Streamlining pool service routes

Scott Webb Headshot

Ccc 408 Aq The goal of a good route schedule is to spend the least amount of time on the road β€” and therefore, the maximum amount of time on the job. Because that's where the money grows.

And route scheduling affects more than just a service tech's precious time. A lot of company money is poured into the fleet's gas tanks as well, adding another sobering cost to idling in traffic.

For these two reasons alone, well-planned routes are essential in the competitive pool-care business.

They demand more than just a cursory glance at a map. But with a skilled eye and some quality software, wandering schedules can be made lean and direct.

A properly honed service circuit requires attention to detail. Little things, like quitting time at a local factory or the mass rush of cars to a nearby elementary school at the afternoon bell, can keep a worker bottled up for a half hour or more. Commuter traffic is even worse, and can cost hours.

While these may sound like relatively small or unavoidable issues, they are neither. With multiple service vehicles on the road, small costs in time and fuel are multiplied into large losses. And in terms of morale, waiting in traffic can drain more energy than a rusty three-horse pump.

Connect The Dots

For most of recorded history, routing of pool-service vehicles has been an art, not a science. Someone with knowledge of the area and a map connects the job-dots with a marker, trying to form a smooth loop back to HQ (or perhaps to the tech's home if the truck is kept there).

Nothing wrong with that, especially in the hands of a veteran like Adam Morley, vice president and co-owner of Paradise Pools, just south of L.A. in Torrance, Calif. Based on experience, he can work up a route and even figure in adjustments on the fly if needs be.

It's a skill. But, like so many other skills in the information age, it's being replaced by a machine β€” computers can do the job a lot faster. And of course they make fewer mistakes, don't complain or take vacations.

The productivity advantages are attractive, even to a seasoned pro like Morley. "I've been working in this area for 20 years, so I pretty much know what's what when I'm planning a route. Still, we are looking into a program called Service CEO. Javier Payan uses it."

Indeed he does. Payan Pool Service, outside San Diego in Santee, Calif., has invested heavily in Service CEO, a program that takes in everything from equipment specs to service notes and fees, organizes it and makes it work for the company in a variety of ways.

Payan has paired Service CEO with MapPoint, a program that helps plot service routes, according to Rocky Birlew, service manager, an enthusiastic fan of the software.

"The way I can manage things now with this program, it's amazing the amount of information I can access," he says.

Payan runs six service routes, which vary from day to day, and Birlew uses the software and his own judgment to make each of them tight.

"As long as you punch all your jobs in that each guy is doing on a weekly basis," he says, "you can use what's called 'the dispatch board' on this program, which shows you where your technicians are throughout the day, or any day, while MapPoint plots each guy the fastest and most efficient route.

"Say the guy is working in La Jolla, and he's got some stuff in Clermont. As long as you input the jobs for the day, it will show up on the map and give you turn-by-turn directions. Or, it can give you strip directions so you've got the map and directions on the same page."

In a sense, it's almost like GPS in its ability to monitor employee driving habits, as the program can display the mileage between each job and how many miles are driven throughout the day, as well as gas costs.

"There's so much information there. I can tell the technician, 'This is how many miles your route should be every day.' We can write down what they have on the odometer when they leave in the morning and when they get back, and compare what they're driving with what the system says they should be driving."

Staying On Course

No machine can do all that on its own. The key is integrating what the software can do with a company's daily routine. And that starts first thing in the morning, when every tech first contemplates the coming day.

Payan's repair people are on the computers as the sun climbs in the east, closing out the previous day's jobs and getting information for the challenges ahead. Now is the time to get a handle on home access or equipment issues, before they can throw a schedule off track.

"I see all the service guys in the morning, and we talk about all the previous day's jobs and if there are any repairs to be scheduled," says Birlew. "Then, after that, we talk about today's jobs. And if there's anything they or I need to know about a job, I can punch in a customer's name and the job notes are right there for me to read.

"Say a guy is going to do a filter cleaning and he wants to know what kind of filter it is, as long as the information has been entered, I can find that quickly for him."

While the programs do not follow the techs on the road, with Birlew at the workstation they can simply call in to retrieve the information off the screen.

All Pool Service and Supply, Orlando, Fla., uses different software to manage the business, according to Erik Thomson, service manager. "We've had Vetra for three or four years, it communicates with our service management program, ESC, and controls everything. It's even our cash register for our retail store.

"All of our guys get their service calls through Vetra, which automatically downloads their work orders straight to their Nextels," he says, "and Vetra will optimize their route. Our senior techs take their vehicles home, and Vetra plots the route from there."

Thomson tweaks the basic route Vetra provides to avoid obstacles or accommodate clients with special requests. "I make changes depending on school zones or traffic. And once in a while, if a customer wants to be home when we arrive, we have to mix it up a little bit. That's usually because they have dogs; that's one of the most common reasons they like to be home. And when they have big dogs, we like them to be home, too."

Organization Is Power

In addition to actual turn-by-turn route planning, these software programs can help a company by providing a clearer picture of what's happening over the long term.

