Solar pool heating systems are popular choice in down economy

There really is no other way to say it: Times are challenging. But with the lemons we've been given as an industry, it's time to make some lemonade. And nothing goes better with a tall, ice cold glass of it than a little warmth from the sun.

"Pool builders have got a file cabinet that's like a safe full of money," says Rick Sims, sales and marketing manager for Aquatherm Industries. "They've got all their past customers that they've sold a swimming pool to. I think they are missing the boat by not hooking up with a solar contractor."

In fact, two of the big players in the solar category - Heliocol and Aquatherm - have launched campaigns to encourage pool builders to go solar. Whether builders are up for the challenge of taking on solar themselves or teaming up with a local distributor, adding solar to their menu of options can be beneficial.

The Options

There are three basic options for pool builders who decide to offer solar heating to new or previous customers. Builders can, one, strictly provide a lead to the solar company, and then have no other involvement regarding the system. Two, builders can sell the system themselves and then have the solar company install and service it. Three, builders can take on the solar system entirely themselves, selling, installing and maintaining it.

Referral-based programs allow builders to team up with local solar dealers in the area, which then represent them as the "solar arm," if you will, of their companies. Builders will simply recommend a dealer to their customer, and then the dealer will take it from there.

According to Sims, referral fees vary from region to region. "In California, they can make anywhere from $200 to $600. In Florida, it's more like $100 to $400."

When builders subcontract the solar work out to a local dealer, they are still responsible for selling the system themselves, but then pass on the install and service to the solar dealer. As a subcontractor, says Victor Eyal, president of Heliocol Pool Heating, the builder and dealer will establish a fixed install rate and the pool company will sell the system to customers at a profitable price.

Sims says a subcontract program can earn builders anywhere from $500 to $1,000 profit per install.

The last option, and perhaps the most challenging because of the logistics, is when a builder adds solar heating as one of its products and services.

"We will train [builders] on how to sell, install and service solar heaters," says Sims. "They buy it wholesale from us and sell it, install it and service it. Very few pool guys use that option."

While the profit margin can be substantial - ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 per job, according to Sims - a lot of work and responsibility goes into solar heating. Builders need to be licensed, properly trained and have the manpower and time to install solar panels on roofs, as well as putting pools in the ground. It's a hearty order, and one that most pool builders often don't take on.

Training Day

In order to give customers the best possible service, even if it is just referring them to a local solar dealer, builders need to be well versed in the solar language. Both Sims and Eyal agree that at the very least, builders need to understand the basics about solar systems and be able to inform customers about the benefits of adding such a system to their pool.

The type of training needed depends on how a builder decides to get into solar heating.

"With the referral program, they'll be trained on the basic selling of the solar concept and why to use solar," says Sims. "On the subcontract program, they will be trained on the selling of the solar and the design of the system, how to size it. Then on the wholesale, they will be trained on selling it, the design of it and they would be trained on the installation of it."

Eyal notes the safety training involved in solar system installation: "There is a respectable amount of training involving safety because most of the systems are installed on roofs, and to work in an environment involving a 30-degree angle can be challenging at times. There are electrical wires in the roof, you can break shingles and tiles, and you may break your neck if, God forbid, you fall off the roof."

As with most ventures, experience is the No. 1 training factor. And it will take time to gain that experience that puts a builder at the level of a dealer who's been doing it for some time. Aquatherm sends new dealers out with one of its master dealers for hands-on education. The two installation crews meet and work on a job together.

But before training even takes place, taking that initial step in deciding to add solar systems gets builders moving in the right direction.

Getting Connected

Researching and networking are a necessity. Sims suggests builders interested in learning more about solar browse manufacturers' Web sites, and talk to their existing customers who already have solar systems to find out more about a specific dealer.

Both Eyal and Sims agree that getting in contact with a local dealer with a good reputation is key.

"There are many distributors, and I'm sure every pool builder is aware of who is the best and who is the solar company of choice in their area," says Eyal. Follow up the meeting with a cross reference to the Better Business Bureau and the contractor licensing board to see if there have been any complaints filed against them, notes Sims.

Contacting the manufacturers directly is also a great source for dealers, and one that both companies agree is more than welcome.

"We should be out there working with our pool builders," says Eyal. "We know times are not easy these days, so we are encouraging our dealers to go out and meet with them and offer them special programs to enhance their business.

"This is the exact message: Work with our pool builders to help them and let them know they are not forgotten when times are tough."

Page 1 of 155
Next Page
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide