Never believe a client who says they’re just looking for a simple touch-up job for their pool. We know that pool renovations are no different than those on an old house. While it may appear that a few tiles are bad here and there, you can’t determine the extent of problems that may exist until you tear a few walls down.

I’m not afraid to do what it takes to make sure a renovation is sound and meets standards — or charge for it. In fact, we tend to be about 50 percent more expensive than the average quote. A lot of homeowners can’t stomach it, so we lose a significant amount of remodeling jobs.

In many ways, the owners of this pool were like many others. When they initially contacted us, they said it was going to be a quick tile and coping job. Their pool cost nearly $65,000 eight years ago, so they couldn’t understand why I would have to redo just about everything on their relatively new pool.

Convincing them of my long-term solution created a sensitive contract situation. However, we ended up turning their initial shock into acceptance when we convinced them we could transform their ordinary pool into a more elegant, inviting waterscape with darker, warmer colors.

Assessing the situation

In my area, we still see some production builders who don’t put perimeter expansion joints around the pool. I’d say 19 out of 20 design their installations this way, so it’s the single biggest problem.

That was the case for this project, and I suspected it had wreaked havoc. The deck buckled in a couple of areas, plus the contractor used a 9-inch brick for coping over a 12-inch bond beam. I said to the homeowners, “I’ll bet the pool is leaking, and you’re replacing water to the tune of at least 2 inches each day.” They responded, “It’s more like 4 or 5 inches. How did you know that?”

I explained that with 9-inch coping, the deck was poured on top of the bond beam. The deck’s buckling meant it was trying to expand horizontally, but couldn’t because it was hitting the pool. Thus, in a contest between a 12-inch bond beam and 8- or 10 feet of deck that wants to expand and contract, the pool always loses. The beam cracks below the waterline, causing the tile to pop off. Water leaks through the bond beam, degrading the concrete.

The unearthing

I didn’t know the condition of the gunite underneath, so I couldn’t estimate exactly what kind of work was needed. To protect everyone, I gave the client two prices: best- and worst-case scenarios. My worst-case price, which is the one they signed, included $1,500 for steel and another $5,000 in gunite work, on a cost basis.

The homeowners decided to also replace the deck, so we tore it out, along with the coping and tile. However, it became evident that this was going to be a massive project as we dug deeper and deeper. We couldn’t find solid gunite for 21/2 feet down in some spots.

The weir wall between the pool and spa had been glass block. It’s a dated look, so we wanted to replace it with a solid wall. We removed the glass and noticed that we couldn’t find solid gunite in the spa. After the jackhammer got past the plaster, it was like digging into butter. The gunite was the consistency of sand.

The entire spa had been built and shaped out of rebound. This was the reason why the clients were probably losing half of the water through the spa.

Shell prescription

We were able to keep approximately 70 percent of the pool shell, but it required extensive work toward the top.

We could tell that because the bond beam width ranged from 7- to 14 inches, the excavation had been poorly done. We had to shoot the transit elevations and bring in an excavator to fine-tune it so that the walls were plumb, leaving room for a consistent bond beam.

The original builder who designed the waterscape didn’t use enough steel. The pool bond beam only had three 1/2-inch bars, which weren’t even contiguous. At the skimmers, it was only a two-bar bond beam, and the spa didn’t have one at all. The dam wall should have had a double curtain, and some of the rebar had completely corroded and rusted out.

We had to put in a brand-new, four-bar bond beam. We tore between 9 inches and 3 feet down, depending on where we found good concrete and steel. When we came across solid gunite, we kept it. It would have added $15,000 to the project to demolish the pool and start from scratch.

We epoxy-dowelled new steel to the sound portion of the shell. That’s costly because we were charged $1.50 each for 500 dowels.

Plumbing fix

The hydraulics were a mess. The pumps were too big for the plumbing. We told the homeowners we could drop from 2hp to 1hp models, which would save them nearly $100 a month. This pleased the clients and earned us some credibility.

The size of the plumbing was adequate, but the configuration wasn’t acceptable for the variable-speed pump we used. I had to create a spa loop from scratch and rebalance the pool’s circulation manifold. The original builder had created a tee, then used progressively larger returns as they moved farther away from it. The returns closest to the tee were 1/2-inch, then 3/4-inch and then 1 inch. They were trying to compensate for the loss in pressure as the water moves away, but you still end up with different flows coming out of each return.

We maintained the manifold, but teed in at two spots on opposite sides. This forms a hydraulically balanced loop, with the water maintaining a constant pressure. Then we could use 1/2-inch returns throughout and achieve consistent output. We added more returns so the water would move quickly enough to keep the pool clean.

We will only remodel a pool if we can bring it up to current standards. This one had a single main drain on the floor, with another on the wall for the feature pump. Neither one had a pot underneath. The builder had installed a 2-inch riser and then placed an anti-vortex cover over the top, so there’s no way the water could slow down to the recommended 6 feet per second.

We gave each pump two drains and placed them 3 feet apart. We put the pots underneath them so water could accumulate and slow down.

A new direction

With so much work required, I suggested we change the pool’s shape and add a little more flair. I had already worked this into the price, so I designed a virtual vanishing edge. We wanted to carry the owners’ view over the pool to the lake in the background.

To do it, we had to remove a couple of obstructions. We lowered the pool’s profile by tearing out some dated-looking, 12-inch raised rear beams that had sheet falls. Then we removed the bushes behind the aquascape, which partitioned it from the backdrop. With more room in the back, we pushed the rear wall of the pool out, and it changed the shape of the vessel.

For the appearance of a vanishing edge, we covered the back bond beam with regular waterline tile rather than coping. We wanted to diminish the look of the beam. We chose a tile that emulates the pebble on the pool, so you can’t tell where one finish ends and the other begins. Originally, we talked about a true vanishing edge, but it would have added another $10,000 to a project that was already in the six figures — even though they had expected to just replace the tile and coping.

Instead of the raised beam and falls, we placed a sun shelf with geysers to add motion. We pride ourselves on creating more timeless looks, which means we like using very classic forms of moving water. In Europe, you’ll see fountains that are centuries old, and they move water with simple head pressure through things such as geysers and fountains.

The original pool had blazing hot pavers, with a base of sand and portland cement. I redid the deck and coping with 21/4-inch, gauged flagstone. The uniform thickness, along with joints that were 3/8-inch wide or less, added to the neoclassic look. We use flagstone a lot on classic and neoclassic pools, but we cut the coping joints straight and perpendicular to the waterline.

Of course, we also ran a perimeter expansion joint all the way around the pool to protect it.