Saturday, September 15, 2007

Selecting A Swimming Pool Builder

Several years ago, I went through the process of selecting a swimming pool builder. My wife and I extensively interviewed numerous builders, then selected what we considered to be the best of them.

At the time, I knew little about pools. I had never had one previously, nor did I grow up with one. I knew they had water and needed chlorine. That was about it. I also knew little about construction, having never built anything previously.

Since then, however, I have become the owner of a swimming pool service and repair company. Thus I have significant familiarity with pools, how they are built, how they work, and what to consider when building or renovating one. Therefore, I'm in the unique position of empathizing with and understanding the plight of the novice as he or she selects a pool builder, while now possessing an inside the industry perspective and knowledge base.

So let me tell you what I know.

First of all, much of what follows can be summed up in two statements, "you get what you pay for" and "go established" (avoid mom and pop operations).

Consider The Size of The Builder. I've had much exposure to "mom and pop" type builders. They can do a great job, but they can also fail. When they do the latter, they frequently do not have the means, certainly not comfortably, to make things right. In my opinion, it is best to choose a more established builder with a solid reputation. If something goes wrong, and there are numerous things that can go wrong, you want a company with the wherewithal to make it right. A good resource for established builders is the Pool & Spa News Top 50 Pool Builders list.

Reputation. Ask around. Some companies have good reputations, while others are miserable. Pay attention to what people say, but keep in mind that many people are generally frustrated by the process of building a pool as it tends to take longer and make more of a mess than anticipated. If a company has size, they usually did not get there by accident.

Knowledge. Listen to the representative. Does he know what he is doing? Does he ask questions that help you make good decisions. Does he listen to your concerns and desires and look for ways to build a pool to match? Does he say "out of touch" things like "salt systems are a fad and don't work" or "heat pumps aren't as good as old fashioned pool heaters"? If so, move on to the next builder.

Always Wait A Day. Go with you intuition, but give it a day to think. Many times a clear choice becomes different given a night to sleep on it. Waiting a day with a decision as big as choosing someone to put a permenant multi-thousand gallon body of water in your yard just makes sense.

Sanitation System Considerations. In years past, most residential pools were treated by pouring sodium hypochlorite (bleach, but more concentrated than household version), commonly referred to as liquid chlorine or pool bleach, directly into the pool. Today, however, many pools are built with some type of automated chlorination, frequently salt water chlorinator systems.

These salt water chlorinator systems are great, but keep your expectations at the right level. They do not make a pool maintenance free. You will still need to monitor other chemicals, although the only one that you'll need to check more often that every 3 or 4 weeks in pH, which is controlled with Muriatic acid. The others, alkalinity, calcium hardness, and cyanuric acid, can be checked by your local pool supply store, again every 3 or 4 weeks. Thus, they are more maintenance free, but not maintenance free.

Salt water chlorinator systems save a good amount of money in chemical costs, but keep in mind that you'll need to replace the cell every few years at a cost of at least a couple of hundred dollars. Also, the control units tend to eventually stop working, necessitating replacement of the control unit, and likely the whole system. Thus, much of the savings is given back in equipment costs. They are, however, great systems that offer nice water quality benefits. Expect the up front cost of a good salt system to approach $2,000.

Also note that there exists salt systems that not only produce chlorine but also add muriatic acid as needed to maintain proper pH levels. One example is the AutoPilot Total Chemistry Control system. These systems generally measure chlorine and pH levels on a real time basis, then produce chlorine or add muriatic acid as needed to maintain proper levels. We highly recommend this option. Improper pH levels are generally the cause of eye irritation and surface erosion. We believe that over the long haul the extra cost of this type of system is largely recouped in savings due to less frequent resurfacing of your pool. Also note that proper pH levels avoid one of the more common problems with pools, pH levels at 8.0 and above, just a little higher than advised, which causes chlorine to be much less effective.

You might also consider a commercial pool style feeder system, which pulls liquid chlorine and muriatic acid from barrels as needed. Most large commercial pools, and many of the more prestigious residential pools have these systems. Expect this to cost about $5,000 and up.

Surfaces When we built our pool, we put in a Diamond Brite surface. I had heard of other types of surfaces, but thought they were only for darker colors, something we did not want as our pool was going to have many kids in it, making visibility highly important. If I was building our pool today, however, I would choose a surface like Pebble Tec or Durazzo, which offer light colors, as well. It costs just a bit more, but will likely last longer. Additionally, I believe you get it back in spades in the value of your home. Done properly, it is a great look.

