Whenever he tries to sell an alternative sanitizing system, Tod Goodman shows his customer a vinyl-liner remnant he tore out of a pool last summer. Unlike typical vinyl-liner replacements that are due to fading or staining from an improperly maintained chemical environment, this one was different. It was removed — still in good shape after 11 years of use — because the owners tired of its look. Goodman, the owner of Kool Water Pools in Summerville, S.C., credits the pool’s sanitizing system for the liner’s longevity. “I use the vinyl liner as an example,” says Goodman, who won’t build a pool without a sanitizing system, preferably ionization. “It gives a longer-lasting vinyl liner. There’s no dry rot; it still has its flexibility and stretch to it.

“What I like [about an alternative sanitizer] is the idea that it [leaves the water] a lot purer and cleaner,” he adds. “You don’t have any chemical smell or taste. Plus, it equates to a lot of savings for my customers.”

While chlorine is still the industry’s most popular sanitizer, a growing number of consumers now seek automated options that

require less chemicals and maintenance. For the industry, this means a widening market niche for chlorine-free (or almost free) sanitizer products.

Sales of the automated systems have exploded in the past two years, say pool professionals. The push for the products is driven largely by educated consumers who have researched their options and embrace technology in all of its forms.

“If you’re a builder or renovator, you should probably get some knowledge on the installation and use of chlorine-free pools and

pursue it,” says Jerry Dobkin, president of Atlas Swimming Pool Co. in Los Angeles. “It’s another way to [make] money for your business and is fairly easy to do.”

Market watch

While most sanitizing systems are installed during new-pool construction, owners of

existing pools enjoy these options as well. Among them are salt chlorine generators, ozonators, ionizers and mineral purifiers.

• Salt chlorine generators essentially break down naturally occurring salt to produce chlorine to kill the bacteria and other organic materials. When finished, the system returns the remaining chlorine to salt form again.

• Ozonators, which use ultraviolet or corona discharge systems to produce ozone, kill bacteria by oxidizing the organic compounds without altering the water’s pH.

• Ionization systems inject low levels of silver and copper ions into the pool water to attack the bacteria.

• In mineral purifiers, silver, zinc and limestone are used to control bacteria, prevent algae and keep the pH neutral.

With chlorine prices high and environmental consciousness abounding, word-of-mouth recommendations have spread the benefits of these sanitizing systems. Last summer, aftermarket sales of salt chlorine generators took off after a local TV news station aired a story about the chemical-reducing systems, says Richard Lopez, who supervises his father’s business, Manny’s Cool Pool Service, in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

“There’s a buzz from customers about the salt systems, especially since we made it clear that we install and service them,” Lopez says. “I think this year will be a big year for us.”

Atlas’ Dobkin says he was hesitant at first about the products. Like many builders, he wasn’t eager to change a long-held business practice; he was a firm believer in the use of chlorine to sanitize pools. It was the fact that his customers were looking for an alternative that finally nudged him into it.

As a result, Dobkin has sold ozone for four years now.

Steve Schaefer received a similar push from customers. “There is a market out there,” says the president of Coastline Pools in Sunrise, Fla. “It’s just taken some time.”

Potential profits also have spurred pool professionals to offer these systems. They’re a great moneymaker, says Bryce Campo of the ozone systems he sells. “The suggested retail is 50 percent profit,” adds Campo, owner of Advanced Pool Concepts in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you stick with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, you’re doing great. I’m sort of middle of the road.”

Salt chlorine generator systems, however, are more problematic for him, due to issues beyond his immediate control. Calcium

hardness is high in his state’s water and that calcium builds up too much in the system.

“If I were living in California, Florida or Texas, I’d probably put them on every single pool,” Campo says. “But Arizona has the highest temperatures and the worst water. In our state, ozone is the biggest benefit. Salt isn’t a great thing.”

Pursuing aftermarket sales

Most builders and service technicians who sell and install sanitizing systems credit manufacturers for raising customers’ awareness of the products.

