Swimming in profits

As with the marine boat industry, cosmetic issues plagued early fiberglass pools in the 60s and 70s, but these issues were resolved with advances in material technologies. Today, most manufacturers make their pools to the same standards used in the boat industry. Think of fiberglass pools as inside-out boat hulls that are placed in the ground.

Following the success of the many “big box” stores, do-it-yourself installation of one-piece fiberglass pools is on the rise. The advantage, of course, is that the pool arrives complete and ready to drop into the ground. The only special skills required are electrical, as well as pouring the pool deck and planning and installing the landscaping. The typical homeowner has to arrange for only four subcontractors: Backhoe operator, crane operator, electrician and concrete worker. Installs take about three to four days, but typically the ground is allowed to settle for 2 to 3 weeks before pouring the deck. During that wait, the pool is full of water and can be used, so your client can be swimming in as little as three days.

Dig the hole, drop it in

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Let's take a closer look at the installation process, and then discuss how this can fit into your existing contractor business. One-piece fiberglass pools are manufactured in a controlled facility and transported to the jobsite complete. They consist of a cosmetic outer layer, which can be comprised of either standard gel coat or a solid surface finish of Ultra Granicoat (the same product used in bath and kitchen solid surface applications). A 90- to 100-mil layer of glass and epoxy-based vinyl ester resin, a material common in the production of chemical storage tanks, follows this cosmetic layer. The bulk of the pool structure, approximately 100 to 200 mils, is built using a general-purpose marine-grade resin and chopped glass. Finally, the entire pool is encased in a 24-ounce woven glass cloth, which provides directional strength. This results in a laminate that is approximately 0.25 to 0.375 inch thick.

Installation requires digging the hole to the specifications provided by the manufacturer. Any good backhoe operator can easily accomplish this in less than 6 hours. The hole is then lined with string, to establish an exact grade match for the bottom of the pool, and the bottom is backfilled to this grade level with a non-expansive material, such as washed gravel or sand. When sand is used, it is washed into place using water to assist in packing. The pool is placed in the hole using an 8- to 10-ton boom truck and checked for level using a laser level or transit (see photo, at left). Typically, the bottom of the hole needs to be adjusted in several places to get the top coping of the pool level to within ½ to 1 inch around the pool perimeter. This involves lifting the pool up and adding or removing material as necessary to achieve level grade. Rarely is it necessary to go over the 3-hour minimum required by most crane operators.

Plumbing of the entire pool is accomplished using 2-inch schedule 40 PVC and is even easier than most basic irrigation systems. A basic pool installation will have three lines: a skimmer and two return lines. A complex install will have five lines, adding an auto-cleaner line and conduit for a light. All of the lines are simply stubbed up and hooked to the equipment at a later time. Once plumbed, the area around the pool is backfilled with a non-expansive material (again gravel or sand) and rough graded for the landscape and deck (see photo, page Contractor 16).

Most of the tasks that require special skills, such as backhoe or crane operation, are ones you can subcontract. It is certainly possible that you already have a backhoe or skid steer available and will opt to perform this work using in-house services. If you don't, it is much easier and less hassle simply to subcontract these jobs. All of the PVC plumbing will be a breeze for anyone who has installed an irrigation system. It is much more straightforward and requires considerably less design work, because virtually all pool plumbing jobs are alike. Once the pool is operational and both backfill and grade are complete, you are now ready for landscaping and a deck. This is where your skill set can compete well with the local pool dealer.

Marketing your pool services

You really have two choices in setting up the business side of the pool-installation operation. Both involve having a pool on display, either at your facility or a leased location in a high-traffic area. Banners or phone high-traffic area. Banners or phone numbers inside an upright display pool are popular. In the first scenario, you may simply sell do-it-yourself kits where you arrange delivery of the pool and ancillary equipment and simply up sell your landscaping, fencing and turf services. In the second scenario, you actually get paid to install the pool. Some areas require local permitting for pool installation, so check with local building codes in your area before offering full-service installation. Most full installations will yield $3,000 to $5,000 in gross margins, excluding landscaping or other fencing or decking options.

Keep in mind that every pool will need a fence. If one already exists, it will need to be partially taken down in order for the large equipment to enter. Every installation will need sod or seed to rebuild the turf that is destroyed during installation. There are also opportunities to remove the existing turf and replace it after the installation is complete. Every installation requires some amount of landscaping design, and on the best jobs, the money spent here can exceed the cost of actually installing the pool. Many will want landscaping lights, which can be easily accomplished using fiber optics. Pool installations have moved away from electrical underwater lights to the use of fiber optics. A single illuminator box can support up to 450 to 500 strands of fiber and only 150 to 200 are typically used to illuminate a pool; the rest are available for landscaping and walkway lights.

There are several less obvious opportunities for add-on business. For example, because you already have the customer's turf and landscape removed to install the pool, this is the perfect time to offer the automatic irrigation system they have always talked about. Certainly it will be possible to pick up scheduled maintenance, giving them much more time to enjoy their new pool. Sometimes, simply drawing up a future landscape plan and giving them ideas of what might be possible in their yard could earn you their future business. If you are professional in handling this job and take the time to neatly draw out a landscape plan, they probably will give you the first chance to bid on completing work next year. What about new mulch or maybe even drainage or retaining walls? You will visit the yard before, during and after installing the pool, and every visit is an opportunity to look for areas where you can offer professional assistance.

Become the pool boy

One way that you can expand your services well beyond the pool installation is offering routine pool service with your existing turf maintenance service. There are only three basic things required for regular pool maintenance, and all of them can be learned relatively easily. A pool must be physically clean of debris, which is accomplished through filtration and vacuuming; it must be maintained at proper pH for swimmer comfort and equipment longevity; and it must be sanitized with one of the many sanitizers available (the most common of which is chlorine). It does not take long to master the basics of pool maintenance. You probably already have existing properties to which you could offer this service.

Pools and spas have grown to an $8 billion industry in the United States. According to the National Pool and Spa Institute, about 242,000 residential in-ground pools were built last year. That's up from 172,184 in 1998. An estimated 7.5 million pools already are in the ground. Considering that most of a pool's character comes from the landscape and deck around it, pools are a natural fit for landscapers and could very well represent your next profit center.

Ray Cronise is a founding partner of the RTR Group, Inc. (Fayetteville, Tenn.), which manufactures Duraglass fiberglass pools. His e-mail address is ray@rtrgroup.com. For more information, go to www.fiberglasspools.com.

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