2021 has proven to be another year for the books.
That pertains to a number of things — historically high demand, unprecedented shortages in labor and products. But the chemicals category was dealt its own lot when the facility that produced trichlor tablets for BioLab was incapacitated by a fire, leaving a severe shortage of the most popular form of chlorine used in backyards.
“This is way worse than 2020,” says Javier Payan, president of San Diego-based Payan Pool Service. “Last year there were no liquid shortages, and the tab thing happened at the end of summer.”
This year, the scramble intensified, as some of the chemicals used to replace trichlor are stretched thin in some markets. (For instance, some say they can easily purchase liquid chlorine, while others are subject to rations.) It leaves company owners wondering what they have to look forward to in 2022 as suppliers work to make up for the shortages of this year.
But, as the industry closes the book on another summer, managers are focusing on the immediate scramble before setting their sights on next year’s preparations.
Here, pool professionals explain how the shortages are affecting them and how they are mitigating the repercussions.
'The name of the game is inventory’
Companies must go to unusual lengths to obtain chlorine.
For instance, David Hawes, CEO of H&H Pool Services in Dublin, Calif., will make multiple trips to big-box stores.
“I grab the tabs at Costco, Sam’s Club — anywhere I find them, I will grab as many as I can,” he says.
If a store places a limit on how many you can purchase, he might go back a second time for another purchase.
Another large operator, Payan will make use of his sizable staff when product needs replenishing.
“When we’re limited to six cases [at the distributor, I can pull five people off a job and say, ‘Hey, you go get six cases here and six cases there and six there.’ Next thing you know, you’ve got 18 cases per guy.”
The more well-connected professionals in the industry are helping each other out. “It seems like everyday I get reports [from peers],” Hawes explains. “They’ll say, ‘Don’t go here, because there isn’t any. This Costco is out.’ Or, ‘This place has a bunch.’”
If they can spare it, they may even share with colleagues. “A friend of mine who is in the same city as me, he was having issues getting chlorine, so I gave him some of what I had to help him out a little bit,” says Florida service tech Andrea Nannini.
Whether the hold-ups have to do with trucking or materials such as the resins to make buckets, the shortages are eating up man hours that could be spent servicing the droves of customers seeking the industry’s products and services.
“Every day I spend two to three hours of my day on the phone just talking through where we can get what, what’s available, what the price is and what the new price is, because there’s a price increase pretty much every day,” says Mark Reed, president of Memphis Pool in Memphis, Tenn.
And that doesn’t account for the innumerable hours that his purchasing manager spends tracking down products he forecasts needing in the coming weeks, nor the multiple trips his service techs occasionally must make when they can’t acquire the chemical to perform all the needed services in one visit. And, in some cases, homeowners give up and look elsewhere, causing his company to lose the job.
And then there’s Payan’s strategy of splitting up his technicians to pick up chemical from different suppliers.
“You think about the cost of doing that — the hourly rates for these guys to do that, plus the gas,” Payan says. “Then you factor in the opportunity costs, because you have to pull them off a job to go do that. I don’t even want to know how much it’s costing us — I just need to know we have what we need.
“From this point forward, the name of the game is inventory.”
To work around the shortages, some service firms have stopped taking new customers.
Payan did that earlier in the year. “There are a lot of opportunities for growth, but you also don’t want to use your supply on new business,” he says. “We want to make sure we have enough to keep our own customers swimming.”
Hawes estimates that at least 25% of the service pros he speaks with have made the same decision. “They’re saying, ‘Why would I take on another account when I’m already too busy and don’t have chemical to put in?’”
That doesn’t stop homeowners from seeking service. Hawes receives two to three inquiries a day from consumers looking to set up new accounts.
In talking to these prospects, it’s become clear that many techs have employed a strategy that may be even more drastic.
“They ask,‘Do you provide chemical with your service?’” Hawes says. “[Pros are telling them], ‘I can do it but you’re going to have to find your own tabs.’”
For Hawes’ part, in addition to his stocking efforts, he’s managed the changes by raising prices. Earlier in the year, he began charging more from new customers. This summer, he raised prices for most of his existing base as well.
The good news: Of about 500 customers who received a fee hike, only about five canceled their accounts. Several of his fellow IPSSA members have reported similar result, he says.
