Photos courtesy 2018 APSP International Awards of Excellence winners
Much more than just a hole in the ground filled with water, the modern pool is both a marvel of engineering and a work of art. Customers can choose from a dazzling menu of features and add-ons that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But when you take away the luxury frills, what universal features must be included in a top-notch pool for it to be safe, efficient and simple to operate?
Preparing, Testing and Excavation When it comes to building a great pool, there are plenty of indisputable rights and wrongs, absolute dos and don’ts — but rarely do you encounter them in the primary stages. When asked which protocols, technology, practices and procedures are crucial to the prep/soil testing/excavation stage, pool pros of all stripes offered some variation of the same answer: It depends.
In some cases, soil testing might be necessary, but not if you build in a familiar area where the composition is predictable. Some cases might require the insight of an engineer; others may not. Large concrete pools built in regions with expansive soil might be built on top of concrete piers. In extreme cases, you might add void boxes — but you wouldn’t use those kinds of supports with fiberglass any more than you’d use rebar with a vinyl pool.
In the end, excavation and prep are governed by the same variables as they were 20 years ago: access, cost, equipment, location of utilities and local regulations.
“Most times it’s case by case,” Sprigg says. “Sometimes you might have to dig an extra 3 feet down and fill it with gravel. In Houston, they might use a Bobcat. In Dallas, you’re more likely to see track excavators. In areas with heavy rock, you’re going to see big chipping hammers.”
There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint when it comes to prep and excavation, but that’s where the ambiguities end.
If You Only Do One Thing Right, Make it the Plumbing Unlike excavation, plumbing is not subjective. Steven Barnes, director of science and compliance at AquaStar, has three simple rules.
“Never skimp on steel, concrete or pipe size,” Barnes says.
The latter is true because undersized pipes make for loud, inefficient pools that just don’t run well. If the pipes aren’t large enough to accommodate the volume of water, nothing you do beyond that will matter.
“When the pipes are too narrow, it creates high velocity, the pumps are noisy and you’ll see bubbles in the pot,” Barnes says. “It tears up bearings and makes the pump run hot. When the pipes are too small, it forces the pump to work much harder. It won’t perform as well, and it won’t run as quiet.”
But it’s still perfectly common for pools — even top-of-the-line pools — to be fitted with inadequate 1 ½–inch pipes, which are really only satisfactory for pools up to 14,000 gallons. So why are so many otherwise good pools condemned to a life of aquatic mediocrity because they’re shackled to undersized plumbing?
“Pool builders submit competing bids,” Barnes says. “Going up just a single pipe size can add $1,500. They’re afraid to be outbid, so they build a permanent gas hog.”
Instead, Barnes says, builders should submit the pricier bid with the correct piping and add a caveat to the bid explaining just how quickly the upgrade will pay for itself.
“Moving up a single pipe size will equal savings of between $40 and $100 a month,” Barnes says. “It’s a huge difference. Conservatively, you’re talking about savings of 60 percent with an 80-90 percent bump in efficiency in moving from a single-speed pump with 1 ½–inch pipes to variable speed with the right pipe size.”
You should also inform the customer that, unlike tile selection and other cosmetic features, plumbing is forever and there are no do-overs.
“Once the pipes are in place, they disappear,” Barnes says. “They’re buried under concrete. They’re built into the pool. You’ll never have another chance to get at them. You can build the greatest pool on Earth, but if it relies on undersized pipes, none if it matters.”
The next step is choosing the right pump, which many builders also get wrong even though it’s easy to get right.
Barnes says to select a pump with a maximum flow potential that exceeds the gallons-per-minute flow rate you established when choosing your piping. Next, choose drain covers that have a flow rating that exceed the pump’s output.
“If it the pump can turn out 155 gallons per minute and you have a drain cover that can handle 200, there’s nothing anyone can do to mess that up,” Barnes says. “Even if the homeowner opens all the valves on a spa/pool combo and sends all the flow to the spa, your pool will be safe and VGB Act compliant,” he says in reference to the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act.
In summation, choose pipes that are large enough to allow a flow of at least 63 gallons per minute and a pump that can handle that volume, then ensure safety and efficiency by choosing drain covers that exceed the pump’s maximum.
Barnes says most builders miss the mark by a single half-inch pipe size. To determine the right size, builders should start with the number of gallons the pool is designed to hold then divide that number by 360 to determine the six-hour turnover flow rate. Next, use the included table to choose your piping so that velocity does not exceed 6 feet per second.
If you follow the rules of pipe selection and plumbing best practices, you’ll have the infrastructure in place to add waterfalls, jets or any other features you want down the road.
“It’s equipment independent,” Barnes says. “It doesn’t matter the brand or type. Follow these rules, and your pool will be very well behaved no matter what you do.”
Water Maintenance: ‘a System on Steroids’
CMP product design and marketing manager Vic Walker worries that chlorine is getting a bad rap.
“Chlorine is a great oxidizer,” Walker says. “But there’s a lot of stuff in the news and talk about chlorine-resistant bugs. The problem is that it takes too long for chlorine to kill these types of pathogens on its own. It can take days, even with very high chlorine levels, which no one wants.”
Walker is passionate about combining tried-and-true residual chlorine with advanced secondary systems, a combination that acts as a one-two punch that he describes as “a system on steroids.”
“Chlorine as part of a salt system is an excellent way to get unstable or free chlorine, which is different from adding chlorine tablets,” Walker says. “But there are secondary systems, like ozone, UV and AOP (advanced oxidation process) that kill all those pathogens in a single pass. While these systems are doing their work in the water, your chlorine can do the other things that chlorine does better, and you wind up using much less chlorine.”
