Barry Greenwald has seen firsthand how California’s persistent drought is driving pool cover sales. Back in February, one of his wife’s friends declared she wasn’t going to build a pool at her new house because of conservation concerns. But two months later, Greenwald learned that this same friend had installed a pool after all.

What changed her mind? A pool cover.

“The drought has been good for the pool-cover business,” says Greenwald, vice president of sales for Zodiac Cover-Pools in Vista, Calif. “The drought made more people who were purchasing pools look at things they could do to make their pools more friendly from an energy and water-conservation viewpoint.”

At a time when governments in parched states such as California ask residents to do everything they can to conserve water, consumers see pool covers as a solution to a growing problem, say manufacturers of these products. “Consumers are the ones driving sales,” Greenwald says.

While the drought has increased cover business, other manufacturers say it still hasn’t offset the effects of the more widespread, lingering recession.

“Everybody says everything is getting better, but I think those are smaller-ticket items, like TVs, as opposed to major investments in the home,” says Roshan Patel, administrator for The Cover Co. in Branchburg, N.J. “So it is recovering but still slowly.”

But as water and energy become more precious — and pool construction ramps back up — manufacturers say the cover market is poised for a rapid rebound. That’s already happening, with covers included in approximately 25 percent of pools, up from previous ratios of 10- to 15 percent, says Michael Shebek, owner of Indianapolis-based Automatic Pool Covers Inc.

Where sales are strongest

For the automatic-cover category, much of the growth comes from the West and East Coast markets, especially California and New England. But the South shows promise as well, manufacturers say.

In fact, sales have increased so much in California that, as Greenwald sees it, the very definition of “pool” has changed. “... that’s the way people look at pools: It’s not a pool without a cover,” he says.

In these markets, he reports, 50- to 80 percent of pools have covers. Along with the California coast, he sees certain metro areas throughout the country driving sales — Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, N.M. and Indianapolis among them.

By contrast, two strong pool states — Florida and Arizona — have been cover laggards, making up only 5 percent of the market, Greenwald says. In Florida, homeowners feel financially tapped out with the addition of screen rooms and often won’t spring for a cover. In Arizona, the cost of a cover doesn’t sit well with the inexpensive-home market. Auto covers add a considerable cost — from $8,000 to $10,000, says Tom Dankel, vice president of Aquamatic Pool Cover Systems in Gilroy, Calif.

In the safety and winter covers market, a big switch is taking place from water-bag-style covers to mesh, says Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools in the Chicago area.

“Today, every builder in our area includes a mesh cover with construction, and most of the pools built long ago have been upgraded to mesh,” he says.

Consumers are attracted by manufacturer claims that new mesh offers 99 percent UV blockage, reducing spring algae blooms, Lenz says. This presents great ways to upsell cover customers and grow the market further, he adds.

Safety-cover manufacturers are urging builders to bundle the products with new pools. “It’s much harder to sell a safety cover months after the pool has been sold and installed,” says Kevin Losee, product manager-automatic safety covers for Latham Pool Products’ Coverstar in Linden, Utah.

In New England, last year’s brutal winter has raised interest in the product category, says Steve White of Underwater Pool Masters in West Boylston, Mass. “After our last winter, in which many of our pools had more than 100 inches of snow on top of these winter covers, more and more customers are interested in a safety cover that will withstand a harsh winter,” he says.

Folks fleeing those harsh winters are also fueling growth in the more temperate Southern states. “New England was always one of our best markets, but we now see the states south of the Mason-Dixon line growing cover sales by leaps and bounds,” says Philip Saltzman, sales director for Meyco in Melville, N.Y.

Patel also sees interest in safety covers increasing in the warmer states. Some consumers want to safeguard pools at summer homes when they leave for months at a time, she says. Others don’t have heaters, so they may consider closing their pools for winter. “Why maintain it in the winter if they’re not going to use it?” she says.

Internationally, Shebek has seen significant growth in Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom and Cyprus.

Overcoming challenges

Right now, manufacturers say the main challenges to cover growth come down to three key areas: Educating industry professionals about pool covers and their installation; showing consumers why pool covers make sense; and working with popular organic-shaped pools, which don’t lend themselves to pool-cover installation.

