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When DIY doesn’t save much

In theory, my pool needs to be drained and refilled. Over time, hard-water particulates and chemicals build up in pool water, especially in Arizona low desert, where hard, salty water is now piped in from the Central Arizona Project.

I’ve resisted this for a year, since I’m always skeptical when someone comes up with an extra way to take my money away from me. However, it’s pretty clear they’re right: a band of white hard-water scale keeps building up on the tiles. Though it will wash off with in a hard spray from the hose, that job is a hassle under the best of circumstances and mighty unpleasant in the winter, when the air is cold.

Cost of the job is generally estimated at $200. An alternative to draining and refilling is to have a company come around with a gigantic filter in a truck and spend the day filtering the entire 18,000 gallons. That also costs $200. One way or the other, I figure I’d better get this done before my monthly income drops to half of its current munificent flow.

So. This morning I call Leslie’s. Their CSR quotes a price of $95.

Izzat so? say I.

Well…yes, but: the $95 is just to have a guy come over here with a pump, drop it in, and turn it on. I could do that myself, and I’ll bet the rental would be a darn sight less than ninety-five bucks. No chemicals, no start-up, no nothin’ else is included. I ask how much the chemicals would be. He doesn’t know: you have to go to your local Leslie’s store to find that one out.

I call Swimming Pool Service and Repair, the outfit that rebuilt my pool after it was vandalized. Alyssa, their longtime despatcher, says it’s $185 to drain, refill, and restart the pool. That includes the chlorine, stabilizer, and acid, and yes, they do the entire job for you.

Back on the phone, this time to the local Leslie’s outlet. How much for the chemicals to restart 18,000 gallons of pool water?

Well. It’s $36 a gallon for the “conditioner” (which I take to mean stabilizer but am not sure), and you need two gallons. Then you need the shock treatment, for which he did not quote an amount but which I know to cost a little over $8, plus the usual 8.3% sales tax. So now we’re up to $86.64, and we haven’t paid for acid, which I happen to have on hand and which he doesn’t think will be needed anyway but which we know will be needed because CAP water tends to the basic. So for a mostly DIY project, I’d pay at least $182, compared to $185 to have someone who knows what he’s doing come and do the whole job for you.

Factor into the equation that if you dork with the chemicals yourself and mess it up, it’s your problem; if a pool company applies the chemicals and something goes awry, they’ll come and fix it.

Interesting play on consumer psychology. Leslie’s strategy of having you buy and pour in the chemicals leads you to assume that you’ll save money by doing part of the job—probably the most difficult part, we might add, given that these caustic compounds need to be applied carefully and in the right order. Consider the advantages to Leslie’s:

Leslie’s collects $95 for about a half-hour of an employee’s time and the wear & tear on one submersible pump.

Leslie’s sells you the chemicals at the retail price instead of including them, at wholesale, as part of the job.

Because the consumer does most of the work, Leslie’s doesn’t have to pay an employee to do the entire job and do it right.

Leslie’s escapes any liability for incorrect application of chemicals—the company doesn’t have to stand behind the quality of work done when it does no work.

The consumer, after paying the full retail price for the chemicals, assumes all responsibility and liability for their use.

By the time taxes are paid on the Swimming Pool Service and Repair bid, their fee comes to about $195. In the best-case scenario (which experience suggests is never the likeliest scenario), Leslie’s underbids Swimming Pool Service and Repair by about $13, but I end up doing all the work, and I get no warranty or service support whatsoever.

Makes that extra thirteen bucks sound like a bargain, doesn’t it?

Weekend pool frolics: Soda ash edition

At some point along the line, Frugal Scholar remarked in passing that the swimming pool sounds like a royal pain. And there’s something to be said for that.

But it also has to be said that if you like to swim and you live in a hot climate, a pool has so many redeeming qualities that you can see why people build them. At this time of year, I’m in the pool two or three times a day, every day. And I’m so spoiled to it I can’t remember how I managed to get through an endless succession of 115-degree days without a puddle of Clorox water to dive into. Every time I jump in the pool, I think aahhh! this makes it worth all the work and hassle.

However and on the other hand… When something happens to render the pool unusable, one’s memory is jogged; especially when dealing with the “something” requires a great deal of work, worry, or both.

The acid level in the pool’s water has been slowly climbing since the middle of last winter. I haven’t added any acid since early spring (normally one adds acid pretty regularly to a plaster-lined pool), but the pH keeps dropping. You recall high-school chemistry, right? Low pH = high acidity. Well, the pH has been at 7.2 for quite a while; that’s on the far low side of sort of OK. In other words, the acidity was a bit too much but nothing to panic over. The Leslie’s guys said if I just left it alone, eventually the pH would rise.


Au contraire, by Friday the pH had dropped to 6.8, the “add pH stabilizer” level. It was low enough that even the Leslie’s guys had to allow that the acid level was out of control.

So, come Saturday morning, Biker Phil, the Harley-ridin’ Leslie’s sales guy, says to me, “You need to add 30 pounds of soda ash.”

“Give me a proverbial break,” say I. “I can’t lift 30 pounds!”

“Well,” says he, “then add 20 pounds, wait four hours, test the pH, and if it’s still too low, come back and get another 10 pounds.” With that, he sells me two 10-pound containers of soda ash: that’ll be $48, thank you very much.

Biker Phil advises me to administer the entire 20 pounds of this stuff to the pool by walking around the perimeter and sprinkling it in, as evenly as possible. He says it will cloud the water, but in four hours or so the water should clear and be swimmable.

Okay. I go forth and do likewise.

Instantly, and I do mean instantly, the filter pressure gauge shoots over 20 psi.

