The 1990s were a decade of transition — not just for the pool and spa industry, but for the rest of the world, as well.
As we sped toward the new millennium, everything seemed to be changing. Events such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the launch of the Hubble Telescope and even a cloned sheep showed us that so much more was now possible.
Pool & Spa News’ coverage in the ’90s reflected the unique shift that occurred in the industry during that decade, spanning the gap from an early, more quaint pool and spa business into the modern industry we know today.
A growing concern about water safety, the advent of many new technologies and the role of female pool and spa professionals were major issues of the day, but nearly all aspects of the business were markedly different by 1999.
A push for safety
The 1990s is when water safety became more than just a cursory
concern for the consumer — it became a movement.
Quoting the Oxtoby-Smith study in June 1990, Pool & Spa
News noted that “two-thirds of those in the market for a
pool had concerns related to the safety of children, [and] more
consumers are concerned about safety now than in the
“Pool-baiting safety advocates,” as we dubbed them,
took that message to heart, inundating the mainstream media with
horror stories. In 1991, the magazine’s then-editor Jim
McCloskey wrote, “Recently, I saw a story that backyard pools
in Arizona had been branded as ‘serial killers’ in an
educational campaign.” The damaging sentiment was picked up
by the Los Angeles Times.
The public’s perception of the industry’s product was
such a concern that William Sadd, then-executive director of the
National Spa & Pool Institute, appeared with Bryant Gumbel on
NBC’s “Today Show” to share the industry’s
message of safety. There, he told millions of viewers that water
safety is “everybody’s problem.”
The next year, the organization’s legal counsel, Dave Karmol,
appeared on the quintessential ’90s talk show “Sally
Jessy Raphael” to meet with parents of drowning
As pool and spa professionals grappled with this public perception,
a new safety-related concern was about to rear its head.
In May 1996, the drowning of a New Jersey teenager in a health-club
spa put the issue of suction entrapment squarely in the public
As a result of 16-year-old Tanya Nickens’ death, the media
spotlight turned to the pool industry for answers, while
home-owners reconsidered the safety of their own backyard
The industry got an early glimpse of SVRS-type devices from a 1996
headline that declared, “Invention could prevent suction
By December of that year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission
had proposed a new set of standards aimed at preventing future
The industry got on board as well, performing tests in 1997
“designed to determine whether a dual-main-drain system with
a maximum water velocity of 6 feet per second would be a
satisfactory solution to the problem of evisceration.”
That October, CPSC released official guidelines for avoiding such
incidents. Meanwhile, the mother of an 11-year-old entrapment
victim announced plans to campaign for “Kelsey’s
Law” to be passed in late ’98. But it would be years
before another child’s tragedy inspired federal action.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the pool industry during the
’90s was an avalanche of new technology that culminated with
the Internet. In fall 1990, Pool & Spa News printed
stories such as “Taking Your Business On-line” —
which at the time only meant sorting data on a computer system.
Most of America had no idea what the term “online”
would come to mean in a few short years.
Early in the decade, a handful of builders had discovered
computer-aided design systems, and “CAD” became the
industry’s new buzzword. We reported that such technology was
“doubling closing ratios,” and that it “amazes
consumers, dazzles architects and makes the designer’s task
The real shake-up, of course, came with the introduction of the
World Wide Web. The first hint of this nebulous portal in Pool
& Spa News was a 1995 computer survey, where we
tentatively asked readers, “Do you use any on-line
services?” (answer choices included CompuServ, AOL and
Prodigy) and “How much more involved [in technology] do you
plan to get in the future?”
Later that year, we wrote that many distributors were “still
trying to decide whether or how to merge onto the information
superhighway.” Now it seems impossible that these hubs of
pool and spa product dissemination would be able to function
without the Internet.
In an editorial column around that time, McCloskey announced that
the magazine had joined the technological revolution with its very
own email address. The industry as a whole became exposed to the
Web when NSPI launched its official site in 1995. By ’96, Pool & Spa News
had debuted an entire Website, which was referred to as the
But despite these advances, the magazine was still wary of the new
online realm. “The Internet is hard to describe and even
harder to believe,” we wrote. Articles such as “Coming
to Grips with Tomorrow” reflected the discomfort many older
professionals felt with the rapidly advancing technology.
