Improve the pool winterizing process for better spring openings

Ttt 808 AqThis past year, headlines were abundant with news about record-breaking snowfalls and ice storms galore. Here in Madison, Wis., the all-time record was broken after we received more than 100 inches of snowfall in a six-month period. (Just to note, we shattered the old record by nearly 30 inches.)

While winterizing pools means different things in different parts of the country, AQUA wanted to check in with those areas hit hard with some of Mother Nature's finest attributes - snow, ice, sleet and wind, just to name a few. So we spoke with Troy Derheim, president of Tubs of Fun in Fargo, N.D., an AQUA 100 member, to get the inside scoop of what it takes to winterize a pool in one of the nation's "winteriest" regions, not to mention how to make spring openings that much easier.

First and foremost, why is properly winterizing a pool so important?

It seems like a lot of pool and service companies overlook the value of an opening and a closing. We need to look at creating more value in the industry for the services we provide, and winterizing is a key way to do that. We're going to make sure it isn't just winterizing; it's a complete inspection of the pool and the spa operation.

It's actually almost like providing a menu for the customer. You give them a menu of things that could be done or should be done. So you're up-selling without relying on the technician to up-sell. And you're providing a better service.

A lot of guys think, "Well, I've got a certain amount of time in the season. I need to get in and out and get as many closings in as I can. My competitor across town is doing 50 closings. I need to do 60 so I can do one step better." I think they are missing the point. We need to, as an industry, create a better value for our customer. Try to provide a better service, do better inspections and make sure as a retailer, you are providing manufacturer guidelines.

Are there specific directions to follow when properly winterizing a pool?

Winterizing can be anywhere from a quick half an hour job to three hours of going through everything. Everyone is a little bit different with how they want to do it. [It can include] taking the deck equipment and putting it away, cleaning the deck, doing maintenance checks, replacing O-rings, gaskets - as much as the retailer wants to offer the customer.

Disassemble the equipment properly. Go through and make sure everything is completely drained and the lines are blown through. Caps, plugs, all the little stuff is kept in the pump pot. We remove all of the pressure gauges and tops of filters. The pressure switch on the heater and the pressure gauges on the filter are always removed and put in the home.

One, you're assured there is no water left where it doesn't belong, and two, you are actually doing something technical, so the customer has to call you back in the spring. Most importantly, give customers a broad variety of things you can do. Give them some value where you can actually provide an inspection checklist that includes everything.

They'll have a record of it so if they ever sell the home, the [new homeowner] can see that we winterized the pool eight years in a row. It's a menu just like when you buy a vehicle, and you have a glove box full of receipts. It provides more value for you.

Is not following a manufacturer's product guidelines a common problem?

I think a lot of retailers don't follow the manufacturers' guidelines as much as they should. For instance, even in a product we use, pool antifreeze, they have the directions right on the bottle on how much antifreeze is supposed to be used per foot of PVC pipe. And I've talked to friends across the country, and nobody matches the recommended guidelines because it's an enormous amount. To do it properly, you're looking at 12 to 14 jugs of antifreeze.

We started following the guidelines to a T three years ago and actually have that information readily available if the customer says, "Holy smokes, how come you have to put so much in?" We say we guarantee we aren't going to have an issue on it, and we follow the guidelines, whereas a lot of companies are so focused on getting in, out and done as fast as they can. I think they are missing the boat.

Look at the products that are out there. There are a lot of products that are available now that are modernizing winterizing, making it easier and more reliable. Let the manufacturers do the research and the work to provide a better outcome and then follow those guidelines. Don't be afraid to put a little time into researching and doing what you've got to do to make it right for the customer.

It's a step-by-step process to make sure it's consistent. Consistency is what's going to be successful. If you look at any successful business, no matter what it is, they've been able to establish consistency, like a franchise. You're going to get the desired outcome every time. Have consistency and use the products that are available.

What is the biggest winter risk - snow, sleet, ice, wind - to a pool during the off season?

The biggest challenge for us is the wind. Ice can be an issue, but once that pool is frozen and everything is across the top of it, there isn't much you can do to it to damage it or cause any issues with it. The wind is what seems to be more of a problem.

Trying to keep the cover in place with above-ground pools is an issue. We've gotten to the point now where we've put 6 to 8 inches of water on top immediately, and that's because we are always dealing with wind in our area.

Ice is not that big of a deal. We've found that it's better to keep the pool full of water because ice doesn't freeze all the way down. It can freeze about 4 to 6 inches, so the shallow end is going to have ice. So if we do things properly, like putting the air pillows in the middle, that helps break up the ice.

I've had customers come in and say, "I need to have 20 air pillows for my pool," because they thought the air pillows were for lifting the cover up to keep the rain and everything running off the sides. But air pillows are made to weaken the ice in the center. We'll center two air pillows underneath the cover for whatever size pool it is, just like manufacturers' guidelines, and they end up relieving pressure and causing less ice damage to the pool. The only time we don't use air pillows is on pools with automatic covers.

What advice would you give to get through harsh winters?

Maybe something you can add for extreme or extended winters is to do a second inspection or an early spring inspection just to see how things look. We'll probably winterize a pool in mid-October to mid-November, depending upon how the weather is. But we may not get our first full freeze until December. So that pool is sitting there for quite a while.

A quick inspection creates more value. In March we can take a look at the pool, which is starting to thaw, but no one is opening the pool until the second or third week in April. So if you go out and do an early inspection, you're checking the water, for one, to make sure the chemicals have done their job and the second thing would be to see if any damage has been done to give the customer an early idea what's going to take place. And then some routine maintenance to give the client peace of mind that if water bags or some things have come loose, you're securing that so they don't have dust blowing in the first three to four weeks of spring.

Include [a second inspection] in the price where you'll swing by the house and look in the water. You can figure in a $50 trip, $25 in the fall and $25 in the spring, just to take a 10-minute inspection drive-by.

Which is worse for pools: a harsh winter or a mild winter?

A lot of times, a light winter is worse than having a harsh winter. If we have those months where we're having freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing, and lots of movement, that's where I'm seeing more damage to covers, and I see more issues with pool water being green in the spring because it's warmed up and the water has had time to come out of hibernation. When we get a freeze early on and everything is solid and stays that way throughout the whole winter, I see fewer issues.

What's alleviated the problem of [frozen pipes due to a harsh winter] is providing a checklist for the employee to make sure they understand the process that needs to be done every time. The best way to prepare for a harsh winter is to have an upfront policy on it. It's tough because very few pool companies are willing to guarantee and say you've got a 100 percent warranty on it, and if it freezes we'll fix it for free. We don't do that either. We say, "Look, what we're doing is providing you the best opportunity to have a successful opening without any issues." If it's honestly an issue of neglect or my technician didn't do a good job, I've eaten jobs before.

If a customer says he or she isn't willing to spend the money or is not willing to do [what's needed to winterize], I'll either do one of two things. I'll say, "Sorry, we can't do the job for you," and walk away, which is tough to do but you've got to do it, or we say, "We'll do it, but you have to sign a waiver that says absolutely under any and all circumstances you are on your own."

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