Is there a perfect pool service vehicle?

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4 K 209 AqYes, it's only a machine used for transport - pistons and axles and a cargo bay - but the pool vehicle is also a trusty business partner that works in unison with the service pro to serve the customer and keep the day moving forward smoothly.

It's not surprising that a certain affinity should develop between the two. It's even less surprising that there's a range of opinion on what constitutes the best machine for the job and how to arrange it for the day's work.

For Jeremy Smith, owner, Tadpole Pool Service, Dallas, a good combination of power and fuel economy is ideal. And it's got to be a truck, not a van. "I'm carrying chemicals," he says, "so I don't want to hop in a van, the fumes would be too bad."

Smith has found the combination of power and gas mileage he likes in the new GMC Sierra Hybrid, which he has on order pending its release in March. The V-8 hybrid boasts a 40 percent improvement in gas mileage over the standard version through its use of electric power under light loads and at lower speeds.

When maximum power is needed, its 6.0-liter engine cranks out 332 horsepower and offers a 3-ton towing capacity, more than ample for the 4-by-6 utility trailers Smith uses to carry extra items like heaters.

Big trucks do have a drawback, Smith admits. "They're so tall, unless you're 6 foot 2 you're not going to be able to reach your stuff. It's tough to get to the middle of the bed."

Another GMC fan is Kirt Kleiner, owner of KMK Services in Pittsburgh, and the 2008 winner of Pleatco's Perfect Pool Guy contest. But instead of the big truck, he goes for the four-cylinder GMC Canyon with a crew cab, which he leases 36 months at a time. He has leased his pool truck for years, he says, because "the customer likes to see a nice new shiny truck in their driveway, and the lease contract guarantees me a regular payment for my truck, year in, year out. My accountant says it makes it easier for him, too."

His choice is based largely on the Canyon's fuel economy performance, which is good (18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway) for a truck that can still deliver 185 horsepower. Kleiner squeezes the machine for every mile he can get from each gallon of fuel.

"I'm concerned about gas mileage," he says, "so I keep the weight down. I don't take anything I don't need. I slim it down. I've gone through all the metal things I carry and said, 'You really only need one of these. If you use it, you can replace it.'"

A Regional Consideration

Every service route is demanding in its own way, and the pool pro's selection of a vehicle reflects that. On North Carolina's Outer Banks, where Jill Tillett maintains pools and spas, a rugged four-wheel drive is a must because the road to her client's pool or spa is often a sandy beach.

Tillett is co-owner of Nags Head Pools in Manteo, N. C., and winner of Pleatco's Perfect Pool Gal contest. She says she wishes she could drive a Mini Cooper but it couldn't handle the sand, and besides, "I just can't get enough chemicals in the back," she says, laughing. "So I drive a 2008 Dodge Dakota. It's got a lifetime warranty on the transmission, and I like that."

Given the tough miles she covers, full warranty coverage on the drivetrain is a good idea. Many of Tillett's clients are owners of oceanfront rental homes, and she often has to drive at least a dozen miles on sand. Combine that with the corrosive salt air, and it's a harsh environment for any vehicle.

Despite the conditions, reliability is an absolute necessity, she says. "The vacation rental properties change occupants week to week - Saturday is usually changeover day. When that new group is moving in, they don't care about your mechanical problems. They're not interested. They just want their hot tub cleaned - now."

Interior And Exterior

A critical consideration in vehicle selection is finding the right combination of interior and exterior cargo space. Some items must be carried inside, protected from theft and out of the elements, while others, such as chemicals, must be outside, where their caustic smell can't choke the driver.

A good solution is a Chevy HHR and a trailer hitched up behind to haul chemicals and cleaning equipment, according to Todd Starner, of Sarasota, Fla., director of IPSSA's new Region 11.

The 2009 HHR offers a whopping 57 cubic feet of interior cargo space and 1,000 pounds of towing capacity. With that much interior cargo space and the power to pull a trailer, it makes a good pool maintenance package.

Overall, he says, "That arrangement gives you more space, and it also means a guy doesn't have to buy a full-size truck that gets 12 miles to a gallon. I know of one guy that drives the new Chevy HHR - he still carries all the tools and pulls a little trailer, and he's averaging 27 to 28 miles a gallon.

"And you can decouple the trailer if you need to. Say it's just a repair day, you just decouple the trailer and leave it at the office. You don't have to sort tools out or anything. You just keep everything separate."

Indeed, the ability to organize the space and work in it easily is the crucial characteristic of the vehicle. That's what makes it fit.

"That's what's most important," says Starner, "how easy is the truck to work out of. For example, me being 5 foot 10, the new Toyota Tundra and the full-size trucks make it hard to get to hoses and get up into the bed and things like that, whereas a little HHR and a trailer are ideal for me, because I can get to everything, and I'm not reaching and stretching so much."

In his service area, Starner notes that most of the bigger companies that have trucks strictly for servicing pools tend to go with smaller trucks, such as Chevy Colorados, Ford Rangers and Toyota Tacomas.

"It depends on the person behind the wheel," he adds. "I do have a couple of guys that are really tall, up to 6 foot 10, and there's no way they'd fit in an S10.

"One of the things we're seeing here in South Tampa, is with the new Ford F-150s, the first 2 feet of the 8-foot box is a lockable storage compartment. Some of the pool guys are jumping on that, it leaves them 6 feet of box space to carry their chemistry and hoses and then they have 2 feet of lockable storage for all their tools."

A crew cab can serve the same purpose. Kleiner keeps his tools there along with a rolling stock of products he sells as the opportunity arises. "I sell retail, right out of the crew cab," he says. "You need an eyeball, I got it, as well as vacuum heads, thermometers, test kits, chlorine floaters, test strips and other stuff. If I install something I throw the empty packages in the drivers side, and then at night, that's my inventory replacement."

Efficiency on the route is important to both speed and profitability, and Kleiner is methodical in his approach. He keeps his chemicals in stackable Rubbermaid containers with lids, three different sizes, in the truck bed, impervious to the elements.

In the armrest in the cab, he keeps a permanent inventory of silicon, O-ring lube, electrical tape, a screw driver, a 5/16 nut driver, all his customer keys and change for coffee. "If I know what has to be fixed," he says, "I just take the exact tool with me. And I'm very methodical about it. I work my way into the job, and I work my way out. As I finish with different parts of the job, I'm moving things toward my truck. I count my steps.

"I'm thinking every minute about how to be faster - how can I get those leaves off the pool quicker? Because the less time I'm on a job, the quicker I can move on to the next one and go home."

Downtime Is Frown Time

A final point to consider in evaluating a service vehicle is its maintenance cost and ability to stay on the road. Company owners emphasize that the cost to a business of vehicle downtime far outweighs the actual repair bill.

For that reason, most do not take chances with a vehicle that is entering the latter, trouble-prone stages of its service life.

Starner sees the end of the third year as a safe time to unload a service truck, "because usually a pool truck starts showing its age around the third or fourth year. So I finance my trucks for three years hoping I can get three or four years out of them.

"It just depends on how a guy wants to run his business. I personally believe I'd rather buy a new truck and only have it for three years and never have to worry about it, because if that truck doesn't start up in the morning, that just ruins your whole day. Actually it ruins your whole week because now you're behind."

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