On the first point, manufacturers are eager to help but say builders first have to lose some misconceptions about the product category. “Builders need to be more aware that covers are not that hard to install,” says Greenwald.

Builders also would be wise to educate themselves about what different manufacturers offer, so they can educate their customer. “We are a specialty industry, but we don’t always do the best job communicating that to the consumer,” Saltzman says. “The general consumer sometimes has an attitude that ‘it’s all the same,’ when, in fact, there are innovative and experienced companies that have much more to offer.”

When it comes to showing consumers why covers makes sense, a number of manufacturers have joined forces to trumpet their products’ energy and water conservation attributes (see “Spreading the word.”) For example, automatic pool covers can reduce energy costs by 70 percent and prevent around 90 percent of water evaporation, according to government data.

“People want to be green,” Dankel says. “They want to feel good about themselves and being environmentally responsible. They still want the pool, but they don’t want to be wasteful.”

The puzzle of working with non-rectangular pools may require a more complicated solution. Safety covers, which work on almost any pool, have a leg up in this arena. “More pools are being covered by safety covers, especially on high-end, complicated pools with raised walls, water falls, grottos and other structures,” White says.

But it’s much harder to install automatic covers on such pools. “If every pool was required to be a rectangle, auto cover sales would go through the roof,” says Shebek. “But that’s not realistic.”

Still, even pools that aren’t perfect rectangles can have automatic covers. Many builders either assume that they won’t work on such pools, or they don’t take simple steps that would make these pools coverable, manufacturers say.

It’s true that the combination of auto covers and shaped pools is more difficult and can lead to maintenance issues when the material drags along the deck, but some simple tweaks to design or extra care during installation can alleviate these concerns, Shebek says.

Greenwald’s company offers builders a systemized method for building pools for automatic covers. Contractors who have embraced the methods project they’ll increase automatic covers sales by 500 percent, he says. “Builders ... need to look at covers differently. We’re talking about something that’s water friendly, keeps the pool warm, green and totally safe.”

Two is better than one

Sometimes, it seems as if the cover industry is divided into two sub industries — automatic covers and safety or winter covers — leaving professionals and consumers to choose between the two.

But a number of manufacturers say the two covers actually are harmonious with each other. In fact, many believe pools shouldn’t have one without the other. That’s because the covers serve two different functions. When working together these two roles can save considerable costs.

“In areas with heavy rain and snow, a safety cover during the offseason can help protect and extend the life of your auto cover,” says Kevin Losee, product manager-automatic safety covers for Latham Pool Products’ Coverstar in Lindon, Utah. “The auto cover can be rolled up and out of the elements during the off season while the safety cover protects the pool.”

For example, if an automatic cover is used year-round on a typical rectangular pool, its vinyl covering must be replaced every five years at a cost of approximately $4,000, says Dan Lenz of All-Seasons Pools in Chicago. But if the pool is covered with a mesh safety cover during winter, it can extend the life of the auto fabric, saving as much as $12,000 over 15 years, he says.

Spreading the word
As consumers show increased interest in saving water and energy, pool-cover makers are joining forces on two key projects meant to drive home how their products can contribute to these efforts:

The Water Sense Coalition
Comprised of four automatic cover manufacturers — Aquamatic Cover Systems, Cover Pools, Coverstar and Pool Cover Specialists — this group formed to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to include these products in its Water Sense program.

Much like the EnergyStar label, Water Sense could be akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for automatic covers, says Tom Dankel, vice president of Aquamatic Cover Systems in Gilroy, Calif.

So far, Dankel reports positive feedback from Capitol Hill. “We haven’t been told no,” he says. “They like what they hear and we’re moving forward.”

Evaporation Study
Several manufactures are working with the National Plasterers Council on a study at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo that looks at evaporation rates of pools with different types of covers.

While testing has been completed, a report currently is being written. Early results suggest automatic covers dramatically reduce evaporation, says Barry Greenwald, vice president of sales for Zodiac Cover-Pools in Vista, Calif.