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Building trust: additives are an inseparable, albeit sometimes mysterious, part of the finishing-materials industry. Here's how they can work for you. (Quarterly market report: finishing materials).

In many ways, additives and admixtures are a mystery: They work on a molecular level, so you can't see them perform; many of the blends are proprietary or pre-blended into composite admixtures or finish materials, so you don't always know what's in them; and products designed for long-term durability can't truly show their stuff for a few years.

It's no wonder many applicators have a hard time trusting these products. Some applicators can be either skeptical or unaware of the products out there. What's more, many doubt the industry has produced any significantly new additives because they are either unaware of recent advances or they don't believe manufacturers' claims.

Whether you trust them or not, additives now are an inseparable part of the finishing materials industry. And applicators who don't learn to work with additives risk losing customers to competitors who do, warn manufacturers and plasterers alike.

"People's attitudes have changed," says Jeff Kerber, president of Jeff Kerber Pool Plastering, in Ontario, Calif. "Now, most people see [pools] as part of their landscape, so appearance is more important than it used to be. People used to be happy if it held water for 20 years; now they complain if it doesn't look perfect for 20 years."

Properly used, additives make that possible, say those involved with the development of these products. With some smart exploration, they say, applicators--and their customers--can benefit from this progress.

Two steps forward

A decade ago, the industry was repeating itself, according to some experts. But today, a variety of new products is available, from troweling aids to pozzolanic additives.

Jonathan Dongell, president of Whitestone Cement Co. in Phoenix, says that more of these products began appearing about eight years ago. "Now, if there aren't 30 or 40 different products out there to choose from, I'd be shocked."

Progress has also been made in the art of mixing additives and admixtures, say Dongell and Michael Yon, president of CRS Systems in Fort Mill, S.C. They note that when it comes to controlling concrete, it tends to be a push-pull process: When you increase its density, which helps long-term performance, the product becomes harder to handle. But when you add water for more fluidity, you may compromise its performance.

So manufacturers are studying how to combine these products so they don't adversely affect--and maybe can even enhance--each other's performance.

"Now we have the ability for the plasterer to fine-tune every aspect of the placement and application that we didn't have even five years ago," Dongell says. You still won't end up with a perfect product, he says, but you can find the best trade-off to suit your needs.

Manufacturers say there's a definite correlation between the improved performance of surface materials and the amount of additives available. "I think many of the additives ... have reduced the amount of times people have to go back and repair pools or replaster them due to problems that show up early on, within the first six months," says Tony Reed, marketing development manager at Engelhard Corp. in Iselin, N.J.

Adds Yon, "I think that the failures and mottling and discoloration and spot-etching ... have gone from an 85 percent success rate to probably over 95 percent or even higher."

These products will eventually become the norm, says Greg Garrett, co-owner of Applied Materials Technologies in Phoenix. "I think that one day, modified plaster surfaces are going to ultimately replace white plaster," he says. [People] want a product with more forgiveness to it."

That's already happened at Presidential Pools & Spas Inc. in Gilbert, Ariz. Company President Tim Murphy will only sell pools with a modified product or pebble. The modified product contains different additives, admixtures and some colored aggregate to hide stains and withstand wear. "I can't even remember the last time I've been out with an upset homeowner," Murphy remarks.

The trust factor

But other applicators aren't sold on the idea.

"[Our product] was introduced five years ago, but it still feels like a new additive because it has been so difficult getting it established in the market," says Reed, whose company provides additives for other industries as well. "I think that holds true for a lot of the additives."

Yon recently participated in a panel discussion about additives and admixtures and saw the skepticism firsthand. "There was still uneasiness in the room," he says. "The comfort level is still not there with a lot of the pool plasterers."

For many contractors, it's difficult to believe in a product that can't prove itself for months or even years, as is the case with durability products. "The newest ones out are a little too new to know," Kerber says. "They've been out three or four years, but a pool that's 3 to 4 years old would still look fine without it.

"When you're adding cost to your job and see nothing in return immediately, it's hard to add it," he says. "When rumors [state] that down the line it does no good, it's even harder to add it." Kerber says he only feels comfortable with an admixture after seeing how the pools look four to five years following application.

