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
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
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
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
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
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.”