Everyone in the industry knows about the trichlor shortage. That phrase has been on the lips of service pros and retailers across the country for months — since the factory fire that caused it last fall. The question is, what will pool and spa companies do about it?
The answer for some is “nothing.” There are plenty of pool companies that will be unaffected, companies whose pools are mostly sanitized by other means — like salt, sodium hypochlorite or Baquacil, for example, or whose pools are mostly commercial (which tend to use liquid feeders).
But for many others, the shortage poses a real challenge. Prices for tabs have risen. The internet is becoming a broker, as it does in every shortage of any kind, and shipments of trichlor are being limited as we head towards perhaps the biggest summer swim season in recent memory, as the U.S. and Canada open up again.
After the year we had last year — easily the most trying in the history of the industry (if also the most successful) — there was a natural reluctance to believe “sanitizer shortage” would be added to a list that included shutdown, equipment shortage, new levels of labor shortage and home-crazed customers.
Jill Midgett of Nags Head Pools in North Carolina could hardly believe her ears when she first heard rumors of a trichlor shortage late last year. “I thought..is this really how we’re going to end the year? After overcoming so many unknown factors and obstacles?
“I remember thinking, ‘Could this be hype? Is someone just wanting us to buy large quantities of trichlor? Shouldn't manufacturing have time to catch up over the winter?’”
Although that initial reaction was very common, unfortunately, the shortage was all too real, caused by a disastrous fire at a trichlor plant in Lake Charles, La., which destroyed not only the means of production but 845 tons of inventory waiting to be shipped.
When the situation became clear last fall, retailers and service providers began formulating strategies. For many, including Rene Huston, president of Patio Pleasures Pools & Spas in Sun Prairie, Wis., the first thought was to stockpile tabs.
“When we heard about the possibility of a shortage, we started increasing what we would typically buy at that point. And there are still a lot of unknowns as we prepare for the 2021 pool season, but we’ve been proactively buying more product. We put purchase orders in for three times as much as we normally sell, knowing that everybody's going to want to have more chlorine and to be prepared, and supplies are probably going to be limited.”
Stockpiling (if you can) has been the most common approach to all the shortages that beset the pool and spa industry, from hot tubs to filters to heaters to trichlor. But it’s not as easy as simply ordering product — you need a place to put them until you’re ready to use them. Dan Lenz has been steadily expanding All Seasons' warehouse space as cheaply as possible to accommodate the new supply reality.
“Years ago, we started buying shipping containers to use as warehouse space and put them out behind the store. I think we've got nine now, maybe 10. We brought in four or five more shipping containers recently, because we've got all of our chemicals for the year out there. We've got all of our equipment out there, too, a full year of inventory, because we're in the same boat with equipment as chemicals.
“In normal years, we’d place reorders throughout the year, so we didn’t need to store much. But if you order something from [the company’s equipment supplier] today, they're saying it will ship in October.”
You not only need warehouse space to build inventories, of course, you need money in hand to pay upfront for them. In essence, stockpiling product puts the pool company in the role of distributor (although often without distributor pricing).
As Huston puts it, “The challenge for retailers and pool professionals throughout the U.S. is to have enough cash flow to build up product inventory.”
THE FIRST SIGN
The first sign of the shortage most pool pros saw was a jump in price, says Lori Ann Cline, CEO/RMO of Cline Commercial Pool Service in California. “In recent years, we paid $70 to $75 for a 50-lb buck of 3-inch unwrapped tablets. In 2019 through most of 2020, we were paying $85, but around August of last year, the price increased to $125 per bucket. That’s a 50% mark-up overnight,” she says.
Cline was recently notified that chemical pricing will increase another 15-20% this summer. As a business that has to make a profit in order to exist, the company has little choice but to raise its own prices. “It’s difficult to continue to pass along chemical increases to our clients, but we must,” she says.
That doesn’t really solve the problem, she adds, due to the scarcity of supply at any price. “Suppliers are now limiting our purchases to only 1-2 buckets of trichlor per week. Last summer, that was even further limited, depending on their availability,” says Cline. “In past years, we would order delivery of multiple buckets or even a pallet to our warehouse, but those days seem to be over.”
The trichlor shortage is less of a concern for Ohio-based Richard Garnai, owner of Richard’s Pool Service. He says he’s noticed the trichlor price increase, but hasn’t had much trouble otherwise, and has a plan in place if the supply line really begins to pinch.
