A nationwide shortage of chlorine tablets is making waves in the pool-cleaning industry as local service companies trying to cover rising costs face blowback from customers unwilling to make up the difference.
Prices for the anti-algae tablets have roughly doubled since an Aug. 27 fire at a Louisiana chlorine plant wiped out what had been the country's leading producer of prepackaged chlorine treatments.
Pool cleaners say they were able to absorb the price increase through winter but that, as temperatures rise and demand for tablets increases, they have little choice but to raise their service charges by $10 to $20 or more per month.
"It's the only way to stay afloat in this business," said Josh Gonzalez, owner of Imperial Pool Service and Repair in Bakersfield.
Ande Dow, owner of Andes Pools in Bakersfield, said he's getting calls from people wanting to switch pool guys. What they don't know is he's getting ready to raise rates, too.
"It'll be a hard pill to swallow," he said.
The shortage made national headlines last week when investment bank Goldman Sachs reported prices for chlorine tablets in March were 37 percent higher in a year-over-year comparison. It projected prices will continue rising and, by summer, will reach 58 percent higher than a year before.
Pool Corp. CFO Mark Joslin said at an earnings conference late last month he expects the industry to be light on supply through the summer.
"Now that simply means that people are going to move their method of sanitization to another product, either a granular product or a liquid product," he said.
"But there's no shortage of ways to sanitize the pool," he added. "It just simply means at a certain point people will shift."
Alas, there's a hitch: Some customers who have turned to alternatives like saltwater pool systems have encountered supply shortages limiting their availability as well. And although there are other options, none is quite as simple as using a tablet.
Dow noted liquid chlorine can be an option but that it's not a particularly good one because, unlike tablets, treatments must be done every day or two.
He said he's preparing to send out a letter soon warning customers of an upcoming rate increase. Although saltwater systems can be a viable option — and one that's softer on swimmers' skin and hair — he said conversion costs start at about $1,500, which is enough to stop some people from looking any further.
Phoenix-based Leslie's Inc., a leading supplier of swimming pool supplies, said by email it has managed to keep chlorine tablets on hand at all 930 of its U.S. locations, even as its online inventory has fluctuated. Spokesperson Tracy Dick said the company is confident of its inventory this year.
"We know summer is right around the corner and some of the best memories are made around the pool," Dick wrote. "We remain committed to providing our customers everything they need for their pools and spas this season — from products, knowledgeable experts and trusted local service."
Sergio Contreras, owner of Waterway Pool Services & Repair in Bakersfield, said he finally had to raise his rates last month after seeing his own costs jump.
"Some of them understand, but yeah, some of them kind of looked elsewhere," Contreras said. He added he's still waiting to find out how many of his clients will stick with him and how many will try to find a better monthly rate elsewhere.