen first hand the problems with stone, metals, and pool equipment as mentioned in your article. The LAST thing I would install on my oun [sic] pool is a salt system.”


“I take care of many salt pools and see how the salt destroys the coping and any rock that is near the pool. The salt eats away at mortar between the coping and rocks. Stay away from salt pools. “

And my personal favorite and no, I didn’t write it...

“I have been repairing and or servicing pool for over 20 years. I would not install a salt chlorine generating system on my own pool or any of my customers pools, and, because of my relationship with various manufacturers, I could have a free salt chlorine generating system on my pool. Come to think of it, I could install the nine month old one that is in the back of my truck that I cut out of a customers system on Wednesday because they could no longer stand watching their limestone around the pool perimeter disappear, and they new [sic] that their builders' warranty on the pool was coming up and had watched me replace 3 horizontal style auto fill mechanisms and 1 heater thermistor. It really is very simple. I work on pool equipment 5 to 6 days a week, the pools with salt chlorine generating systems are experiencing problems with metal equipment components at an abnormally fast rate. It does not matter if they have a good pool service or a bad pool service, if the homeowner is taking care of the pool or if no one is taking care of the pool. This is of course somewhat of a stretch because I do know that bad water chemistry is not good. I know some of the best service guys in the dallas [sic] area and they watch their water chemistry closely and it does not keep these same parts from failing. We are now being asked by a manufacturer to put zinc balls in our pump baskets to deflect the damage away from the other metals in the equipment. We are now being approached by salesman pushing stone sealers. Heater manufacturers are changing their heat exchanger material (they need to figure a way to put thermistors in dry wells). Builders are asking homeowners to sign damage waivers before they will sell/install a salt system. What? There is not an issue with these systems? Water does feel better when it has a water softener, and your eyes may not get so irritated in a salt environment. I have a customer that we just replaced a 4 year old heater. He told me he loved the water conditions so much he would buy a new heater every 4 years if that is what it took. I hope he never loses my card. Come to think of it, I love salt systems, my family loves salt systems. Know the whole story before you put one of these profit centers on your pool.”

These folks all pretty much agree that salt’s the worst thing they’ve seen come down the pike in their careers in the pool business. They have that in common. The other thing they have in common is that they can spell and write a lucid sentence. Perhaps it points to the fact that those with a brain in their head and decent powers of observation can pretty readily see that salt is harming our swimming pools.

Their opinions are sharply contrasted, in every way possible, by this comment from a “pool-contractor [sic] and service provider” who appears to blame it all on untrained salesmen and lazy consumers, a rationalization which allows him to continue to offer salt systems for sale:

“As a pool-contractor [sic] and service provider, we have offered "Chlorine Generators" (Salt) since the early 80's. Corrosive conditions exist in all water, dependent largly [sic] on the degree the water is unballanced [sic]. For example: unbalanced water created the Grand Canyon". Unbalanced water chemistry will be devistating [sic] on everything around a swimming pool. As corrision [sic] is more pronounced with salt added, the ability of the customers level to understand the issue, generaly [sic] dictates "IF" we recomend [sic] a Chlorine Generator, or-not [sic]. For many applications a Clorine [sic] Generator is an excelent [sic] choice. In Australia where most of todays [sic] salt technoligy [sic] evolves, much of the tap-water already has high salt content.These devices will-in-fact operate effortlesy [sic] and efficently [sic]with proper water chemistry balance "FOR A WHILE", only to require water re-balancing in a week or so. Unfortunantly [sic], many commision [sic] based salesmen remain untrained in water chemistry at all and offer these miniture [sic] chlorine "Manufacturing plants" as a solve-all, maintence-free [sic], do-it-all solution to consumer desires to efficently [sic] neglect the pool, while keeping their water pristine. Numerious [sic] pool maintence [sic] providers remained sufficantly [sic] untrained in water chemistry,as well. Money purportadly [sic] saved per not buying chlorine is overshadowed with routine equipment and surrounding pool-surface MAINTANCE [SIC]. IN SUMMARY: Untrained individuals should-not [sic] utilize Chlorine Generatoring [my favorite sic of all] plants, of any size.”

And you have no idea how hard it is right now to restrain myself. I mean, you read the last paragraph! You see how easy it would be! It’s like being given half an hour at the free throw line to sink as many as you want. And they all count!

But, there’s been a recent spate of criticism’s of my style, for my penchant of making fun of people who disagree with my point of view. There’s even been one trite little column in a throw-away newsletter dedicated to slamming me and pronouncing that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Now, anybody who didn’t sleep through World History in high school will remember that’s pretty much how the Fascists came to power.

