Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Summer Lull

It happens every year. Most of us in the Pool Biz are used to it, and ready for it. There’s a flurry of service and repair calls as everybody gets their pools ready for the swimming season, and then there’s a slow down, where everybody’s all set and the phone calls slow down. That’s when we settle into our normal workaday level of activity. That’s what you try to dial your business to handle; that summer lull. The busy time right before the lull makes you feel like you’re going to pull your hair out, and then again in the fall, when there’s so much junk falling into the pools and overstressing the pumps and clogging the lines that the phone rings off the hook all over again. But that’s how the game is played.

At least here in Texas. I know a bit about other markets because I’ve worked in a few. Like I know that southern California isn’t as much like that. They really don’t have a high debris season, like our spring and fall, and their swimming season is longer than here. I cleaned the pool of a college professor in southern California that swam laps for an hour a day in his pool year ‘round, using a wet suit for a few months in the winter. You really couldn’t do that here in Texas. When the water gets to forty-five degrees, it’s going to be cold even with a wet suit.

But that’s really the trick in business, isn’t it? Knowing your market? Like a couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog piece about all the rain we’re having here and how, because our pools here in Texas are built with modern conveniences like tile line drains so that pool owners don’t have to go out and pump water off the pool every time it rains, the result on salt pools is that you end up losing a lot of salty water out the tile line drain. And so, for guys like me, that means humping more and more salt to the pools every time it rains. Kind of a hard position to challenge, wouldn’t you think?

Well, there’s this one Salt Peddler, and he just went off over what I said, blathering on and on about how if I was carrying something called Jerry Jugs, that he says hold two and a half gallons and weigh in at twenty pounds apiece, and if I had a hundred customers and if they were using one Jerry Jug a week, I’d be humping eight thousand six hundred pounds of chlorine a month, so why was I bitching about the salt?

What the hell’s a Jerry Jug? No, really, I know what a Jerry Jug is. It’s those little containers we use to fill up our lawnmowers and stuff. This guy lives in Florida. And I admit, I don’t know the Florida market very well. I know a lot of their pools have screened rooms over them. I hear that they are often pool-only setups, with no attached spa. I hear that they use a lot of small pumps (1 horsepower) and small (100 square foot or so) cartridge filters. They don’t tend to use automatic cleaners because they’re in enclosures, but if they do, they use suction side cleaners, like Kreepy Krawleys or Navigators. I hear their water is hard, so it makes sense to me that they use liquid chlorine to shock their pools, and if it’s cheap enough, with the increase in trichlor prices over the last couple of years, I could see where they might decide to run their pools exclusively on liquid chlorine, even with the extra muriatic acid and stabilizer they’ll have to buy to go along with it.

And so the Jerry Jugs come in because they probably have a big reservoir of liquid chlorine on their service trucks that they use to pump the Jerry Jug full.

How am I doing? I’m guessing, you see. Because I haven’t been to Florida since I visited my Gramma in Dunedin Beach in 1968 when I was a teenager. And, you see, I don’t claim to be an expert on the Florida market because I don’t live and work there.

People that do live and work in the servicing end of this business in Florida have come to appreciate salt a lot more than we have here it Texas, because it gets them out of a closed loop that they’re stuck in: 1 horsepower pumps, 100 square foot cartridge filters, in-line tablet feeders, a lot less tile line drains and constantly rising stabilizer levels. Just go back and read Evan’s comments on Rain, Rain Go Away to see what I’m talking about. Evan works in a pool & spa supply center in Florida and I would imagine tests a lot of water and knows the typical equipment profile for his customers.

He says that the problems we see with salt really haven’t presented themselves like they have here in Texas and in Arizona. And I take what he says at face value. After all, it’s his market, and he knows his market, and he doesn’t claim to know mine. It sounds like he’s in south Florida, but, again, I’m guessing.

