By Brian Van Bower
Is it honest to say that too few of the swimming pools you find in America’s backyards are what one could call well built – and that even fewer of them are well designed? I think so, because so many of the pools I see run like junk and look like junk, and it’s way too easy to find installations that lack any apparent relationship to their settings, their homes’ architecture, the landscaping or any recognized design standard.
The environment out there is so unfortunate that when David Tisherman, Skip Phillips and I teach our Genesis 3 schools, Skip starts by telling our students to look at what the pool industry does – and do the exact opposite.
That’s an outrageous thing to say, and his intention clearly is to be provocative. But even though we all offer up the axiom with humor and it invariably draws laughter from the crowd, there’s a nasty bit of truth here, and our recommendation holds up surprisingly well under even the closest scrutiny.
Truth be told, this simple wisecrack really helps people understand where we’re coming from in our classes. It sets the proverbial bar of performance at a different level from the status quo, and as a result this single statement has become synonymous with our approach to watershaping.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The nature of aesthetics makes it tough to make a quick argument, so let me illustrate what I mean with a fundamental, practical issue and a few words about hydraulics.
Hydraulic science stands literally at the heart of a swimming pool system, and the fact of the matter is that most pools are suffering with bad cases of clogged arteries. Even today, when the trade media and seminar schedules are brimming with information that should at least help ease this condition, you nonetheless can go onto just about any job site and find pipes that are too small, pumps that are too powerful, filters that are way too small and tangled equipment pads that sap circulation-system efficiency even when everything is sized properly.
This is not new information, and anyone you talk to who builds pools pays lip service to the notion that sound hydraulic design is important. But I know for a fact that I could walk around just about any neighborhood in just about any market anywhere in our country and find a pool being installed with a 2-horsepower pump on 1-1/2-inch plumbing with a 75-square-foot filter – and, lest I forget, a knot of piping too intense for the tender sensibilities of young children.
It’s frustrating, and at this stage of the game you’d think we wouldn’t still be fighting this battle, yet we are. And it’s not so easy to understand why this is so, because if it were all about cutting costs, saving money and squeezing a few extra percentage points into the profit margin, you wouldn’t be finding all these upsized, high-head pumps – which are, after all, more expensive than fractional-horsepower pumps.
For all that, countless contractors sell and install 1-1/2-, 2- or even 3-hp pumps on small systems because they think that’s what consumers think they want. After all, if bigger is better when it comes to horsepower and automobiles, bigger must of course also be better when it comes to swimming pool pumps.
This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what should be done. This is hydraulics, not drag racing.
So no matter what you assume your clients want, you should be beefing up your circulation system in terms of pipe size, the number of suction and return points and filter size while reducing the size of the pump. The system will work better in every conceivable way and the tradeoffs in costs are basically negligible – even on modest projects.
BUCKING THE MINIMUMS
The pool industry is similar to many other construction trades in maintaining a set of guidelines that specify “minimum standards.” For our industry, the National Spa & Pool Institute and American National Standards Institute publish ANSI/NSPI #5, the recognized standard for residential swimming pools.
We all must bear in mind that these really are minimums – and that in order to satisfy your clients you need to do all you can to exceed those baselines.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s explore a key point in the standards – where ASPI/NSPI #5 mandates a maximum water velocity in suction piping of no more than 8 feet per second. If water flows through the pipe any faster than that, you’re working outside the minimum standard.
How Low Can You Go?
Let me be clear in my thoughts on the pool industry’s “minimum standards”: Although I certainly endorse the idea of publishing them as a baseline, it’s important to point out that nowhere do these documents say that you shouldn’t exceed those standards.
To my mind, quality in construction means that you’re working nowhere near anything defined as “minimum.” But what we find all too often is contractors who see minimum standards as a high bar of performance and who apparently do all they can to fly below the standards.
Whatever the source of this attitude, the results are grim. My advice: Focus your efforts so high above and beyond the minimums that performance of your products is never something that is called into question.
Yes, I know that you have to calculate the specifics for each system and that in select circumstances a bigger pump might be required, but all too often we find that when you upsize the pump instead of increasing the plumbing size, you’re going to violate the maximum flow rate set up in the minimum standards.
This is plain dumb. The bigger pump is more expensive and is going to make more noise, will be more likely to cavitate, will use way too much energy and definitely will break down sooner than it should. Yet I still hear people say that upsizing the plumbing drives up cost, so they prefer to use a bigger pump.
Look at a regular pool with a 2-inch main drain (let’s not even mention the 1-1/2-inch “minimum”): To change from a 2-inch line to a 3-inch line for a 50-foot run is less than $40. How much would it cost to upsize the entire plumbing system? You don’t need a calculator to know it’s not more than a few hundred dollars on most jobs, and there’s no more labor involved because it’s just a matter of using a fatter pipe.
