Sunday, August 19, 2007

Who You Gonna Call?

Last week I talked about the pool store hustle of dressing Baking Soda up with a smidgen of something else, or by calling it a less familiar name, then selling it as Total Alkalinity (TA) Control so that they could charge usurious prices for it. It was really just a lead-in so I could point out that while charging three or four times the supermarket price for Baking Soda is one thing, the idea of selling plain old salt and a little borate and acids and charging as much as ten times more than the going price is just obscene.

Evan, a frequent contributor to the comments section here at The Pool Biz, wrote to say, “Yes, I have to agree that everything you said is true”. Evan works in a pool store.

The Chem Geek, another frequent contributor to the blog, wrote to say, “If your point is that the pool and spa industry is not fully disclosing and that there are myths and falsehoods spread and that the training is poor, I think that's a given. If you look up the antonym of integrity, you'll probably find this industry.” [emphasis mine… wasn’t that a great line?]

But they both also pointed out, in their own ways, that not everyone in the industry is a Big Fat Liar.

Chem Geek said it directly; “That doesn’t mean, however, that everything an industry person says is wrong.”

Evan took a more circuitous route, by pointing out that everything I said in that blog piece was Been There, Talked About That kinda stuff in his beloved forums, and then launched into a rant about high cyanuric acid (CYA) levels and how the pool chemical manufacturers, particularly Chemtura, are lying about how destructive high CYA levels can be to plaster. And, too, if you have read some of Evan the Waterbear’s posts you’ll see that he’s one of the Good Guy. He’s looked behind the curtain and I believe that he sees the same thing I do; that there’s a bunch of salesmen flipping the levers and spinning the wheels on nearly everything in this industry, and that a technical person with the Correct Answer doesn’t hardly have a chance.

Now, that’s a lot of words to be putting in his mouth, so I encourage you to check back and click on the Comments Section Monday night. I’m sure I’ll have a rebuttal from him by then.

The most pointed and direct rebuttal I got was from a man who runs a large pool construction, service and sales company. His business includes a pool store. Via e-mail he said, “On the TA with higher pH, that is actually required around here (and in many other places) where tablets are the primary sanitizer. In those pools (probably 80% in this part of the world), the tablets constantly cause the TA to decrease and likewise the pH. The boosting with a higher pH TA solves two issues with one dose. As for the price of balancing chemicals: There are clearly some that charge usury fees for common items, but I believe it a little jaded to condemn a reasonable profit in the face of the services provided by our ‘boutique’. When a customer comes in, we greet them (usually by name), talk to them, test their water, help them select just the right product, help them to their car with their stuff, and basically establish a relationship. Those are not things you can find at Loews or Home Depot. Many places sell chemicals to get the water right. The only problem is that they don't have your smarts to select them. In those cases (and it happens all day everyday) the customer comes in from Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Loews, or wherever, and ask us to ‘help them’ get their pool ‘fixed’.”

After reading what he said, I had to admit that he was right. There is a purpose for a Pool Store beyond just being a place for pool cleaners to load up their chemicals and for pool repairmen to drink their morning coffee before heading out on their service calls. What he’s saying is the guys on staff at the pool companies who meet and greet the do-it-yourself customers actually have a purpose in life, and as long as they’re well trained and not driven by the owner to Sell, Sell, Sell, then they can be an asset to the pool owner with the Green Pool who’s out there, wandering from Mass Marketer to Franchise Pool Store to Independent Pool Store seeking the Truth.

Truth is, until I read this guy’s e-mail, I never really had much use for the Retail Guys. First off, they always look so neat and clean. I hate that. And when you listen to them with a customer, they always seem to be talking so knowledgeably about pools without ever having seen anything more than the display model in the back of the store. We called them Shop Pussies in my day. I mean, they didn’t even have a decent tan. How can you take advice from a Pool Guy who doesn’t at least have a good Farmer’s Tan working?

But I get his point that listening to a Shop Pussy who’s at least read the water chemistry books is better than navigating the aisles at the Mass Marketers and asking a Homer to point you in the general direction of the pool supplies. You really do have to know what you’re buying when you go to the Mass Marketers. Let me give you a real life example.

I walked into a backyard this past spring. The owners are in that segment of the pool market who only remember they have a 20,000 gallon pool in their backyard in the spring when the kids start asking, “When can we go swimming?” As usual, they were in desperate need of getting someone to come in and get rid of the algae and debris that a winter’s worth of neglect had allowed to accumulate. I looked over their pool and one of the first things I noticed was a very light copper green patina on the plaster and especially on the soft white rubber tires of their automatic pool cleaner. I turned and asked them, “Do you buy your chlorine tablets at Home Depot?”

The answer was yes.

