You’re not imagining things: The Great American Backyard is shrinking.
In their zeal to maximize available land, developers are packing homes into parcels so tight that it’s chocking out traditional access points for fiberglass pools, such as the side yard. And some homes are so tall and close to each other that crane operators are turning the jobs down.
This trend is causing real logistical problems for dealers. And yet homeowners are demanding fiberglass pools like never before.
What are installers to do?
Putting a fiberglass pool in a backyard these days can require a complicated Rube Goldbergian process of ropes, pulleys and tricky exchanges between heavy equipment.
These endeavors can be harrowing. Dealers describe situations where they’ve narrowly escaped property damage and personal injury in their efforts to please customers.
Here are four examples when installers had to take unconventional routes on the way to delivering their customers’ dream pools.
You could bet that Lance David breathed a sigh of relief when the subcontractor operating the compact Bobcat hauled out the last bit of earth from the backyard.
The president of David Pool and Spa, a Viking dealer serving the oil-rich Midland/Odessa area of Texas, was overseeing the installation of a pool in yet another development defined by big homes and little lots. To allow access into the backyard, the fence separating the customer’s home from the neighbor’s was removed, revealing a difficult obstacle — the neighbor’s HVAC system jutting from the side of their house.
The obtrusion wouldn’t allow for anything larger than a small Bobcat excavator to pass through. Heavier equipment such as a backhoe would have to sit this one out.
Piloting through the narrow passage was like threading a needle. With just 4-½ feet between the client’s home on one side and the HVAC unit on the other, the 4-foot-wide excavator had little margin for error. Had the Bobcat veered even slightly to the right or left, it would have scratched the home’s brick exterior or damaged the neighbor’s appliance.
It was a tightrope-walk of a job.
To ensure that the little loader stayed on the straight and narrow, the crew dug a pair of shallow, parallel trenches, which served as tracks for the wheels. With each pass between the front- and backyard, the Bobcat would settle further into the groove, reducing — but not eliminating — the risk of collision.
Imagine playing the classic board game Operation, only with heavy equipment and higher stakes.
“It was a tremendous amount of difficulty,” David says. “Ultimately, the [excavation crew] are just hired to do a job, so if they mess up, blame the pool builder.”
More challenges awaited in the backyard. The tink, tink, tink sound against their shovels suggested they had encountered yet another obstacle: caliche rock.
The sedimentary rock isn’t uncommon in this part of Texas.
“Sometimes you get lucky and hit loose caliche,” Lance says. “Sometimes it’s a boulder. Sometimes it’s the massive vein that’s rolling through the area.”
This was part of a massive vein.
Once again, it would be up to the Little Bobcat That Could. The crews replaced its bucket with a concrete breaker attachment, which wasn’t much bigger than a common jackhammer. The excavation team worked into the night to bust up the hardpan. They were further inconvenienced with having to change out the hammer with the bucket every time they had to dig out the broken bits of rock.
Ultimately, a hole was dug and a pretty fiberglass pool was craned in and installed — between a rock and a hard place.
The belt way
The spaces between some homes aren’t even wide enough for a wheel barrow. The narrowest gap Vince Altieri ever encountered was 20 inches.
“We were getting a lot of jobs where not even the smallest buggy to pull out dirt could get into these restricted areas,” says Altieri, owner of Multibobcat Services, installer of Leisure Pools throughout the greater Toronto area.
For these jobs, Altieri depends on an industrial conveyor belt system that swiftly carries out dirt and brings gravel in. It’s the ideal solution for installing fiberglass pools behind townhomes with little breathing room between neighbors.
This approach allows his team to work efficiently in tight quarters. And it’s cleaner. Altieri once ran the plug-in conveyor system straight through a home, sending dozens of cubic yards of dirt out the front door. The home was newly constructed and hadn’t yet been finished on the inside. What little dirt spilled was easily swept up.
Conveyor belts are also less intrusive. When heavy equipment trundles between homes, side yards are destroyed and even neighbors’ backyards can become collateral damage. Altieri solves this by craning a Bobcat into the backyard. Stationed there, it dumps dirt onto a series of conveyor belts that link together like sausages. The belts wind around the house, transporting the dirt to an excavator out front.
It’s a slick operation, Altieri says. Little muss, little fuss.
Even where access isn’t an issue, some customers will pay extra to have the work done conveyor style. “It’s no headaches and stress free,” Altieri says.
The neighbor called it impossible. Mark Peditto was happy to prove him wrong.
Peditto and Michael Neri, president and vice president, respectively, of Artistic Pools, orchestrated one of the trickiest installations of their career when they squeezed a 15-foot-wide, 34-foot-long pool through a space about as wide as the pool was deep.
Because the houses were too tall and the yard too far back, craning the pool over was out of the question. So the Cinnaminson, N.J. builder planned to use an excavator to carry the pool through the side yard. The problem? The chimney. The excavator couldn’t fit between it and the house next door.
This would be a job for two excavators — one large and one small.
The large one, holding the pool on its side by a series of straps around the bucket, transported it to the midway point of the side yard, where it met its smaller counterpart, bucket to bucket. From there, the team rigged the dangling pool to the bucket of the small excavator in a midair exchange.
“We made sure that, before disengaging from the excavator, that it was securely in place on the lifting hook of the second one,” Peditto explains.
So the pool wouldn’t swing pendulously between two $500,000 homes, crew members dropped its back end onto a series of dollies. This allowed the smaller excavator to pull the pool straight on through to the other side, past the chimney.
“We’ve done pools in tight yards, but that was a pretty innovative way of getting it back there,” Peditto says.
And a funny thing about the neighbor who claimed it couldn’t be done: He was a pool builder.
Sometimes the question is not “How much space is there between houses?” It’s “How big is the elevator?”
Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Pools, in Lakeland, Fla., had a client whose penthouse demanded a fiberglass spa. But installing one on the rooftop of a Miami high-rise would present two major hurdles.
The team considered airlifting it with a helicopter, but there was no way to work around the wind. And a street crane was too expensive, prompting the client to want to bail on the project altogether.
So Sullivan asked: “Do you have a service elevator?”
The building did, but the planned 700-gallon fiberglass spa would need to be carried up in pieces.
Says Sullivan: “A lot of people think, ‘Well, you just saw it in half.’” But the process was a bit more involved than that.
San Juan had to manufacture the spa in three pieces — two for the tub and one for the overflow catch basin — which could be assembled onsite thanks to a series of flanges along the bottom and a rubber seal, which was glassed over.
This wasn’t the last time Sullivan had to use an elevator. After seeing the spa go in place, the client’s neighbor, with whom he shared the roof, got one of his own.