With new-pool orders at a near standstill, the renovation bandwagon is becoming crowded.
But don’t jump on too fast. Any renovation project means
dealing with a product that was originally built by someone else,
and the pool is only as good as their workmanship. In addition, the
passage of time can cause a multitude of other, unrelated
“You definitely have to be more on your toes with
renovation, because you can potentially have more problems,”
says Jeff Kearns, president of Wildwood Aquatech
Pools in Fresno, Calif. “I’ve noticed very good
pool builders getting into renovations, and they can get in
trouble, at least for the first few.”
There are a number of key areas that must be carefully checked
before bidding on any renovation job. Be sure to examine the
pool’s structural condition, plumbing, electrical system and
interior finish. Here, renovation experts discuss exactly where to
look to help anticipate potential pitfalls.
The underlying structure of a pool functions like a skeleton, and
if the bones are too weak, the vessel and surrounding deck may not
be viable. Be sure to spend the necessary time carefully checking
for structural problems. Here is where attention should be
The hazard: Without proper support from the earth, a pool can
shift and crack. This is particularly important if you’re
going to add a spa or waterfeature.
How to find out: Unfortunately, there’s no
completely reliable way to confirm soil conditions without digging.
That said, obtain as much information as possible from the
customer, including a copy of surveys. If you’re doing
demolition work on the structure, visually check to see if you
detect two distinct types of soil, such as in a cut-fill
Needed repair: You may need extra support on the pool,
deck or added features.
If the surveys indicate the site is on problematic soil, or your
own sleuthing suggests differential or expansive soils, consider
consulting a geotechnical engineer. When embarking on major
structural work on a hillside, do the same.
The hazard: Adding spas, waterfalls or other
features to a structure that isn’t strong enough to support
them will result in eventual cracking or other failures.
How to find out: Consult an engineer.
Needed repair: If the existing structure can’t
support the additions, the engineer will explain how to provide
needed support. Specifications may require a footing or suggest a
way to beef up the current structure.
The hazard: The pool may have settled or lifted, a likely
problem if it was left empty for long. If so, your work won’t
be level, and the waterline will appear slanted across the tile.
How to find out: Examine how the waterline sits on the
tile. If it looks higher in one area, then that part of the pool is
lower, and has settled. If the pool has been emptied, check with a
laser or transit level.
Needed repair: If there is no cracking, and the pool
was built several years ago, the structure likely will be fine. On
pools newer than 5 years, observe over time to see if cracking
occurs. If the timeline will allow, monitor the shell through a
complete wet/dry cycle.
More often, this problem is simply cosmetic and can be fixed by
building the low spots up with mortar. You can do this easily if
the pool’s off by an inch or less. More than that, however,
and adjustments may throw the coping out of alignment with the
deck. In that case, you’ll need to redo the deck to the right
elevation, or let it be.
“Then the homeowner has to decide if they want to level
that pool,” says Ron Robertson, president of Robertson
Pools Inc., a Pool & Spas News Top Builder in
Coppell, Texas. “That could be another $2,000 to $4,000 or
Perimeter expansion joints
The hazard: Decades ago, it was common practice to pour
the deck right up to the pool structure (or over it, in the case of
cantilever decking) without a separation. This is a fundamental
construction flaw that can prematurely age a bond beam.
“The deck is expanding horizontally into this vertical
wall of the pool, and the pool loses every time,” says Steve
Toth, owner of Acclaim Pools in The Woodlands, Texas.
With no expansion joint in place, the coping may have dislodged
or the bond beam broken. This is caused by the pressure of the deck
expanding and contracting, and degradation from water entering cracks.
How to find out: Visually check for the expansion joint
where the deck meets the coping. If you see tiles popping off, the
joint’s likely missing or inadequate. Also, look for
horizontal cracks in the tile line, as that could indicate that the
bond beam is breaking in that direction. Larger, 6-by-6-inch tiles
make these cracks easier to see. Smaller tiles can flex with the
bond beam and need to be inspected more closely. Randomly tap tiles
around the pool with a small hammer to see if any feel loose.
Needed repair: It depends on the severity of the
problem. It may be necessary to jackhammer out the damaged area and
redo it. Simply replacing the tile is not adequate, as it will
start dropping off or cracking soon.
The hazard: Cracks that run down the wall could indicate
structural problems, especially if they are wider at the top and
thinner on the bottom.
How to find out: It can be difficult to see pool cracks
through the water, but take a look anyway during the initial
consultation. Also check the coping, since cracks starting there
sometimes continue down the wall. Investigate further after the
pool is emptied, but before it is stripped. Cracks are harder to
detect once the interior finish has been chipped out.
Needed repair: This typically indicates differential
settlement, often from soil issues, says structural engineer Ron
Lacher, president of Pool Engineering in Anaheim, Calif. Hire a
geotechnical or structural engineer to determine the underlying
problem and solution.
Some homeowners don’t want to pay for this and prefer that
the cracks just be repaired. But these solutions are temporary.
“Often when you do crack repair and weld the cracks together,
you make it really strong there,” Kearns says. “But in
a year or two, it might crack next to what you mended. So you have
to be sure you’re addressing the problem first.”
If the homeowners aren’t willing to pay for an engineer,
have them sign a waiver, or consider walking away from the job. If
soils issues continue to hurt the pool, you may be held responsible
as the last contractor on the site.
The hazard: If the original builder hid rebound in the
shell, it has probably deteriorated over time and/or delaminated
from the rest of the concrete or interior surface.
