“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The opening line of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities may just as readily describe the current state of specialty finishes. It all depends on the market you serve.
The looming possibility of recession has prompted many new-pool owners to scale back spending. For the masses, this means a return to basics, namely inexpensive options such as marcite, or white plaster.
“One thing I’m seeing as we speak with pool builders
— as we point to the middle- and lower-end of purchases — is a lot of people who aren’t going for upgrades,” says Luke Crofoot, account representative for Minneapolis-based 3M. “Anecdotally, I think people are just defaulting to the standard choice, [which is] white plaster. That’s a symptom of how the economy is pressuring people.”
The storyline shifts, however, with affluent consumers, for whom the evolution of admixtures and pigments has yielded an expanded palette of colors and aggregates.
Newer offerings include glass and ceramic tile, which have gained limited traction in the U.S. market of late. Meanwhile, advanced pigment systems are providing builders and plasterers with myriad color options.
In addition to innovation on the high end, plasterers are buoyed by a steady stream of remodeling work that’s helped offset a dearth of new construction.
At the same time, the National Pool Industry Research Center at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is keeping pool pros up to date on the latest products and information. And this year, the National Plasterers Council released a set of start-up procedures in hopes of encouraging uniform standards industrywide.
Some plasterers are retooling their product lines to accommodate newly price-
conscious consumers. Poolscape Unlimited of Lakeside, Calif., recently began marketing a quartz aggregate as a mid-level alternative to basic white marcite and higher-end pebble.
“We were able to formulate a new trend of pool offerings, which we launched just as the downturn hit,” owner Kirk Chapman says. “It gave [customers] something very durable and pretty, with a lot of options in colors. That was our answer to the slide in the economy.”
Quartz products — as an additive rather than a pre-mixed material — are an attractive option for homeowners on budgets, who may request smaller amounts at lower price points, according to Crofoot.
Though a smaller percentage may limit color options, any amount of quartz aggregate added to a traditional plaster mix should improve durability.
Still, some plasterers have all but abandoned marcite. Only 5 percent of jobs at Pool Works Ltd. in Houston, for instance, call for plain white plaster.
“Apartment or neighborhood pools use the plaster on the cheaper end because they don’t really care for an elegant look,” says Alan Williams, Pool Works president. “But on the high end, you get plaster jobs at $10,000 and [the customer] doesn’t even blink.”
Despite a strong renovation sector, new- pool construction remains tied to overall sales. This means areas such as Arizona, Northern California and Florida’s west coast have lagged, while markets in Texas and the Northeast remain steady.
Indeed, manufacturers believe sales will remain strong, particularly in the burgeoning pool markets of Texas and the East Coast – areas that were traditionally behind the curve in implementing new specialty finishes.
Sales to higher-end builders remain steady despite the downturn, Crofoot says.
Still, with volume down, many are scrambling to supplement lost revenue. The challenge lies in developing new ways to upgrade while maintaining a profitable price point.
Fortunately, today’s builder has numerous color and texture choices.
High-end projects — often with fewer cost constraints — are employing tile with greater frequency. It’s a labor-intensive finish, so adoption has been somewhat stunted stateside. But it’s become a favored material in pools designed for bright, open environments.
“One of our exciting offerings is iridescent glass tile trims on steps, benches and waterlines,” Chapman says. “When the sun refracts off the tile, it really goes off.”
Also gaining momentum are glass beads, Garrett says, citing a larger trend of plasterers using more silicon-type aggregates, typically more durable than the alternatives.
“People are moving away from marble aggregates and exploring other options — aggregates such as natural quartz,” Garrett notes. “If you get aggressive water, those quartz [finishes] have the wherewithal to weather the storm, much more so than traditional marble-type aggregates.”
Pebble finishes remain popular, due in large part to toughness and durability. However, polished pebble also has made strides in recent times. It’s a popular choice among customers who desire a color tone that’s only available in pebble finish, but frown on the rough texture.
“We’ve been doing polishing for a few years, and it’s really filled a niche,” Williams says. “When you lay pebble out and polished product, you get a good response of people saying they prefer the smoother [finish].”
Even the process itself helps Williams streamline scheduling: His applicators can complete two to four jobs each day because a separate crew arrives on site the following day to handle the polishing.
“We’re polishing everything,” says Randy Dukes, who heads technical sales at Aquavations in South Miami, Fla. “I’m pleasantly surprised we were the beginning of polished surfaces … and all of our competition is jumping in on it.”
While texture is important, appearance is still paramount. In fact, aesthetics are the No. 1 reason consumers buy the product, according to a survey of Pebble Technology customers on the Phoenix-based company’s Web site.
Colorful aggregate mixes and more reliable pigments have given plasterers and customers more choices than ever.
“With the new pigment system that we adopted, it’s allowed us to do color we never would have approached in the past [such as] specialty blues, Cayman greens and plums — colors that would normally be taboo,” Chapman says.
Despite the slowdown, most plastering companies have fared far better than their builder counterparts. In fact, several firms are reporting banner years.
Pebble Technology is sustaining its annual pace of 50,000 installations while increasing market share, according to Chris MacDonald, vice president of sales. At Aquavations, sales are up 20 percent over the previous year, Dukes reports.
“The economy hasn’t affected us at all,” Pool Works’ Williams adds. “The Houston market is doing very well, and we’re running a good 20- to 30 percent above last year.” The firm does more than 1,000 plaster jobs annually.
While sales and quality remain strong, concern has shifted to pool management once the finish is applied.
Data from ongoing efforts at NPIRC will continue to aid the development of longer-lasting and more durable products. Meanwhile, test are ongoing for NPIRC’s priority admixtures.
“What we’ve learned at Cal Poly has definitely [influenced] what’s gone into formulating our finishes,” Poolscape Unlimited’s Chapman says.
The next big challenge, many plasterers believe, will center on proper start-up techniques. The process typically falls to builders, contractors or service firms that aren’t always well-informed.
“You’d be flabbergasted at the number of people in the pool industry who don’t know what the Saturation Index is,” Dukes notes.
To address the issue, the National Plasterers Council in February released a start-up guide that also includes recommended water chemistry and maintenance procedures. It explains setup processes, including testing tap water and properly performing the fill, and outlines steps to adjust water chemistry and perform brushing in the weeks following the fill.
The guide also identifies poor start-up practices, such as adding salt too soon, or pouring in undiluted muriatic acid. It is available on the group’s Web site (www.npconline.org).
But given age-old opinions on the efficacy of various start-up techniques, achieving consistency could prove tricky. Much, of course, will hinge on the industry’s response.
“We’re all trying to get it out there as fast as we can,” Dukes adds.
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