photo of package pool
Photos courtesy of Bost Pools

Arguably one of the most rapidly-developing success stories in the pool industry is the evolution of the package pool market. Once commonly disparaged as “baggies” or “cookie cutters,” vinyl-lined pools built with modular wall systems are rapidly entering the realm of customized shapes and often include features that were once almost exclusively the province of concrete vessels.

The use of variable-speed pumps, along with control systems, in-floor cleaning systems, heat pumps, chemical treatment technology and custom lighting designs now define a class of package-pool dealers that are effectively competing in the custom market, particularly in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Pool construction experts in these and other areas now proudly offer efficiently built and equipped systems to meet increasingly sophisticated homeowners who want luxury, but at reduced operating costs.

These builders believe the time has come to set aside past presumptions about vinyl and recognize their class of vessels can deliver most, if not all, of the benefits today’s homeowners demand.

ON THE ADVANCE

According to vinyl pool dealers, there are a number of powerful factors that have contributed to the rapid advance in their segment of the industry. Topping the list is the increased ability to obtain liners in custom shapes and do so far more rapidly and reliably than before.

“What has helped vinyl become what it is today is technology that supports the design and production processes,” says Dan Lenz, vice president of Chicago-area builder All Season Pools & Spas. “Twenty-five years ago, we started out building mostly rectangles because it was often difficult to convey what you’re doing to the manufacturer. We actually used to mail Polaroids, which was incredibly slow and unreliable. Now I can use my smartphone to snap a picture and send it to my suppliers instantly, or email a set of plans. On the manufacturer end, the computerized design and production process enables them to respond to the information more quickly and produce liners to our exact measurements.”

Lenz does not pine for the old days when liners used to be a month or six-week process from the time of order to delivery, and points to the increased speed of delivery and product accuracy as big reasons his firm has been able to step into the custom market. “Today,” he says, “we can have a liner delivered in less than a week if necessary. It’s such a change and so much easier, these days we don’t hesitate in the least to get involved in custom designs. We welcome those projects.”

That level of responsiveness and design flexibility has enabled many in the vinyl market to keep pace with changes in the consumer landscape, which has become both more cost-conscious and more demanding for advanced features, even in markets where concrete pools are a rarity.

“In our market, 90 percent of pools are vinyl,” explains James Bost of Bost Pools in Spencer, N.C. “We only have one gunite crew within 50 miles, so there’s a cost and time factor that makes vinyl pools much more practical in our area. And the vast majority of our projects are custom, with prices in the 30- to $40,000 range or higher.”

Bost reports that approximately a third of his projects include attached features such as spas, arcing and laminar jets or waterfalls, while custom shapes have become the norm instead of the rare exception. “We’ve been using the systems from Fox Pools for 25 years and are very happy that we can use the galvanized, powder-coated wall system and custom liner shapes to build just about any kind of pool our customers want.”

According to Bost, increased interest in custom designs is a reflection of the economic conditions that have defined buying patterns in his market over the past five years. “It used to be that anyone who had a job could buy a pool,” he says, “but with the banks still not loaning money, the only people who are buying pools in our area are the ones with money, and those are the same people who demand more in terms of custom features and design. They want automation, waterfalls, stone decks and many of the things more traditionally associated with custom, concrete pools.”

MOVING INTO VARIABLE SPEED

The demand for advanced design and function has prompted builders to embrace the cutting edge of pump/motor technology. That might surprise people who assume the higher price tag and expanded functionality of variable speed pumps would limit their use to high-end custom gunite or shotcrete pools.

That assumption, say these builders, is headed for the trash bin.

“We make VSP technology available to all our customers and in some cases we almost insist upon it,” says Lenz. “Even though the pump is more expensive, it’s cheaper than installing multiple one or two-speed pumps and we’ve found they last longer. You use fewer pumps to start with and replace them much less often.”

Bost agrees that the extended service life of VSPs offers a huge benefit to cost-conscious clients. “I’m historically very concerned with what it takes to burn up a pump,” he says, “because that’s always been the weakest component of the pool. So when Pentair introduced the IntelliFlo and explained how it differed from standard pumps, I was immediately interested in the product.”

Bost first became intrigued after attending a presentation on the technology offered by his manufacturer, Fox Pools, in January 2007. “I could see right away that VSP technology is designed to address all of the things that cause pumps to fail, such as heat. I left that meeting with one of those pumps, and when I put it on one of the pools I was building at the time and watched it operate, I was in awe. You could turn it down to whatever speed you need and immediately, you see savings.

“From that point on,” he adds, “I switched all of my efforts to selling the VSP pumps. It’s a game changer.”

Lenz reports that he too was on board with the technology from the time of its introduction to the industry:

“I first used a VSP in late 2006 on my own pool,” he recalls. “It’s vinyl-lined, manufactured by Pacific Pools and shaped like Mickey Mouse. It has a number of features including a couple of stone waterfalls, deck jets and laminars. I was originally planning on using multiple pumps to run everything, but after talking with our local Pentair rep, I found I was able to run all of the features all with one pump, and then realize tremendous energy savings when we were just running the filtration system. It was the best of both worlds.”