Not like the Salt Peddler, who, by the way, is the National Sales something-or-other for his company, and goes around the entire country to all the pool expos holding his Bum Dope Seminars, and while you may think that’s mean for me to call them that, consider that the guy doesn’t even know that you can’t buy liquid chlorine at the pool suppliers here in Dallas, Texas. I mean, he doesn’t have the first idea about the typical chemicals that the average pool serviceman carries on his truck to do his job each day here in Texas. And that’s because he hasn’t considered for a minute the differences in our water over the water in Florida. And that’s because he’s busier coming up with excuses why guys like me are all wrong than he is investigating the claims that salt may not be appropriate for all pools. Like that one in Canada, as-a-big-effing-fer-instance… But he’s sure his Salt System is right for your pool.

And all I can say is that this guy’s not unique. His level of understanding is pretty typical of most of the Sales Reps I run into. Their knowledge of the subject is usually very regional. In fact, it’s often so regional that if they don’t see the problem on their own pool in their own back yard, then it doesn’t exist. Not to mention that the Sales Boss told them it doesn’t exist. Now, you’ll usually find a lot more technical knowledge when you talk to their Technical Reps. That’s the nature of the beast, Salesmen Sell; Tech Reps Fix – and keep their mouths shut.

The other unique flaw inherent in trying to represent salt systems, and one that’s not really been very well explored, is that for a guy to properly represent them he needs to be a technical AND chemical whiz kid. So far, I haven’t met any of those. But then, if a guy was both, he would see how deeply flawed the technology is, and he wouldn’t want to Sell It or Fix It.

A south Florida pool builder wrote to me recently. He had experience with salt systems from the last company he worked with before getting out on his own:

“I too think the salt systems are [a] joke. Before moving out on my own, I use to argue with my last boss…about what a profit drain the salt cells became. He spent more money running service reps around to adjust and repair them than he could ever hope to make on the sale of the unit.”

Later, he and I were discussing the regional aspects of salt damage and he wrote:

“I do agree that maybe some of the damage is centralized to The Great State of Texas (I grew up in Irving) and Arizona but only because y'all (felt good to the dust of that vocabulary word) use more natural stones than other parts of the country. With the freeze/thaw cycle up north the natural stones fall apart. Down here in Florida…wages are paid in sunshine and beaches… and [people] very seldom go for the exotic materials. Although the trend is expanding as people are getting tired of cracked concrete decks. Acrylic topped decks have been the rage for the last 10 years. Now pavers seem to be all anyone wants anymore. I will be curious to see what impact salt has [on] these materials.”

He doesn’t sell salt systems. Doesn’t want to be part of the problem.

Then, there’s another Gulf Coast builder who will only sell a salt system to those “few customers that absolutely insist on having salt systems and… sign the extensive waiver that pretty much absolves me of any warranty on the pool whatsoever.” It’s only after his best effort to dissuade them and only when he’s starting to get that belligerent attitude and the customer is starting to accuse him of just trying to make money "off the stuff we are pushing" in his store, and that the customer has lots of friends who have the system and "just love it", or the best accusation so far, that he should get on the internet and investigate these new systems and "get out of the stone age".

So much for consumer protection.

So, while I respect Evan’s comments that salt has been a good fit in Florida, some of the builders in that general region of the country - the ones who have to stand warranty on the pool structure after the sale - are telling a different story. Granted, it doesn’t get your stabilizer levels down if you go back to tabs, and so I see where you might want to see salt as the answer, or at least as less of a problem. But ask yourself this:

How many builders are making people sign a damage waiver before they’ll install a tab feeder on a swimming pool?

I want to make one more point and then I’m going to take advantage of the Summer Lull and go on Vacation for two weeks – which means I’ll post again on August 5th. There’s an interesting Letter to the Editor here

Robert A. Carson, the Environmental Programs Administrator for the City of Thousand Oaks, California, quite objectively states that “these systems are brackish…filter backwash….rainwater overflow… pool draining… are going to be significant issues. Salt and chloride are pass through pollutants for a wastewater treatment plant. …regulation of chloride-rich waste streams will be forthcoming in many areas. I wouldn’t want to be the vendor or contractor trying to explain to customers why this state-of-the-art system is obsolete, that draining his pool is illegal, that a parade of tanker trucks will be needed to haul away his…pool water.”