Still, some industry members saw potential. NSPI’s Carvin
DiGiovanni predicted “eventually, long-distance education and
training will be available on the Internet, another useful tool for
any pool builder or service company.”
Manufacturers became the online pioneers of the industry, and we
even published an index listing all 75 pool product firms with
Websites as of summer ’96.
That number soon grew exponentially, and by 1997 computers were so
ubiquitous that they became competition. An article called
“Harnessing the Future” asked, “Will it be a spa
— or a computer? Your customers are trying to
Women in the industry
The ’90s also served as a bridge between the past’s
marginalization of women in the industry to the more equal footing
enjoyed by female pool professionals today.
Though the visuals presented in ads recalled the excess of the
’80s, this decade kicked off with one big difference for
women. In 1990, Linda Speaks was the first female to be named a
chapter president of the Independent Pool & Spa Service
The election of a woman to a major leadership role would be the
last until the mid-’90s, but the pool industry was beginning
to appreciate the fairer sex as an important customer
The much-lauded Oxtoby-Smith market research study commissioned by
NSPI showed that female consumers played a crucial role in
purchasing pools and spas, and our 1990 series “Spanning the
Gender Gap” used the insight of a half-dozen female pool
professionals to examine how to tap into that market.
“One of the most important things we’ve done to attract
women into the store was to hire another woman to talk to
them,” one saleswoman suggested, a thought that had not
likely occurred to many male store owners before.
But though the industry respected their buying power, the abilities
of women behind these pool firms’ counters were still largely
Things slowly improved, and in 1997 Arlene Stachel became
NSPI’s first female president. But it would be nearly a
decade before another woman duplicated the feat.
Moments in Time - The ’90s
Chuck Whitmer (second from right), then-president of the National Spa & Pool Institute, Bill Sadd (far right), who served as executive vice president at the time, and others teamed up with Gus and Goldie to cut the ribbon at the 1990 NSPI trade show in Anaheim, Calif.
Concerns Rising of Halogen Resistant Microbe
In the early ’90s, utility companies and water-treatment specialists raised the alarm about cryptosporidium. Contrary to what we now know, Pool & Spa News then reported that “this new contagion isn’t yet a source of concern for the pool and spa industry.”
SEA OF SPAS:
At the start of the decade, portable spa shells still tended to resemble those of the ’80s, with marble-like patterns and multicolored swirls.
Women were making strides in the pool industry, but many of them may have been uncomfortable flipping through the pages of Pool & Spa News in the early ’90s. Ads at the time mostly featured women with big hair in tiny bathing suits. The more scantily clad, the better — even
when there didn’t seem to be any connection between the product offered and miles of exposed skin.
“What is an efficient swimming pool?” we asked in 1994, when energy savings were more of a financial concern than an ecological one. Variable-speed pumps and Title 20 were still a long way off.
The Environmental Protection Agency often was seen as a villain in the 1990s, with the threat of new chemical regulations and classifications looming large. A major issue was discussion of chlorine being labeled a pesticide. Dave Karmol, general counsel for NSPI at the time, said, “Right now, [the]
EPA seems to be the most inflexible in some of the regulations it’s creating. … The attitude is kind of like, ‘We’re going to regulate you people because you’re polluters.’”
Tests Show Entrapment Is Preventable
In the mid-1990s, the pool industry got serious about finding solutions to the suction-entrapment problem, suggesting preventive standards years before the Virginia Graeme Baker tragedy.
$6.6 MILLION VERDICT:
The pool industry was dealt a devastating legal blow in 1998 when a Washington court ruled that NSPI was partially liable for the accident that rendered then-16-year-old Shawn Meneely a quadriplegic. In the wake of the decision, the association filed for bankruptcy. A judge later ruled that the plaintiff’s lawyers engaged in a “pattern of attack” against NSPI, which Pool & Spa News declared a “moral victory.”
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