I’ve seen that same staining on half a dozen do-it-yourselfer’s pools, and every time I nose around the equipment area or garage, I find a bucket of HTH Pace Dual Action 3” stabilized chlorine tablets. HTH Pace is owned by Arch Chemicals. The Dual Action tabs are 93.5% Trichloro-s-triazenetrione, 1.5% Copper Sulfate Pentahydrate and 5.0% Inert Ingredients.

They work really well. Trichlor is a great sanitizer and oxidizer, and everybody in the pool business knows that copper is a terrific sanitizer and algaecide. There are tons of copper based algaecides on the market, and most ionizers work by introducing copper ions into the water.

And too, high enough levels of copper in your pool water will cause staining, like I see in the pools of those people who just go to the Mass Marketer and buy the same bucket of tabs over and over again, without giving a lot of thought to what all their putting into their pool. I mean, every time they dissolve 100 pounds of these tablets into their pool, they’re also dissolving 1.5 pounds of copper into the water.

A few years ago, when I first saw that Home Depot was selling chlorine tablets with 1.5% Copper Sulfate, I knew that this was going to happen.

Now, the folks at Arch Chemicals are the same folks who are leading the charge about high stabilizer being bad for your pool. They’ve released a study showing degradation of plaster coupons when exposed to higher and higher levels of CYA. And so they’ve got this pool care program whose bedrock is that overstabilization is bad for your pool, that not only is it bad for your plaster, but that high levels affect your sanitizer’s ability to act as a sanitizer. There’s a lot of talk in the forums about this, too. Here are some links from the HTH consumer website about overstabilization.

That first link says it all. It sort of denudes their intentions: “HTH® and calcium hypochlorite (cal hypo) offer the only complete solution to overstabilization. Cal hypo products do not contain cyanuric acid and will not cause overstabilization.”

You see, for most folks who’ve been around this industry a long time, HTH Pace has always been synonymous with calcium based products. I remember going to a Raypak heater training seminar in southern California back about 1984 or 85 and the Raypak Rep holding up a section of 1 ½ inch copper pipe – there was still a lot of it out there back then – that was so scaled with calcium that you couldn’t get a pencil down the middle of it. He asked, “What causes this, fellas?” and we answered back in unison, “Cal Hypo”, because back in those days they used to sell this neat little gadget that you loaded up with those HTH cal hypo pellets and then you put it in the skimmer basket to let erosion dissolve the pellets at the rate determined by the dial-a-setting opening in the lid.

Of course, if you’re in a part of the country with hard water, then a daily diet of calcium for your pool is bad juju. You’re adding more calcium to water that’s already near the tipping point for calcium to start with. Sort of like throwing gas on a fire. The result is always the same; calcium scaling. I’ve seen pools in southern California that were so scaled with calcium that they had to be sanded after they were acid washed. Now, that’s not all HTH’s fault. Once calcium gets much over four or five hundred parts per million (ppm), it gets harder and harder to keep the calcium in solution.

And if you’re in a part of the country with really soft water, so soft out of the tap that you have to actually add calcium to get it up to 200 ppm, then that dial-a-lid thingie would be just fine… sort of.

Because you really need to consider that the pH of calcium hypochlorite is 11.8 and so it’s going to create a higher pH, calcium rich water stream from the skimmer through the equipment. Does that calcium rich, high pH water cause any of the calcium to fall out of solution and plate out on the interiors on your pumps and filters and heaters and plumbing?

Confusing, huh? If you’re in the business, then even as sketchy as it was, you followed everything I just said. If you’re not in the business, then you probably already closed this window.

Now the point I’m trying to make is to those of you still reading, those of you in the business. We are all of us manipulated by people in our industry who are manipulating the facts, and the best manipulator that we run into ends up getting us in their camp. Our own local water conditions come into play somewhat, but I believe that more than water, its The Argument that they present. But, when you look behind the curtain, it turns out that The Argument is 90% Sales Pitch.

Is Arch doing anything wrong by saying that high stabilizer is bad? Probably not. But I know it helps to sell a product that I dismissed a long time ago as inappropriate for day to day chlorination of my customer’s pools.

Is Chemtura doing something wrong by sticking with the story that there’s nothing wrong with stabilizer levels as high as 200 ppm? I don’t know. But it sure helps them sell a lot more trichlor tabs.

Is there reason to question research done on trichlor tabs by a company who tells you it’s a good idea to put calcium based chlorine tablets in your skimmer? You tell me.

Is there a problem with a company putting 1.5% copper into trichlor tabs and then telling people to shock their pool every week with an 11.8 pH oxidizer and never once bring up the issue of copper staining, and on top of that, sell this product in an environment – a Big Box store – where thorough water testing is impossible?

Now, I’m not picking on Arch. That’s the whole point. I could just as easily have taken the other side of the argument and made them look like Heroes. These are the kinds of holes that you and I know exist in every one of these guy’s arguments, in every article we read, in every opinion we see put forth. Everybody’s selling something, and doing and saying what they need to say to get it sold. If they can get you talking about the other guy’s shortcomings, then theirs will slip right under the radar.

