With millions of Americans finding even more ways to have fun at home this summer, thousands of pool service professionals stayed quite busy. Dave Hawes, owner of H & H Pool Services in Dublin, Calif., says cooperative weather this pool season resulted in a slew of jobs for him and his staff.
"When people found out their neighbor was putting in a variable-speed pump to save money, they wanted one," he says. "I was walking from house to house installing them.
"We've been real lucky in the service business," Hawes adds, "because once the water is in, they've got to do something with it. We're on the hook for the next 20 years."
In this economy, that's a good thing. It means the phone is still ringing because homeowners need a professional to service and fix their pools. In some cases, however, cash-strapped pool owners attempt to fix their pools themselves, often with poor results, and a professional is called in to remedy the situation.
Hawes does not get many of these calls because he educates his home-owners up front. "When we're doing orientations on equipment, I always want my homeowners to just really respect what's back there and understand that it's like cars now - you just can't work on your own car anymore. We educate homeowners on the complexity of the equipment they have, especially with these variable-speed pumps and the automation and electronic circuitry. I'm hoping this education will translate into the homeowner thinking, 'When I have a problem, unless I can push a button and make it all better, I'm going to call Dave and have him come out because he is the expert on this particular system.'"
Most of the time, the pitch works. However, Hawes does occasionally get called to fix a DIY project gone awry. "If it involves electricity or gas, like the heater, most people don't want to venture in there. They'll stay away from that. But if it involves wrenching, like a filter or a pump, they may try it," says Hawes, who has helped a couple of pool owners who bought a pump online, tried to install it themselves and ended up with a costly mess. "When we came out, we found they had the wrong fittings in there, and they cut out the wrong section. All of a sudden what would have been a nice and easy job turns into a rather complicated one."
Even though the homeowners in these situations would have been wiser to call Hawes in the first place - as it would have saved them both time and money - he never berates or derides them. "Ultimately, if we are respectful, and we gain their trust and respect, there's a good chance that the next time they have an opportunity to save $100 by buying off the Internet, they will realize that they'll have to install it themselves and deal with this and that, or they can just call Dave and get it done quickly and they don't have to worry about it." Hawes has noticed that if his clients buy equipment online and the installation doesn't go well, they never try it again.
Last summer, Hawes recalls visiting a client who didn't call him before installing a pool sweep: "I was looking at the cleaner, and I knew the homeowner had put it in. We've done repairs for him for probably 10 years, but he didn't buy the cleaner from me. I didn't say much, except to acknowledge I noticed it. I told him that whoever put the cleaner in did not follow the manufacturer's specifications for cutting the hose and that could impact its performance a little bit in the pool.
"At that point he says, 'I put it in.' I said, 'I know, I was just trying to be polite.' He just busted up laughing. I knew he put it in, but I'm not going to berate him, even though inside I'm thinking, 'If you'd have called me for the sweep, I actually install the sweeps for free for my clients, and then it would have been done correctly.'"
Treating customers with respect and helping them in any way you can is critical during these tough economic times, says Harry Downes, owner of AAA Full Line Pool Service in Northbrook, Ill. In fact, last spring, Downes walked a client through opening his own pool for free.
"I've taken care of this guy for seven years, and when he didn't call to schedule his opening this spring, I called him and he said, 'Times are kind of hard and I'm going to try to do it myself.' I told him that's great, and then I told him how to do a drain and clean. I also told him how to do an acid wash - the safe way to do it: to add acid to water. I reminded him to be very careful about the staining and the decking, and that when he gets that pool emptied, to immediately get that hydrostatic up and out and make sure water is coming out. And if you have any kind of problem, I said, get on the horn and call me.
"Well, it took the guy two days to drain and clean his pool. Then he called me and told me it's not coming clean. I said, 'Yeah, sometimes it gets stained.' He ended up acid washing it three times, and as a matter of fact, I ran into him at the hardware store, and he said the stains were not coming off, so I told him to try liquid chlorine after he'd washed everything down and rinsed everything really well, so there's no acid residue. A lot of times, if you pour chlorine on it, it'll solve the problem. I sold him two cases of liquid, and away he went. Then he called me up and said he's got tile damage, and he asked what to do. I gave him the name of a place where he could get some material and he ended up taking five days to do the tile job.
"During the whole time, I was not antagonistic. I didn't say, 'You'll see how hard it is. You'll see why my bills are as high as they are because when I clean your pool, I come out there with my tile man, drain it, do all the tile work the same day and away we go.'
"Anyway, when he got it all done," says Downes, "he calls me up and he says, 'Why don't you come out and take care of the pool for the rest of the summer. I think it'd be better that way.'
"If I had been antagonistic and had made fun of him, maybe he would have just gone to another guy. But I was genuinely trying to help him because I didn't want him to fail. I didn't want his pool to pop out of the ground, and I didn't want him to have acid in his eye. I think people can sense when someone is actually trying to help them succeed. I mean, this guy was calling me on Saturdays and Sundays, and I called him back. If we have a bad attitude in this economy, people are going to remember that."
While Downes knows it would save homeowners lots of time and aggravation if they simply called him, an experienced professional, he also has empathy for folks in a financial crunch. "Our average customer spends $3,500 to $4,500 a year for us to take care of their pool, and they're looking at that and they think, 'I can take care of it myself,' and in reality, they're going to cause some damage because there's a learning curve. It's not that they're not smart enough to take care of their pool; they just haven't learned what I've learned. I do this eight hours a day, six days a week."
Filter care and cleaning is historically one area of pool maintenance that's split between service professionals and homeowners, says Hawes. Because of this, almost weekly Hawes gets a call from a homeowner who recently hosed off his cartridges and put the filter back together, only to find the cleaner doesn't work. "We go out, and sure enough, we pull the filter apart and see they didn't put the collection manifold in there correctly, so all kinds of debris bypassed the filter, went out to the pool and plugged up the pool sweep."
This situation is a minor problem and relatively easy to fix when compared to a filter blow off. This dangerous and sometimes fatal situation can occur if the filter clamp is not tight enough, or if air is not bleeding out of the tank as it's designed to do. The compressed air can blow the lid off, potentially injuring or killing someone. "The lid would be like a missile if the pressure got high enough," says Mike Ryno, owner of Blue Surf Pools in Scottsdale, Ariz. Filters may seem innocuous, but you have to be really careful, he adds.
While Hawes doesn't want filter care concerns to scare people away from owning pools, he does hope filter blow offs help homeowners realize that pool service is, as he puts it, not like cleaning the cat box. "They need to know why they might want to hire a professional."
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