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Saturday, Jun 3, 2023

Water Wise

Say the words, “pool man,” and what springs to mind is a guy with a pickup truck, some cleaning supplies, and a fairly low-key attitude. But with Santa Clarita-based Pools by Ben, what you get are three owners who between them have one master’s degree (in environmental science) and two bachelors degrees (in marketing and economics). Perhaps that’s one reason the family-owned business has grown every year since Ben Honadel began servicing pools as a way to make money while he attended California State University, Northridge. It’s definitely one of the reasons why in December the company was in San Francisco accepting an award from the Flex Your Power organization for its commitment to installing hundreds of energy-efficient pool pumps in just one year. Back in 1988, Ben Honadel was a student at CSUN looking for a way to make some money. Responding to an ad on a job board, he took a job cleaning pools, the perfect job for a student with its flexible hours and a decent paycheck. But after two weeks, the economics major figured out that there was no reason to work for somebody else, and he set out to be his own boss. The business grew quickly and soon he was paying more attention to business than to school. “It took me 12 years to get a four year degree,” said Ben Honadel, who finally graduated in 1996. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he went to the university career center and told them, “I’m ready to get a real job,” said Ben Honadel. His goal was to work for a venture capital firm, but the CSUN counselor told him the state college degree wouldn’t make the cut. “They said I’d have to graduate from Yale or Harvard,” he laughed. That led to a job in a bank evaluating loans, a job that didn’t last long, particularly because he was now the father of two young children and the pay was less than half of what he had been earning cleaning pools. Once he committed fully to being a self-employed businessman, Ben Honadel said that he added more services including repair and maintenance of pool equipment. His wife, Jill, now does all the books for the business and four years ago his brother Tim Honadel joined the company. Getting Efficient The history of the pool pump is fairly uninteresting. There had been little change to the component up until the ’90s, said Ben Honadel, when manufacturers switched from metal housings to plastic. This move also allowed the pumps to get smaller and more efficient, using less electricity to move the same amount of water. “We sold a lot of pumps that way,” said Ben Honadel. “Four or five hundred a year just to people downsizing.” Then, in about the year 2000, a new era of pool mechanics began with the introduction of variable speed pumps. “The technology was developed out of the hybrid car industry,” said Tim Honadel, “and so it’s just basically a tech transfer with a little bit of adjustment to apply it to swimming pools.” But this new generation of equipment is sophisticated and complex. “The average pool man is not tech savvy,” said Ben Honadel. “Probably half of them don’t have e-mail.” But with a pool pump being the second largest user of energy in an average pool-equipped home (after the air conditioner), and with energy savings of up to 90 percent being touted by the manufacturers, the Honadels saw that this was going to be the wave of the future. They poured a considerable amount of time and energy into learning everything they could about how the different pumps from the different manufacturers worked. “When these variable pumps first hit the market we were one of the first companies to buy it,” said Ben Honadel, “but we also know that we couldn’t start to sell it until we knew how to operate it.” He and his brother took every class offered by the pump makers and learned that there was a disconnect between how the pumps operated and how to get them to achieve their “pool man” goals. In 2007 Pools by Ben installed the pump in the pools of anybody they knew personally including relatives and friends. These 20 or so guinea pigs agreed not only to be patient while the brothers were on the upward slope of the earning curve, but also to provide them with real-world data about energy savings. The Honadels and the pool owners were rather astounded. The minimum amount saved was $40 per month. On average, with a wide range of pool sizes and uses, the energy savings were, as the manufacturers had suggested, around 90 percent. One of their pump suppliers said that this type of approach is what makes dealing with Pools by Ben “refreshing.” Carlos J. Del Amo, vice president of marketing and product development for Pentair Water, Pool and Spa Inc., said, “I’ve been in the pool business for 25 years and most companies their size just say, ‘Tell me what it does and let me sell it,’ and move on, where (Pools by Ben) put us through a process of explaining to them the technology.” He added that once they understood what the pumps could do, the Honalds gave Pentair feedback that helped the manufacturer improve the product and the literature. A Hard Sell One of the only challenges to selling the pumps is the initial cash outlay about $1,800. Even after a $300 rebate offered by most utility companies in the area, and knowing that the energy savings will pay for the pump in less than two years in most cases, it can still be a hard nut to swallow. Pools by Ben installed about 100 pumps in 2008, respectable for a new technology but still nowhere near the potential envisioned by the Honadels. “There are 8,000 pools in the Santa Clarita Valley,” said Ben Honadel, quoting statistics from the Independent Pool and Spa Service Association. “There are 100,000 pools in the San Fernando Valley and more than 500,000 pools just in Southern California.” He estimates that less than 1 percent of those pools have installed pumps that meet Title 20 energy requirements that went into effect in January 2008. But back to the primary barrier of entry the big cash outlay. The Honadels put their heads together and decided to try a new approach. Rather than trying to sell people the pumps, they decided at the beginning of the year to see what the response would be if they rented them for $19.95 a month. That means the family-owned business has to come up with the cash upfront to purchase the pumps. “We have been very frugal over the years and stockpiled cash in the business to do something like this,” said Tim Honadel. “We didn’t know what it was solar, whatever and this showed up. This way there’s really no upfront cost to the pool owner. There is a lifetime warranty on the pump, and they can cancel at anytime for any reason, and we’ll put their old pump back in. We’re trying to lower all the possible barriers to getting people to cut their energy usage.” An advertisement that began running in the Los Angeles Daily News has a catchy headline, “Your pump sucks more money than water.” While the ad hasn’t generated massive sales yet, Ben Honadel said the phone is ringing more, and he expects sales to exceed the 20 percent growth of the previous year. “We have a very positive attitude about hiring more staff,” he said. Right now, besides the three owners, there are two office staff and a manager of the pool service business. All other services are performed through subcontractors. Now Ben and Tim Honadel are considered the “go to” guys in the industry when it comes to variable speed pump knowledge. Next month, the brothers will be teaching a two-hour class on the new technology at the IPSSA trade show in Long Beach. “It will be the first class by someone who is not a manufacturers’ rep,” said Ben Honadel. “It’s just for pool guys. We’re going to teach them how to make it work to make their job easier.” He’s proud of the role he’s playing in bringing this energy-saving equipment to the public. The Flex Your Power award announcement is the largest thing on their website. “We struggled for three years to bring this to the field,” said Ben Honadel, “We don’t know when it will start to hit the tipping point, but we want to stay ahead of the curve.” SPOTLIGHT: Pools by Ben: Owners: Tim, Ben and Jill Honadel Location: Santa Clarita Year Established: 1996 Revenues in 2007: $300,000 Revenues in 2008: $500,000 No. of Employees: 6 (plus 4 sub-contractors)

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