Now, before you say, “yeah, another whacky Californian tree hugger”, let me tell you a bit about Thousand Oaks. These are people who voted for W and Arnold. I mean, this is Limbaugh Country. There are probably more defense contractors per square mile than anywhere outside the Washington Beltway. They are fiscally conservative Republicans, for the most part, and it just makes fiscal sense not to put salt in water if you’re going to have to pay to take it out later. Where have I heard that before?

Oh, yes! It was me! But as good as this letter is, it’s not what I want to talk about. It’s the article that this letter is about. You have to do a little digging to find that. I’ve done that for you. Click here.

It’s the Water Conditioning and Purification International Online November 2006 issue. It’s an article called Solving Public Pool Water Quality Problems Forever! by Bill Kent. The first paragraph of the article points out that the recent outbreak of Recreational Water Illnesses (RWI) are disturbing and bring to light the need for facility managers to “investigate regenerative chlorination systems”. That’s it. That’s the last time RWI is mentioned. The rest of the article is a straight sales job on salt chlorine generation. I really encourage you to read it and see if you don’t agree. Whether you’re pro or anti salt, just read it and you’ll see. Especially if you read the heavily footnoted and referenced Swimming Pool Disinfection: Techniques and Pitfalls by David M. Bonnick, the other feature article in the November 2006 issue.

There is a sharp contrast. One is a research paper, the other a marketing brochure.

But that makes sense. Bill Kent is the President of Team Horner. They probably have the lion’s share of the commercial application of salt systems in the US through their AutoPilot commercial chlorine systems. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. This is America, and Bill’s got every right to submit articles about the technology he believes in. And he has a right, in the future, to point to the article he wrote and have folks Google it for more information. And now, when they do, they’ll also get this blog, and a link to Bob Carson’s warning about chloride-rich waste streams and parades of tanker trucks and a link to the YouTube clip of the WFAA report on Why Salt Sucks.

I bring this all up as nothing more than a counter balance to this kind of thing. This is an old article, written in 1984, and dug up by the same Bill Kent in 1993. He slapped a cover letter on the article and called it a "Research Report". Now, it's not just my opinion that this thing is just an article. The last page of the article says, "This article is based on a technical report prepared by Mr. D. S. Novak of ELTECH Systems Corporation titled 'Review of Factors Influencing Corrosion in Swimming Pools,' June 20, 1984." But the technical report is nowhere to be found.

Eltech owned the salt system Lectranator back then, which was blowing through stainless steel filter tanks like they were butter. So, they bought some "research" that said, "it's not the salt, it's the unstabilized chlorine". Then, Eltech sold Lectranator to Olin and Olin sold it to Team Horner, and they got the research along with the machines. They renamed Lectranator AutoPilot in 1995, which makes a casual reader not put the two and two together and see that this article is just Eltech saying way back in the early eighties that salt wasn't eating up stainless steel filter tanks. Since then, we've all learned, even the biggest pro-salties, that you don't put salt systems on pools with stainless steel filter tanks.

But this flawed little piece of "research" keeps coming up in forums, being presented as "proof" of a mitigating circumstance for why salt is okay today, and why if you're seeing problems with your salt pool, it's probably the unstabilized chlorine and not the salt that's doing the damage. The whole idea that this article is presented without making the underlying research available makes even hosting it a dubious decision, if you ask me. Especially in light of the fact that it was recently re-introduced to the forums by a representative of AutoPilot.

And you can read on countless threads on these forums about "the well documented research of how lower stabilizer levels will result in much higher corrosivity from chlorine", and if you ever bother to ask about the source of this well documented research, they just point back to that little three page article.

And I just don't want the same thing to happen with this most recent article about RWI's. I don't want, ten years from now, to see that article referenced as "the research done in 2006 that proves SCG's effectiveness in fighting RWI's".

And now, after I post this and the search engine wordbots have crawled through this piece and indexed all of these words and all of these links, no one will ever be able to talk about those things again without this blog piece being part of the discussion, too.

God! I love the Internet!

You should all try it. It's just about the only democracy we have left.

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