With a daily, weekly or monthly overview of jobs and their status, says Birlew, a general manager can see at a glance where and with whom follow-up is needed. "I'm looking at our week right now," he says, "and there are green, blue, yellow and red highlights on these jobs. And each of those colors means a specific thing. Green, active job. Blue, finished and billed. Yellow, estimated, not won or lost. Red, cancelled."

Looking back over a pool season, a company can use these features to analyze its business or just figure out what's going on. "Let's say I see a green code. I can track that job back three or four months, to find out β€” why is this job still green? Who knows, maybe it was billed out and we just never closed it out. Maybe it just fell through the cracks.

"It revolutionizes your thought processes. It's all about allowing you to do things more efficiently and correctly. It makes all your information available for everyone."

All that functionality, from route planning to management, says Birlew, ultimately will save the company a bundle. "This program is going to save us a lot of money just on fuel alone. Fuel prices are bouncing around $3 a gallon, and we're driving trucks all day long, so it's huge for us."

Killers And Smoothers

In anyone's workday, there are welcome surprises and those that are met with a slight tightening around the mouth. The service business is no different; there are schedule killers and smoothers, and each company has its favorites (and most notorious).

"I guess the biggest schedule killer for us is when someone calls in sick, although it's not that uncommon," says Adam Morley, co-owner, Paradise Pools, Torrance, Calif.

What that means, of course, is that everybody else is going to have to pick up the slack with more work, a longer day and more opportunities for something to go wrong.

At Payan Pool Service, Santee, Calif., it means, "Everybody gets three extra pools. It doesn't matter where they're at, they've got to get done," according to Rocky Birlew, service manager.

The company has a clever plan to keep sick days to a minimum. Every two-month period, if an employee does not miss any work, that person gets a bonus. "Guys like that," Birlew says, "and if a guy doesn't make the bonus, his money goes into the pot."

The other event that really slows things down for Payan is weather, especially strong winds. When those Santa Anas come whistling down from the mountains, "it creates havoc for our guys. I know from experience as a service guy. When you get wind-driven debris in your pool, it messes the schedule up because it takes twice as long to clean it."

On the other side of the ledger, established customers with known pools keep the day on track for All Pool Service and Supply, Orlando, Fla.

"The days we see go smoothly," says Erik Thomson, service manager, "are days filled with jobs where we've been to the house before, and the situation is known before we go. It's when we go to a bunch of new customers that we've never seen before that something happens to slow you down. So we try to make sure we spread those around."


The Way Of The Future?

Software has been created recently that allows remote monitoring and control of client pools. From the comfort of an office miles away, chlorine output (for chlorine generators), temperature, scheduled programs and system programming can be changed at the click of a mouse β€” provided the pools are equipped with EasyTouch or IntelliTouch, two automation systems from Pentair Water Pool and Spa, Moorpark, Calif.

There are two levels to the system, monitoring and control, notes David MacCallum, product manager, lights and automation.

In terms of pool monitoring, he says, "Every five minutes these systems communicate the current state of the pool β€” chlorine level, temperature of the pool, heater on or off, solar engaged β€” to a server on the Internet." From there, a service manager can access the information using special software from Pentair, something similar to a Web browser.

The other level is control, which allows the service tech to react to a problem indicated on the monitor. "Instead of dispatching someone, they can remotely log in to that pool and make an adjustment," says MacCallum.

EasyTouch or IntelliTouch pools can be remotely monitored and controlled. SunTouch offers monitoring but not control.

Currently, this pool care scheme could be of particular benefit to service techs and route managers who have lucrative clients in distant or difficult to access areas β€” mountain lodges, secluded beach houses, etc. Imagine the time savings on a job that requires a minor alteration on a distant pool β€” it could be done over the Internet instead of spending half a day driving to and from a job site only to make a trivial adjustment, such as an increase in chlorine output.

"That was the whole reason for the development of the program," notes MacCallum. "There was this service guy up in the Pacific Northwest who was telling me he had to drive three or four hundred miles out to this site, just to push, like, two buttons."

Necessity being invention's mom, MacCallum figured his group at Pentair could come up with something to help. "We already had most of the pieces of the puzzle in place at that time. We just had to add a couple more pieces to make it a reality."

The potential for software of this type is obvious. If development continues along this line, and remote monitoring and control of pools becomes mainstream in the coming years, it would radically change the service industry.

Service companies could conceivably handle fantastically large client bases β€” thousands of pools β€” without increasing personnel because many service tasks would be performed at a stroke over the Internet, instead of taking the time to communicate with clients, drive to each residence, access the pool, find the controls and perform the necessary tasks.

At the moment, MacCallum envisions a mass client base with some commonality that binds them into a single pool monitoring and control system, for instance "companies that manage large apartment complexes or condominiums with mini-pools in every luxury unit. Or perhaps something like the Reunion Neighborhood in Florida, which is a high-end prototype neighborhood of the future, with perhaps 15,000 units, and just about every one has a pool. There are a lot of snowbirds that come down in the winter, but somebody has to take care of the pool when they're not there. So they're interested in a way to maintain those pools easily."

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