Bob Foutz has been servicing swimming pools in Southern California for 21 years. He has a bold message for many of the contractors who built the pools on his route.

“If I ever meet any of them, I will punch them right in the nose,” he laughs. He quickly follows with, “I’m just joking — sort of.”

Foutz, owner of Purity Pool Service in Huntington Beach, Calif., is venting his frustration. The design and configuration of many of the equipment pads he’s worked on over the past two decades are cramped, improperly plumbed and aesthetically displeasing.

A badly constructed pool equipment pad can lead to a lot more than a service technician’s wrath. It can also waste energy, fail to circulate and mix the water and chemicals properly, and create hazardous conditions. This may result in accidents ranging from sprained ankles to explosions.

“I just got a new customer, and he has six pumps in a row with no walkway,” says Bob Blade, owner of Aloha Pool & Spa, a service company in Pacific Grove, Calif. “You have to step over them, and you could easily twist your foot. It’s a hazard.”

Today, with many service firms taking on renovation work, technicians have more say in how an equipment pad is configured. Whether you’re building one from scratch, or attempting to renovate it, your equipment pad should be set up and plumbed to be sane, safe and efficient.

The best-laid plan

Industry veterans say the golden rule of plumbing an equipment pad is to create a layout that makes the most sense. “You have to know how [the plumbing from the pool] will line up with the pump, filter and heater, valve placements and so forth,” says Steve Gutai, product manager of pumps, filters, valves and waterfeatures at Jandy in Petaluma, Calif.

“The dimensions have to be right,” adds Gutai, who also is a member of the APSP Technical Council.

Before you begin any work on the project, Gutai suggests creating a sketch or drawing of the equipment pad’s layout. Indicate where each piece of equipment will be placed, allowing for the proper dimensions. Everything should be accessible and have the appropriate clearance. (For more information on designing a pump room, see "An Inside Job.")

Clearance is important, especially for the heater and electrical panel. For example, you don’t want to place a heater near a window. State and local codes, along with manufacturer recommendations, usually spell out clearance requirements. Make sure you understand them before you begin. Check with your local building inspectors.

Another factor in setting up the equipment pad is to figure out the location of the utilities. Where are the electrical panel and gas meter? Second, where is the line of sight for the equipment? Can the customers see it? Do they want to see it?

The last consideration is sound: Avoid placing an equipment pad too close to concrete walls, where pump noises will echo all over the neighborhood. “Thankfully, the current trend is toward quieter equipment,” Gutai says. “[Noise] will always be an issue, but manufacturers are striving for [quieter equipment] because backyards are getting smaller.”

Keep in mind, the farther away the pump is from the pool, the more the size of the pipe becomes critical. Anything beyond 50 feet will increase the pipe by one size. The pipe dimensions also hinge on those of the actual pool (in gallons) and how quickly you need to turn the water over. This will determine the flow rate.

State and local codes often dictate flow rates (usually 6 to 8 feet per second for the suction side and 8 to 10 feet per second on the discharge side). By knowing the line velocity, you can consult a friction flow chart. This will show you the pipe size required.

From your sketch of the pad, match the pipes coming from the pool to the proper piece of equipment or valve. You don’t want the pipe that’s supposed to attach to the pump to go in front of the heater.

“Too much plumbing and you will lose flow rate,” says Scott Houseman, vice president of Leisure Time Pool Service & Repair in Orangevale, Calif. “You won’t mix the chemicals and the circulation suffers, but mostly it just makes it too complicated. You don’t want to go through a maze of plumbing to figure out where everything is going.”

Some pools are simple: The plumbing comes from the vessel to the pump, passes through the filter and maybe a heater, and then makes its way back to the pool. However, today’s vessels often are far more complex, with pool/spa combinations, waterfeatures, automatic cleaners and other new technology.

Chances are, the equipment pad will need valves. They include:

  • Diverter valves.
  • They divert water from one branch of the plumbing to another, such as in pool/spa combinations.

  • Isolation valves.
  • These valves help isolate a piece of equipment for service or throttle back flow to create pressure. For example, if a pump is experiencing cavitation, you can slow the water down and reduce the problem by creating back pressure.

