Rob Sanger estimates that 60 percent of all swimming pool service repair work in Florida is being done by unlicensed technicians.
The president of Galaxy Pools in Sarasota, Fla., said the culprits are largely single operators — “one-polers” he calls them — who are violating the law each time they pick up a tool or turn a wrench on a piece of pool or spa equipment.
“The frustration is growing,” Sanger said. “People are losing business. It’s a very unfair playing field we’re dealing with, and we’re getting tired of it.”
Florida does not regulate pool professionals who only perform water treatment or cleaning services, but does require a swimming pool/spa servicing contractor’s license for “piping and repairs, replacement and repair of existing equipment, or installation of new additional equipment as necessary,” according to state law. This includes work on chemical feeders, filters and heaters, replastering, and renovation of decks, coping and tile replacement.
Meanwhile, new-pool permits in Florida are trending only slightly higher this year than in 2010, according to the latest data. In the big picture, that means construction statewide is still approximately 70 percent below the peak years of 2005-06.
But service remains a bright spot in the state’s otherwise overcast landscape. And the influx of competition to the field — much of it unlawful — has established professionals crying foul.
“It’s tough to compete on price with someone who doesn’t have to carry insurance or keep up with continuing education credits,” said Dominick Montanaro, owner of M&M Pools in Satellite Beach, Fla. “It’s actually been festering for several years now, but nobody’s done anything about it. We’ve got a broken system here.”
Service technicians point to a number of factors contributing to the current environment. Supply houses, they said, rarely turn away business regardless of whether the customer possesses a valid license. Others said local and county code officials often claim such matters are beyond their jurisdictions.
Even financial institutions are feeding the problem, said Rich Tarricone, president of Aquatic Pool Systems in North Port, Fla.
“I had an argument with the bank not long ago about using unlicensed contractors to work on pools of foreclosed homes,” he recalled. “They’re getting bids from these guys that are at least a couple hundred dollars less than they should be. What’s the value of our pool license if there’s no enforcement?”
Some have expressed discontent with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which has licensing authority over pool and spa servicing contractors.
In the past year, the department received 95 unlicensed pool contractor complaints, according to Deputy Communications Director Beth Frady. In addition to conducting regular stings, DBPR agents deliver cease-and-desist notices, and may issue fines up to $5,000 per violation, when businesses are found to be operating illegally, she added.
“Identifying and stopping unlicensed activity is one of the department’s priorities,” Frady said via email, “and we appreciate any and all support available from the licensed industry, including complaint referrals, etc.”
Still, service professionals contend that such notifications have fallen on deaf ears of late. And when pool contractor cases do make it to the state attorney’s office, prosecutions seem miniscule when compared with the scope of unlicensed activity.
Indeed, it’s created the rare occasion where an industry now is calling for more effective government intervention and enforcement of its members.
But in a state where competition is growing fiercer and more lopsided by the day, greater supervision might just be the best route to survival.
“There may be an attitude in Tallahassee against regulation,” Sanger said, “but when the industry is asking for it, they really should listen.”