Oh, damn! I did it again! Was that rude? Pardon me. Or is it bite me? I forget which.

I guess where I’m going here is that I can’t believe that I’ve become the Bad Guy. I can’t believe that after all the damage the salt manufacturers have done to our pools, to our pocket books and to our collective reputations, after the throughly irresponsible way that they introduced their salt systems without a word of caution or warning or even a glancing nod to any installation guidelines or potential material incompatibility, that all of that gets set aside because The Pool Guy said something bad about a California builder?

Because that’s what they’re keying on right now. It’s nothing more than, “Hey! Look over there!” while they keep hiding from the fact that they’re eating up swimming pools with salt chlorine generatoring technoligy.

If you can’t Kill the Message, Kill the Messenger.

The truth of what I did was to comment critically on this builder’s already published comments, in the form of a blog-style rant posted as an “information update” on his company website - which he has since removed, by the way - where he came out vehemently and bitterly against California legislation which has since received widespread bi-partisan support throughout the state of California and proven to be both timely and necessary to control the ever worsening issue of saline discharge into waters used for irrigation.

The reason I knew the man’s position at all on this issue was because he published it and I discovered it on page one of a Google search. He put his opinion out there for all the world to see, and to comment on. Was it my blog that scared off his customer, or his scary comments in his website’s “information update”? After all, it’s his opinion on the subject that's in the minority in his state. Not mine.

All that happened was that he mixed his politics with his business and came up the loser. That is hardly my fault and is exactly why I remain

Anonymously Yours,
The Pool Guy

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Victory Lap?

I’ve really enjoyed this last week. You know, being right and being vindicated and all that. It kind of puts a spring in your step to see that a few people armed with nothing but The Truth and a Free Blog can make a difference in an industry.
I have no proof that salt sales are going down. And the sales reps don’t leave me e-mails crying on my shoulder how they’re late on their boat payments ever since we started pointing out that the Emperor was Naked as a Jaybird.

It’s all in the details. Like this detail: I talked to a customer who said she saw the WFAA report - which you can find here, by the way:

and here’s the print version:

and she Tivo’d it to show to a friend of hers who works for the INSERT REALLY BIG, VERY HIGH END DALLAS REAL ESTATE FIRM HERE and that her friend had passed the word to everyone during a sales meeting to WATCH OUT when they’re representing homes with salt pools, and More Importantly, to WATCH OUT when their clients are buying homes with salt pools. Turns out lots of the people at the meeting had seen the report too, and corroborated what was being said.

So, there’s about 75 or 100 real estate agents that’ll be looking at the coping and decks every time they show a house. It’ll start getting mentioned in the inspection report - Salt Damage to Coping and Decks... Ladders and Rails Corroding... Light Ring Tarnished Due to Salt - and then other realtors at other agencies will start to notice that they’re negotiating salt damage costs more and more when they’re trying to sell a house. And the next thing you know, when someone lists their house for sale and the realtor shows up for the appraisal, the first thing they’ll say is, "Oh, my God! Get rid of that salt system or we’ll never be able to sell your home!"

The Salt Box is proving to be just another gadget who’s time has come. It’s fifteen minutes are up. The Sales Reps can talk all day long about "the reality of adjusting to this new salt environment" until they’re blue in the face - or more bluish green actually, the color of the tarnish that salt causes on stainless steel and copper - but it’s all just talk.

And their bosses back at the plant can go ahead and upgrade their heaters to cupro nickel and do away with brass wells and brass thermistors, and maybe they’ll even force all the ladder and rail manufacturers to offer a higher grade stainless option for awhile - not to say that there was anything wrong with the stainless steel that they were using for the one hundred years before the advent of salt - but it’s all just a tempest in a teapot.

All of their grand plans of reshaping the industry from inside their Ivory Towers - the same Ivory Towers where they created the problem by pouring salt into pools and now sit around and atavistically try to find ways to repair that damage - are going to be flushed away by the same thing that they swear drove the salt craze to begin with; Consumer Demand. Except now the Consumer will be Demanding that you get that Damn Salt Box out of their back yard.

But this whole salt fiasco has been a great learning experience for me. I’ve learned that Sales Reps can actually drive an entire industry with Empty Phrases.

Empty phrases like these:

"The difference with the resurgence of salt technology is that this time the demand is coming from the consumer."

