Bryan Chrissan is so familiar with the work of one builder that he brings a special checklist whenever he handles start-ups for the company’s commercial pools.
“I already know what to look for because I know what the issues are going to be,” says the owner of Clear Valley Pool & Spa in Temecula, Calif. “It’s not [about] building what you’re required to do, but rather what [the pool] is being used for.”
These are hardly isolated incidents. Service technicians have plenty to gripe about when the culprit is shoddy workmanship. What’s worse, in many cases the effects are permanent.
A poorly designed pool can be hard on equipment, as well as costly to the homeowner and the technician. Often, there are draining and maintenance headaches and nightmare cleanup scenarios.
When building pools, many contractors don’t think about the techs who will have to maintain them. Here are some key areas where errors occur.
Not surprisingly, the equipment pad is a frequent source of frustration.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see [builders] make is around the equipment pad,” says Mike Durham, owner of Elite Pool Service in Collierville, Tenn. “They cram as much as they can on the smallest pad and don’t give you any room to … do any particular service work.”
Working in this confined area can be precarious. Older pumps that can’t be removed with unions are tough to service when they’re placed within a few inches of the house, Durham notes. Motor replacement can be long and arduous on such installations.
“They just don’t think about the maintenance,” laments Nelson Silveria, owner of Blue Island Pool Service in Gilbert, Ariz.
Heater access poses another potential problem. Generally, you’ll need at least 18 inches of space in front of a heater to service it properly. However, builders occasionally place the heater just in front of a pipe that’s protruding from the ground.
“You can’t pull the burner tray out of the heater without [disconnecting the unit] from all the gas and water connections, and then moving it aside,” notes Clint Combs, owner of Technical Pool Repair in Ontario, Calif.
Often, the piping itself stands in the way. Multiport valves on filters, for instance, require considerable amounts of piping, says Jason Bonser, owner of The Water Connection in North Richland Hills, Texas.
“The device causes a whole lot of change in angles and creates a ton of space needs,” he says. “Hydraulically, you have issues with flow through all those [angles]. It’s a plumbing nightmare.”
Filter cleanings are among the most common duties of the tech, and inadequate space can make the task significantly more difficult. Additionally, the booster pump, when placed under such piping, can be extremely hard to reach.
An inadequately designed pool also can affect equipment. A noisy pump or badly installed salt-chlorine generator can create problems for the homeowner and add to monthly energy bills.
Oversized pumps are a fairly common culprit.
“I run into quite a few oversized pumps, and it’s hard to convince the customer that by downsizing the pump, they’ll actually get better circulation,” Combs says. “They paid for a bigger one, but all the [extra] energy is being used up on friction, and the pump is cavitating.”
The energy costs are noteworthy, but in addition, a too-large pump can be noisy and wear out the motor faster.
Another issue is booster pumps for waterfeatures. Rather than using the pool’s main filter pump, a builder may install a separate booster pump for the waterfeature that’s often oversized for the amount of flow needed.
“They put a throttle valve on a [booster] pump so … it’s causing [it] to deadhead,” Silveria says. “It’s really loud and hard on the pump.”
Also, watch for improperly installed booster pumps with salt-chlorine generators. If the pump is placed directly after the chlorinator, the seal tends to wear much faster because of effervescence from the salt.
In turn, salt chlorinators can be susceptible to accelerated wear because of poor installation.
“Almost nowhere are [salt-chlorine generators] plumbed with the proper flow in and out of them,” Bonser observes.
Most manufacturers call for five times the pipe diameter to extend from the inlet and outlet of a salt-chlorine generator. For pools with 1.5- or 2-inch plumbing, this means builders should provide 8- to 10 inches of straight pipe on each side of the unit.
More often than not, Bonser sees 90s coming directly out of the generator. This creates vortexes and air bubbles, causing additional wear.
“The more turbulence in the flow, the more air bubbles are cavitated out — and that will cause the life of the cell to decrease,” Bonser says.
On pool and spa combinations, many salt cells are plumbed so the water returns to the pool and spa rather than the pool-only leg, he adds. If the chlorination is correctly calibrated for the pool, the spa will become superchlorinated.
Even controllers are subject to poor installation.
“On about every [salt generator system] I see, the ambient air temperature is mounted to the red brick on the house,” says Lyle McManus, owner of Professional Pool Inspections in The Woodlands, Texas. “In summertime, the brick is soaking up [the sun’s rays] and [the gauge] is reading 123 degrees.”
Making a mess
Perhaps most exasperating, design slip-ups can cause a good, old-fashioned mess. Foremost among the offenders is incorrect drainage design, a problem that Durham often sees around retaining walls.
“You’ve got to have the right piping and gravel behind the wall because once you get a heavy downpour of rain, that body of water has got to go somewhere,” he says. “Sometimes it actually overflows the landscaping and mulch, and everything flows right over into the pool.”
After a rainstorm, it’s these pools that require extensive cleanup.
Similarly, many city codes require that filters be drained into a deep-fill trap during winterization, Durham says.
“It needs to go in an area that doesn’t flood the yard or the equipment pad,” he adds.
Yet some builders leave the traps and surge tanks off the pool, substituting a three-way valve off the pump instead. Result: Whenever Durham has to lower the level of the pool, water spills outs onto the equipment pad and deck.
Water also may leak from the pool onto the deck if the pump is placed below the water level without an isolation valve. If the pump has to be serviced, water will spill out from the inlet-side plumbing unless the appropriate valve is installed.
Though many techs are accustomed to manual vacuuming, pools with in-floor cleaning systems nonetheless should make the job easier. This is not always the case.
“Ninety-five percent [of pop-up cleaning systems] aren’t designed properly,” says Josh Wiles, owner of Arizona Pool Pros in Mesa. “They either have a pump that is too small … or they don’t have enough pop-ups in the pool.”
Heads that are more than 8 feet apart can leave uncovered areas on the pool floor. The configuration also can be a problem because designing systems around steps often is tricky, too. The system must be carefully constructed as well to prevent dust from settling and collecting in these areas.