Larger piping means you can use a medium-head pump that not only operates at a higher efficiency but also costs considerably less. And you can use a fractional-horsepower pump that will work far more efficiently against less head pressure while moving more water.
In other words, do the opposite of the status quo on this one and you’ll be just fine.
DOWN THE LINE
You can go through the entire circulation system and see similar sorts of obvious economies and benefits:
[ ] Consider skimmers, for example. Much of the pool industry still puts just one skimmer on smaller pools, and this works within the minimum standard, which calls for just one skimmer per 800 square feet of surface area.
In most places I know, however, the wind shifts direction from time to time. So why not use two skimmers located on opposite sides of the pool to catch debris flowing across the surface in different directions? Less debris will sink to the bottom, the pool will be cleaner and look better more of the time – and it will be easier to service.
In terms of raw cost, adding a second skimmer – plumbed independently with at least 2-inch plumbing – will come in at about $200.
[ ] Look at filtration: How many projects are set up “automatically” with a 75-square-foot filter? That describes most of the projects in my area, but if you read the specifications on filter flow rates, you’ll see that many of these filters are badly over-challenged. A 50-square-foot cartridge filter might be rated for a recommended flow rate of 50 gpm, as an example. Consider the effect of a 3-hp pump moving water at a rate of 160 gpm through 2-inch plumbing and you see that water is literally being rammed through an undersized filter.
I recommend doing the opposite and putting a big filter on the system. Yes, they cost more and take up more space on an equipment pad, but the benefits with respect to hydraulic performance, water clarity, service life of the filter and, ultimately, customer satisfaction can be priceless. That’s why I always install what some people consider to be oversized filters – 300 square feet, 400 square feet, multiple filters, whatever it takes.
In terms of performance, there is no downside to using large filters. My customers appreciate the improved water quality and a cleaner pool.
[ ] To complete the circuit, let’s look at return plumbing. Again, why it is that we still see 1-1/2-inch plumbing on return lines? And why is it that we also see so many installations with the minimum number of returns. Yes, two returns on a 20-by-40-foot pool will move the water around a little bit, but why not use four returns to increase flow and efficiency?
I plumb all my systems with return loops feeding multiple returns. The water flows evenly around the perimeter of the pool, equalizing flow and pressure at all return points. And I install eyeball fittings so that I can “tune” the pool to create a circular flow pattern that pushes the water past multiple, strategically placed skimmers.
With multiple returns plumbed on a loop, chemicals are mixed more quickly and effectively, heated water is dispersed more evenly, and the water stays cleaner and is easier to maintain. It’s all to the good, so why sacrifice increased performance for want of a few feet of plumbing a couple more inlet fittings?
MORE OR LESS FORGIVING
Properly designed and installed systems, especially those that go beyond the so-called minimum standards, work better than most systems you find out there in America’s backyards. And they work better under a broader range of conditions than those built to satisfy (or fly under) the minimums.
I’ve seen a great many pools, for example, that stand near heavy landscaping or beneath overhanging tree branches. From a service perspective, plant matter in the water can be a real headache, but if the system has multiple skimmers, efficient flow in and out of the pool and through the filter and an adequately sized filter, plant debris isn’t nearly the problem it would be in a system where the majority of the stuff floats unskimmed, becomes waterlogged and sinks to the bottom.
The fact is, when clients are presented with options and the long-term value of those options is clearly explained, they want better stuff. If you’re uncomfortable insisting on the use of upsized plumbing, multiple skimmers and returns or big filters as a matter of policy, try offering these things as options. My guess is that even cost-conscious, mid-level customers will spend the extra scratch for a quality system, especially if you outline the positive tradeoffs in terms of long-term energy efficiency and serviceability.
This might even be the core of our problem as an industry: I do believe that much of the difficulty arises because the industry’s salespeople don’t understand the impact these issues have on the products they sell. They’re sent out on sales calls armed with standard templates and configurations and have no clear sense of what is involved in designing a pool system.
Hydraulics is just one area where this approach falls flat: This sales effort also falls short where critical issues of geology and necessary structural details are involved. In some cases, the results are catastrophic; in others, it all just becomes miserably unsatisfactory.
Skip Phillips often describes the process of selling and bidding pool jobs as a contest to see who can degrade the product the most. However harsh that seems, when you look at what some people sell in the name of being competitive, I’d have to say that he’s right on target.
If you want to be successful over the long haul – and especially if you enjoy making your clients happy – it all boils down to a no-longer-humorous recommendation: Look at the way the pool industry’s rank and file do things and do just the opposite.