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frozen pools

Deep Freeze

Winter Storm Uri upends Texas pool industry

This year, Texas got cold — really cold. It’s been 72 years since the Dallas area saw minus 2 degrees like it did in February, when winter storm Uri hit North America. Texas residents were slammed, and the state was unprepared.

“The storm was the worst to hit Texas in decades,” says Scott Waldo, president of Platinum Pools, which serves the Houston area. “The power crisis [during the storm] left hundreds of thousands of people without power or water to their homes. Millions of dollars in damages were suffered by Texas residents.”

Landon Brumfield, owner of Fiesta Pool Services in San Antonio, says he and his team were initially skeptical of the huge wave of winter weather. And Grant Evans, vice president of The Pool Surgeon in Fairview, Texas, says the storm was unprecedented and the ensuing chaos unforeseeable. Texas is still in recovery mode.

“As a pool repair company, we’re now faced with a chain reaction of events and scenarios that had never previously crossed my mind,” Evans says.

Eye of the Storm

On Thursday, February 11, Patriot Pool & Spa in Austin, Texas, sent all employees home at noon. Branch manager Nathan White lost power in his home that night. The next day, Patriot’s crew worked a half day in the afternoon, but that was the last time the company moved trucks for over a week.

“Our customer service suffered tremendously,” White says of the first week of the storm. “With 80% of our staff having limited access to power, water, Wi-Fi and cell service, we were extremely slow to catch up with the 20 times higher than normal — that’s not an exaggeration — call and email volume that started February 12.”

By the second day of freezing weather, with reports of more on the way, Brumfield was discussing with upper management how Fiesta Pool Services was going to support its team in a time without work. “We decided to pay our personnel through the weather to ease their minds and keep morale high,” he says. “We realized quickly that we made the right decision because many of our team were without power and water due to the infrastructure failure in our state.”

The Texas power grid was seconds from complete failure during the storm, leaving nearly 5 million without power and upwards of 15 million without water  by February 19. The impact on the pool industry was immediate.

“It’s hard to combat powerless equipment and multiple days with freezing weather,” Brumfield says. Fiesta Pool Services sent mass emails to clients advising them what to do to try and prepare for possible damage by winterizing as best as possible. “Most clients were just trying to figure out how to get water and power for their families,” he adds. “I’m sure the pool was a non-priority [at the time].”

Even for those who did prepare their equipment ahead of time, or tried to mitigate damage during the storm, it had little effect. Patriot Pool reports that over 90% of its customer base has pool equipment damage ranging from total equipment loss to very small leaks, and everything in between.

“The way freeze protection for pools has worked in Central Texas for as long as anyone can remember is simply running pumps while the temperature is 32 degrees or less,” White says, which works to prevent PVC from freezing or cracking, and reduces cold weather damage drastically. But without consistent residential power and water, he says, freeze prevention tactics don’t work. Even those with power and water functioning the whole time weren’t immune to pool damage, White adds.

Platinum Pools was flooded with calls in the four days leading up to storm with concerns about how the weather would affect pool equipment, Waldo says. The company sent emails detailing ways homeowners could try and prepare their pool equipment for the storm. The damage calls started the day the storm hit and haven’t let up as of the writing of this article. Hundreds of Platinum Pools’ clients sustained freeze damage to pool equipment, the most expensive being heaters, Waldo adds, but also pumps, check valves, chlorinators and vacuum breakers.

At The Pool Surgeon, technicians and internal staff alike were fielding phone calls, emails and text messages from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day during the storm, Evans says. Team members posted on community forums and social media platforms providing residents with their personal contact information.

The volume of calls that week and the weeks that followed was so great that Evans had to assign one person to calls and one to the schedule, but they still couldn’t keep up. “We would be on the phone, and five other people would be calling simultaneously,” he says. “There is only one phone line for our company… you couldn’t check the voicemail because calls continued to pour in. We saw the list of calls [to return] piling up but, honestly, you feel helpless in the circumstances.”

The Aftermath

Evans says the full extent of damage didn’t set in until days after the initial surge. “Prolific would be an understatement,” he says. “We all were coming together with the understanding that, like so many times in the last year, things were going to change and we needed to shift our scope accordingly.”

Fiesta Pool Services completed over 300 service calls the first week after the storm, prioritizing the company’s 1,500 route customers as best as possible, then moving on to mission critical failures for commercial and residential properties for new customers.

Blue Haven Pools in Tyler, Texas, used a triage approach to handle roughly 200 repairs in the first weeks following the storm, says R’nelle Lazlo, vice president of national marketing and business development for the company. “First they focused only on getting the pools up and running — filtering and circulating,” she says. “For other issues like a busted heater or waterfall not working, they made plans to return and assess in the future. That way they quickly got to as many customers as possible to prevent further harm to their pools.”

Lazlo says it’s also been stressful for the Texas office to deal with customer misconceptions that equipment warranties cover freeze damage and telling them to file a claim with their homeowners’ insurance instead.

Platinum Pools had a similar approach to Blue Haven for initial repairs: Focus on stopping leaks and getting pools circulating by bypassing heaters or other broken equipment that could wait for repair, Waldo says.