  • Check valves.
  • They assure that the water travels in one direction. In a pool with an elevated spa, the check valve will keep the water from rolling down hill and back siphoning. This would create a situation where water drains from the spa.

  • Around the pad
  • The three basic components found on a pool equipment pad are the pump, filter and heater. They should be plumbed in this same order. When setting up the pad, experts say there are a few guidelines that you should adhere to whenever possible:

  • Don’t place the plumbing higher than the pump.
  • Sometimes subcontractors will raise the plumbing so that pool owners don’t need to bend over too far to rotate valves. With the advent of automated motorized valves, this is no longer necessary.

  • Do not put a 90-degree elbow (or any fitting) directly on the suction side of the pump.
  • If there’s a valve that must be connected to the pump, the general rule is “four times the pipe diameter straight length into the pump,” Gutai says. In other words, if you’re using 3-inch pipe, you want 12 inches of straight-length pipe to run from the valve to the pump. This will reduce the resistance of the flow going into the suction port.

  • Install check valves on the suction side of the pump at a higher level.
  • This holds water in the pump trap and makes it easier to prime.

  • When the pump is located below the pool’s water level, it’s crucial to use an isolation valve.
  • This valve will shut off the water if you need to work on the pump. If there is no valve to isolate the pump, gravity will let the water pour out and nearly drain the pool.

  • Make sure there’s plenty of room around the pad to service the filter.
  • You should take note of the type of filter and its backwashing capabilities. Is it hard-plumbed to a p-trap? Do you have the ability to get into the filter and work on the components?

    Does the area have proper drainage? An outdoor pad should have drains, while an indoor one needs a way for the water to release as well. A sump pump also can be used.

    “Overhead clearance is important, too,” Blade notes. “I have one where the staircase goes over the equipment. It’s got a 72-square-foot DE filter, the tallest of its kind, and it’s impossible to get in there to work on it.

    “I used to work on submarines and they were pretty tight,” he adds. “But I’ve seen some pump rooms that were worse. People need to remember that a good equipment pad is comfortable to work in and around, and it’s safe.”

  • Heaters need to have proper air ventilation and exhaustion.
  • For indoor equipment pads, this is crucial. But it’s important for outdoor heaters as well.

    “I have seen heaters outdoors with not enough air going into the bottom of the heater or the heater vent,” Gutai says. “They are not adhering to the proper clearances.”

    Pad of the future

    As our experts have already pointed out, today’s pools are far more complex than in days gone by. In the 21st century, they are more likely to feature state-of-the-art sanitizing technology, such as salt-chlorine generators, ozonators and ionizers.

    But where do these devices fit into the equipment pad configuration? “With all of these add-ons, they should be the last piece of equipment [on the pad],” says Mike Lucas, national training manager for Jandy, who teaches classes on circulation and hydraulics at trade shows nationwide.

    Lucas offers the following tips when plumbing these devices into the pool’s circulation system:

  • The cell for the salt-chlorine generator should be as far downstream as possible from the pump and heater.
  • In the process of creating the chlorine, the cell produces hydrogen gas. “If it builds up in an area around a heater with a pilot light or a pump that throws sparks, it could cause an explosion,” Lucas says.

  • Ozonators should be kept away from the other traditional equipment.
  • The gas can affect O-rings found in the plumbing.

  • Add a check valve after the heater and before the chlorine generator cell.
  • This will prevent water from back-feeding into the heater. Even if the equipment pad you’re laying out has none of these special technologies, veteran service techs say you should think about the future.

    “Plan for new technology,” Houseman says. “You should leave some room for possible retrofits down the road.”

    Placement of the components and how they are plumbed together is important. However, Lucas notes that the key to a successful, efficient circulation system and equipment pad design boils down to the pump’s motor and pipe size. “The keys are bigger pipes and smaller pumps,” he says. “I used to see a lot of 11/2-inch pipes with 3-horsepower pumps. They would be noisy and not able to pull the water.

    “Today, we are seeing 2- to 21/2-inch pipe with 3/4- to 11/2-horsepower pump motors,” he adds. “The larger pipe creates less resistance.”