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Precision Planning
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Precision Planning



I operate under the hopeful assumption that all professional watershapers know that detailed, quality construction plans are crucial to the success of any project. Too often, however, I get the unsettling feeling that some contractors in the watershaping trades see plan documents mainly as a means of securing a construction permit.

Such a bare-minimum approach can lead to an endless array of problems that can be summed up simply: Plans lacking in detail leave way too many issues to chance and inevitably lead to mistakes. And because we all work in a field where things are quite literally set in concrete or stone, even small gaffes will quite often require difficult (and costly) corrective measures.

If you step back and consider the importance of detailed plans – even for an instant – it’s obvious that time spent working on construction documents is always of value, especially when it means you won’t need to break out the air chisel.


In my own firm, we are constantly ramping up the level of detail we build into our plans and have literally made planning into an ongoing, forward-looking form of construction.

In other words, any time we develop a construction detail, we hold onto it and apply it from that point forward – or until such time as it is improved and enhanced by additional information. This is such a simple concept that I have to admit to being mystified that not everyone follows suit.

As for why I think this is so important, let me offer a punch list of examples that spell things out in no uncertain terms and address ways in which our plans have been able to stave off big trouble.

Before we begin, please note that all of our plans include a list of specified equipment by make and model. That list is accompanied by a disclaimer stating that no substitutions can be made without explicit, written approval. So in a bidding situation, everyone must toe the line with respect to how they price the equipment – leading to true apples-to-apples price comparisons. Second and as important, this step ensures that the right components are used for each job.

[ ] Controllers: Let’s assume we’re including, just for sake of this discussion, a Jandy RS8 One-Touch controller on a project. Seems simple enough, but for the controller to be used correctly, I need to define who will run the conduit into the house and where the panel will be located.

All this is important because I have found, way too often, that this particular item gets lost in the shuffle of overlapping functions between electricians and other subcontractors who might be working on site. All we’re talking about is a single run of 3/4-inch conduit – one that will become a whale of a problem down the line if you end up having to cut into deck slabs or walls after the fact to run a wire to the remote-control panel.

So we don’t stop with a simple product specification: In this case, the controller requires some small sub-panels, a special four-conductor cable and serial-port adapters that will enable the controller to interface with the home’s electronic control system, should there be one. Spa-side controls also take some planning, as do light-dimming relays, extra valve actuators and, to round everything out, a surge protection device that will effectively extend the warranty on the system.

None of these items is a big deal unless one happens to be left out of the bid or is taken into consideration only when it comes time for system installation. With a lack of coverage of such construction details, small considerations can become gigantic headaches.

[ ] Colored Fittings: It’s another simple thing, but we’ve found that it’s incredibly important to specify the color of the fittings for any project. After all, is there anything that looks worse than a white inlet fitting or drain cover against a dark plaster, exposed-aggregate or tile surface?

As sure as I’m sitting at my computer right now, if the color is left off the plans, somebody will go forth and mindlessly parlay a $10 fitting into an gleaming white eyesore that destroys the visual continuity of the design. To forestall any such problems, we list all such components, from inlets and suction fittings to floor returns, drain covers and more, each with a specific color delineated.

[ ] Water Leveling: Let’s use the example of a vanishing-edge application with a trough or surge tank that’s been properly sized to accommodate bather surge. Let’s say further that we want to use an automatic water-leveling system in the collection vessel – an important placement distinction, as I can’t count the number of times in which I’ve seen such systems where the leveling device is installed on the primary vessel, which is basically crazy because that’s the body of water that should be designed to remain at a constant level anyway.

With our projects, we start by specifying that the leveling system goes in the catch basin or surge tank, then further define exact locations of equalizer lines in the basin walls and line sizes needed to accommodate the auto-leveler. We show exactly how the conduit is stubbed up for the system and how a piece of coping or other edging material is placed on top of the leveling sensors so they’re not visible.

We show the conduit run back to the equipment area, spell out the distinctions between high- and low-level sensors, set the high sensor at the same level as the overflow line and define the way in which the leveling system will trigger a relay that activates a specific pump when the water level rises to the overflow level.

In my view, by the way, all vanishing-edge systems need a high-level sensor as a last line of defense to prevent dumping water out of the pool. Our plans also define vacuum-break plumbing loops on the vanishing edge’s return system as the primary safeguard against flooding, right down to the check valve’s model and location. And all of this is conveyed with a diagram and spelled out in written specifications.