No, it really wasn’t. It came from the salt system manufacturers making a much harder push with the builders and retailers to create another profit center. And you can’t blame the front line guys for looking for another profit center. Let’s see, a guy’s building 150 pools a year, and the Salt Rep says he can make an extra 500 bucks a pool... That’s Three Kids In College kind of money. So much bigger than Polaris Cruise kind of money. Before long, it was included in the menu of options of every builder’s sales wheel and every store had salt system displays front and center. And the Consumer Demand that was created by these efforts lasted about as long as Feeling Slippery and No Red Eyes could last against Thousands of Dollars in Stone & Metal Damage, which started showing up en masse about one year ago. In a few years, only the Stupidly, Irresponsibly Rich will be still be saying I Love Salt. Like, you just know that Paris Hilton will still have a salt swimming pool five years from now.

And my Other Favorite Empty Phrase is:

"Everybody just needs to adjust to the fact that salt is here to stay."

No it’s not. I remember years ago when the Sales Reps were blathering on at the shows that "Ionizers are here to stay!" Yeah, right...

You know, the consumer took the hit on Lo NOX heaters here in Texas and out in California because they had to. The state governments made them. The upcharge was inescapable. But what’s going to rise out of the ashes of this Salt Debacle is a group of sharp builders who are going to put together a sales package that’s going to show that they can bring a pool bid in for a lot less and offer a much wider range of building materials if the owner will just opt out of salt. And this will happen once all the dirty little secrets about salt damage are common knowledge - which started last week when Goldine threw in the towel on stone damage. Read about it here:

and click on the "Goldline Controls Full Statement to WFAA" in the "Also Online" box.

For Example, a builder will be able to say:

"I can save you money on your heater if we stick with a copper heat exchanger instead of the cupro nickel marine grade heat exchanger."

"I can save you money on your ladders and rails if we stick with standard grade instead of marine grade stainless."

"We can use softer stones like limestone and Oklahoma flagstone and it won’t turn to mush if we don’t use salt."

"I can save you all the money you’re going to spend on masonry sealer with salt. If you use salt, you’ll have to seal everything every XXX months. If you don’t use salt, you don’t have to use sealer BECAUSE WE NEVER DID BEFORE SALT AND SO WHY WOULD WE NOW?"

"I can save you $800 three years from now when you don’t have to replace your salt cell."

And then there’s My Personal Favorite in this era of Save The Planet Let’s Everybody Go Green: "You know, the wastewater treatment issue is a big one with a salt pool. They’re looking at slapping surcharges on folks with water softeners because of their chloride pollution. Salt swimming pools can’t be far behind."

Not to mention how much harder a sell salt’s going to become when everybody on the building end is insisting that the customer sign a Release of Liability from Salt Damage waiver.

All of this will take a little more time to come to pass because our industry really bit hard on this salt bait. Like the other day I went into a pool store to get some borate test strips to test the pools where some of my homeowners are using Twenty Mule Team Borax from Home Depot at $2.95 for a 4 lbs. box to soften their water and get rid of the red eyes thing. If you want to learn more about doing that, go here:

I saw that this pool store is so ate up with salt that they now sell bags of salt with sodium tetraborate pentahydrate in it - which is wholly different than Twenty Mule Team Borax sodium tetraborate decahydrate; five water molecules different to be exact (penta... deca... get it?). Except, of course, in California where they can’t sell sodium tetraborate for swimming pools at all.

I meant to ask the clerk how much they were getting for a bag of this stuff, but I was laughing so hard I was beginning to hyperventilate and so I stumbled outside to catch my breath.

Once the market for that kind of stuff winnows down to that narrow group of consumers I like to call The Ones Who Will Buy Anything, it will naturally cancel out that last Empty Phrase that makes me want to open a vein every time I hear it;

"Just look at the cost savings with salt..."

And when I look at this industry that I do love so much, it looks more and more, the longer I look and the more I try to look Behind The Curtain at the Guys Pretending to be The Wizards of Our Oz, that we’re intentionally trying to screw our customers like stump-tied goats.

Is it stupidity, expediency or just plain old dishonesty that ever made us say, "just look at the cost savings with salt"? Because in addition to all the physical damage that salt has wrought on our pools, I can walk into a pool store in California and probably pay five or six times the going price of what Loews or Home Depot would charge me for a plastic bag that’s 95 to 98% salt. The only difference between it and Home Depot’s salt is that someone’s added 1 to 2% cyanuric acid so they can call it Better and charge that price for it. Less than one pound of stabilizer somehow makes this bag of salt worth all that much more? $1.75 to $3.50 worth of stabilizer - using average pool store highest price per pound pricing - adds that much bang to forty pounds of this stuff?

