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Design and Construction

It is worth understanding how a pool or spa came into being; so this chapter is designed to give you a better understanding and knowledge only and not make a pool or spa builder of you. You will find a list of excellent resources to help you taking into consideration, your ground plan, slope and geology, wind and sun conditions, landscaping, home value, and a host of other planning and building aspects.

As a pool owner or a technician or someone buying a home with a pool, or one wanting to get a pool constructed, you will want to recognize good (or bad) construction. This knowledge will help you estimate the maintenance costs, future potential repair expenses, or problems involved in upgrading the pool or spa in question.

Plans and permits

Constructing a new pool must be carefully considered and planned. Consider the location of all underground utilities: Electric/Phone, Natural gas; Septic; Wells; Home foundation drain tiles/land tiles and the flood zone.

When all utilities and underground water systems have been located, your swimming pool can be positioned to the best possible location. Position is determined by land layout, pool size, shape and available swimming pool area.

The architect or pool builder supplies plans and an engineer provide the steel (rebar) schedule based on calculations of soil stability, geology, etc. Then the local building permit is issued when plans and steel schedules are approved. The schedule includes the specifications of thickness, tensile strength, how strong the final product needs to be.

Careful planning should include consideration of backyard access, to heavy equipment. While excavation too these underground utilities should be handled carefully.

Site Preparation and Excavation

Excavating must be well planned and executed. Pre-planning always saves time. Firstly the outline of the pool is marked with stakes and adding 2 feet to each side and end. Mark these outlines with flour or chalk or lime. After the digging line has been marked, the rough excavation starts. The excavator digs according to the plan plus one foot to allow for the thickness of material and plumbing. He digs straight down approximately 3 feet, then slopes the remainder to the bottom. The actual slope and contour of the pool is determined by the rebar sculpting. The excavator also cuts out a 2 cubic foot area for each skimmer and for each light to be installed. He also trenches from the poolside to the equipment area for laying pipe. It should also be the responsibility of the excavator to remove the dirt from the job site, as well as tamp down, compact, and add a layer of gravel to the finished hole. The gravel aids drainage if groundwater is present from below or if leaks occur in the structure.

Dealing with Special Soil Conditions

Usually the plumber lays in his plumbing first then the steel rebar is laid. Skimmers are laid in where the prevailing wind in that area will push debris toward them, if needed. Plumbing must be at least 18 inches below ground and gas lines 12 inches below (unless PVC gas line is used which must be 18 inches below as well).

The plumbing includes the main drain and skimmers, pipes to the equipment area and back to the pool, return outlets, automatic cleaner piping, waterfall lines, a water filler line, or other design requirements. All plumbing is then sealed off and tested under pressure to test for leaks. Some large pools or commercial installations might have water sent back to the bottom of the pool for even distribution of filtered water, chemicals, and heat. Also refer to Plumbing System and Advance Plumbing Systems Sections.

Building a Concrete/Gunite Pool or Spa

The rebar is laid in a crisscross pattern, tied together with heavy wire to create a large, single, mesh bowl and sculpted to the final contour and design of the pool. Generally, rebar is centered 12 inches apart on pool walls and 6 inches apart on the bottom and stress points. The steel man must be sure to closely cut the ends of these ties for long, loose tails that stick up will rust and later show through the gunite and plaster layers.

Heavier steel is often used for the top 12 inches and over the edge, called the bond beam. The bond beam supports the coping and sometimes the edge of the deck, so it must be extra strong. Sometimes the bond beam extends up several feet above the waterline for waterfalls or tile areas. If the job is a vinyl-lined pool, this steel process will instead be the layout of the support structure.

Building a Vinyl Lined Pool or Spa

An important part of pool building is the electric work which should be performed by the licensed electrician. The electrician grounds or bonds the steel (and any other metal within 5 feet of the waters edge). He also adds light fixtures, which must usually be at least 24 inches below the water surface. Pool bonding or grounding is necessary to protect the pool and the homeowner, thus bonding is required on all swimming pools and should be inspected by the local building and zoning. Most electrical lines require a GFCI and all the electric codes are strictly enforced.

Electrical work must be perfect and in accordance to local, state and national codes. For further details refer to Basic Electrical Section.

Installing a Fiberglass Pool or Spa

The exact gunite or shotcrete mix is specified by the engineer based on strength and weight-bearing needs (as you have seen, water weighs a lot!). Often the mix will be five parts sand or gravel to one part cement.

The mixture is shot under pressure with a hose and nozzle from the mixing truck in and around the rebar to create the pool or spa shell, usually 4 to 5 inches thick for walls, 6 inches on the deep end floor, and 1 1 inches for the bond beam. Like spraying water from a garden hose, some waste, splashing, and overspray occurs.

Some of the gunite does not adhere to the rest of the mix and falls away from the surface being sprayed. This waste is called rebound and should be cleaned up and thrown away. Some builders use it to fill in step, love-seat, or other contour areas. This is a poor practice because rebound hardens quickly and when it is used as filler it creates air pockets, which later settle and cause leaks. This is why a large percentage of cracks and leaks are found on or near pool steps. In a vinyl-lined pool, this gunite process will instead be the installation of the panels that form the shell.

Above Ground Pool Installation

Tile is added, usually at the waterline to create an aesthetically pleasing finish and to provide a material at the surface (where oil and scum accumulate) that is not porous and is therefore easier to clean. Sometimes decorative tile patterns or racing lanes are installed to match the tile surface line.

Of course, the entire pool can be tiled. I have serviced several such pools, and although the original cost is high, I can enthusiastically recommend this design. An all-tile pool is strikingly beautiful, holds a pH better than plaster pools, never needs refinishing, and does not stain or etch.

Spa Installation

Rock, brick, or stone brought to the edge of the pool, or in some cases over the edge and below the waterline, create unique designs and natural pond looks. Until a few years ago, rocks were trucked in and cemented in place around the pool. Unfortunately such shipping and installation was very expensive and the bond beam needed extra, costly reinforcement to support the weight.

Since the late 1980s, however, rocks are formed with light rebar or chicken wire sculpting, then covered with a special plaster, concrete, and sand mix colored to look like natural rock. Made on-site, such artificial rock is made to conform exactly to design specifications and is far cheaper and lighter than real rock. Rock, slate, and waterfalls are added using Thoroseal (a waterproof concrete sealer) to set them in place.

The only drawback to these and natural rock is that they are porous and you will soon see unsightly white scale forming at the waterline. Even if you maintain perfect chemistry in the pool, natural evaporation leaves behind any mineral present in the water as scale, which appears as white scum, mostly calcium, around the waterline. Although this can be scrubbed off of nonporous tile, it must be sandblasted off rocks and will reappear in short order. One solution is to keep a constant water level, replacing water as it evaporates so the scale line is hidden under the waterline. Of course, maintaining proper water chemistry balance also reduces scale.

Pool/Spa Finishes and Trims

Coping is the finish work done to the top of the pool wall, usually attached directly to the bond beam. Coping stones are often precast and made of porous material to provide better traction for the wet feet and hands of swimmers entering or leaving the pool.

After the coping is laid on, the deck is poured (or deck brick or stone work is done) up to the edge of the coping, leaving a 1/4 to 1/2 inch gap. The gap, which allows expansion or contraction of the deck and coping materials in hot and cold temperatures, is filled with silicone caulking to keep out water. All of this work should be done before plastering or finish work, because it is usually the messiest procedure. I have seen builders forced to drain and replaster newly finished pools because they completed the pool before the deck work was done, only to find sloppy deck workers scatter the fresh, soft pool plaster with cement, gravel, and stone chips.