Pool industry struggles, shortages abound
Chlorine shortage at HASA caused by raw materials, labor and transportation deficits
By Marcelle Dibrell
Economists often refer to the interconnectedness of materials, labor and transportation, but rarely do crises in each of these areas dovetail into a perfect storm.
After 16 months of numerous and random shortages, is it any wonder that as the pool industry entered its peak season, that there should be a shortage of liquid chlorine?
Although current chlorine production is returning to pre-crisis levels, June and July saw pool supply stores devoid of meaningful disinfectants.
We seem to have entered a new era, where the availability of commodities is governed as much by Murphy’s Law as economics.
It started, of course, with the Biolab fire back in August, which wiped out about a third of the nation’s trichlor supply.
In April, the news made nationwide headlines, which led to hoarding, and then rationing, but at least there were still other options.
In May, HASA had the hubris to announce there was in fact, no chlorine shortage, that there was plenty of liquid chlorine, a statement that seems to have angered the gods. Their punishment was swift and decisive when in June the raw materials needed to produce liquid chlorine suddenly dried up.
On June 3, HASA’s raw materials supplier known as Westlake, in Longview,
This summer the pool industry has been in the news because of the nationwide chlorine shortage. HASA Inc. explains what caused their sudden shortage. Washington, suffered a “major electrical failure” (a transformer blew) and declared force majeure, effectively arresting HASA’s supply.
The Westlake plant resumed operations on June 23, but announced it would “take time to meet the backlog and demand, since the shortage affects the entire West Coast Region.” Let’s not forget that in addition to supplying the raw materials for the West Coast’s supply of swimming pool chlorine, the plant also supplies the chlorine chemicals needed to disinfect the West Coast’s drinking water and treat its wastewater.
And all of this amidst existing recordbreaking demand for chlorine. According to Terry Arko, HASA’s product training and content manager, HASA put out millions of gallons in chlorine production over any normal year from January through May.
But all of that ground to a halt when Westlake’s transformer failed. Pool service professionals saw the evidence of that when they arrived at their supply houses and found signs saying “no chlorine.”
Robert Rankin, Vice President of Pool Corp., says that indications are that the liquid chlorine situation has been resolved and that things are improving.
Nonetheless, “We are experiencing allocations and our only M.O. and goal is everyone gets some and nobody gets zero,” Rankin said.
Chlorine production is currently back online, but there’s an additional wrinkle — a labor shortage — and this is a big problem. According to Arko, chlorine demand is exceptionally high due to the trichlor shortage, unseasonably warm temperatures on the West Coast, and a boom in new pool construction. HASA had planned to add a second shift to several key manufacturing plants. That meant hiring additional workers. But the ability to find reliable workers became yet another challenging struggle.
“With what we do, we can’t just hire anybody and throw them out on the line,” Arko said. “There’s a lot of training and investment. There’s an investment of time, and they have to go through safety training and chemical training so they know what they are doing. It’s a large expense for the company, and when we put that investment into somebody and they just don’t show up, it’s a difficult thing.”
Adding second shifts and keeping production moving has taken much longer than HASA anticipated. The labor shortage is everywhere, and it’s affecting transportation as well. The new problem is there are not enough truck drivers. HASA makes chlorine deliveries every day, and the increased chlorine demand has meant increased deliveries. Arko says that in some cases those deliveries have tripled, but there are not enough drivers to make them.
And there’s also a shortage of railroad workers. The raw materials HASA uses to produce chlorine are transported to its production plant by railroad, but Arko said the absence of railroad workers has created a bottleneck at the switch track terminal.
“We had rail cars on the way to Washington, that got to the switch track terminal and normally it’s about a four-hour process for someone from the railroad to come pull the switch to direct the rail cars to HASA.” Arko said. “Now without rail labor, this process requires 4 days.”
In one instance, because there was no one to move the rail cars at a switch track terminal in Arizona, they had to wait for muriatic acid for a week.
Meanwhile, there is also an actual shortage of railcars as well.
And if all of this weren’t bad enough, there is also a shipping container shortage. Largely because of the pandemic, shipping containers were delivered to ports across the world and became stuck at those new locations.
Now the containers have piled up in ports and inland rail depots. Ports such as California’s massive Los Angeles/Long Beach ports are struggling to unload and load these containers to keep up with the ships waiting offshore.
“It has been a domino effect. When it hit the media that there was no chlorine, based on the trichlor situation, we said, we’re going to do everything we can to have a good supply of liquid to take care of everybody during the summer. And we were doing OK with that — we were meeting our commitments. But then Westlake happened, and it domino-ed after that,” Arko said.
The upshot is that HASA’s operations are beginning to return to normal, and Arko say’s they are getting to the tail end of the worst of it.
By press time, he expects that their chlorine supply will be in fairly good shape.
“The chlor-alkali plant is back up and running, but keep in mind that what takes precedents for them, and from an EPA standpoint, is for them to get supplies to the drinking water municipalities first. That’s part of why it’s stretched out and taking so long,” Arko said. “Certainly, by August, and barring some other unforeseen event doesn’t take place, we are hopeful to be closer to normal.”