Let’s make a bold declaration: When it comes to high-end, custom waterscapes, it is no longer acceptable to show what some professionals call the “white goods.”
That means no more white plastic hardware to clash with deck and pool materials. On these projects, white lids for skimmers or automatic fills, or white plastic deck drains, should be a thing of the past. In addition, it’s time to move away from un-color-coordinated metallic cover-box lids. Even fittings inside the pool should not distract.
These items break up the fluidity of a flagstone deck or the depth and texture of a colored pebble interior. “When people are paying that kind of money, they don’t want the same thing everybody else has,” says Ken Whitlow, owner of WaterColors, LLC in Lilburn, Ga. “If you’ve got a big, plastic white drain sticking out of the deck and it’s a nice limestone color, they’ll ask, ‘What could we do besides that?’”
In short, unless the pool or deck is white or an extremely light shade, you should see no white plastic anywhere. Here, we’ll discuss ways to eradicate this visual menace once and for all.
• Skimmer/auto-fill lids: In all too many projects, the pinks and tans of an Arizona flagstone deck, or the grays of a bluestone, are harshly interrupted by a stark, white lid.
White skimmer lids are no longer a necessary evil. Builders have other options. On stone decks, Whitlow foregoes the manufactured lid altogether and simply cuts one out of the deck material. “We drill a hole in the center of it and put a little cutout for your finger,” he says. “Sometimes [the lid is] a circle, sometimes they’re square, depending on the shape of the skimmer.”
Products now exist to help create lids of stone or a cementitious material. They essentially provide the frame, and the contractor only needs to pour the cementitious deck material or cut the stone to fit.
If pool builder Jeff Kearns wants to avoid a lid on the deck, he’ll use a front-loading skimmer. “A front-loading skimmer allows the basket to come out in the front versus the top,” says the president of Wildwood Aquatech Pools in Fresno, Calif. “But they carry maybe 30 percent less debris, and sometimes it’s difficult to get the debris out from the front.”
• Deck drains: Whether in round or strip form, these items can wreak the same havoc when not color-matched.
Whitlow tries to avoid interrupting the deck with drains. If he can, he’ll just slant the slab toward grass or a planting bed at the standard slope of 1/8- to 1/4-inch-per-foot.
But if the deck must tilt down toward something vertical, such as a wall or raised planter, Whitlow will create a 1/2- to 3/4-inch slot between the flatwork and the vertical element. Water slides through the opening and into a drain pipe or channel underneath. “You don’t even see it,” he says. “It just looks like a grout joint. And it’s open, so if you want to vacuum it out, you could just stick a narrow-tip [wet/dry] vac in there.”
If he needs a drain in the middle of a stone deck, his crews will cut a grate out of the material. Underneath, they’ll stub up a 4-inch pipe out of a trunk line to receive the water and divert it to its ultimate destination.
Builders also have pre-manufactured options to use when you need a drain in the middle of the deck. Brass units provide an instant upgrade, and colored plastic is available.
• In-pool fittings: White plastic inlets and main-drain covers can prove jarring, especially against darker interior finishes. Thanks to the additional color choices now available, using white is completely unnecessary. Some manufacturers offer a wide variety of colors, including blues, tans, browns, grays and black. Others may only provide white, gray and black units. If that’s the case, Whitlow says, white will work with tan interiors, while gray blends well with green and blue interiors. “Most of the time the blues and greens will fade out to a predominantly gray color anyway,” he says.
Builders can almost completely obscure main drains by installing a new cover that accepts the material used for the pool’s interior. All that’s visible is the thin plastic border.
• Automatic covers: Many of today’s clients won’t tolerate the aesthetic intrusion of a white metallic cover-box lid. At the very least, Whitlow says, builders can powder-coat the box lid to match the deck or coping.
For an even more customized touch, contractors can now create cover-box lids with the same material used on the deck and coping. Cover manufacturers offer a system of brackets and pans that help accomplish this. Pans hold the cut stone or formed-and-poured concrete slabs. The brackets prop the flatwork up above the box. If the cover or box needs maintenance, a service technician just has to lift the pieces up. Don’t make them larger than 2-by-2 feet, however, or they become too heavy for one person to handle.
Some people don’t even want to see the cover’s “leading edge” – that strip of metal at the front of the cover that holds it taut as it sweeps across the pool and back. Typically, when the cover is retracted, the leading edge sits against the dam wall, making it fully visible. To conceal it, some builders will cut a notch across the top of the dam wall. The cover then retracts until the leading edge hits the back of the notch and is securely hidden under the cover-box lid.
Be aware that, unlike many of the upgrades listed above, the hidden cover-box lid will add thousands of dollars to the project cost.
Finally, freeform pools and auto covers can seem like a mismatched pair. For high-end customers, simply laying the straight track strips on the deck may not suffice. Chances are, they won’t like the very obvious parallel lines on either side of the pool.
At minimum, try the method known as the pool-in-a-pool or deck-in-deck. Here, the pool sits in a sunken, rectangular deck that holds the tracks, so the cover can glide over both the pool and lower deck.
For a sizeable markup, the most skilled pool builders can avoid even that much evidence of an automatic cover. Some call this technique the “extreme cantilever.” Installers essentially sandwich a rectangular shelf for the cover between the free-form pool walls below and a deck above, which is cantilevered to mimic the pool’s contours. The pool looks normal, except for the 6- to 9-inch gap that allows the cover to move back and forth. This method does have its drawbacks: It takes meticulous craftsmanship, and falls outside the scope of some contractors.