Sumbitch. I backwash; recharge the filter with diatomaceous earth; go on about my business.

An hour later, I look out the window and notice a glass-smooth surface on the pool. “That’s odd,” think I. “The pump must have shut down.”

Oh, nooo. The pump was laboring away. Filter pressure had topped 30 psi! The filter was so clogged the pump, which is one tough little fellow, couldn’t move any water at all through the plumbing system.

The water, so lately sparkling like a mountain spring in a Coors ad, is opaque. Shut down. Major backwash. Recharge filter. An hour later: PSI is up to 30 again.

On the phone to Biker Phil. He can’t figure out the problem. “It can’t be the soda ash,” says he. “It’s dissolved. It can’t clog the filter.”

Phil. Phil, Phil, Phil. Were you not paying attention in your chem class? Or were you, like me, gathering wool from the clouds outside the window? What’s happened here is that when we deposited 20 pounds of soda ash into 18,000 gallons of water, we got a supersaturated solution. Think of the time you added several spoonsful of salt to a glass of warm water, to gargle your sore throat: what you got was a glass of salty water with a layer of salt crystals on the bottom. That. is. what. we. have. here.

Soda ash dunes.

Soda ash dunes, precipitated out of the saturated water, cover the steps, the seat, and the floor of the pool. I do not know how many pounds of soda ash is not dissolved, but I’ll bet it’s a lot. And, I figure, that’s what’s clogging the filter. Since Bob the Wonderful Leslie’s Guy was over here last week to disassemble, clean, and reassemble the filter, and since it was working so well the effervescent pool could’ve been used as an ad for Leslie’s Swimming Pool Supplies and Service, I associate the soda ash episode with the gagged filter.

Having followed Biker Phil’s instructions and met fiasco, I belatedly google  the function of soda ash in pool chemistry. At site after site I learn that one should never, ever, nooo never add more than two (count’em, 2) pounds of soda ash to a pool at a time. Biker Phil has had me add ten times the standard amount to the pool. Is there a question why the system has run amok?

The specific scientific details of the problem explained and comprehended, Phil recommends that I “bump” (a very short backwash) the pool every time the pressure threatens to move into the 30 psi range and says he thinks in time the problem will dissipate.

This requires me to do a minibackwash, illegally into the alley, every twenty minutes all day Saturday! In 114-degree heat. Sunday was cooler: a mere 110 degrees. Started with a full backwash at 5:30 Sunday morning. Opted the junket to church, where I wanted to hear the new pastor address the assembled masses for his virgin sermon, in favor of backwashing every twenty minutes. Around 11:00 a.m., reach Phil’s boss on the phone—the Phil himself being out until next Wednesday.

Seemingly unsurprised at the extravagant dosage of soda ash, Manager Jay speculates that the frequent full backwashes—which by now have added up to four in two days (one normally backwashes a DE filter about once every three months)—plus the three-times-an-hour “bumps” may have drained out most of the DE. He observes that when filter pressure jumps suddenly, one normally suspects too little DE. He recommends that I add five pounds of DE to the filter.

Refraining from observing more than once that the system was working fine Before Soda Ash, I feed 6 1/2 pounds of DE to the filter. This works pretty well: slows the process so that it takes an hour or two to reach a “Clean Filter” level of 20 psi. How long it would take to reach 30 psi, I do not know, not having enough nerve to overwork the pump to that degree. Probably another hour or so.

This adventure obviously is going to require another service call. Since I just paid to have Bob the WLG spend an hour working on the system, I am less than thrilled at the prospect of paying to have him come by again. I think Leslie’s should pay for whatever needs to be done to undo the mess that’s resulted from their advising me to add 10 times the recommended amount of soda ash to the pool.

Stay tuned! This promises to turn into an entertaining comedy of errors!

Vendor Chutzpah: Leslie’s loses customer

apr13pool1Here’s a smart move: when 8 to 10 percent of your customer base is out of work, raise your service prices through the roof. And, with gasoline prices under $2.00 a gallon, tack on an exorbitant “trip surcharge.”

That’s exactly what Leslie’s Swimming Pool Service, a national organization, is up to. Apparently management at headquarters has slipped its communal trolley!

Every year as the weather warms (and again at the beginning of winter), I get a routine clean-out of the pool’s diatomaceous earth filter. It’s no job for rocket scientists: all you do is take the shell apart, lift out the innards, haul them out to the alley, drag a hose out there, and wash out all the old used-up DE. Then you put the thing back together and recharge it with another eight pounds of DE. Really, it’s a happy handyman task. Unfortunately, I’m a handyperson and don’t have the physical strength required to drag the heavy stuff around. So I’ve always hired Leslie’s, which last year charged $85 for the privilege.

This year I call and discover they’ve jacked up the price to around $100, and on top of that they’re adding a “trip charge,” bringing the price of a pretty easy, very ordinary job to around $115. 

So I told the dispatcher I’d schedule the guy for next week, but said I would have to look for someone who would do the job for a more affordable price. OK, said she, assuring me Leslie’s is rock-bottom.


Cassie and I walk past a house whose occupant parks his pool-service truck in the driveway. This afternoon, I rang the doorbell, introduced myself to him, his wife, and their three children, and learned that he’d be only toooo happy to do the job for $85. 

He came by a few hours later and did an excellent job, no different from what Bob the Leslie’s Guy always does (Yes: I do watch them). 

What would possess a company to ratchet up their prices when their customers are being laid off right and left? And then add insult to injury with a “trip charge,” when gas prices are barely out of the basement? 

Let’s hope Leslie’s doesn’t ask for a taxpayer bailout, too.