There's too much at risk for Bob Tomlinson, president of Austin Pool Plastering Co. Inc. in Houston. "I'm just not ready to jump out there and agree with them," he says. "It's easy to make claims."

Questions about how cement-based products even work and interact with chemically treated water only add to the murkiness. Ongoing arguments about the real cause of plaster problems leaves many plasterers skeptical about the need for admixtures, let alone their performance.

Even some manufacturers say that contractors have been burned over the years. "You have a lot of [manufacturers] coming in who want to get a name, so they'll throw in a five-year warranty with their product, and then they may not be around tomorrow," Dongell says.

Yon agrees: "When we started producing additives for the pool plaster industry 10 years ago, there were probably five or six companies who were all working to achieve the same thing.... All those other additives have gone by the wayside."

Outside the box

Because of this changing landscape, many plasterers don't try--or trust--new things. But progress has been made, the experts argue, and trying new products and technologies, albeit cautiously, is the only way to profit from this progress.

"There may be some hard-liners, some old-school people who think you should just leave it as it is. But I'm not one of them," says Dana Anderson, vice president of Anderson Poolworks in Sherwood, Ore. "I think there's newer technology out there, and it should be used."

Kirk Chapman is all for doing some experimentation. "If you expect different results, you have to try different things," says Chapman, president of Poolscape Unlimited Inc. in Lakeside, Calif. "So I'm really open-minded to using alternative finishes or admixtures to create a better finish."

After avoiding the products for years, Kerber decided five years ago to try some and settled on one he liked and trusted. He believes other professionals are experimenting as well. "Now people are experimenting with admixtures and so am I," he says. "I see a little bit of change in the immediate appearance of the pool. There is a big difference in longevity. I think it's something that's going to stick around, but there's not a lot of history."

These professionals decided to take the plunge for several reasons. Kerber uses them to help compensate for flaws in craftsmanship, and to stay competitive with a local builder who sells the benefits of additives and admixtures to customers. "When I go to a competitive bid and they say `Your competitor uses admixes,' I can answer, `So do I,'" he says. "If I don't use admixes, I come off looking really cheap."

He believes others will follow the lead of key players in the industry--again, to stay competitive. "Typically, they'll follow what the competitors are doing. You won't find many people admitting that," Kerber says. "There are a few trend-setters in the industry, and everybody follows."

Others choose to go with these products for peace of mind, says Jeff McGalliard, president of JMK Plastering Inc., Souderton, Pa. "Yes, they do what they say they're going to, and you use them in certain situations because you want the extra strength. You don't want to take a chance. The job could be OK without it, but you're making sure, taking that one extra step just to give yourself less worry."

RELATED ARTICLE: 15 ways to make additives work for you.

Finding a product that will suit your needs takes work, says Jonathan Dongell, president of Whitestone Cement Co. in Phoenix. "It's a lot of trial and error," he says. "There's a lot of time involved and ... you might lose a pool doing it. There's a trade-off."

Try the following advice to find products that work with your needs and work style:

1 Ask for test results. In the case of durability products, these tests ideally should show how the product performed over several years, Dongell says. "If they're giving a 10-year warranty, I want to see where it's been used 10 years," he says. "If the [producer] can't give the answers [the plasterer's] looking for, then I would run from it."

2 Know causes--and effects. When considering a product to add on site to affect one set of characteristics, find out how it will affect the material's other characteristics, advises Michael Yon, president of CRS Systems in Fort Mill, S.C.

3 Get real-life results. The results of real-life applications are important, too, so get references, says Tony Reed, marketing development manager at Engelhard Corp. in Iselin, N.J. "I feel the best advertisement and testing is what you see in the field vs. what I might be able to produce in a lab," he says. "So I usually refer a new plasterer using my product to a plasterer who's been using it five years."

Bob Tomlinson wants such references to come from his own area so he can see how the product performs under local conditions. "I don't want to hear about it 1,500 miles away," says the president of Austin Pool Plastering Co. Inc. in Houston. "I want to see it right here where I'm at."

4 Ask other contractors. If you just call 10 contractors to ask about their experiences, Dongell suggests, "you've probably saved yourself an amazing amount of trouble."