Manufacturers’ Web sites contain a lot of information on how the products work, as well as their cost savings and environmental impact. When buyers research these systems, they seem to gravitate to the sites first, before finding a particular dealer.

To take advantage of the information-gathering style of these customers, Schaefer modeled his Web site, which promotes salt chlorine generators, after that of his manufacturer’s. “We get a lot of inquiries on our Web site,” he says. Many of those inquiries have turned into sales.

In his own service area, Schaefer’s manufacturer also designed fliers to be distributed to his customers, and picked up the tab for the effort.

Regardless of who supplies the materials, pool professionals say sanitizer sales require a personal touch, a little hand holding and some dedicated legwork. Due to the increased interest generated by the products last year, Lopez is spending more time prepping his customers about options, including placing neatly printed cards promoting the units and his services within bill envelopes that he mails to clients.

He also makes a point of talking up the products when on the route. “I’ve made a few phone calls to customers I think would be interested, people with kids who are sensitive to chlorine, or customers who don’t want us to add chlorine to their pools on Fridays because they will be swimming over the weekends,” he says. “Those are the customers I’m targeting.”

For Dobkin, word-of-mouth recommendations also play a significant factor in getting prospects on board with the products. His customers first hear about the systems from their friends. “We get them the brochure, then we encourage them to look it up on the Web site and get more information on their own,” he says.

Goodman also trusts word-of-mouth referrals over a more direct advertising campaign to sell the systems. He even carries sanitizing units with him on his truck. That way, if he is at a customer’s house making any kind of repairs, he can just take it out, pitch it and install it on the pool right away.

Chemically challenged

Sanitizing systems are not without critics, though. The market has been slow to build, despite more than a decade of availability.

Some pool professionals are concerned that while these systems are profitable upfront, the sales could end up hurting their bottom lines in the long run. When people use the new systems, their need to return to the pool store time and again for chemicals is greatly decreased. This eats away at profits from those lost chemical sales.

“The companies around here, I don’t want to say that they hate me, but I’m well-known by all the places that sell chemicals because I cut into their profits,” Goodman says.

Some competitors have even tried to talk pool owners out of the systems. “All of my customers who go into their stores take a grilling,” Goodman adds. “They tell them to get off the ionizer, that it will stain the pool … all kinds of horror stories. There are people out there strongly against these products.”

Due to these perceptions, some say that sanitizing systems have not yet gained widespread acceptance throughout the pool and spa industry. “I think the industry kind of hushes it. I don’t believe the pool industry wants you to use anything like this,” Goodman says.

Service techs who promote the use of sanitizing systems say they see no conflict between the units and long-term profits. In fact, the systems actually save money for some — especially in the service sector.

“They’re definitely profitable, and not only on the markup on the sale of the unit,” Lopez says. “In the long run, they’re saving the customer and our business money because of the chemicals we don’t have to use. If we had all of our customers on it, we’d cut our chemical bill in less than half.”

His firm’s profits come from the services that still need to be done to ensure the pH, alkalinity, calcium hardness and the like stay balanced, Lopez says. Also, for his chlorine generators, there’s still the need to purchase the salt, which must be added regularly.

Coastline Pools’ Schaefer agrees. “I don’t see it as a threat to my service business at all,” he says. “They still need weekly service. This unit alone does not balance the pool; it just sanitizes the water.”

Besides, he notes, “people are going to find this product, like this product and want it. If you don’t jump on the bandwagon, you’ll lose out.”

Race to the finish line

All and all, builders and service techs who sell sanitizing systems say they’re not a threat, nor are they intimidating. They are just another product to make money on — one that meets changing consumer demands, but doesn’t change the core of the industry.

But new builders such as Campo, who is in his third year of operation, will remain competitive with the broadened view of sanitizing. “I don’t think there are any cons,” Lopez says about the sanitizers. “If I could put every customer’s pool on one, I would do it.”