Hawes worries that others aren’t following suit quickly enough and that delay may prove fatal to businesses.
“There are already [professionals] who’ve gone out of business,” Hawes says. “If you’re not raising your prices to meet the costs and make the margins that you need to make, you’re just in a spiral downward and you won’t be in business.
“If you’re out there cleaning pools for half [the rates] of what everybody else is, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I can get an account anytime I want,’ but you’re making $3 per month on an account, after the chemical and gas ...”
For some service companies, the supply-chain issues have had career-changing effects, as some — especially senior single-polers — decide to retire earlier than planned.
Chasing chemicals and other products has gotten old for consumers as well. For the first time, Reed had some clients schedule closings in early August, during the peak of summer and before school started.
“They’re as tired of trying to find stuff for their pool as we are,” he says.
Companies also are altering their chemical approaches to manage the shortage.
Many are doing what they can to reduce their clients’ chlorine consumption, thereby stretching out the available chemical as much as possible.
Reed’s team, for instance, has begun using borates on their pools, both existing and new builds. “The only problem we’ve had with getting people converted over to borates is there’s a shortage of muriatic acid this year, which you have to have a lot of for your initial dosage of borates.” This is necessary initially to lower pH.
Florida service technician Andrea Nannini is not using borates because they’re harder to find in her area of Florida, not because of supply-chain issues but because they’re not commonly used there. Instead, she is relying on enzymes to help minimize chlorine demand.
“It’ll break down sunscreens, body oils, sweat and things like that, so there’s less demand on the chlorine,” she says. “I also like to keep a lower pH because the chlorine is more effective.”
To tide customers over until trichlor is freely available again, some companies are switching their clients to liquid chlorine or cal hypo.
Payan isn’t converting customers, but cal hypo is part of his strategy. “I’ve stocked up on some cal hypo, as a backup supply,” says Payan, who generally uses liquid chlorine. “We know we’ve got them in case something really drastic happens. We have had to dip into the supply a little bit.”
Whether trying to convert customers to different chemical or an alternative sanitizing technology, Reed finds that customers are more open than normal to making changes.
“Once people understood the problem, they have been more receptive to hearing about it and studying it than they have in the past,” he says.
But alternative technologies aren’t always the answer. In fact, for homeowners who generally use salt but can’t find cells, Reed finds himself having to set clients up with a tablet system. Once salt cells become available, those customers can go back.
However, professionals expect their traditionally trichlor-using customers to flex back once the product becomes readily available.
“A lot of people are set in their ways and will probably go back to doing things the way they’ve always been done,” Nannini says.
This especially applies if they already have trichlor feeders. Those who have purchased feeders specifically for cal hypo, which are fairly recent additions in the residential market, may stick with that chemical, Reed expects.
When converting pools to cal hypo, there are a few things you need to know — and that you need to convey to your clients and water-care specialists.
“It’s been a matter of converting people to what’s available, explaining proper usage and trying to convince them it’s all the same stuff at some level,” Reed says.
• Watch pH — but in the other direction. While trichlor lowers the pH, cal hypo tends to raise it. So if you’re used to adjusting up, now you’ll need to work the other way.
• Do not breathe it in or allow it to touch other chemicals. Cal hypo can be more volatile, and will have a dangerous reaction if exposed to trichlor. So do not put cal hypo in any container or feeder that has had trichlor in it, no matter how clean-seeming. Even an undetectable residual can pose a danger, Nannini says.
• Look out for some cloudiness. Cal hypo can cause some cloudiness if the pH and alkalinity are not in proper balance. Keep the readings in check to avoid problems as much as possible. If some cloudiness does occur, Reed finds that’s easily remedied. “That’s what you have clarifiers for, and usually it settles out pretty quick anyway,” he says.
• Rethink your doses. All chlorine is not equal, and that applies to potency. “You have to figure out the equivalent,” when switching, Nannini says. “Otherwise, if you’re used to using a certain amount of liquid chlorine in a pool, and you try to use cal hypo, you might not add enough, or you might add too much.”
To reinforce these points with his staff, Payan and his managers have held a couple of training sessions about how to work with cal hypo. They also keep signage near the chemical to provide warnings and instructions. “And the protocol is that if anybody grabs any cal hypo, they have to talk to the office, so the office can reinforce that message,” he says.