5 Test new products. You Don't necessarily have to take others word for it. Many plasterers test new products themselves to see if it's right for their needs and techniques.

6 Use guinea pigs. Jeff Kerber, president of Jeff Kerber Pool Plastering in Ontario, Calif., works with a local cement supplier to test new products, applying the additive-enriched material to a pool owned by an employee or other affiliate. Kerber will ask his crews about the workability, tell the pool owner to give occasional reports and check the pool himself occasionally. "Of the test pools, I'd say probably 25 percent have come back with bad results and done things we didn't expect them to do," he reports.

7 Use the six-month rule. Kerber won't take a new product on permanently until it has performed for six months without problems. "Usually the change in the seasons from summer to winter or winter to summer is when you start seeing [problems]," he says. "The sun comes out in the spring, [the homeowners] clean their backyard up and they notice things then."

8 Treat it badly. Kerber has tried testing some products by meticulously maintaining the pool's water chemistry, but that doesn't necessarily provide a real-world test, he says. "Some of the pools we monitor every week for months on end," he says.

"Most of the [test pools] that we put a lot of effort into turned out to be kind of a waste of time. When you spend a lot of time monitoring, you're taking good care of that pool, but no matter what the finish is, it'll last a long time if you take good care of it."

9 Check its workability. When Tomlinson tests new products, he checks first for workability. If it doesn't pass that test, it doesn't make the cut, even if workability isn't the main goal of the product. "If the product isn't workable, I'm not going to get a good finish on my pool. It's got to be good from the beginning,", he says.

When testing a product's workability, don't try it on a full-sized pool first, suggests Dongell. Use it on a spa or smaller fountain, so you're not locked into using it over hundreds of square feet.

10 Compare and contrast. Some of Yon's clients have performed tests on his product, where they split the pool up into sections and use a new product on one section and apply the finish without the new product on the other. They fill the pool, operate it for a time, then drain it to compare.

11 Look for results quickly. Many of the products will show a difference within a matter of months rather than years, Reed says. Of course, workability and pumpability show themselves right away. And if a product will reduce cracking and efflorescence, that becomes evident within a few months.

Jeff McGalliard selects his additives and admixtures based on how it makes the surface look immediately and over the course of a few months. "I have gone back and looked at them about a year later," says the president of JMK Plastering Inc. in Souderton, Pa. He chooses products that keep the surface looking whiter and brighter than the rest.

12 Follow directions to the letter. To get the best performance and a true read on the product, McGalliard says applicators should follow directions to the letter, measuring exact amounts of the additives or admixtures being used. "I had a cup that I measured everything out of, and I knew exactly how much [the product] weighed" while testing it, he says. "I kept a pretty close eye on my mix, and kept records so I knew exactly what was going on." While some professionals will measure more Casually by the handful, McGalliard uses a cup even after a product passes his tests. He says he does it to prevent any problems from overdosing.

13 Build relationships with producers you trust. Plasterers such as Kerber choose products partially on the advice of trusted suppliers.

14 Beware of outrageous claims. No additive is going to solve every problem or facilitate a perfect product, Dongell says. So watch out for cure-all claims or warranties that seem too good to be true.

"Most of the people out there who have a good product don't ... say `Here's my product. Put this in there and you'll never see mottling again, you'll never have etching again and all your problems will go away--and here's a 50-year guarantee.'"

15 Stick with products made for pool interior surfaces. With a pool's exposure to water and chemicals, interior surface materials have their own set of needs. What works for stucco or mortar or concrete decks could be disastrous for pool plaster. So stick with products designed for the pool interior, Yon says.

"We have so many different qualifications we have to meet as far as how the product is to react, how it's supposed to set, how it's supposed to cure out underwater," he says. "That makes the admix process very sophisticated."

Finally, cement chemistry is a delicate thing, so Yon says plasterers should keep "home brews" such as dish soaps out of the mix. Applicators may notice an improvement in workability, he says, but "they can hurt the long-term performance of the plaster."

--R.R.
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Author:Robledo, Rebecca
Publication:Pool & Spa News
Date:Jun 7, 2002
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