With the many questions he's asked in classrooms and in conversations with fellow watershapers, Paolo Benedetti is constantly reminded of things he wishes he'd known when he started his business. In the first of two articles, he begins by discussing ten of these key observations.
By Paolo Benedetti
Among the best things about being an instructor who helps watershapers do a better job of pursuing their chosen profession are the questions I get asked, both during class and afterwards. It’s gotten to a point where I usually can tell how long a person has been at it by the nature of his or her inquiries.
Lots of these questions take me back to my early days in the industry when, green behind the ears, I made mistakes that cost me time and money but taught me lessons I’ve never forgotten. There are also issues I heard about from others and, forewarned, managed to dodge myself, thank goodness.
Through the years, I’ve kept track of these incidents and dialogues and have compiled them into a list of 20 things I wish someone had told me or that I should have figured out for myself from the beginning. They’re divided into two articles, the first batch of which includes ten points having to do with general principles of being in the aquatic business.
Here we go, in no particular order:
Stand up to your subcontractors. They work for you, and they need to do things the way you want them done rather than the way they say is more efficient or quicker or the way they’ve always done it. Their desired approaches are often just bad or lazy habits reinforced by the fact that few people watch them closely enough to object.
Yes, it takes gumption to stand up against a veteran electrician or plumber or concrete applicator and make your case, especially early in your career. My suggestion is to lean on the people who helped you get where you are (“I know that’s not the way you do it for Smith & Co.”). And it’s even better if you can back up your position with a code or standard that applies to a specific situation and gives you the leverage you need to move your subcontractors onto your desired path.
Be sure to trim out shotcrete around pipes and fittings. It’s fairly common for concrete applicators to cut a quick, shallow bevel around these shell penetrations using their two-inch pointer trowels. This typically won’t leave you enough room to insert an effective plaster seal or water-stop flange. So you end up having to chip out a bunch of concrete and run the risk of damaging the pipe in the process.
In your preparatory meeting on application day, tell the crew that you want deeper wells around these pipes: It’ll save you a lot of time and labor and chipping. As for motivation, before we get started I show the crew a wad of $20 bills. Each time they head in the wrong direction, maybe by mishandling rebound, I’ll whistle to get their attention, peel off a twenty or two depending on the gravity of the offense and put it back in my pocket. Before long, it’s a self-policing community down there in the pool: None of them wants to sacrifice their tip money!
Draw up precise plans and details with elevations of every surface of the pool clearly identified. This is another important part of your preparatory meeting with the concrete crew: They need to know up front what the interior finish will be so they can, for instance, leave adequate room for a float in the event it’s an all-tile pool. They also need to know where the skimmers will be and how they should be cut, and the same goes for scuppers and the levels of dam walls and raised beams.
These drawings should include information on every single vertical and horizontal plane in the pool and how they will be treated, and they should stay right there at poolside for ready consultation during the trimming process. This is another time when the crew will be concerned about the tip pool and whether it will mean a nice dinner out with the family or a quick lunch at a fast-food emporium.
It’s also a matter of defining liability: If the drawings indicate that a step should be cut five inches down from a certain level and it’s only four inches down, the concrete applicator is the one who will be responsible for chipping away the excess material.
It’s important to note that revving up the concrete pump marks the point where clients have to stop making changes unless they’re willing to pay a whole lot extra for them. Before the concrete stage, they often feel free to tinker with wall heights and feature locations and the size of shallow lounging areas, for example. Once the concrete starts flowing, the die is cast and only extraordinary willingness to incur costs will keep them active.
Coffee and doughnuts, occasional lunches and tip dollars go a long way toward getting peak performance from everyone on site. It’s not a huge investment, but it says something about your attitude and the way you value good, hard work. Try it: It’ll make a difference!
Using larger formboards will result in cleaner interfaces with decks. Early in my career, we generally used two-by-fours and Masonite to set up for bond beams and decks, which led to areas below the two-by-fours where we had to chip material away to present a clean face for deck placement or, more seriously, had to compensate for the flexibility of the backing materials to create straight edges. We now use two-by-sixes or even larger lumber and heavier backing materials as needed to contain the concrete and preserve a clean edge.
