These go-getters saw a glaring gap in pool industry offerings — and created a solution themselves
Part 2 of 2
By Sarah Protzman Howlett
In part two of this series, we look at three pool industry ventures that, born of necessity, changed the lives of those who dared to try something new.
Pool Water Purification Products
Harsh climate paves way for innovative water care
Rick Lathrop says the evaporation rate in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, makes it the “worst place ever” to have a pool. But if it weren’t for his years running a service company in that unforgiving climate, he may not have invented Pool Water Purification Products.
In the late 1990s, a side conversation with a friend led Lathrop to discover there were only a few companies servicing pools in the Lake Havasu area. So in 2000, Lathrop started Lathrop Pool Service and Repair, eventually boasting 175 to 180 accounts. But he soon began to see that in Lake Havasu’s super dry climate, draining pools to work on them caused major problems. “You’d see damage to the plaster as soon as two hours after draining the pool,” he recalls. “These customers’ pools should have been lasting 20 to 30 years, but they weren’t.”
Lathrop couldn’t ignore the fact that draining a pool every 18 months to two years wasn’t sustainable. “But nobody was looking after the homeowner,” he says. “Every time you drain the pool, you cause damage to the pool, and we were wasting so much water.”
Many of his customers had become friends, and Lathrop wanted to look after their pools and pocketbooks by recycling their pool water. It was an idea he revisited often while running his repair company, but it wasn’t until November 2010, when Lathrop was recovering from a motorcycle accident that left him unconscious for three days and hospitalized for a month, that he had time to flesh out the idea. While his son handled the pool company, Lathrop began plotting a new venture: “Tell the customers we are going to stop wasting water,” Lathrop recalls telling his son from the hospital.
By the following spring, Lathrop was making models in his garage with the help of his wife — early versions of what would become the PWPP system. He even ran what he calls “a cheesy experiment” to test one iteration on his own hot tub. During this research-heavy phase, he says people in the reverse-osmosis industry wouldn’t talk to him: “They would not sell the vessels and membranes and chemicals to me,” Lathrop recalls. “They said I was out of my mind.” Not yet fully mobile post-accident, he remained undeterred: “I was still on crutches and in a walker,” he says, “but by April I ordered a trailer and found a used generator.”
By summer 2011, Lathrop began processing some of his existing customers’ pools with the Pool Water Purification system. Pool water is pumped through a hose into a trailer at 80 to 250 gallons a minute; then, using high pressure, the system strips the water until it is “pure H20,” Lathrop says. The water is then re-engineered through a process similar to reverse osmosis, using 13 membranes that filter and clean the water before it is put back into the pool. Lathrop says this reduces customers’ water bills and recycles up to 80% of existing pool water.
On the heels of the success of PWPP, Lathrop sold Lathrop Pool Service and Repair about five years ago. “I’m 60 years old, and there’s no way I can run a service industry business and do everything I was doing,” he says. He now has PWPP dealers from Hawaii to Dallas. “Where we’re at today from where we started is light years,” he says, “and water shortages are something the industry needs to recognize. It can’t keep wasting water the way we do.”
Pay the Pool Man
Coding enthusiast builds easy-to-use platform for billing, metrics
Jeff Posth has always loved technology. He’d kept it as a hobby for years, but as the owner of a booming pool service company, Posth increasingly felt isolated, stuck in an office dealing with angry customers. He began to think about how he could use his coding skills to make his work life easier.
In the early 2000s, California was bankrupt and layoffs were looming in the corporate world, so Posth — who had a nice and comfy office job — bought a small pool route after seeing his brother-in-law do well in the industry. Posth learned to install and troubleshoot various products, then began offering tile cleaning and repair when the recession hit a handful of years later.
During the crash, however, Posth lost half his customers. “We’d show up to homes,” he recalls, “and they’d moved out.” He remembers eviction stickers on the doors and repossession papers being served to one customer while he was there cleaning the pool. But after those setbacks, Posth tripled the size of his company, Pool Aid Man, due to so many others going out of business.
At night, he would retreat to his hobby, coding until 2 or 3 a.m. He was working on a web app for himself — one that would alleviate some of the most mundane parts of being a business owner. He wanted to send email invoices, text late-paying customers, let people pay their bill online. Soon he realized other pool professionals could use it.