It’s simple. When the pump isn’t running, chlorine at 1 to 3 parts per million holds down the fort. When the pump kicks in, the secondary system sends in the heavy cavalry and destroys chlorine-resistant pathogens, often in a single pass. So which secondary system is the right one?
“It’s a good, better, best scenario,” Walker says. “UV is easy to install and it’s the lowest cost of all the systems, but it’s not an oxidizer. It prevents the bad bugs in the water from replicating. It kills them, but they’re still there. Ozone kills them and also burns the dead bodies out of the water, so ozone is a step up from UV. AOP is a UV bulb and an ozone unit combined. When you pass ozone past a UV bulb, it creates hydroxyl radicals, which are very short-lived elements with a high electron voltage. It’s the most powerful oxidizer we know of today. It’s been out forever, but it was really expensive in the past. Now, you can easily add an AOP unit for under $1,000 completely installed. You can absolutely afford to include state-of-the-art technology that’s above and beyond anything chlorine can do on its own.”
Energy Efficiency According to Wes Burdine of Aquatic Energy Consulting, your pool is home to four “consumers” that gobble up your energy and money: filters, chemicals, heaters and pumps.
But not all consumers consume equally — and pumps gobble up resources like no other.
“Installing a variable-speed pump is probably the most efficient change you can make,” Burdine says. “Pool pump technology has changed tremendously over the last five years. The new pumps allow you to match the flow rate for a pool to keep the water clear and safe. An efficient variable speed can electronically slow the pump down, slow the flow and offer a cube of savings.”
“Three times three times three,” Burdine says.
Burdine explains that the average pump at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour will cost you $1,000 a year to run it 24 hours a day, seven days a week per horsepower. Since most pumps are between one and two horsepower, that’s an annual expense of $1,000 to $2,000 on electricity. When you electronically slow down the pump and maintain the flow, however, those numbers drop to $330 or $660.
“The newer, more efficient heaters are 95 percent efficient out of the box,” Burdine says, who wouldn’t endorse a specific model or even brand. “Five to 10 years ago, they were 80 percent.”
Whether the customer opts for a top-of-the line heater that’s creeping up toward 100 percent efficiency or a lower-end model, Burdine insists all heated pools should use a liquid pool cover, although that has less to do with the builder and more to do with customer preference. Liquid pool covers create a microlayer between the water and the atmosphere that acts as a barrier to evaporation.
“You’ll lose up to 80 percent of your heat through evaporation,” Burdine says.
By recommending this cheap and simple fix, Burdine says pool pros can help their customers save 50 percent on the cost of heating an indoor pool and 20 percent on an outdoor pool.
Lighting Innovations in lighting can also improve the energy efficiency of the pool. LED lights use up to 86 percent less energy than traditional incandescents. And with the ability to install them without needing a niche, adding and replacing LED bulbs is quite a bit simpler for the pro as well.
As the popularity of LEDs have grown, manufacturers are improving their performance, creating LED lights that are brighter than previous versions. Jandy recently came out with an LED light that is only 4.5 to 5.5 inches long, making it possible to install them almost anywhere in the pool.
Automation Thirty or 40 years ago, a simple time clock with a yellow dial told your pool when to switch on and when to turn off. If you wanted to deviate from that schedule, you had to traipse through the bushes, open the little metal box and change it by hand.
David MacCallum, senior product manager for automation products at Pentair, remembers the early days of automation in the 1980s and ’90s when all that started to change. He reminisces about the first equipment pads and indoor control panels.
“In the ’90s, they even had telephone modems where you could telephone in and press 1 on your Motorola flip phone to initiate some predefined command,” MacCallum says.
Today, pools can be controlled from iPhones, Androids, tablets, smart watches and even voice commands through smart home devices like the Amazon Echo. High-end automation just might be the single coolest area of all pool-related technology, but it’s hard to categorize the lion’s share of automation products and services as necessary. There are, however, cases where automation is a must.
“The guy who had to go out in the bushes at night to change the time clock, if he wanted to get into the hot tub, he had to also manually rotate the valves,” MacCallum says. “Today there are valve actuator motors that are connected to automation systems, so they know how and when to turn the valves from pool mode to spa mode and even spillway mode.”
But maybe even more necessary is offering automation to your customers who purchase a variable-speed pump. While it’s true that the majority of swimming pools have no need for full-blown automation systems, to get the most out of a VSP investment a little automation can go a long way. And now, most equipment manufacturers offer cost-effective ways to automate and operate VS-pumps from mobile devices, like Hayward’s VS Omni, Zodiac’s iQPump and Pentair’s IntelliConnect.
But feature automation, like the kind that automates pumps and lights, is half of the equation. The other half is chemical automation.
“This is a system that monitors the pH level in your pool and the chlorine content,” MacCallum says. “It ties in and communicates with the automation system, and it can lower the pH of the pool and keep it right at the desired level of 7.4, 7.5, 7.6 or whatever you want. Just as you set your air conditioner in your house to 72 degrees, you can do the same with chlorine content and pH level in your pool. That means no more leaving your salt chlorinator on at 100 percent for two weeks while you’re on vacation, coming home to chlorine levels that are skyhigh, turning it down to 10 percent, forgetting again and then three weeks later having a green pond.”
So yes, some automation is necessary. Once the system is installed, the end user can add any number of automated features and products, link their mobile devices and determine on their own what fits their definition of necessary.
From elegant tiling to luxury amenities, the features that capture the imagination of customers rarely go to the nuts and bolts of what makes a great pool truly great. How many builders, after all, have encountered homeowners with emphatic views on pipe diameter? It’s up to the builder, then, to obsess over the features that are rarely glamorous and often invisible, but that are always critical to the truly great modern pool.