DOVER — An odd thing happened as the COVID-19 pandemic took full hold of the United States last summer.
Suddenly, as people were stuck at home, they quickly realized that they needed an outlet to feel some sense of normalcy.
What better way to relax at home than with a pool in the backyard or by soaking in a hot tub on the deck or patio?
As a result, the number of new in-ground residential pools nationwide rose 21% in 2020 compared to 2019. Hot tubs are also in demand, with some areas reporting a 400% increase, according to the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.
“My children would have driven me crazy if we didn’t have a pool to swim in last summer,” said Rachael Thompson of Magnolia. “We bought an aboveground pool, and it provided plenty of hours of family time and relaxation during a very stressful time with COVID-19 going on.
“Had I known it would have been this big of a hit with my kids, I would have bought it years ago. It has definitely been a stress reliever during the pandemic.”
However, the “home oasis” craze has led to a shortage of chlorine in many areas of the country, and supply was disrupted even more by a fire last August at a chemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana — a facility that was one of the nation’s leading producers of chlorine tablets.
The factors of COVID-19 isolation, an increased demand for backyard pools and the Louisiana fire have combined to create the worst chlorine shortage the country has ever seen.
Chris Anderson, president of Dover Pools, said the wave in interest in backyard pools and hot tubs has been unprecedented and added that his manufacturer has already halted ordering of new pools for this year and is taking orders for 2022.
“People rediscovered their backyard and got creative, and (pool companies) became No. 1 on their conscience, I’m happy to say,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re seeing people we’ve never seen before. We’ve been in business 45 years, and we’re seeing new faces now.
“We usually see our more normal customers that come in, day in and day out, but now, this has opened up a whole new market for people who are having to stay at home — being forced to — and has allowed them to come in and pick up a pool.”
The only problem is that now, they will have to be patient — for both their new pools and the thin supply of chlorine used to clean them.
Plus, now that the summer pool season has begun, pool owners should brace for a chlorine price jump of about 58% from June through August compared with the same period in 2020, according to IHS Markit data cited in a Goldman Sachs report on the chemical’s shortage.
Many outlets have already upped the price for chlorine tablets anywhere from 20% to 25%, the report said.
“If there hadn’t had been that (Louisiana) fire, we might be in good shape — there would still be tight supply, but that kind of put it over the edge,” said Mr. Anderson. “Thankfully, we’re a large enough outfit where we’re able to be supplied our volume of buying.
“We’ve had some price increases, but we’ve been trying to hold our prices steady, just for our customers to maintain a fairness in the market. We’re supplied a little better than others, but like I said, we haven’t run out of anything completely yet, but we’ve gotten close, and we’re getting shipments daily.”
Dover Pools has two locations in Dover and other stores in Seaford, Milford and Salisbury, Maryland.
The chlorine plant that suffered the fire during Hurricane Laura in August was operated by Canadian chemical conglomerate KIK, whose products include Clorox pool-chlorinating tablets, chlorine stabilizer, BioGuard Smart Shock blue algae-killing crystals and SilkGuard Complete, which combines a chlorinating agent, water softener and algae killer.
KIK released a statement that said the company has a spring 2022 target date for completion of a $170 million reconstruction and expansion of the plant, which is operated by its BioLab subsidiary.
“We know how essential our products are to everyday families at home, who now more than ever, are seeking to ensure the sanitation of their pools,” the statement read. “Once complete, the plant will operate at 30% greater production capacity, which means we will be well-positioned to rapidly address the shortage of pool disinfecting agents in North America.”
Shannon Figueroa of The Pool Doctor in Camden, said her business is currently in good shape when it comes to chlorine and chemicals, adding that the demand for pools is off the charts.
“For us, we don’t have a shortage,” Mrs. Figueroa said. “I’ve ordered the rest of what my distributor had, and I’m fully stocked right now.”
She said the demand for pools has certainly kept The Pool Doctor, which offers services and repairs and installs in-ground pools, busier than ever, even amid the pandemic.
“It’s a lot all at once, for sure,” said Mrs. Figueroa. “We’ve always had a lot of (pool) service, but the installs are what’s really increased over the past two years.
“We do in-ground installs, and it’s just been insane. Everybody wants a pool. Instead of families going on vacation, they’re creating their own backyard oasis instead. We’re booked for this season, and we’re already booked into next year.”
What’s a pool owner to do?
There are several options available to work around the chlorine shortage.
“People are looking to (chlorine) alternatives because of the shortage,” Mr. Anderson said. “Like I said, we haven’t completely run out, but they’re looking just in case to protect themselves for future possible shortages.”
One alternative is converting over to a saltwater system, which works by generating its own chlorine, but in a much smaller amount than in traditional tablets or liquid chemicals.
Saltwater pools require testing for salt buildup and erosion but are less harsh on people with allergies and asthma.
“I’m looking at investing in a saltwater system for my pool because it’s gentle and it feels like bathwater, doesn’t smell like chlorine and doesn’t burn your eyes,” said Jennifer Calhoun of Lincoln. “It just makes sense to me to purchase this system. I was planning on doing it regardless of a chlorine shortage.”
According to retailer Pool Supply World, bromine, often used in spas, also is an effective sanitizer that is more convenient than chlorine, though it is more expensive. Water that is sanitized with bromine does not require as much testing and is more stable than chlorine. This allows the water to stay balanced for a longer period of time.
Some pool owners use bromine as their main source of sanitation for outdoor pools. But if a pool gets a lot of sunlight, using bromine in this way will be problematic, potentially raising chemical costs for the owner.
Mineral pool water systems are one of the fastest-growing sanitation options for pool owners around the country. The reason is because they are incredibly easy to maintain and are known to reduce chlorine use by up to 50%.
There are also other ways for people to use less chlorine, such as showering before swimming; scooping out debris and vacuuming regularly; using algaecide; not wearing street clothes in the pool because they carry contaminants that increase chlorine demand; avoiding detergents by only rinsing swimsuits; not letting pets in the water, as one dog alone in a pool equals 50 people; and covering the pool when not in use to protect the chlorine from ultraviolet light that produces evaporation.
Building the perfect backyard experience
While the pool, hot tub and spa industry experienced unprecedented growth in 2020, it appears that it will continue to see similar expansion this year and into the future.
PHTA members believe that people will continue to invest in complete outdoor entertainment space for their families.
Previously, people may have just wanted a barbecue area, a patio or a swimming pool. Now, they want it all.
“Everyone wants a complete backyard experience,” said Addam Barrow, regional sales manager at BlueSquare Manufacturing and president of the PHTA chapter in Austin, Texas. “In lieu of spending money on their travel experiences, homeowners are investing that money into their backyard experience now.”
The future doesn’t lie just in the pools. Other popular options include fire pits and outdoor fireplaces and kitchens. There is also higher demand for pergolas, pavilions and larger seating areas. Improving the overall landscaping of the yard is becoming a priority to homeowners, as well.
The total backyard is “one of the mega-trends that I think builders, companies, retailers and sales professionals are focused on,” said Joe DeFuria, director of brand development at the water-testing company Taylor Technologies and chair of the PHTA Retail Council. “It’s that staycation, people investing in their home, because that’s where they’ve been.”