[ ] Edge Tolerance: With any vanishing-edge or water-in-transit system, the plans must include the required tolerance of the weir. In our work, that means a tight 1/32-inch tolerance (plus or minus), something we’re comfortable with because even if we’re off by a hair here and there, flow over the edge won’t be visibly affected.

By the same token, in our opinion, a 1/16-inch tolerance (again plus or minus) is less than adequate because even so seemingly small a difference can create uneven flow over an edge and, in the worst cases, can cause dry spots. In addition, the flow requirements and hydraulic-system design can be rendered useless by failure to have or meet a specified edge tolerance.

[ ] Lighting: Just as is the case with remote-control systems, we call out in specific details the components, conduit runs and power requirements for all lighting systems. With a fiberoptic system, for example, we note illuminator locations and work things all the way through to specifying the number of fibers required to achieve the desired effect. With conventional fixtures, we specify exact placements and, in the case of adjustable fixtures, will describe the basic cowling or hood orientation so the contractor understands precisely what is to be illuminated.

[ ] Main Drains: These days, there’s a tremendous amount of concern over safety and the importance of using split main drains to prevent suction entrapment. To that end, we specify drain makes and models and locations in every plan we do.

Specifying the type of drain is important for a number of reasons. In a spa, for example, we don’t use raised anti-vortex drains in the floor of the vessel where they will be kicked, tripped over, stepped on and sometimes broken by bathers. Instead, we call out vertically oriented drains in the lower walls of the spa’s foot well in conjunction with floor drains covered in flat, oversized grates.

[ ] Sanitizing Systems: This section of a plan entails yet another make-and-model citation accompanied, in the case of an ozone system, for example, by proper line sizes and injector locations as well as details on the size, location and configuration of the mixing chamber. The ozone will be removed in this chamber before it returns to the pool and introduces unwanted noise or aerated water that appears cloudy. We also specify a vent tube for this gas-removal chamber to carry the corrosive gas outside and away from easily damaged seals and equipment.

By the way, I isolate ozone systems in this discussion because I’ve seen lots of plans that will call out a “generic” ozone system with no information about the type or size – a bit of folly because such distinctions are critical in the case of ozone technology.

[ ] Plumbing Locations: Our plans show close-to-exact locations of pipes in the ground. This helps ensure that the system is installed as designed, and it can also be a huge help if there’s ever a need down the line to fix a leaking pipe. Furthermore – and this should be obvious – plans must clearly show precise locations for components such as skimmers or for return and suction lines. Amazingly, however, I often see plans utterly lacking in even this basic level of detail.

[ ] Spa Jets: We leave nothing to chance when it comes to specifying the number of spa-jet fittings, their types and their locations. All too often it seems installers are willing to have homeowners go to all the expense of having concrete spas without defining such specifics about their jets.

For our part, we either define exact locations based on discussions with our clients, or we explicitly define whose responsibility it is to determine those locations during the plumbing phase. And at all times we are mindful of the fact that once the spa is shot with gunite or shotcrete, those jet configurations are not at all easy to change or correct.

[ ] Heaters: We put a big note on our plans that the heater must be vented to the outdoors and that this ventilation system cannot share ducting with any other type of appliance. We further define where the ducting will run, who will install it and how the combustion-air intake will be vented from the exterior of the building.

These issues can be of extreme importance in a situation, for example, where the equipment room for the watershape is underneath the house or is somehow part of a larger structure. Believe me, unexpected remodeling jobs that come up to accommodate ventilation for a pool/spa heater do not go over well with clients!

[ ] Fire Elements: I’m currently working on a project that includes a series of stainless steel torches along one side of a large swimming pool. In this case our plans define the exact products to be used, their precise locations and full details about the gas lines – where they’ll run and what size they need to be. We also include precise information about how the elements are to be mounted.


The above is only a partial list. Indeed, a full set of plans will include numerous plumbing details for surge tanks and perimeter-overflow system; construction details for everything from perimeter-overflow edges and gutters to outdoor kitchens and shade structures; and details as significant as a pool’s interior finish or as subtle as the size of sleeves for market umbrellas.

If you’re engaged in quality work, I’m reasonably confident that thorough planning is a matter of habit for you. I also suspect that, once developed, you hang onto files of your construction details and can apply them in new situations as needed.

As watershapers in the modern world, our plans should constantly be growing in both precision and specificity. After all, the less you leave to chance, the better your odds of minimizing mistakes and working at your best, project after project.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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