And how do I know all this? Because I read the Material Safety Data Sheets instead of the Sales Brochure. The Sales Brochure calls it a "proprietary blend of elements and stable minerals". The MSDS calls it "Inorganic Salt", 95 to 98% by weight, and "cyanuric acid", 1 to 2% by weight.

Which is why you should always look Behind The Curtain before Drinking the Kool-Aid.

And another thing. Do the math. There’s up to 3% of the bag that’s unaccounted for. If you ask the people who bag salt for a living, they’ll tell you it’s for the sand and other impurities that are part and parcel of the air drying process of granular salt.

Which only goes to show you that salt pellets are actually cleaner than granular salt, unless that granular salt is Food Grade, in which case it’s 99.9% NaCl (sodium chloride).

But wait. I started out celebrating a victory of Truth Over Bullshit and now it turns out there’s yet another rock to turn over and shine a light under. Not to mention that I heard a very reasonable explanation the other night for why Texas and Arizona are the most hard hit by salt damage, and it's better than the old stand-by; "it's the poolman's fault". But that’ll have to wait until next week. It’s nearly summer and I’ve got a business to run.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Worm Has Turned

That phrase has an interesting derivation. It comes from an old proverb that says tread on a worm and it will turn. It means "even the most humble will strike back if abused enough". These days, the expression the worm has turned is often used in the broad sense "the situation has changed" - a tip of the hat to’s Word Maven, a delightful source of insight into words and phrases.

So which of those definitions is most apt for this blog piece?

Here’s a news story and a snippet of video that you ought to watch. Click on the links. The first one is the print story. The second is the video report. Then come back and we’ll talk more about how the worm has turned.

WFAA, the ABC affiliate that did this news story, is a part of the Belo media empire.

They own twenty-five news companies, their flagship being the Dallas Morning News, winner of eight Pulitzer Prizes and honored as one of the top five newspapers in the United States by the Columbia Journalism Review. WFAA Channel 8 is the broadcast companion to the Dallas Morning News. They are both considered conservative and reserved, not given to flights of fancy, not a news organization prone to sensationalism - except perhaps a little when they promo the weather... "Armageddon by nightfall? Details at 6." But they all do that. Weather, I guess, is fair game. But it is fair to say about Channel 8 WFAA that If It Bleeds, It Probably Won’t Lead.

And I think it’s fair to say that the story you just read and watched when you clicked on the links (you did click on the link and go see those pieces, didn’t you?) is a news piece done by a news organization with some pretty impeccable news credentials. And the guy who did the story, David Schechter, brings some pretty stiff credentials along with him, having won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award and the National Headliner Grand Award, not to mention 13 regional Emmy awards as a reporter in Minneapolis.

It’s safe to say that these are not people prone to sticking microphones in people’s faces who are dashing to their car with their hands over their faces. Though I must admit, I was hoping for a bit of that. I confess, I had visions of Salt Reps wailing "no comment!" and reaching out to swat the camera away. But you can’t have everything, can you?

They interviewed a total of five people for the video segment, and four of them didn’t have anything good to say about salt. Although the one person they had who was pro salt brought some pretty hefty credentials to the table. Bob Tomlinson is the National Vice President for APSP Region Three. And as you saw, he stated unequivocally that, "I don't believe the corrosion we've heard about in the past is a valid issue. And I do greatly await the results of the test being done."

When I heard that, I couldn’t believe that such a knowledgeable and experienced pool builder could have gone these last four or five years without seeing any of the hundreds of rusted diving board stands that only seem to pop up on salt pools and then say, "I don't believe the corrosion we've heard about in the past is a valid issue". I mean, I admit, I’ve met knowledgeable people in our industry who have drunk the kool-aid on the damage to stone being a water chemistry issue and not salt, and even though I think that’s the most head-in-the-sand attitude you could take on the issue, how can anyone with even a passing knowledge of the mechanisms of corrosion deny what salt is doing to diving board stands and ladders and handrails?

But the main problem with Bob’s comments are that they fly in the face of the press release that Goldline gave to WFAA in response to their request for a comment on salt damage to pools. If you take a hard look at that two page liability dodge... I mean, press release... you come away from reading it saying to yourself, "did they just say that salt damages stone? They did just say that salt damages stone, didn’t they? I mean, they did just release a document TO THE PUBLIC, addressed to "Dear Pool Owner", that says "Natural stone can be broken down, dissolved or converted to new minerals by a variety of mechanical and chemical processes. Mechanical processes include frost action, thermal expansion, wetting, drying and salt decay." ‘ [emphasis mine].

