About half of all pools installed by Downes Swimming Pool Co. now come with automatic covers.

Though the top concern remains safety, more customers are requesting the equipment to extend the swimming season by saving on heating costs, according to Michael Downes, vice president and general manager of the company based in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill.

“In the industry and the country, there’s a big push nowadays that everything be green,” agrees Dave Bachman, general manager at Don Marcum’s Pool Care in Newtown, Ohio. “Maybe consumers are listening a little bit more.”

Indeed, the trend has reached beyond standing in a customer’s backyard with calculator in hand to determine exactly how many dollars can be saved by a cover through reduced energy use. And the product category has received further attention via the national spotlight on drowning-prevention — thanks in large part to a handful of high-profile child drownings, and subsequent passage in 2008 of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

The result is an opportunity to expand the market — and manufacturers, dealers and distributors alike are seizing on the pool cover’s primary selling points, as well as some timely rebate programs, to do exactly that.

Opportunities

Not many cover dealers cast as wide a net as Pennco Automatic Pool Covers. The Havertown, Pa.-based company finds business from New York to Virginia, says president Mark Sheinman.

“The key for us is running far and wide,” he says. “We have a lot of repeat builders, but we keep in touch with others through phone calls and mailers. You may have a builder come back to you after a few years, so we try to maintain those relationships.”

Seeking untapped markets has always been a hallmark of the firm, and these days it’s no different. In fact, Sheinman says he’s found pockets of business among wealthy homeowners who seem to wait for an economic downturn to invest in larger projects. Venturing to the local permit office to determine who has recently pulled permits is one technique that’s traditionally borne fruit.

These days, however, much more business comes simply through referrals, whether from homeowners or contractors. And with that often comes opportunities to sweeten the deal.

“If a customer recommends another customer, we’ll frequently help them out with a discount on service,” Sheinman says.

As for nontraditional clients, some dealers have mentioned teaming with automotive service companies like Jiffy Lube, adapting automatic covers to fit over open work areas. The covers help protect employees from the sun while complying with requirements set forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Public bus depots and terminals have been raised as other potential automatic cover clients.

Pools of foreclosed homes have proven to be yet another fertile area for safety covers, as banks and property management companies look to reduce the potential liability associated with abandoned vessels.

On Long Island, temperatures can drop 20 degrees or more overnight, says John Lochren, owner of Solar Pool Enclosures of New York Inc. in Holbrook, N.Y., a pool cover distributor since 1990. So promoting the benefits of covers in the areas of heat, as well as chemical, retention has given his marketing efforts a boost.

Still, securing the pool remains top priority for homeowners when it comes to questions about covers, Bachman says. Nine out of 10 consumer inquiries on pool covers focus on safety, he reports.

But in addition to young families installing covers to protect their children, Bachman sees another demographic evolving into solid customers.

“You’re getting a lot of grandparents buying automatic covers for their children’s families, because now they’re thinking about the grandchildren,” he says. “Or you get the flip-side of that, where the toddler comes over to the grandparents’ house, and because they’re watching the child, they now want to install an automatic cover to give them that peace of mind.”

With new pool construction yet to rebound from the current recession, the aftermarket has been keeping many cover dealers afloat. Replacement fabrics, according to Bachman, have provided “a great jump-start to the season.”

And though the need may only arise every six to seven years, tapping into the existing pool market — at an average of $1,200 to $1,500 per cover — has helped offset the slowdown in new installations.

Incentives

In 2008, local lawmakers in Southampton, N.Y., established the Sustainable Southampton Advisory Committee. Comprised mostly of volunteers, the committee was charged with recommending policies, programs and legislation to the Town Board that encourage sustainability and help reduce the town’s carbon footprint.

According to Lochren, they’ve begun pushing pool covers as a preferred method of energy conservation.

“We’ve gotten a good kick from that,” he says. “It’s really becoming part and parcel with the safety movement in terms of covers. I think you’re going to see more of a trend on that nationally.”

Across the country, several municipal utility districts now offer incentives for homeowners who install pool covers. For example, customers of the North Marin Water District in Northern California are eligible for a rebate of 25 percent (up to $50) off the purchase cost for certain solar or safety covers. The program gains steam during years when drought conditions force emergency water ordinances, officials say.

“It’s basically a good-faith kind of rebate,” says Ryan Grisso, water conservation coordinator for the tiny NMWD. “We’re just trying to help the customer out. We may do 10 a year, but that usually picks up when we have water restrictions in place.”

Similarly, residents in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, Calif., can receive rebates up to $200 if they purchase and install a permanent automatic pool cover; they may also be eligible for a rebate of $50, or 50 percent of the cost of the cover, from the city’s Water Conservation Division.

And in May, the city council of Menlo Park, also in Northern California, surpassed state law by requiring pool and spa covers on new pools and spas — commercial and residential — as part of its water-efficient landscaping regulations. The ordinance was set to take effect July 1, according to city officials.

With comparable incentive and sustainability programs taking hold in cities and counties nationwide, pool cover dealers today might just find more business opportunities than ever.


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