The first few weeks after the storm, pool companies were working overtime in the hardest-hit Texas communities. Technicians for The Pool Surgeon worked seven days a week for three weeks straight, from 7:30 a.m. to as late as 10:30 p.m., Evans says. All of them received paychecks that mirrored those hours: “We were happy to pay them,” he says. “It was a job well done and a wage well deserved. They have gone above and beyond to help customers and, as a result, it has reflected very well on our company. Without our team and their altruism, we wouldn’t have this advantage.”

Equipment shortages popped up quickly and continue to be a problem. Brumfield ordered parts in the early stages of the storm from internet providers, realizing supply houses would already be sold out. “It was a year’s demand of parts in four days’ time,” he says. “Almost impossible to remedy.”

In fact, Fiesta Pool Service exhausted the service team’s auxiliary equipment and sold used parts with new warranties. Brumfield and his entire team dismantled their personal pools for equipment to sell. With the spring wave coming, Brumfield was wary to sell all of the cleaning equipment to people in need, “but we gambled to serve the needs of our customers. We hope it will pay off with customer appreciation and loyalty,” he says.

The Pool Surgeon’s staff called the company’s local distributor and logged into the online portal days after the storm, purchasing as much equipment as possible to hold techs over for a couple of weeks, but the supply dwindled faster than anticipated. By the time The Pool Surgeon’s stock ran out in a matter of days, the distributor’s supply was completely wiped out, Evans says, so the company purchased as much of the backordered items as was allowed.

Additionally, Evans says, the company has utilized contacts in other markets like Arizona, California and Michigan to bring in more equipment, despite the additional freight surcharge for deliveries from out of state (that customers are happily paying, he adds).

“We are symbolically holding the last roll of toilet paper in an empty aisle right now,” Evans says. “This is something you cannot plan for, especially considering that most equipment manufacturers were already at full production capacity after last year.”

The equipment shortages and subsequent delays have affected some customer relationships. While Evans says most have been sympathetic, it’s inevitable that some are not. “If the conversation lands in a place of disrespect or aggression toward our team, those customers are weeding themselves out of our service radius,” Evans says. “We have removed several customers from the schedule and informed them that we will no longer service their property. Those are unfortunate conversations that make a hard situation much more difficult.”

Tomorrow’s Forecast

Waldo says the aftermath of this storm on the Texas pool industry will continue for months due to a shortage not only of equipment and materials, but also because of waiting on insurance claims. There are only so many adjusters available to examine hundreds of thousands of repair claims.

Before the freeze, The Pool Surgeon’s technicians could serve five to seven pools each per day. Now, due to the extent of the damage, some days technicians can only get to one, maybe two pools.

“It’s borderline demoralizing to look at a schedule and not see an end in sight,” he says. “We are booking customers [three months out], and this is the norm for the area right now. With the lack of supply and the lack of licensed technicians, we are all in the same boat.”

Oak leaves in a pool serviced by Patriot Pool & Spa

A month after the storm, half of Patriot Pool customers were still dealing with completely shut down pools. “Our repair team has consistently been working 20% to 40% faster than normal to catch up,” White says. “Our cleaning team is working double time because the filter pumps aren’t running in half our pools, and all of the live oak trees dropped their leaves the week after the freeze.”

Evans is also concerned about rising Texas temperatures and delays affecting the health of pool water. “I don’t think it will be long before algae is a regular issue throughout pools in our area,” he says. “We are recommending customers douse their pools with bleach every couple of days and manually brush the pools as much as possible.”

Weather-Ready

Looking ahead, pool companies in Texas are realizing more preparedness may be necessary for future seasons.

“I think everyone is working through some shoulda-coulda-woulda feelings right now,” White says. “The reality is that the standards here in central Texas have worked perfectly well for over 50 years. I’ve been in the industry for 21 years myself, and I can tell you that in that entire time, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Evans says the Texas freeze is a perfect example of why it’s important to build a mutually beneficial relationship with distributors: “In our time of need, they did what they could to help us out and we will not forget that.”

Equipment freeze protection will preserve pools in normal Texas weather situations, Waldo says. “The power crisis was the root cause of the massive damage,” he adds. “We will proactively communicate winterizing instructions in case of power outages in the future, in addition to freeze preparation emails we already send our clients.”

Brumfield says his team will perform a postmortem to see what was done well and what could have been done better. He also plans to invest more heavily in critical parts leading up to winter from now on, and to build a back stock of products that previously went unused. “It will be a long time before we let a used pump housing or valve body go in the trash,” he says.

He also wants to look into becoming a preferred vendor for all property and casualty insurance companies in the area so customers’ equipment can get repaired faster if this happens again. “I would like to be the San Antonio preferred vendor for insurance-direct work,” Brumfield says. “Currently, the customer has to pay us, and then wrangle with the insurance company to get reimbursed. I would like to manage the payment process as a vendor for the insurance company to better serve our customers.”

The side of The Pool Surgeon’s trucks read “Operating by the Golden Rule Since 1984” — and Evans says that applies now more than ever. “We are all striving to treat each other and our customers as we would want to be treated during such a stressful time,” Evans says. “All the changes of the last year due to COVID-19 have prepared us to navigate through unprecedented situations, and come together stronger and more appreciative of what we have.”

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