Brian Kelly knew the Florida Commercial Pool and Spa Exam wouldn’t be easy.

The president of Shamrock Pool Services in North Lauderdale, Fla., took several days off to study, and managed to pass the test. But to earn his state contractor’s license, he also had to pass the Florida Business and Finance exam, a marathon mouse-clicking session that lasted almost 7 hours. Kelly was one of the few who passed on the first try.

“It wasn’t an easy test,” he says. “But I thought it was fair and beneficial to the general public.”

Several states, including Florida, Texas and California, have now adopted regulations requiring any tech who does more than pool cleaning to be licensed in some way.

However, no two states divide their licensed service personnel into quite the same classifications, or organize their tests in the same manner. Here, we examine the process of obtaining a license in three different states, through the experiences of industry professionals who crossed the finish line.

Washington

When the state of Washington introduced the National Electrical Code as its exam standard, even veteran techs agreed that the requirements became a real challenge.

“Almost nobody passes the exam, even an electrician who’s been active in the field,” says Phil Holt, manager of Leisure Pool-n-Spa, LLC in Kennewick, Wash. “It’s just so much material.”

When Washington introduced the NEC licensing requirements, Holt took advantage of his years in the industry: He submitted an affidavit of experience to the state, and was issued a temporary license pending his passing the NEC-based exam. But even this proved to be a difficult hurdle.

“The only way you can become licensed in Washington is to become an electrical administrator,” he explains. “This means you have to hire or be an electrician, and to do that, you have to have training, which you can only get under a journeyman electrician. So, you’d have to hire somebody to train under, just to start the process of becoming legal. Becoming licensed in this state is nearly impossible.”

The test itself was equally perplexing for Holt. “When I went to take the exam,” he says, “I failed on the first attempt, because it had everything to do with wiring a building, and nothing to do with repairing a spa. We don’t bring wires to [the spa]; we aren’t electricians. There’s nothing [on the test] for anybody who’s been in the spa repair business.”

After some additional studying, Holt was able to pass the exam, which qualifies him to work as a maintenance electrician. “I can do electrical repair work that’s not associated with swimming pools and spas,” he says. “So I’m now licensed to do every type of electrical work except the kind I need to do.”

Texas

In 2003, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation adopted the NEC as its statewide exam standard. The state also stepped up license enforcement efforts in major cities. This crackdown led to friction between officials and pool industry groups, such as the Aquatic Professionals Education Council, who opposed what they saw as a bias toward non-pool-related electrical questions on the certification exams.

In early 2007, APEC began working with TDLR to develop the Residential Appliance Installer license, a certification relevant to both electrical work and pool service. Thanks to cooperation between both groups, March 2010 saw the official adoption of this revised set of testing standards.

“When the governor signed [the measure], that was when people [in the industry] realized that they needed to start working toward getting licensed,” says Noel Conley, owner of Miracle Pool Service in Garland, Texas. “The first thing I did was buy [a copy of] the NEC 2008. I started studying it, bought some other electrical books, and took some training classes. I went out there and crossed my fingers, and hoped I could pass the test the first time.”

And pass he did; in fact, Conley was one of the first techs in his state to be officially licensed under the new standard. Since then, he’s devoted much of his time to spreading helpful information about the exam to other techs. But Conley, a longtime supporter of industry licensing, isn’t just trying to keep people out of trouble.

“Licensing was something I’d thought we needed even before I knew we were working illegally,” he says. “There are people out there who will disagree with me, but if you’re working with line voltage, it’s important that it’s not just anybody doing the job.”

Florida

In the state of Florida, simply cleaning a pool requires no special license. However, a service license is necessary for any tech wishing to perform work on mechanical components, such as the pump or filter. In addition, separate electrical and gas licenses are also necessary for any tech performing such work.

“Florida has decided to take a strong licensing point of view,” says Jennifer Hatfield, director of government and public affairs for the Florida Swimming Pool Association. “The state has had all sorts of licensing categories in place for years.”

Of all the states with specific licensing requirements, Florida seems to be the most proactive about educating techs on the exam expectations. “The state will give you a list of books that your exam’s based on,” says Steve Bludsworth, owner of All-Pool Service & Supply in Orlando, Fla. “And there are schools that teach you about the exams.”

Florida’s testing standards are as high as its organizational strictness. “I think some of the testing requirements may be the most stringent in the state of Florida,” Kelly says. “To even sit for the [commercial contractor] test, you have to have a contractor’s license in good standing for five years or more.”

After the industry-specific test comes the Florida Business and Finance exam, which covers state accounting and business law, and often takes nearly 7 hours to complete. Though no tech would deny that the test is tough, Kelly says its range of questions was fair.

In fact, he sees the test’s difficulty as a positive: “I think it’s beneficial to the people of the state of Florida,” he says. “If you’re going to be a contractor in this state, you’ve got to be good, from here on in.”

Looking forward

Licensing is spreading to new states at a gradual pace, but experts agree that it’s here to stay.

The Northeast Spa & Pool Association has already introduced a measure for builders’ licenses into the Connecticut legislature. And New York may not be far behind, says Larry Caniglia, NESPA’s executive director in Hamilton, N.J. “I do think it’s going to expand across at least our region, and ultimately across the country,” he explains.

However, the expansion isn’t likely to come off without a hitch. “Look at the economy across the country,” says Hatfield, who also works as a government affairs associate for APSP. “There’s a trend toward less regulation, not more, because people don’t want any barriers to someone’s ability to make a living. With the economy the way it is, you may see some states being a little hesitant for regulation like licensing.”

As more state legislatures address licensing, Hatfield plans to continue researching the pros and cons of various state codes. She’s now working to assemble a model code template, which she hopes will be flexible enough to spark legislative discussion across the country. “It’s not something that we’re going to go and try to force on people,” she says, “it’s just that we’ve had members in different states tell us they want licensing. I think it could be a positive in many ways.”