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Staying afloat by doing your own pool cleaning

Owners are wading into the murky realm of chemicals and pH. 'It's not very hard,' says one. Could be unsanitary, says a trade group.

August 16, 2008|Conor L. Sanchez | Times Staff Writer

Victor Pineda has found a pile of money in a hole in his Whittier backyard.

Pineda fired his pool maintenance serviceman after the price rose to $72 from $65 a month, which didn't include filter cleaning or pump maintenance. That works out to nearly $900 in savings a year. Now he purchases chemicals every nine months to sustain appropriate levels of chlorine and pH.

"It's not very hard to do it yourself," said Pineda, who has owned his pool since 1998. "I think I'm doing a good job. It's probably the only time during the week I can have to myself, but don't tell that to my wife."

It's hard out there for a pool boy.

The glamorous lifestyle of a Southern California pool cleaner has always been more myth than reality, and this summer it's been anything but a lazy backstroke. Rising transportation and raw-material costs have forced the industry, from manufacturer to pool cleaner, to increase prices. At the same time, sales are diving because pool owners are looking to save a few dollars by holding off on repairs or maintaining the pool themselves.

Danny Wurman services 18 pools a day, driving from his home in Sherman Oaks to the multimillion-dollar mansions of the Hollywood Hills and the suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. He easily racks up more than $600 in gasoline costs every month. This summer Wurman has increased prices 8% to pay for higher fuel and material costs.

"I try not to charge too much or else they will not hire me," said Wurman, who is originally from Argentina. "But everything is more expensive, so you need to optimize as much as you can."

The 51-year-old pool serviceman said some customers were purchasing equipment online and installing it themselves. As a result, he's stepped up his game -- being on call at all hours, taking classes to improve his expertise and establishing stronger relationships with his current customers.

Thomas Cox, owner of a pool repair and installation service called TRC Enterprises, said, "Business is definitely not what it used to be. Customers say they've been on tight budgets. A lot of people who were scheduled for new equipment have canceled and decided to just let it sit for a few more months."

In the 38 years Cox has worked as a serviceman, this is the steepest decline in sales he has ever experienced. The entrepreneur, who started TRC Enterprises in 1993, began noticing a slowdown about a year ago but only recently has seen it "getting really serious," with sales dropping 40% to 50% for the Simi Valley company. Pool-supply orders usually kick in around late April, he said, but through June and July, customers were still reluctant to spend on repairs.

Said Don Dustin of his backyard pool, "If I didn't have it, I'd be a lot happier right now."

Dustin, 73, has owned the pool since he bought his Eagle Rock home in 1949. In the last two years, hired maintenance has jumped 20% to $70 a month, forcing him to retire his gas-fueled pool heater.

"If I had the resources, I'd get a solar panel to power the pool, but I don't," he said.

The California Spa and Pool Industry Education Council is worried by the increase in do-it-yourself pool maintenance.

The Sacramento trade group's biggest concern is that pool owners who are trying to save on pool service could create a hazard if they aren't properly trained to keep their pool's water sanitary.

"People are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals they're using and trying to save a few dollars, but it's shortsighted because you'll eventually have a big problem," President Donald Burns said. "It will become unsanitary, and that's nothing you want your kids swimming in."

Adding to the industry sales drain is an escalation in prices for materials including petroleum-based products, chemicals and plastic hoses, which distributors pass on to pool workers and pool workers to pool owners. HASA Inc., a water-cleaning product manufacturer based in Saugus, has told customers that it is raising prices on several products because global demand for water-cleaning chemicals is outstripping supply. Especially in the developing world, demand for chlorine is growing for the production of plastics, pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, bleaches and insecticides.

"This is not a good thing," HASA President Mark Wilson said. "I've never raised prices in the summer before. It's a worldwide crunch."

For example, a pool conditioner made from a chemical called isocyanuric acid jumped to 98 cents a pound from 58 cents in July. Contributing to the increase was the closing of several isocyanuric acid plants in Beijing in an attempt to reduce pollution during the Olympic Games, Wilson said.

Swimming Pool Supply, a wholesale distributorship in West Los Angeles, brings in about $4 million in annual revenue, but at the end of this year that figure could decrease by as much as 20%, owner Marty Nelson said.

"For customers, money is going into the gas can and to get food in their mouths," Nelson said. "And for the pool man, he has to raise prices to survive."

The 73-year-old Century City native, who started the distributing company in 1965, has been in the business for nearly 50 years. The company's customer base includes pool service workers, who account for 80% of its sales. Recently, however, pool owners looking to avoid paying a pool cleaner have inquired about maintenance, wanting to learn how to clean a filter or remove algae.

"The pool man," Nelson said, "is going to be in a world of hurt."

--

conor.sanchez@latimes.com

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