“My supplier said that we should be able to get what we need for most of the summer. He did not say that we’ll be limited, but I’m not sure there will be tabs available later in the summer,” Garnai says.
In any case, if things take a turn for the worse, Garnai isn’t too worried. He knows it’s more convenient to use tabs in some pools, but he can achieve the same chemical mix manually and will do so if he needs to. “I plan on using liquid chlorine and cyanuric acid if needed with my weekly service customers if our supply runs out,” he says.
Garnai offers a practical suggestion: ration yourself early to ease the shortage later. “The most important thing is to not rely solely on tabs during the beginning of the summer. Limit the use of the tabs throughout the season using liquid chlorine on a weekly basis.”
Midgett will also adjust her sanitizing regimen if necessary. “We can use salt water chlorine generators in addition to calcium hypochlorite, liquid chlorine and granular stabilizer and our pools close for the season,” she says.
However, it’s a different story for hot tubs. Midgett purchased a pallet of 3-inch trichlor tablets for the 2021 season for her pools, but didn't think to stock up on 1-inch tablets the company would need for spas, which in her area, are open year round.
When Midgett tried to purchase the minimal amount of 1-inch tabs needed to service her tubs over the slower months, no distributors had stock readily available.
“We are currently limited to the quantities that we can buy, and this is scary,” she says.
One might think bromine would be the answer, but Midgett’s tubs are mostly outside, where sunlight destroys bromine very quickly.
“Bromine doesn't work well in our environment where the hot tubs are exposed to extended sunlight. Also, we often share water from our hot tubs and swimming pools, and bromine and chlorine do not play well together.”
It hardly needs to be said that educating customers is an immediate priority. They are notoriously grumpy about surprise price increases.
At Patio Pleasures, Huston took the honest approach in her customer communications. “We said, ‘We're experiencing a chlorine shortage and here's why. But here's what we’re going to do, and here’s how we're prepared to support you through this 2021 swimming season.’ Her customers have responded well to that method, she says.
Customers of All Seasons are used to getting a lot of “early buy” communication in March, but this year there was an added twist, says Lenz. This time the message was: “Hey, we always tell you to stock up this time of year, because it’s the cheapest way you can buy chemicals. But this year, not only is it the cheapest, but it may be that you can't buy it at all come July. So if you don't stock up now, we don't know what you may end up needing to do later this summer.”
All Seasons has used a similar message concerning the current shortage of equipment, urging customers to open early to make sure all equipment is functioning properly, telling them: “You need to get your pool opened early and get all the bugs worked out of it. Because if we get into May and find something that needs to be replaced — and if all of our equipment inventory is depleted by then — well, I can't just create it myself.
“And we've had a significant number of people respond, ‘Really? It's that severe?’ And we say, ‘Yes, it is.’”
SAVING CHLORINE WITH ALTERNATIVES
There are several options for reducing a pool’s use and dependence on chlorine, thus easing the trichlor shortage. Simple adherence to the basics of pool water care can help immensely — this would include maintaining chemically balanced water, destroying the potential sanctuaries for algae, use of specialty chemicals and keeping the filter in optimum condition. In addition, there are equipment options such as UV, ozone and AOP that will dramatically lower chlorine needs of a pool. And finally, a salt system obviates any need to add chlorine to the pool, as it generates its own.
Huston has explored those options through customer emails this spring. “We’ve just been talking with them about some things that they can do to take the burden off the chlorine, and we got a big response. People really found that information valuable and took action. Within that campaign, we promoted alternatives such as salt and UV systems, and we also focused on specialty products that can help lower chlorine usage, such as phosphates and enzymes.
“That email campaign created a ton of traction for people wanting to invest in UV systems or salt systems. A lot of our customers took advantage of our early buy, adding phosphate and enzyme products, and within the first week of that campaign, we sold eight salt systems and 25 UV systems — just within the first week. (We had pre-ordered the systems to have them on hand.)"
As for how this whole shortage issue will play out, Huston believes time is on the side of the pool pro. “I do believe 2021 is going to feel similar to 2020. But in my opinion, I think in 2022 things are going to start to calm down a little bit. We're not going to experience the supply and demand issues next year that we are right now. By 2022, the supply chains are going to rebalance, but this year will be a challenge,” she says.