Even for builders who are newer to VSP technology, the transition has been all encompassing. According to Jay Broyer, sales manager for Precision Pools in Amesbury, Mass., “We started using the IntelliPro in 2011. By 2012, every pool we installed had one. The technology is standard on all of the pool packages we offer. It’s a no-brainer. With the energy savings and control the technology gives you, it just makes sense.”

The transition to VSP technology has given Broyer’s firm a significant advantage in his market. “It really sets us apart because in our region other vinyl dealers aren’t doing it. That might change at some point, but it’s great to be ahead of the curve because we have direct experience with the technology and fully understand the benefits.

“It’s a perfect fit for us,” he adds, “because most of our customers have been to our website and understand the higher-end work we’re doing already.”

BEFORE AND AFTER

These builders, all of whom have service divisions, report that the use of VSPs has spread to both the new construction market as well as the replacement aftermarket with some important distinctions. Although including VSPs in new construction has become a matter of packaging them as part of their new project proposals – where the pump is simply part of the overall price of the pool and less of an issue for homeowners – selling them in the aftermarket can be more challenging because the comparative costs between standard pump and VSP units is immediately apparent.

“Because they cost more, I do have to convince some customers who have existing two-speed pumps,” says Bost. “In our market, I’ve calculated that homeowners will save anywhere between $300 and $1000 each year. And because I’ve yet to have one go out in more than six years, they’re not paying for pump replacement.

“Almost without exception,” he adds, “my clients come back and tell me that they love the savings, how quiet the pumps are and how much more they’re able to enjoy the water.”

By contrast with new construction, Lenz adds, “You have the advantage of telling the customer not only will they save energy, they also save money because we can use only one pump to operate multiple systems.”

According to Broyer, after-market sales are often driven by negative experiences existing pool owners have had with cost and water quality. “In the past, with energy costs going up and the economy down, we’ve had a number of people complain that they can only afford to run their systems four hours a day, and it’s no surprise they have all sorts of problems with algae and water clarity,” he says. “But when they learn that they can now run their system 24 hours a day, and still save money, they’re thrilled. The water is being filtered constantly and chemically treated; they’re able to more fully enjoy their pools.”

“In terms of ROI, we’re a bit hindered here in Chicago because of the seasons,” says Lenz. “But even so, we’re able to confidently tell people they’ll pay for the pump easily in two or three seasons and then start putting money back in their pocket. That usually gets their attention.”

FRUGALITY AND FUNCTION

Although saving money on energy is arguably the single biggest reason customers of all stripes are open to the VSP concept, the additional benefits that stem from being able to run systems longer is also a huge factor.

“Water quality is a huge issue for all of our customers,” Broyer says. “Naturally, anyone who owns a pool wants the water to be safe and aesthetically pleasing. No one wants to trade off between energy savings and great water quality. Now with this technology, they can have both. That holds true for homeowners with a simple vinyl pool or someone with the most expensive gunite pool.”

“When homeowners can operate their systems for longer periods at lower cost, they are free to enjoy their pools with less worry about cost and maintenance,” agrees Bost. “That’s why the variable speed technology is so outstanding and why it’s the only type of pump I put on any of my new pools and why I’m always working to replace two-speed motors with VSPs. It makes for happier customers because the technology enhances their experience on multiple levels.”

Indeed, the relationship between operating cost and water quality not only applies in a daily, weekly or monthly context, but according to Lenz, it plays a major role managing the seasonal cycles as well. “Traditionally the open season is Memorial Day to Labor Day. We’ve found, however, that if you wait that long to the open the pool,” he explains, “the water’s already warmed up and you’re going to have issues with algae right at the start of the season, because the system hasn’t been running. That’s no way to start the swim season.”

As a result, Lenz urges his customers to open their pools in early spring, despite some resistance. “We’ve had some pushback from clients who don’t want to run their systems two months when the pool’s not in use,” he says. “Now we can tell them that the operating cost will be dramatically reduced, pennies a day, so extending the open season becomes more affordable. They can start using their pools earlier and will avoid the service and water quality issues you’ll have by waiting longer. We’re able to tell them what they’ll save in chemical cost will more than offset the added cost of running the pool for an additional six weeks.”

On the other end of the season, when its closing time, Lenz says they make the same recommendation or the same reasons: “If you shut it down on Labor Day, the pool is going sit and bake under the cover in warm weather, and the algae is going to grow and be waiting for you, even if you open it early. So it makes great sense to leave the pool open on both ends of the season. Otherwise, you might wind up spending hundreds of dollars in chemicals to restore the water quality.”

Broyer adds that by combining VSP technology with heat pumps, another of his company’s cost-saving programs, clients are doubly more apt to extend their swimming season. “We have customers who open their pools much earlier and will keep them open as long as October,” he says.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.