When it comes to installing vinyl-liner pools in the winter, a vast number of builders imitate hibernating bears. Their businesses are alive, of course, but they’re cozied up, with minimal activity in their quest to stay warm while the temperatures plummet.
But in East Northport, N.Y., one business has dared over the years to stick its nose outside the enclave. For Paul Como Sr. and the crew of Pool Doctor, winter isn’t a months-long hiatus. It’s normal for them to build eight to 10 pools in December, and another six to eight pools by the end of February.
Building at this time of year presents benefits for all involved. Customers love that their pools will be ready sooner in the season — no waiting in a long construction line come spring. The crew appreciates that it can stay fairly busy year ’round, and that its pay won’t be affected.
And, though the volume of winter pools accounts for just 15 percent of his yearly business, company President Como considers this work a boon for his bottom line.
While winter building is not for everyone, Pool Doctor has come up with a plan that has made it work. It’s a matter of careful scheduling, constant communication, a safety mind-set — and knowing when to say when.
Working with the elements
To be successful at wintertime builds, Pool Doctor has found that good planning is essential, especially because you’re dealing with something as unpredictable as the weather.
“You need to look ahead and have three to five good working days before you can dig and pour the walls,” Como notes. “Once you get past that, if it snows, you have a good jump on it.”
For his crews, “good” working days mean that temperatures are above 35 degrees on average, and are at least 40 degrees when the team advances to back-filling and running utility lines.
It makes sense to schedule overlapping pool installations in the same neighborhood during the high season, and during winter, that strategy is critical. This way, if the weather window starts to close unexpectedly, the firm can run around the block and work two jobs at the same time, Como says.
Paying close attention to weather forecasts also is crucial to staying on top of these cold-weather builds. However, even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate entirely, the firm has found a successful work-around for each step of the construction process.
- Excavation and pouring
- Finish work
The pouring stage demands a frost-free environment, a situation Como has found he can manipulate when the weather isn’t exactly ideal.
When freezing temperatures threaten, the crew places salt hay mulch around the bottom of the hole and walls to stop the frost from penetrating into the ground. Then they cover the hole with a tarp, and at times will even place a kerosene or forced-air heater underneath that protective cover — with proper ventilation, of course.
“Now if it’s going down into the teens, however, this won’t help,” Como acknowledges. In that case, Pool Doctor must live with the delay until the ground is acceptable.
Temperatures need to be more ideal when it comes to plumbing the vessels. If the thermometer drops too much, the crew will wait. Otherwise, the pipes and connections could become compromised.
“We’ll schedule the plumbing for days that are above freezing,” Como says. “And we’ll put heaters alongside where we’re working to make sure the pipes are fine and that the glue doesn’t freeze.”
In a perfect world, the firm waits at least overnight after pouring the vermiculite and concrete to drop in the liner, but in a pinch, the crew has been known to move ahead with this step and do it by midafternoon, when the weather is milder.
Again, it’s the temperatures that dictate the schedule because this is a step that definitely needs to take place in above-40-degree conditions.
“We’ll do this in the middle of the day when the sun is at its warmest,” Como says. “You don’t want to start this one at 5 p.m. when it’s getting dark and cold.”
Como speaks from the experience of a builder who has placed a few liners without waiting for everything to align perfectly. Result: a graveyard of ruined liners.
“I remember one December, I put my foot right through the middle of one while I was trying to maneuver it,” he says. “Vinyl liners are harder to work with in the cold because they don’t stretch where they’re supposed to and are more vulnerable to damage.”
With the ground covered in snow, winter is not the ideal time to add the final hardscape and landscape elements. These finishing touches must wait until the spring thaw.
So the crew uses the extra time to its advantage. During winter builds, the firm takes care to tamp the soil as it backfills. Then, over the next few months, it has the time needed to settle before the crew adds paving and other landscaping touches at the end of April.
The human element
Taking care of the team that braves the winter cold to construct these pools also is key to a successful build.
Many times when his crews have worked under a tarp with kerosene heaters blasting, the temperatures in that hole rise to a cozy 75 degrees. “These guys are taking their jackets off,” Como notes.
But most often, when exposed to the elements, laborers protect themselves with full work suits, gloves and a covering over their ears. When they tackle more intricate tasks, such as installing filters or cutting pipe, the gloves tend to come off — and Como is more than willing to supply heaters in a tented area to give them the manual dexterity they need.
“I can’t change the weather,” Como says. “I can only see what I can do to warm them up a bit.”
Part of their warmth arises from knowing they are still on the clock during the winter. Como pays his employees (subcontractors aren’t part of his business model) the same wages for winter work as spring, summer and fall. “They want the money, and are willing to help out the best ways they can,” he explains.
Due to the more extreme conditions, the firm knows that employees will work a little slower. However, Como has learned from experience that this is a factor of building in the cold, and he doesn’t push them to be more aggressive. After all, safety plays a vital role in the company’s winter work.
The risk of frostbite, slips and falls on patches of ice, and other dangers lurk when it gets colder. But these aren’t the only challenges. Colder temperatures tend to slow decision-making and dull reaction times — not a good combination when crews are climbing on top of trucks and dealing with equipment.
Keeping a balance
Luckily, accidents are few and far between, but they do serve as a reminder that constructing vinyl-liner pools in the winter comes with some real challenges. The pools require more time to build, the crew must take extra safety precautions, and the weather can put a stop to things quickly.
It’s no surprise that with these stop-and-start conditions, Pool Doctor builds far more vinyl-liner pools in the warmer months that offer better profit margins. After all, a job that takes 100 man hours during peak season will require approximately 120 man hours in these more trying conditions.
The firm also ponies up a little more to make sure the sites have adequate heaters, and it requires more people on the payroll per pool. For instance, when putting up forms and walls, Como needs six to eight crew members on hand to ensure they get it done and can move on to the pouring step quickly. Most of the year, he can get by with a three- to four-man team for the entire job.
These builds also necessitate constant communication with homeowners, who naturally need a bit more patience with a January installation than a June dig.
“Working against the elements always takes longer,” Como assures them. “Nothing works right. The machines break down, the men don’t work as fast. And if there’s snow on the ground and it’s hovering around 25 degrees, we aren’t even going to try.”
After years of taking this approach, Como still feels that the payoff is worth the time and effort. For homeowners, the reward is a fully functional swimming pool in early spring.
Como’s benefit is the extra cash flow and a productive crew, a benefit to any business. But he refuses to let greed sway his decision to carefully limit the number of pools his firm builds in the winter.
Going full-out 12 months of the year would have far more serious repercussions, in his experience.
“It’s better to let the crew rest up and take some stress off because for 10 months of the year, they will put in 60 to 70 hours a week,” he explains. “I’d rather not put the effort into killing ourselves in the winter. I’ll take the few pools I can build at a leisurely schedule and say ‘thank you.’”