Plumbing Considerations. Here is a topic I wish I knew more about before I built a pool. It is stunning to me how many pools we run across that have 2 inch lines or larger where visible, only to reduce to 1 ½ inch lines once under the surface. Builders tend to take shortcuts in this area as most owners do not know the difference. Insist on larger pipe, and ask to inspect the plumbing before it is covered.

Also make sure you plumb for things you might do in the future. Perhaps you do not want any water effects, but might in the future. Plumb a water effects line to the side of your pool, then have it capped.

Finally, make sure your pool contractor avoids using too many 90 degree elbows in the plumbing. Every turn creates signficiant resitance. I've seen plumbing configurations where elbows could be reduced by half with just a bit of thought. Frankly, I think they just don't care sometime.

Water Effects. If you are unsure about water effects, and just can't find something that strikes you, consider a simple fountain. Jandy makes nice deck jets and Laminar fountains. If you don't like them, turn off the valve. I think, however, you'll at least like the option.

Heating. A pool too uncomfortably cool to swim in is just for looks. Heating a pool dramatically increases the number of days you can use it. Heat pump companies frequently advertise that you can heat your pool for $1 a day. Having a pool truly comfortable may be a bit more than that, but not by much. We highly recommend a heat pump for any pool. One tip, make sure you purchase one with a titanium heat exchanger. Otherwise, the first time your water becomes acidic you'll see your heat exchanger dissolved in your pool, not a pretty sight.

Pumps. Here is an area where I wish I had been given more options at the time I built my pool. There are a wide variety of pumps on the market. From less expensive to more expensive, there are cheap (for lack of a better way of describing them) basic, quiet, and energy efficient. With pumps, you truly get what you pay for. Energy efficient pumps, like the Intelliflo by Pentair, save so much money in electricity they tend to pay for themselves, or certainly their incremental costs, while offering other significant benefits including whisper quiet operation, automatic turnoff upon losing prime, etc. Pay up and get a really good pump. In the end, they cost the least.

Also make sure you get sufficient power. Skimping in this area is also a mistake. Every pool is different, so you'll have to prompt your builder for advice. My suggestion here is simply don't take this for granted. Builders frequently are so happy to get the order, they fail to give you upgrade options (which would increase their profits) out of fear that you'll change your mind while considering them.

Filters. Once again, this is an area where I would have liked options. In this case, however, we likely would have made the same decision.

There are 3 types of filters by order of effectiveness (in trapping small particles), sand, cartridge, and DE. We chose a cartidge filter, and would likely do so again. However, the other types have their advantages. Sand is simply easy, and does not require the annual or so expense of replacing your filter cartidge. DE works really well, but the filters cost more, and only work if DE is properly fed to them after backwashing them. Filter cartidges, in my mind, offer the most practical choice for the homeowner, approaching DE in their filtering capability, yet being simple to use.

Maintenance Nightmares. At least be aware of problems with certain types of pools. Long narrow pools, for example, may not be able to use an automatic cleaner. Long sets of stairs create large areas of stagnant warm water that can be prone to algae. Foliage around a pool means your pool will never be perfectly clean.

Expense. Keep in mind that even after you have built your pool, expenses will continue. A typical pool owner should plan on about $2,000 per year or more in swimming pool related expenses, on average, between chemicals, equipment, surfaces, etc. If you take care of your pool yourself, you may be able to make this a bit lower, but not much. A pool is like a boat. It is a luxury item and expensive to maintain. Expect it from the get go and it will be easier for you. It never ceases to amaze me how many people buy homes they can barely afford, only to be surprised that at how much money (which they don't have) it costs to maintain the pool. Once it is built, you have to maintain it.

Pool Equipment Manufacturers. Get to know different pool equipment manufacturers. Here are a few of the major ones:

Pentair
Jandy
Aquacal
Goldline
Hayward
AutoPilot

Any Questions? If you have any questions, post them as a comment by clicking on "comments" or "Post A Comment" just below this article. I tend to respond to these the same day. Ask away. The more questions you ask, the more questions I can answer, and the better this resource will be for its users. Also feel free to post your own comments, thoughts, or suggestions. If you are a company promoting itself, that is fine, as long as whatever you post also provides information.

Enjoy your pool. It is worth it.