Swimming pool demand deepens in Western Pa. during pandemic

Apr. 18—With so many homeowners opting for a "staycation" last year because of the coronavirus pandemic and pools being closed for the same reason, pool installers and suppliers in the region say they are swimming in business — with hardly any easing up in demand from last year.

"We're getting leads coming in left and right. We can't keep up with them," said Kendra Farrier, store manager for Pool Pros along Route 30 in North Huntingdon.

The story is the same at Cheswick Pools & Patios, which is "pretty much booked for 2021," with its inventory already allocated to customers, said owner Justin Rushin.

The demand Pool Pros and Cheswick Pools are experiencing is mirrored across the pool and hot tub industry, where double-digit growth is anticipated this year, said Sabeena Hickman, president of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance. The higher demand has been driven by the reaction to the covid pandemic, because "people are investing in their backyard rather than travel," said Hickman, whose alliance based in Alexandria, Va., represents manufacturers, designers, distributors, suppliers, installers and retailers.

The industry grew by 24% last year, a historical increase that easily topped the 16% growth seen in 1983, said Janay Rickwalder, a spokeswoman for the pool alliance.

"We are hearing that many of our people are (booking) into 2022," Hickman said.

Pool Pros can relate to that because the business has 100 leads from interested customers for a crew that typically can install 50 pools in a year, Farrier said. If those leads result in contracts, they will be scheduled for next year, Farrier said.

As far as costs, Rushin said a concrete pool, with various amenities and water features, can cost $200,000 or more. A vinyl pool can be installed for $75,000 and higher.

Pool Pro's Farrier said concrete pools with 10-inch-thick concrete can cost around $55,000, while vinyl pools can cost around $70,000.

Of the three main types of in-ground pool construction — concrete or gunite, vinyl and fiberglass — fiberglass will continue to see high demand in 2021 as an alternative to gunite, the pool alliance predicted. It is less expensive, thus making it more available to more people, plus there is a faster completion time, the alliance said.

Above-ground pool sales and installation also is strong, said Eric Cassidy, vice-president of Valley Pool & Spa, which has seven locations, including stores in Monroeville, North Versailles and Hempfield.

"That high demand (from 2020) since the pandemic has not flattened," Cassidy said. "We're up over 50% over a normal season."

Supply problems galore

The downside of installing pools based on contracts signed last year is that the cost of steel, concrete, vinyl and fiberglass was based on 2020 construction costs, Farrier said.

"We're eating costs now on pools we sold in 2020" because of the higher costs of materials, Farrier said. "We're seeing cost increases on all our fencing — aluminum costs are up 15% and vinyl costs are up 25%."

Pool installers and suppliers say they face a common problem — materials are scarce and costs are rising for a host of factors.

The industry was hurt by deep freeze in Texas which impacted that state's petrochemical production. The lack of plastic resins — derived from refinery production of oil and natural gas industry — has hobbled the manufacturers supplying the pool industry.

Something as basic as a flexible plastic hose is in short supply because of the electric power shutdown interrupted production at a Texas plant, Farrier said.

Not only are the material costs rising, but Farrier said getting the materials delivered has been a challenge. A kit of steel plates that serve as the support for a vinyl pool used to take 10 days to arrive from a New York supplier. Now it takes two months.

"We can't get the fiberglass or the vinyl," Farrier said.

What used to take three-to-six months for an ordered product to reach a pool distributor, can now take six-to-nine months, Hickman said.

The surge in demand for pool installation and pool repairs has only made the supply chain disruptions worse, said Clay Slivko, co-owner of Credible Pools of North Huntingdon. Pool pumps and parts are hard to acquire. The demand for raw materials are stressing manufacturers for pool supplies, said Slivko, whose company installs fiberglass and concrete pools and is busy with repairs.

Covid restrictions implemented by California Gov. Gavin Newsom forced a reduction in production at a plastics plant in that state, resulting in a tightening of supplies that plants in China cannot fill because of their domestic demand, said Rushin, who has owned his Cheswick business for 15 years.

Add to that a fire that closed the BioLab chemical plant in Louisiana last August, shutting down production of chlorine for swimming pools until an extensive rebuild of the plant is completed, and the supply problems continue to mount.

Slivko said they have had trouble getting parts for pumps and filters, another problem that Rushin attributed to the Texas freeze that ruined some 60,000 pumps, filters and heaters in pools there. The demand for that equipment in new pools is competing with the drive for replacement pumps and filters, Rushin said.

While not immune to the industry's supply problems, Cassidy said Valley Pool was able to buy in bulk for its seven stores and create an inventory of supplies.

"We've been building up our stock since last fall," Cassidy said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, jnapsha@triblive.com or via Twitter .