He asked his industry colleagues from California pool and spa associations to beta test it. After receiving feedback and streamlining the product, Pay the Pool Man launched at the Western Pool & Spa show in Long Beach, California, about five years ago. The app’s features include billing, route optimization, customer lists, chemical calculators, a list of customer gate codes, and can even generate an analysis of which customers’ pools are the most expensive for the company to maintain.
If a company tries out the platform and finds it isn’t right for them, Posth makes it easy to cancel and to retrieve all its data. “Other companies will fight you to let you have your data,” he says. “I just knew I never wanted to be that.” Upcoming features will include shopping lists with the ability to add images. It will help people “avoid installing the wrong part on an already busy day,” he says.
Posth says “a few hundred” companies now use his invention. Pay the Pool Man “lives 100% in the cloud,” he says, “so that no matter where you are or what device you are using, you have the best experience at that time.”
About 18 months ago, Posth sold Pool Aid Man after owning it 11 years. “The stress was killing me,” he says, adding that he was handling customer support issues from his truck between pool repairs. These days, he can focus exclusively on keeping Pay the Pool Man useful and simple. “We don’t want a program with a bunch of buttons nobody can figure out,” he says. “It has to actually provide value for folks.”
After selling several companies, industry veteran enters leak detection market
Like many entrepreneurs, LeakTronics’ Darren Merlob went after a problem and ended up building a company. Having started his career with a pool service route over three decades ago, Merlob launched and sold several businesses before turning his attention to the art of leak detection.
In 1989, he started Ultimate Pools, which maintained, repaired and serviced pools in south Florida. Then, as demand grew for resurfacing in the area, Merlob founded American Pool Resurfacing in 1991 — but working with the antiquated crack repair methods available at the time quickly became frustrating: “I bought all the conventional products on the market,” Merlob says. “All of these methods, once implemented, continued to produce cracks and leaks.”
When products like epoxy injection and rebar failed him, Merlob developed Torque Lock Structural Staples, which repair structural cracks on solid, cement-based surfaces. In 2006, he founded Torque Lock Structural Systems, the parent company of LeakTronics, which manufactures leak detection equipment and provides training for the swimming pool and plumbing industries. Torque Lock Staples have since been used around the world — they helped repair damage from earthquakes in Chile, for one — to repair and stabilize structures.
With Torque Lock working well to fix structural cracks, Merlob set out to find better options to locate pool leaks themselves. Also in 2006, Merlob sold American Pool Resurfacing and moved to Austin, Texas, where he started a company called Austech Pools. The company serviced pools, but also found and repaired leaks. Concurrently, LeakTronics began to take shape as Merlob tested microphones in water. (In an early experiment, he put a microphone inside a commercial balloon often used in kite fishing.)
Around 2009, Merlob officially formed LeakTronics and started selling the products to his industry contacts in Florida while living in Austin. Now known as hydrophones, these highly sensitive microphones hear leaks inside pipes, drains, skimmers and pool walls.
“When used in conjunction with a proper headphone amplifier…technicians can locate the area of a leak without having to dive into a pool and use dye testing,” Merlob says. “They simply drop the mic in the pool and listen. The weight of the water pushing out on a leak makes a noise.”
In 2011, Merlob sold Austech Pools and again relocated, this time to Los Angeles, to begin manufacturing LeakTronics brand equipment. Today, LeakTronics offers Pool Scopes and Pipe Mics to hear leaks; DeckPlates and SoilProbes for listening under concrete and dirt; a Plumbers’ Kit to find leaks behind walls, tile, cabinetry and under foundations and patios; and more. New products this season will include a new camera head and a CamVac that works in conjunction with pipe cameras, Merlob says.
Because there is a learning curve on some of the products, online training — plus business and marketing assistance — has become an integral part of Merlob’s business and has helped launch new leak detection companies on seven continents, he says. To date, Merlob says he has certified and trained more than 1,000 companies through the online course, which covers not only how to use the products but also things like how to warranty and price out a leak, and even customer psychology.
“I’ve changed the way the industry does leak detection,” he says.