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Turning Green
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Turning Green



Whether you call yourself an environmentalist or not, the current information about climate change and a range of related issues is something you need to consider.

Before you react to that statement, be advised that you don’t have to accept global warming as fact or anything else experts and scientists might say at face value. What you do have to accept, however, is that there’s enough going on in those arenas that your clients are picking up on it – and personally, that’s more than enough motivation for me to start paying attention sooner rather than later.

In other words, as both enlightened citizens and forward-thinking watershapers, I think things are at a point where it’s probably wise to pay attention to these issues and reasonably assess how they might affect our lives and our businesses. Why not get proactive and, as an industry and as individual operators within it, start discussing the potentialities for a new generation of “green” watershapes?

In public-relations terms, this may be an uphill climb, because watershapes have never been what people think of as environmentally friendly products. Instead, they’re seen as luxuries, and although there have been developments that enhance energy efficiency in particular, the focus has mostly been on reducing operating costs rather than on saving the planet.

My pragmatic belief is that, despite the challenges, we need to jump out ahead of this issue by marketing energy-saving and otherwise “green” options to our clients. This may not even entail a grand overhaul of our industry, but it almost certainly will require dramatic shifts in mindsets and development of a range of ready answers for clients who almost certainly will start raising these questions.


I write this knowing full well that my client base is generally so affluent that not one of them has ever raised a concern about energy costs. Indeed, there are projects I’ve designed where the ongoing, monthly costs of running the systems are many times greater than what most people pay for their housing.

These clients can afford such costs and don’t seem to crave “energy-efficient systems” at all – and I don’t know if they ever will. But these folks read the papers and listen to the news and form opinions: When the time comes that relative greenness is an issue for them, I want to be ready. (It also makes sense that as government plots its courses of action that even the hyper-rich will be forced to think about these issues, like it or not.)

Just look what’s happening in the automobile industry if you need an analogy: Where Toyota’s Prius was once the only hybrid car out there and took a distinctly minimalist approach to comfort and accessories, the field is now filled with well-appointed, high-performing vehicles that boast hybrid technology – including a nice, expensive Lexus.

Where hybrids once appealed mostly to those who wanted to conserve fuel and save the planet (because the cars really didn’t save those consumers much if any money), they are now being made to appeal to higher-end buyers who want quality cars that look good and are well appointed at the same time they make their drivers feel they’re doing their part for the environment.

It may work the same way with watershapes: Our clients will still want all the luxury and pleasure they can afford, but they’ll want it to come with fundamental systems that don’t overuse chemicals or waste energy or water in what might seem negligent ways.

With all that in mind, let’s take a quick look at some of the areas in which watershapes may already be advancing along the “green” curve. This is not an exhaustive list by any means: I’m just pulling up just a few examples of measures we can all consider, and I’m certain you can think of others that are either available now or will be in the future.

Water conservation is the obvious place to start.


There are lots of reasons why creating pools that make the most of the water they use is a good idea. We know even without concern about environmental issues that fresh, potable water is not an unlimited resource and that as our population continues to increase, pressure will only increase on watershapers to employ water-saving measures. That’s long been the case in areas that experience drought (particularly Arizona and southern California), but my guess is this is an issue that will become of importance almost everywhere before long.

There are several approaches my designs have taken to this particular issue, but one unusual twist we’ve included in several recent water-in-transit designs (that is, those with vanishing edges and/or perimeter-overflow systems) is an upsized combination of tanks and troughs that allow us to collect, store and use rainwater that enters the system.

In some cases, we’ve also pitched decks in ways that directs much more incidental water into the system. Where a couple years back, the decks might have been slightly pitched toward a slot for two or three feet to recapture splash, in some cases we’re now pitching decks out as far as 10 to 12 feet beyond the edge of the pool, in some cases directing water back into the system from the entirety of a deck’s surface.

With added capacity in our surge tanks, we now are storing water that would otherwise have been sent to waste. By doing so, we establish reserves that make up for evaporative losses instead of allowing the water level to hit the low-water sensor in the auto-fill system and relying on the potable-water supply. This is a concept that can be applied in just about any vanishing-edge or perimeter-overflow system – and in the grand scheme of things, the cost of upsizing surge capacity or collector-tank volume (space permitting) is generally small.

Along those same lines, we’ve been considering automatic pool covers for more applications. These systems have benefits that go well beyond water conservation (keeping the water cleaner and enhancing safety being just two), but my primary interest in this context is cutting down on evaporation to save water and reduce heating requirements and chemical consumption.

For their part, covers manufacturers have done a good job of developing systems that suit modern designs and a wider range of pool types, including perimeter overflows and vanishing edges. Moreover, they come in wider ranges of colors that help them work as a design element – all very positive advances.

Also in this vein, I think that it’s incumbent upon watershapers to build systems that don’t leak. Water-leveling technology has substantially reduced an installer’s need to be scrupulous in this respect, making it easy to overlook leaks so long as they’re not major. But that’s irresponsible in this day and age, and I believe we should test our vessels to be sure they are watertight.