So, Bob’s wrong. You can erase his segment. The people he was trying to stand up for just left him hanging out there, flapping in the breeze, all by himself, the Last of the Mohicans, the last member of the I Didn’t Get That Memo club.

I guess Goldine got those test results that Bob was "greatly awaiting" and forgot to tell him that they were releasing a letter to a TV news guy that says pretty much without a doubt there’s more than a grain of truth to the growing opinion that salt systems aren’t right for every pool. They go so far as to WARN THE PUBLIC THAT, "If you have purchased, or are considering purchasing, an electronic chlorine generator for installation with an existing pool or spa with a natural stone surround, you should consult with a qualified stone installation specialist or pool installation contractor in your area to determine what, if any, on-going maintenance will be advised to minimize or avoid unsatisfactory weathering of the stone around your pool or spa."

And right there, they did two things: They admitted that salt ruins certain types of stone. And they said it wasn’t their fault. The date of the letter is May 2nd, 2007. So, anybody who has salt issues that occurred before that date, call your salt system manufacturer. Anybody with issues after that date, call the person who sold you the salt system.

Because if you all can’t see it coming, then let me explain to you what phase of this catastrophe we’re in: Damage Control.

Goldline is the first to jump out with a dated document, available on line, that says, in the most innocuous way possible, that salt will damage stone. Having said that, they’re off the hook if you don’t disclose that to a customer when you sell them a salt system. So, in ten months, when that lady with all the Oklahoma flagstone waterfalls calls you up and says that her pool is full of brown dust, the financial solution to the problem will rest on your shoulders, and not the manufacturers.

And that’s really a big deal. The burden of liability just shifted from the manufacturer to the builders and installers. That is a Truly Seismic Event.

But what everybody’s going to remember about this blog piece isn’t that. What they’re going to remember is; That Rotten S.O.B. The Pool Guy just threw Old Bob under the bus.

I admit, it gives me pause. It makes me ponder whether I should go back and edit that out of this piece before I post it to the blog. But it’s not my fault that what Bob said isn’t true. And it’s not my fault that Goldline published a letter that disputed what he said even as he was saying it. And I know he's the President of a very well respected pool building firm, and that's exactly why I feel compelled to dispute what he says as vigorously as I can. Because what he says carries a lot of weight. Even when he's wrong. Like now. Because MOST BUILDERS IN TEXAS aren't as wholeheartedly behind salt as Bob is. Channel 8 had to go all the way to Houston, Texas - that's a distance of 240 miles for those of you not used to how big the Great State of Texas is - to find a pro-salt voice.

Where were the Salt Reps? A ton of them live right here in Dallas - Fort Worth. Why weren't they on camera saying that all this talk of salt damage is just a bunch of hooey. You think they weren't asked? They declined.

Here's a more typical example of Texas Pool Builder's opinion on salt.
I was talking to a new pool owner last weekend who got a bid from Riverbend Sandler, the biggest pool builder in Texas, about six months ago. At that juncture, they wouldn’t even talk to him about a salt system. I’ve heard they have since resumed salt sales, but with a waiver. It's the same kind of waiver that Phil McEwan, the builder quoted in the WFAA piece, requires. Just like so many builders do these days.

If you go back to the WFAA print story and click on "Have you had a problem with your salt water pool? View Results", there’s a comment that was left by a fellow who says he’s a twenty year service and repair veteran, and he sums it up better than I ever could:

"We are now being asked by a manufacturer to put zinc balls in our pump baskets to deflect the damage away from the other metals in the equipment. We are now being approached by salesman pushing stone sealers. Heater manufacturers are changing their heat exchanger material (they need to figure a way to put thermistors in dry wells). Builders are asking homeowners to sign damage waivers before they will sell/install a salt system. What? There is not an issue with these systems?"

So, when you tell a friend to go look at this blog piece because, hey, The Pool Guy just threw Bob Tomlinson under the bus, remember to add that, oh yeah, and by the way, Goldline just dumped the liability for these salt systems in our lap.

When I heard that this news report about salt pools was coming on, I hoped that it would be the beginning of The Worm Turning in the old proverb sense that even the most humble will strike back if abused enough. But all things considered, with this letter from Goldline, it's more just that the situation has changed, and we've all been put on notice who is going to pick up the tab for all this.

We are.

Brothers and Sisters, The Worm Has Just Turned.