The damnable thing to me is that we have to keep learning this crap over and over and over again.

It goes back to what the Chem Geek said; “That doesn't mean, however, that everything an industry person says is wrong. It just means you need to trust, but verify". And I think that’s the same thing the man was saying about his Pool Store when he talked about helping “them select just the right product”.

But who do you believe? Who do you trust? Even if you go to the internet and find a link and click it open and read a report that confirms your suspicions, only to find that the report was commissioned by the competition…

Good luck with all that.

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The point about Arch Chemical mentioning the problems with overstabilization, but neglecting to mention that their Cal-Hypo products can lead to overcalcification (that is, too much Calcium Hardness) is deceitful. It is the intentional withholding of material information a consumer would need to know to make an informed decision when purchasing a product. And as you point out, it's not fair to pick on any one company, be it Arch Chemical, Chemtura, or an SWG manufacturer. Most do this and it's not only annoying, but insulting to the intelligence of consumers and destroys trust.

Unfortunately, much of the information that is needed to know if there is full disclosure or if the information itself is truthful is unfortunately technical chemistry. It's not hard chemistry, but it's not something most people know.

This is where the pool stores could provide a tremendous value. They could educate themselves and help select appropriate products for their customers. Some pool stores do this, but unfortunately training is usually very poor and is often composed of marketing information from the manufacturers themselves and therefore isn't always complete or accurate.

The thing is that I would gladly pay more money in order to get better service and I don't mind paying more for chlorinating liquid at my pool store than I could for bleach at Wal-Mart. The jugs at the pool store get reused so it's better for the environment and its less for me to carry around. Just the other day, I thanked them for doing this and for charging only a little more than the equivalent cost of bleach -- they weren't abusing my trust.

The irony is that the pool industry seems to be stuck in the selling mode of an earlier era where salespeople would hawk products rather than try and be true solutions providers. The fact is that most pool owners don't want a lot of fuss or bother with their pools so would pay for service and good advice. People aren't flocking to grocery or hardware store chemicals just because it's so much cheaper nor are they coming to pool forums because they are lonely. They are doing so because their pool stores are not giving them the service they need and sometimes cause more problems than they solve.

And it's not all their fault, either. Many pool stores use computer programs written by chemical manufacturers or distributors that diagnose customer pool problems, and these programs sometimes recommend using a copper algaecide plus pH Up and a Cal-Hypo shock with then results in a green cloud -- solving one problem of killing algae while creating another problem of precipitating blue-green copper carbonate with white calcium carbonate. As you might imagine, this does not instill trust with consumers.

And the solution to this is so incredibly simple. You just wake up one day and make choices that help people instead of hurt people.
Chem Geek, you're absolutely right. The short, simple, sweet answer is to make choices that help people, not hurt them. The problem is, no matter how you try to create that sanitary body of water in your back yard, you have to use something that has it's own baggage, and while your point is well taken that the consumer needs to be informed about those down sides so they can make an informed choice, most times when you try to do that, their eyes just start rolling back in their head and they start casting about for the Easy Button. Not to mention that the very culture of sales precludes detailing the down side of a product. Like, "Come up to the Kool Taste... Oh, by the way, you're going to die if you do." Or, "Nuclear power plants will provide nearly inexhaustable, inexpensive energy for generations to come... But, if there's a plant disaster, thousands of people could end up dying of radiation related illnesses for even more generations to come".

One thing I wanted to correct, though. I never said it wasn't fair to pick on any one company. What you said up top is true; what they're doing is deceitful. It would be crazy not to pick on them for being deceitful. I just pointed out that I wasn't picking on Arch in particular. I was just using them as one of the more glaring examples.

That is exactly why I hammer the salt guys so mercilessly. It's my opinion that they're the most deceitful of all. But then they have the most destructive product, so it makes sense that they have the most to be deceitful.

But this point is a real indicator of the differences between our approach to these things. You see, there's a built-in blind spot to Objectivity and a Fair & Balanced Approach. Those are the very tools that these guys use to hide their deceits while they foist their slanted "research" on us and manipulate us into being on their "side" in these Sales Wars, when all we thought we were doing was trying to be informed professionals.

When you look behind the curtain and see that it's really just a big smoke machine, you have to pick on them and let people know that it's just a bunch of Smoke & Mirrors.

To do less just postpones a time when we make choices that help instead of harm.

You bring up A VERY GOOD POINT about the computer programs in the pool store. I forget the exact level, but it's my recollection that the BioGuard program has people adjusting their Total Alkalinity to something like 160 or 180 ppm, instead of the industry accepted 80 to 120 ppm. The Shop Pussies tell me it's to make the pH even more resistant to change, but it sure messes with the Saturation Index. It also sells more Total Alkalinity Control (Baking Soda).
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