Automatic pool covers are as green as they are safe

Auto Pc 0910In the rush to get in on the green movement, some manufacturers, inside and outside the industry, have simply started telling people their products are earth-friendly. This Ortho Weed Killer? It comes in a bottle made of 100 percent post-consumer plastic! What about that 100,000-Btu gas grill? It can be recycled when you're done with it! To listen to our nation's marketing departments is to believe that absolutely everything comes with a green sheen.

But then there are the truly green products. Potato chip bags made with bio-based plastics that can be composted certainly fit the mold, as do shoes made of recycled tires and all manner of products renewable and reusable. The pool and spa industry has made giant strides toward this actual-greenness lately with equipment like energy saving pumps that operate at dual or multiple speeds and heaters that harness the power of the sun or burn fuel ever more-efficiently. These heaters tend to get big headlines, but any green benefit from them is all but lost if a pool isn't regularly covered when not in use.

Wes Mathis, co-chair of the board of directors at Pool Cover Specialists Nat'l in West Jordan, Utah, uses a simple analogy: "You could install a 99 percent efficient furnace and air conditioner in your home, but if your home lacked a roof, the fruit of your efforts will be limited to heating or cooling the neighborhood a little bit as all of that energy escapes through the top of the house.

"Attempting to heat a pool without an auto cover is just as much an exercise in futility as heating a house with no roof."

The challenge, Mathis and other manufacturers say, is getting that message out to a public that still sees automatic covers primarily as a safety product.

"Green has always been a part of our presentation," says Tom Dankel, vice president of Aquamatic Cover Systems in Gilroy, Calif. "But everybody knows the inherent safety risks of pool ownership, and to consumers, these are safety covers."

But more and more, the idea that an automatic cover is as green as it is safe is starting to catch on with customers, thanks in large part to newer sales strategies that stress the products' ability to save customers money over the long haul and save precious natural resources in the process.

The message is a simple one: pool water loses heat mostly through evaporation, and both heat and water lost through evaporation must be replaced. An automatic cover largely prevents this.

Attitudes, Adjusted

Back in the 1980s, Dankel used to bring a little worksheet he'd made up to show customers they could get a pretty quick return on their investment in an automatic cover. Pacific Gas & Electric had a similar document, with projected savings for various cities around the Golden State.

"So you could, in fairly short order, show people good numbers that weren't 'pie in the sky,'" he recalls. "We really used that and built on it, but most people didn't really care about that.

"For some it mattered, but most people were like, 'This is a safety product. Great! Oh, and it saves money? OK.

"Even today, I bet probably 80 to 90 percent buy them purely for the safety aspect. But now, more and more, the energy is there, too."

And that's important, as it helps consumers justify the cost of a product that can carry with it a bit of sticker shock. Bruce Grogg, president and CEO of Pool Cover Specialists, estimates the national average retail price for an automatic cover at around $9,000. That can be a tough sell, he admits, especially on a lower-priced pool. That's when Grogg breaks out the numbers.

"It depends on the size of the pool, but the average savings realized by a consumer per annum, as per the Department of Energy, is around $2,700," he says. Some simple math tells you that homeowner can get a full return on his or her investment in a little over three years. Savings in the months and years that follow is, as they say, gravy. Or icing on the cake.

"Some people are reluctant to add a big-ticket item to their pool, especially in certain markets where gunite pools can be built cheaply," says Doug Larson, president of Coverstar LLC, Lindon, Utah. "So it's our objective to lay out the numbers and say, 'At what price would this be a bad deal for you?' You certainly see that return-on-investment message in advertising across the board today. I'd say things started shifting that way around 2008.

"I shouldn't really say the message shifted. The message has always been there; it's just more recognized as a benefit and it's moved to the forefront of the conversation."

And what about insulation? Aren't thermal covers better at keeping the heat in?

Not much, Larson says, despite the far greater thermal properties of a bubble-type cover.

"Auto covers have an R value of less than 1," he explains. "But the No. 1 factor in heat loss is evaporation, and it does prevent that, which helps retain heat, not to mention preventing the loss of the water itself through evaporation."

Manual Labor

OK. So preventing evaporation keeps heat from escaping the pool. Covers are good. What about manual covers? Can't they do the same thing for a fraction of the price and pay for themselves in months rather than years?

"The cover has to be on the pool to be effective at preventing evaporation," says Jenn Blum, marketing director for Cover-Pools in Salt Lake City.

This point isn't lost on Mathis.

"Despite good intentions - even among the noblest pool owners who like to think of themselves as environmentally responsible pool owners - no one is going to find a helper and then take a half hour to remove a tie-down cover every time they want to swim," he says. "It isn't even feasible to expect pool owners to take the time to manually retract or extend a solar blanket each time they swim. It's not going to happen.

"So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that if you want a pool cover to be realistically labeled as an 'energy-conservation device,' it must be an auto cover. Period."

None of this apparent desire to shift focus from saving lives to saving energy, water and money should be taken the wrong way. The fact that people view automatic covers as a safety product without being reminded of it is a good thing - it allows the well-informed salesperson to go directly into the green message, which can be tailored to appeal to a person's altruism or pocketbook.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

I think our message is both," Larson says, "but at the end of the day, in our economy, the thing that strikes home, that makes the consumers perk up their ears, is the savings message. It also helps that they can feel good about it. Sort of a one-two punch."

By The Numbers

The major players in the automatic pool cover market have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they're curiously concentrated in Utah (long story, best saved for another time), and secondly, they all cite the same source when touting the energy savings their products offer. And why not? That source is none other than the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This study was conducted in major cities in all climates across the United States, and shows an average savings of 80 percent on heated pools through the use of an automatic swimming pool cover under normal use during the swimming season," says Bruce Grogg, president and CEO of Pool Cover Specialists Nat'l in West Jordan, Utah, which has a link to the data on its Website.

Aquamatic Cover Systems, Gilroy, Calif., also leverages the government's data in its sales presentations.

"We use that a lot," company president Tom Dankel said, "because here's a non-vested third party telling you, 'These things really work.' They have no incentive to sell the product.

"I'm sure they didn't just pull these numbers out of the sky. They did their work."

The data are certainly eye-opening, and form the basis for the industry's effort to get its products more widely recognized by utilities and municipalities as crucial pieces in the energy-saving puzzle. There's been a bit of pushback by some energy-industry insiders, though.

"I have never heard the numbers questioned by a homeowner," says Doug Larson, president of Coverstar LLC in Lindon, Utah, "but I've heard them debated in energy councils, and I've read some things where people in industry groups have discussed it in the context of whether covers should be included in energy codes."

Still, the relatively small industry works together to win hearts and minds of consumers and skeptics alike. And who knows? Maybe one day pool owners who buy an automatic cover will receive a rebate check from the government.

Says Larson: "That would be the holy grail, obviously."

-B.K.

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