Some, like Les Greenfield, say it started worsening about five years ago.
“It used to be, if you put in a pump, you didn’t get a call for bearing noise within that same year,” says the owner of Hydro Blue Pools in Phoenix. “That definitely changed around ‘05. Now I get bearings whining within six months after installation.”
Others, like Sabrina Clonts, say it’s only become an issue in the past two years or so. “We used to see motors lasting five years, and it wasn’t unusual,” says the store manager at Kenco Pools, Spas and Billiards in Longview, Texas. “Now we’re having to replace a lot of them after a year or two.”
Ask around in the construction and service segments of the industry, though, and you’ll inevitably hear it: “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
Here, professionals who install and service these parts weigh in on the issue. In addition, we compare the pool and spa business to other industries in order to learn more about the forces that alter the design of parts and warranties.
Obsolete by design
The past few decades have seen significant improvements in manufactured goods across a number of industries. But rather than making products that are more durable, many companies are producing goods to last what consumers would consider a reasonable time — and that time has been getting shorter.
No one feels confident enough to say exactly when this shift in thinking began, but its roots reach back at least as far as 1954, when the industrial designer Brooks Stevens delivered a lecture titled “Planned Obsolescence.” By his definition, the term described the idea of “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” By the late ‘50s, however, the phrase had come into common use as a term for products designed to break or wear out easily.
Over the past several decades, analysts in various industries have used the concept of planned obsolescence to describe trends in a number of different manufacturing niches, from home appliances to computer components. A television set, for instance, lasted an average of 12 years in 1979, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal; but by 2002, that average had dropped to five years. Domestic appliances, which were replaced every 12 to 25 years throughout the early 20th century, were being replaced every four or five years by the early 2000s. And many product replacement cycles have continued to shorten since then.
However, it’s not only corporations that have been driving this change. As prices have fallen — especially on electronics — in recent decades, consumers have turned increasingly to replacing technological products rather than repairing them. And if hardly anyone is maintaining a particular gadget for longer than five years (the thinking goes), why spend any money to ensure it lasts longer than that?
“Nowadays, nobody’s surprised that they need a new motor after a few years, because they don’t know any better,” says Paul Wahler, general manager of Pool Service Company in Arlington, Va. “But I know better, because I have customers out here who are still running 30-year-old motors. Back in the ’70s, they made motors that lasted 30 years.”
While no company wants to cut quality, every manufacturer is under constant pressure to stay cost-effective, and many have been forced to cut expenses. For some, that’s meant a reduction in salaries or staff. Others, many in the pool industry suspect, have switched from more durable and expensive parts to cheaper ones with shorter lives.
As product replacement cycles have gotten shorter over the years, warranties have slowly shortened to keep pace. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario; no one’s been able to pinpoint just when the shift began, or which set of expectations gave rise to which results. But there’s no doubt that today, warranties on most technology products are the shortest they’ve been since those products were first introduced. And the pool industry is no exception.
“Some manufacturers are dropping warranties down to one year on most components,” Wahler says.
Indeed, one of the easiest ways for a manufacturer to cut costs without cutting quality is to reduce warranties; and thanks to the ever-shortening replacement cycle, fewer customers expect that extended warranties will be included in a product’s standard price.
Still, others point out, many manufacturers continue to offer extended warranties to those customers willing to put up the extra cash. Rick Woemmel cites one company that recently dropped its parts warranty from three years to one, but is now allowing builders and servicepeople to sell a three-year extended warranty to those customers who want it.
If that’s the direction the pool industry is headed, then the lifespans of replaceable parts are likely to keep shortening. Moreover, if the pool business follows the patterns of industries such as electronics and home appliances, we can expect consumers to consider a widening range of parts as replaceable. This, in turn, will put growing pressure on many manufacturers to find even more ways of reducing the cost of those items.
Still, those manufacturers who continue to strive for quality, even in tough economic times, will be preferred by those customers who want durability and genuine value.
“My contention,” Wahler says, “is that a manufacturer who wants to succeed should be building longer-lasting products than its competitors, and using that durability as a long-term selling technique. If they devoted their energies to making products that last, and to making sure those products always get fixed or replaced when necessary, they’d be winning customers for life.”