Another key area in which we can tout green credentials has to do with hydraulics.

For a long time now, many have aggressively promoted the benefits of hydraulic efficiency in plumbing, filter and pump sizing. In fact, your head had to have been buried in the sand for years now for you not to have heard all about the value of using smaller pumps, larger filters and upsized plumbing to save energy costs and increase the service lives of motors while reducing noise and delivering a host of related benefits.

What many won’t know or recall is that 23 years ago, back in 1984, Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Electrical & Computer Science’s Center for Energy Efficiency delivered a report called the “Swimming Pool System Energy Efficiency Optimization Study.”

Intended as a definitive study to formalize standards for flow rates and pump and plumbing sizing, the report was submitted to what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute and to the Florida Power & Light Company. (It’s no small point of pride that my good friend Bill Kent of Horner Equipment was instrumental in supporting this groundbreaking work under the leadership of FAU’s Dr. Roger Messenger.)

As it turned out, the study was far ahead of its time. The researchers analyzed how pools use energy by studying all sorts of variables across a range of system and operating conditions and found conclusively that designing systems with smaller pumps and larger plumbing sizes (thus decreasing head pressure and line velocities) allowed a pump to create more flow using less energy. None of this is a major revelation at this point, but it is interesting to note just how long the information has been around!

Through Genesis 3 and in my own work, I’m a huge advocate for designing systems that operate at six feet per second on both the suction and discharge sides of the plumbing system – compared to the eight-foot-suction/ten-foot-discharge “minimum standards” suggested (and often not met) even today in the pool industry.

As our understanding of hydraulics has advanced, we’ve learned a great deal more that enhances the picture even further. With perimeter-overflow and vanishing-edge systems, for example, we know they can be built with edges so precise and hydraulic systems so efficient that keeping even long edges wet can be accomplished with half-horsepower pumps. In these cases, precision and efficiency make a huge difference in delivering spectacular visuals while minimizing operating costs.


Now that more of us have accepted the big-pipe/small-pump philosophy, many are finding new efficiencies by giving the same sort of scrutiny to the way whole circulation systems work.

My colleague and Genesis 3 co-founder Skip Phillips has learned, for example, that it pays to upsize the system plumbing beyond the sizes that might seem to be dictated by fittings on filters and heater manifolds: Despite the fact that it seems counterintuitive, doing so still adds to energy efficiency even when those fittings on a heater or a filter will accommodate plumbing no larger than two inches. Even though the flow is constricted as it enters the bottleneck, overall efficiency is still improved.

Skip is also at the cutting edge when it comes to application of advances in pump technology and the variable-speed drives that are now finding wide application in ways that greatly enhance pump and hydraulic efficiency. The same can be said of proper use of two- or three-speed pumps that enable systems to operate at different flow rates depending on system demands.

With these technologies, Skip is quick to point out that advancements in pumps do not relieve the watershaper of a responsibility to pair proper equipment with properly sized plumbing: The same hydraulic principles still apply, and these technologies are powerful support for sound hydraulic practices rather than their replacement.

This leads me to a final topic I’d like to raise, this one having to do with heating.

It’s no secret that, depending on circumstances, heating pool and spa water can be the most expensive detail of system operation. It takes a lot of energy to heat even a relatively small body of water – and depending on how that heat is generated and maintained, the differences in costs and energy usage can be dramatic.

For many years now, manufacturers have provided our industry with various high-efficiency heaters, heat pumps and solar heating units that all can be deployed to dramatically reduce heating costs, and thermal covers have a role here, too. But my sense is that there’s more to be achieved on this front by people willing to step outside the box of conventional thinking.

Recently, for example, I’ve been involved in developing systems that use geothermal energy to heat water and in projects that call for integrating watershape systems into overall residential- and commercial-property heating/air-conditioning systems. These sorts of solutions are not going to be right for every job; my point is that there are technologies out there that enable us to think in new ways – and it’s probably time to get aggressive in seeking them out and learning to apply them.

Along these lines, I’ve always been intrigued by the possibility of insulating watershape shells to save on heating costs. As you should know, concrete is not, depending on thickness and density, always the best insulator, and the heat of expensively warmed water is often rapidly transferred to the soil or air surrounding a shell. For years now, Mark Urban has advocated the use of materials to insulate plumbing and indeed entire vessels, and maybe it’s an idea whose time has come.

(Mark is also a proponent of “flow reversal,” a system in which water skimmed from the pool’s surface is heated and then added back to a pool via its main drain, which allows the warmed water to rise and heat a pool more efficiently.)

Just how important any of these concepts will be in the future is a big question mark. One thing, however, is certain: The concepts of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship are becoming more and more important to society at large, and at some point that system of concerns will become part of the world of watershaping as well. As I see it, this spells “opportunity” in big, bright letters.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 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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