How to find out: Check areas that are popular for
hiding rebound — skimmers, benches, steps, coves and dam
walls. If the pool is empty during your first consultation, tap
around with a small hammer and listen for a hollow sound. If not,
then perform this check after draining.
Needed repair: Rebound means that the area should be
re-shot. “If it’s just made out of rebound, I know that
it’s going to be deteriorated pretty badly,” Toth says.
If this isn’t fixed, your handiwork will be hurt by the
The hazard: Fiberglass coatings may hide a serious problem
“You could almost bet that the pool was [coated with
fiberglass] because it had some structural damage,” Robertson
How to find out: This probably can’t be addressed
until after the bid is approved, since it requires stripping the
coating away. But before the customers sign, warn them that these
finishes are generally used to repair cracks and other problems.
Needed repair: It depends on the severity of the
problem. Repairs can range from epoxy doweling or stapling cracks
to demolishing and reshooting part of the pool.
If the structure of a pool is its skeleton, then the plumbing
serves as the veins and arteries that keep water flowing properly.
Leaking, damaged or unsafe plumbing can cause a multitude of
problems down the road.
The hazard: Leaky pools waste water and can have
How to find out: Perform a pressure test to indicate
underground leaking. To check spa jets, Toth drains the vessel to
below the seats and lets the interior finish dry for about 45
minutes. He then looks around the outlets to see if the finish is
wet there. “If so, it’s probably because they snugged
up the flex pipe too close to the steel,” he says.
Needed repair: In the case of the spa returns, this
could indicate long-term damage to the structure. “It’s
been blowing chlorinated water into the gunite and just eroding
away,” Toth says. The pressure test will warn you of some
plumbing leaks. Robertson’s company offers to perform this
service for an added cost, and leaves it up to the customer to
Damaged or non-PVC plumbing
The hazard: Anything other than PVC pipe likely indicates
a very old pool, or a poorly built new one. Metal plumbing or black
poly pipe don’t hold up as well against chemically treated
How to find out: Check around the equipment. However,
exposed PVC plumbing in the pad could have been added when
equipment was replaced and doesn’t always translate to the
Needed repair: Offer to install PVC for the long-term
durability of the pool. If the customer balks, explain that the
wrong plumbing could cause leaking, and even settling or cracking
over time, as water seeps into the shell and surrounding soil. Be
insistent if you find flex pipe, Toth says, because it
doesn’t hold up as well as rigid. If you find non-PVC pipe,
realize that you have an old pool on your hands and proceed
The hazard: While it’s becoming standard practice to
put two or more skimmers in the pool, past methods often only
called for one. This limits the in-pool water circulation,
hampering the effectiveness of heating and chemicals. In addition,
some pools have old copper skimmers that should be replaced with
the more chemically resistant PVC. If you notice rebound around the
skimmers, you also have a potential problem.
How to find out: Count the skimmers and lift the lids
to make sure everything is made of PVC. Sometimes older, metal
skimmers are concealed with a newer lid.
Necessary repair: Adding a second and even third
skimmer might be necessary, depending on the size of the pool.
Metal skimmers should be replaced. And if you find rebound at the
skimmers, they should be reshot.
When repairing or replacing skimmers, it isn’t enough to
cut out the beam and put a new one in, Toth says. Be sure to dig
out the gunite or shotcrete around the skimmer, cut the rebar that
you need and lap new rebar. You must lap it by 30 times the
diameter of the bars. For instance, if dealing with No. 4 steel,
overlap the old and new by 15 inches — 30 times 1/2 inch.
The hazard: Drain safety has been a predominant topic of
discussion since the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act
was passed in 2007. Without a properly installed drain system,
users could run the risk of entrapment – especially in
How to find out: Look for dual drains. If the pool has
them, make sure the drains are connected. This can be done by
forcing compressed air through the skimmer to see if it bubbles out
both drains, or sending the air into one drain to see if it comes
out the other. If the pool is empty, use water instead of air. Look
at the drain covers to make sure they’re not flat or
Necessary repair: If the pool has a single main drain
system, check state and local codes. You’ll need to
determine, first, whether they apply to renovations and, second,
whether they call for dual drains, a safety-vacuum-release-type
system or both.
An unsafe or out-of-date electrical system can result in injury or
even death. Carefully check a few key areas to make sure everything
is in order.
GFCI’s, grounding and bonding
The hazard: Pools built before the 1960’s
won’t have electrical safety measures in place, since the
National Electrical Code didn’t begin requiring them until
“Old electrical can be very dangerous, so it’s often
one of the first things that you’re bringing up to
code,” Kearns says.
How to find out: If you’re dealing with an older
pool, make sure a qualified electrician sees it.
Needed repair: If any of these safeties are missing or
non-functional, they should be fixed. This can get costly,
particularly if you hadn’t planned to tear up the deck.
It’s important to note that electrical systems must be
updated in some areas for a permit to be issued. Even if the repair
is not required by law, it should be highly recommended for safety
reasons. If the customer refuses, it’s a good idea to have
them sign a waiver.
- General condition of the electrical system
The hazard: Damaged wires, boxes and conduits could fail
in the near future. They could simply be tangled or messy, causing
a potential tripping or snagging hazard.
How to find out: Look at the wires and boxes to make
sure everything is in good shape and properly connected. If digging
up the deck, check all conduits for corrosion.
Needed repair: Replace items that are damaged. Clean up items that are in the way.