It’s a simple idea — a series of risers that allow you to gradually enter and exit a pool. But steps deserve time and attention to make sure they’re right for the customer. If designed well, the result is a seamless transition from ground to pool.

But if steps are conceived poorly, myriad problems can occur, from a less than desired aesthetic outcome to inconvenience and accidents for bathers.

These guidelines will help you optimize the design of pool steps.

Place steps in a convenient spot.

It’s important to place the steps in the right location because they will be used more than any other area of the pool.

Avoid putting them in direct line with seating areas. Otherwise there will be problems with congestion.

Also, keep steps out of the way of the swim lane — even an undesignated one. If you have a kidney-shaped pool, for instance, lap swimmers will use the longest stretch in the middle of the vessel. Don’t cap that area off with a set of steps.

If the homeowners plan to swim laps regularly, they probably shouldn’t have grand-entry steps running the entire width of the pool.

“It’s difficult to [make a] turn on the steps,” says John Fitzgerald, senior project manager at South Shore Gunite Pool and Spa Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass. “What part of the wall do you touch? Are you touching the step or do you swim over the steps to touch the wall? I try to discourage those.”

Make steps easy to use and see.

Safety is the most important consideration when installing steps. However, it also is the area where most people make mistakes.

Far too often, experts say, designers and builders make step risers too high. Then a person faces an unusually abrupt drop upon entering, and must step way up to get out.

“You see that probably in nine out of 10 pools, old and new,” says Don Goldstone, president of Los Angeles-based Ultimate Water Creations. “I’ve gone in pools that are empty when people are trying to remodel them. I go down them, and they’re just horrible. [The homeowner] says, ‘Yeah, we never liked that.’ You have to be a basketball player to use these steps.”

It’s easy to understand why: For every step you include, that’s more floor space eaten up as the staircase reaches farther into the shallow end. But there needs to be a balance. Remember that the steps also can be used for bench space for children to play. “They’re used for more things than just walking up and down,” Goldstone says.

ANSI/NSPI code states the risers should stand 12 inches at most. This will allow you to get by with three steps in a 3-foot-deep shallow end.

But it’s not really natural to step up that high. We’re programmed to step up about 71/2 inches at a time in homes or backyards. That’s why some professionals like shorter risers. Some of these experts prefer to work within the 8- to 10-inch range. When small children are involved, they’ll try to make the risers 8 inches tall.

If pool or spa users have a tough time keeping their balance, whether because of age, illness or even obesity, you may want the steps as short as 6 inches. “Anything less than 6 inches in drop is abnormal,” says Al Rizzo, owner of Rizzo Pools in Newington, Conn. “When you start getting 2-, 3- or 4-inch drop, that’s actually a hazard” because we’re not programmed to step in such tiny increments.

The code states that the tread, or surface of the step, must be at least 10 inches wide from front to back. Rizzo finds 12 inches more comfortable, especially for those unsteady on their feet.

Try to make the top step even wider. This does two things: It compensates for space that’s lost when a cantilever coping overhangs the step. And it also helps the swimmer feel steadier when changing venues from deck to pool. “We typically do an 18-inch-wide top step, and 12-inch treads for the rest,” Fitzgerald says.

Be especially aware of this in corners, where top steps tend to be as small as 1 foot wide. “So you’re teetering on the edge of this really narrow thing,” Goldstone says.

If you want the steps to also function as benches, start with 12-inch treads and go up from there. “It could be 15- to 18 inches and provide plenty of room,” says Mark Allison, president of Allison Construction in Goodlettsville, Tenn. “We’ve done some as wide as 2 feet.”

Finally, try to use tile trim to make the steps easy to see. Sometimes a line of tiles across a step will ruin the appearance. If this is the case, consider spacing individual tiles a few inches apart and setting them on the diagonal. This will be less obtrusive but still provide a visual cue.

Avoid cookie-cutter solutions.

Even the best steps probably won’t sell a pool, but spend a few minutes anyway during the consultation process to discuss what the customer needs.

“The biggest mistake [when it comes to steps] is the lack of planning and understanding how [clients] want to utilize the pool, especially for first-time pool owners,” Allison says.

Do the clients need an extra seating area? If, for some reason, a sun shelf won’t work, consider converting one of the steps into a bench. Are any of the homeowners handicapped or unsteady on their feet? Then they may need shorter-than-normal risers and wider treads.

If a client wants a large seating area, you might offer the option of grand-entry steps. On a recent commercial pool, Allison did this and created even more seating area by wrapping the steps around each corner for a few feet. This also allowed users to enjoy various views, since they could sit facing either the end of the pool or its side.

As an additional option, Rizzo, sometimes adds hydrotherapy jets in the steps.

“The step can become like a spa in a small area,” he says. “With the touch of a button on your computer system, they can kick on a booster pump, and they can be sitting on a bench and get some nice relaxation from the turbulent water.”

Watch for circulation on curves and corners.

The outline of the steps can become fairly intricate when wrapped around an attached spa or free-form area. If the steps themselves are made in curvilinear shapes, these configurations can create tight corners.

“They will collect dirt, and that’ll be the first place you see algae show up,” says Bob Tomlinson, president of Tomlinson and Associates in Burley, Idaho. “I’m sure if you watched the water flow, you’ll see no water really going back in there.”

To ensure some circulation in those tight spots, place a return or two. This way, the water won’t sit completely stagnant.

Balance nature with safety on artificial-rock steps.

In nature, there’s no such thing as a perfectly placed stairway that rises up a consistent 8 or so inches at a time, with uniform treads at each level.

But it’s not safe to just veer from 6- to 12-inch risers. The challenge is to make the steps usable, but looking natural.

To do this, Goldstone makes sure his risers don’t vary by more than 2 inches from one step to another.

“I’ve actually had to have my guys chisel out or change a step here or there because they got a little overboard with their design,” Goldstone says. “You have to be careful not to make them too rough or irregular because it would be a tripping hazard. It’s still obviously a staircase, but it looks a lot more natural.”

The treads can vary more in width. And rather than handrails, Goldstone will try to place artificial rock that’s tall enough to use as a hand-hold. He uses this technique for in-pool and exterior steps.


  • Construction Tips

Additional tips on how to build steps.


  • Sun Shelves

How to construct a “step on steroids.”