Photo by Nick Orabovic

A San Francisco Bay-area builder learned that sometimes it’s not enough to not do anything wrong.

On an October morning, a plaster subcontractor was performing an acid wash after applying a pebble finish, when the home was overrun with officials.

“I think five different cities’ police and fire departments responded,” said Todd Hendrickson, owner/president of Aquascape, the Petaluma, Calif., pool builder that had hired the plasterer.

As it turns out, a neighbor who hadn’t been pleased at having to hear the construction process had called the police. “They saw this cloud, a kind of fog, hovering above the backyard,” Hendrickson said.

The air had been still that day, so when the plasterer poured the acid into the pool, the normal vapor that can be seen in the muriatic acid bottle failed to dissipate. It hung over the pool. “A ‘cloud’ is what the newspaper [called it], but it’s not really a cloud,” Hendrickson said. “It was just a mist hovering in the pool.”

As Hendrickson, his foreman and the plasterer quickly learned, officials don’t necessarily understand what takes place when chemicals are handled near a pool. Aquascape’s foreman, who was on site overseeing the project, tried to explain what was taking place, but authorities weren’t taking any chances. They required neighbors within an approximately six-block radius to stay inside, and they closed a school about ¼ mile from the home.

“[It was] basically 4 gallons of acid and probably 50 gallons of water in the bottom of the pool, and [they] made everybody leave,” Hendrickson said.

On the scene, officials threatened the pool firm with large fines. Hendrickson hasn’t heard about levies yet, but he is being required to do at least two things — put in place a plan of action in case a similar situation happens in the future, and notify the city every time his company will be performing an acid wash. “We have to call the city, the sanitary district and the fire department,” Hendrickson said. “So if somebody calls in, [the government] can just say, ‘Oh it’s a standard procedure.’”

In addition to making these changes, Hendrickson’s plasterer will be using a new acid, on the advice of the pebble producer. “Until we get this resolved, we are going to use this apparently more expensive, low-vapor acid,” Hendrickson said.

And the plasterer will be watching weather conditions and monitoring the process, adjusting if vapors aren’t moving. “We would have them stop or space out [the process] so it had a chance to dissipate, do it a little slower,” Hendrickson said.

He also learned that in situations like this, it’s good to be ahead of the press. Luckily, when the local paper called about the story, he was there to answer questions. Because so many parties had provided secondhand information about the incident, the reporter had received quite a few inaccurate details. Hendrickson made sure to set the reporter straight.

“I was 100 percent honest,” he said. “I told them the practice and how people in the pool industry do this daily ... that the acid is sold in all the local markets. I just told them the straight-up story ... exactly what happened. ”

The paper covers his primary market, so he was grateful for the chance to provide the information. He learned a lesson in case something similar ever happens again. “It would almost be good to contact [the press] yourself, just to get your side in,” he said. “Because there’s always more than one side to a story.”