It’s a cold January day in Massachusetts. Steve White stands over a winterized pool with an 18-inch chain saw in hand. His dry suit is heavy but keeps him somewhat warm. Underneath the taut winter cover is 5 inches of ice that he needs to cut through. White is there to fix a potentially broken hydrostatic valve that’s causing his customer’s pool to leak. If it keeps going, the brand new vinyl liner will be compromised.
As with most things in life, this dramatic scene was only part of the job.
“It was 10 minutes in the water, but it was a ton of preparation,” says White.
In the world of scuba-diving service technicians, the occasional ice dive is par for the course. If a fix is needed, you go into the water.
These professionals make up a very specialized segment within the industry, but one that is well-appreciated.
“It’s hard to find scuba divers that are willing to subject their equipment to the chlorination of the swimming pools,” says Jana Auringer, a member of the Board of Directors for the National Plaster Council. “That’s one issue that I had when trying to find a diver to do repairs.”
Not only are these professionals willing to dive into ice if needed, but they comprise a group of highly independent, diverse and innovative professionals. Here, we look at this group of mavericks.
It seems scuba techs embrace their niche.
Most did not start in the pool industry but hail from unrelated fields and managed to turn a passion and skill for diving into a business.
SEE MORE:How They Got Here
None of the divers interviewed do ordinary repair work — no pumps or heaters, nothing on the deck. It’s all underwater for them. “I can do some of that,” says Kevin Wallace, president of Underwater Unlimited in Encinitas, Calif. “I’m so busy with [dive] work that I very seldom do that.”
In general, their services fall under three categories of repair: leaks, plaster delamination, and structural issues, often including rebar. Since the 2008 passage of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, drain-cover replacement has been a large component as well.
While White’s company will do ordinary repairs, he reserves his own time for underwater and has techs from his service, repair and retail company perform dry-land services. That work wasn’t in his original business plan, but was an unintended byproduct of his diving.
“The diving has opened up a lot for us over the years,” he says.
For at least one scuba tech, staying underwater is part of a gentleman’s agreement. Drew Anderson, president of Scuba Pool Repair in Campbell, Calif., has assured local IPSSA members that he will not do repairs above water, in the hopes that dry-ground techs will reciprocate.
“... What they do is what they do,” he says. “I would never even consider taking work off [their] plate.”
Doing things their way
Over the years, many divers have developed their own techniques and even invented their own tools for repair. It’s the secret sauce of the business.
Most everyone has their own proprietary mix that they use for filling gaps or holes during repairs.
But there are other, more specific, examples. White related an incident where he had to remove leaves from the bottom of a commercial pool. He devised an underwater leaf blower that could push leaves into one corner so they could be bagged in the water and hauled out.
To hone new inventions or techniques, and assess their viability, Anderson and his staff conduct research and development in their own test tank. “No techniques are run [in the field] unless they’re proven in the shop,” Anderson says.
But on the flip side of such individuality, this group often plays it close to the vest when it comes to disclosing their tricks of the trade. They’re quite protective of their niche. “No one is out there necessarily sharing techniques,” Anderson says.
Like many in the industry, some divers fear that sharing their secrets will fuel unwanted competition, or they feel burned from past experiences.
“I’ve trained a few others that are running around now,” Wallace says. “I’ve discontinued training because you create competition.”
For others, the concern may be safety. “I don’t necessarily want to encourage people to do these things underwater by themselves,” Anderson says.
Others just find it difficult to train on something that has become second nature. While White has trained and taught on the service side, he finds it difficult to prime others for underwater repair.
“The diving really became a unique, separate thing,” he says.
On the issues
As part of their independent mindset, scuba techs differ in their attitudes concerning some of the most important issues in their field: training and safe practices.
Generally, they agree on the basics of safety: Divers should be in good health and fit enough to work underwater. Everyone recommends becoming certified by organizations such as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors or National Association of Underwater Instructors.
But opinions differ on whether to have a spotter or, in diver lingo, a tender on hand.
Wallace dives alone but says it would be better to dive with a tender.
owever, he adds, “You’re not diving 80 feet. You’re in 3- to 5 feet of water quite often, and it’s not something you need to be particularly concerned with.”
Anderson strongly disagrees and refuses to dive or send out a diver without a tender. “Working alone underwater is dangerous and it simply should not be done,” he says. “... It doesn’t matter how shallow or how brief the dive. We have a redundant dive system. Sometimes we have a communications system.”
His approach is quite strict when it comes to his crew. He only hires professionals who have been certified. And even then they don’t get in the water right away. His crew operates under a four-tier training progression.
At level one, divers can only go in and do things like main-drain swap outs, vacuuming and maybe main-drain frame cut ins. Generally, it takes three years on his crew to reach the fourth level, and all divers start out as tenders.
Wallace took a similar approach: When he trained divers he wouldn’t let them in the pool unless they had at least a year of diving experience. “Ultimately, I’m liable for it,” he says.
Thinking in such terms, taking into consideration the welfare of both the divers and the business, didn’t come naturally to this group. But over the years they’ve learned to meld vocation with avocation.
“It took me a long time to make the [mindset] switch,” Anderson says. “I’m not just a pool diver, I’m diver and business owner.”