This is another one of those expense tradeoffs that are behind several of the points made here: You might save some money up front by using small lumber or thin plywood in preparing forms, but you give it all back and more when you confront the need to chip material away so the work can continue beyond the forms. Word to the wise: Do what’s right rather than what’s momentarily convenient!
Instead of spraying, brush protective paint onto exposed PVC pipes. For many years, I paid to have people spend hours masking pumps, valves and other components of the equipment set to make it safe to spray paint onto the pipes that needed it. Then one day my son asked if he could just brush the paint on, and I let him do so figuring it’d take him much longer to get the job done.
What was supposed to be a life lesson for him became one for me: In about half the usual time, he came back and said he was done, and ever since we’ve just used pieces of cardboard we move from place to place to catch any drips as we brush on paint. It’s actually a substantial cost-saver, because one can of paint costs much less than multiple cans of spray paint of equivalent volume – and the labor savings are enormous.
Just because a manufacturer says something is suitable for use in a pool or spa doesn’t make it so. This is particularly true with tile, glass and stone, where it has always been my policy to “trust, but verify” – but I am also cautious when I work with equipment suppliers who don’t actually process or manufacture what they sell.
This is especially relevant when it comes to anything sourced from overseas: In many cases, the U.S. firm selling these parts, materials, components or systems has no idea how they are produced and can’t vouch for their performance, whether for the long or short term. Quite often, for example, tiles that look great in a catalog or on a web site will show up with a mesh backing that simply can’t be used underwater.
There’s also the fact that some manufacturers are not even aware of safety or performance standards for their products – or simply don’t care because the kind of testing and recordkeeping required to gain approvals from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are time-consuming and expensive. Ask questions, and if you don’t get satisfactory answers, move on and continue shopping!
Keep your spa airlines above grade. Don’t run the pipe under the pool or drop its elevation below water level: It will trap water at the low spot, the line will never draw air and installing a blower won’t help: You will not be able to move the water out.
This is another lesson I learned the hard way, when a plumber ran the airline under one of my pools to save the time and materials that would’ve been involved in taking the lines at the surface around a long perimeter path. In the end, we had to break out coping a decking and run an even longer perimeter path to correct a situation that should never have happened in the first place.
The airline gets filled with water when you initially pressurize your plumbing lines, so the entire length of this pipe is actually filled with water from Day One. You want to install it so it can be drained – meaning you need to keep it at a high, even level on site or provide a drain outlet in the equipment room.
Don’t be afraid to take on challenges, but do hire consultants to keep you out of trouble. How many times have you heard about a pool contractor who ended up in trouble by getting in over his or her head? I know that anyone who goes into business has an ego to some degree or other, but there are times when you need to step back and admit that you need help.
If you pay attention, these consultations won’t be necessary more than once or twice, but there’s nothing worse than the sinking feeling that hits you when you’ve won a contract to install a full perimeter-overflow/Lautner-style edge for the first time and you can’t invent your way to a solution that works.
So set aside the ego, call in an expert, learn from his or her experience, ask lots of questions, push for inside tips: What you collect will make life easy and save you tons of money down the line, and it’ll all be worth it even though you made a bit less money the first time – unless, of course, you were insightful enough to include such a consultation in your fee structure.
Know your project plans intimately. Lots of us develop substantial parts of our own plans and know them well, but experience has taught me that it’s just not enough: I also study and internalize the engineering plan, for instance, because I know that I am the bridge between it and everything else that will be happening on site.
Not only that: I also need to synthesize all of the information at hand to anticipate conflicts or areas where I might need additional information to avoid misunderstandings or other on-site issues that might arise or that I might need to explain to an inspector in detail. Again, it’s a useful investment that can save you time and money.
Next time: Ten more things I’d wish I’d known when I first started, these having to do with inspectors, standards and codes.