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With Costs Up, the Pool Guy Is Facing a Liquidity Crisis

November 14, 2005|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Pity the pool man.

The profit is being drained from his chlorinated world because of the high price of energy. It's boosting his expenses on all fronts: the gasoline that powers the pickups, the chemicals that burn away algae, even the nets that whisk away leaves and dead bugs.

To compensate, pool service technicians -- that's what the industry calls pool cleaners -- are cautiously raising prices, trying to stay afloat without losing customers to the constant allure of do-it-yourself savings.

Many pool guys -- they're almost always men -- are surviving by reworking routes and taking night jobs. Some are hanging up their skimmers for good.

"It's not just the gasoline; it's an umbrella increase on everything," said Gary Gosselin, who cleans pools from Pacific Palisades and Brentwood to the San Fernando Valley. "You get to the point where you just can't absorb it anymore."

The most vulnerable are members of what Gosselin calls the "Pool Man of the Week Club." They are low-rung operators who solicit price-conscious customers with fliers and reinforce the worst of the pool-guy images: someone who has "duct tape over the toes of his shoes ... and shows up all dirty with a beer in his hand," Gosselin said.

The pool man's predicament strikes at a central symbol of Southern California, the nation's largest residential pool market and home to 5.9 backyard pools for every 100 people.

"This was the birthplace of the independent pool and spa service industry," said David Dickman, editor and publisher of Service Industry News. "More than half of the swimming pools in Southern California are cared for by someone other than the owner."

Pool-saturated California also is usually home to the highest fuel prices in the continental United States, peaking early this September at a statewide average of $3.054 for a gallon of self-serve regular, according to AAA.

Pool men often pilot big Ford, Dodge and Chevy pickups with V-8 engines that get 8 miles to the gallon. Traveling 80 to 100 miles a day, Gosselin's full-size Chevy 1500 pickup is consuming $600 a month in fuel, more than 30% above the cost in 2004.

And he has to spend on other essentials: doggie treats. "That's the key to getting into pools -- Milk-Bones," Gosselin said over the steady yap of a Pomeranian pooch in a Sherman Oaks backyard. "I'd say 90% of the dogs look forward to seeing me."

This year's sustained increases in energy prices have rippled throughout the U.S. economy. But small businesses and independent contractors -- including pool cleaners, gardeners and deliverers of flowers and pizza -- are among the hardest hit because they have trouble raising prices without losing customers.

Fuel expenses have become such a concern that at a recent monthly industry meeting, wholesale supplier SCP Distributors provided a $50 certificate for gasoline as a raffle prize instead of the usual skimming net or bucket of chlorine tablets.

"We wanted to do something new, and gas prices went up so dramatically," said Victor Martinez, an SCP sales associate who hears his customers complain daily about fuel costs.

At least eight of his regulars, he said, earn money for gas by working at UPS or Federal Express at night.

In addition to the rising gasoline bill, there's the matter of chlorine, muriatic acid and other chemicals vital to keeping a swimming pool shipshape. The cost of those staples has jumped as much as 50% in the last year, in part because expensive natural gas fuels most chemical plants -- and chlorine makers raised prices to compensate.

Chlorine prices also jumped in the last year because the United States imposed high tariffs on imports from China and Spain. Domestic makers said dumping by those countries had been keeping chlorine prices low.

Oil also is used to make the plastic that is crafted into pipes and hoses and nets, all of which have gotten more expensive.

"This has been a tough summer for our industry," said Celia Hugueley, a partner in Oasis Pool Service in Chicago Park, Calif., not far from Sacramento. "As the year-end numbers come in, I think a lot of the guys will be shocked at how much the increases have hurt their bottom line."

Dickman said he expected most pool service technicians to raise prices beyond the Southland's median rate of $80 a month: "If [a pool man] elects to absorb the extra costs, he's going to slowly go broke."

But in Southern California, where an estimated 7,000 pool men jostle for business, many are afraid they will lose customers if they press for an increase.

Oscar Sanchez, who operates Professional Swimming Pool Services in Santa Ana, recently asked some of his 80 customers to pay an extra $2.50 a week. He won over about 25 of them.

"Some guys accepted it, other guys didn't," Sanchez said. He plans to write letters to the customers who balked to explain the need for a price increase.

At SCP's Van Nuys wholesale store, which caters to pool builders and service companies, a parade of men in shorts, sneakers and sunglasses told similar stories.

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