Cool Pools

Cool Pools
Pools, new or remodeled, are the stars of backyard sanctuaries  By Lis King

Ready to make a splash? You’re not alone. Even in tough times, we can’t resist the lure of personal water wonderlands, says the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. And it isn’t just a swimming pool we want.

More often than not, our backyard investment continues beyond poolside with such amenities as waterfalls, fountains, spas, decks, lush landscaping and outdoor rooms every bit as functional and comfortable as indoor ones.

Emerald Coast pool designers and contractors go even further. They say that the economic situation is actually fostering the interest in converting backyards into personal sanctuaries.

“Staying at home and having a good time with family and friends makes a lot more sense than standing in line at the airport and spending a lot of money for borrowed amenities,” explains Steve Helmer of Helmer Pools in Santa Rosa Beach. “The away-from-home vacation may leave you with good memories, but adding resort features to your own property is an investment that keeps paying off, especially in a great climate and beautiful area like ours,” Helmer says.

Decisions, Decisions

Swimming pools have come a long way from the simple water holes you splashed around in as a kid, so shopping for one is almost as much fun as diving into one on a steamy day, says Barbara Gudgel, marketing director at Cox Pools, located in Destin and Panama City Beach.  

“These days, design choices range from country pond looks to glamorous infinity pools that seem to disappear into the horizon,” she says. “Poolside you can settle for a simple deck or splurge on luxurious, resort-worthy features. And then there’s amazing new technology that can not only heighten a pool’s glamour, but also reduce maintenance and save energy.”

First decide how you’ll use the pool, advise the pros. That’ll determine the size, shape and type of your pool. Will you primarily use the pool for exercise? Cooling off? Family fun? For example, if it’s for exercise, you may want a long, narrow pool for swimming laps, and if you want it to maximize the play area for the kids, consider a shallower pool. The diving board that requires an eight-foot depth is becoming passé anyway, notes Helmer. He tells that he has built quite a few pools that are shallow all around the edges with the deep end in the middle.

“Shallower pools are definitely taking over where family fun is the main objective,” he says. “Family and friends get more involved in water tag, volleyball and other pool games when not-so-good swimmers can participate, too. They’re also favorites with aging boomers, who like water aerobics.”

Second, decide on your backyard theme. As a general rule, freeform pools are perfect for tropical themes, while contemporary designs lean towards geometric symmetry and smooth materials. Traditional pools usually involve straight lines to achieve a more formal look.

“If you have trouble choosing your theme, don’t worry,” says Gudgel. “Professional pool designers know how to create the most harmonious look for your house and yard, using your ideas as a springboard, of course. And they’ll help you figure out how big the pool and deck should be, and where to locate it, factoring in sun exposure, privacy, convenience for serving food and drinks, fencing and all the rest.”

What’s Your Type?

In-ground pools typically come in one of three types: concrete, vinyl and fiberglass, and the vision you have of your pool — its shape, theme and built-in features — may well determine the most suitable construction method.

Concrete pools, often referred to as Gunite pools, are at the top of the price range, averaging between $30,000 and $50,000. They offer the most design flexibility and are the top go-to choice for such gorgeous features as vanishing edges, perimeter overflows, multi-levels and grottos. The cost for elaborate, large-scale projects can escalate into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The interiors of concrete pools also invite creativity, with such possibilities as plaster in colors from white to black, pebble aggregates, polished marble, glass beads and tile. They can also be painted. You might even opt for an underwater mural. Concrete pools can take a while to finish. You might be looking at anywhere from four to 12 weeks before you can plunge in.

Vinyl-lined pools have become very versatile. Now, they can accommodate all sorts of high-end looks, including waterfalls and grottos. They cost between $30,000 and $35,000. Liners come in various colors and patterns, and their smooth surfaces resist algae and are easy to clean. A vinyl-lined pool is quicker to build than a Gunite pool, but the liner has to be replaced every 15 to 20 years.

Fiberglass pools are built with pre-designed molds to form a one-piece shell. Such a variety is available that practically any design is possible, from free-form looks to vanishing-edge pools. Many molds also feature built-ins, including sun shelves and spas. Fiberglass pools cost $25,000 to $40,000 or more.

Pool Remodeling

A new aspect of the backyard spruce-up trend is the remodeling and updating of existing pools.

“It has become big business,” says Hank Hollenbeck of Crystal Pools Corp., located in Fort Walton Beach. “There are so many decades-old pools. You know the ones: turquoise water holes surrounded by stark paving. They look sad compared to today’s freeform luxury pools, with their waterfalls, fountains, underwater lights and more. Well, these old pools can be updated in many ways, with design and with technology.”

Helmer agrees. “Sometimes we rip the whole thing apart and start over,” he says, “and other times we update with new plaster and/or deck, a waterfall, fountain or spa. Either way, one of our remodeled pools is good for another 20 years.”

Terri Ruffini, a Niceville homeowner, says his backyard proves that pool remodeling works. Recently, the Helmer crew converted his old vinyl liner pool to a Gunite version. The 20 feet by 40 feet pool now has steps in the shallow end, a Jacuzzi and a waterfall.

 “It was an exciting transformation,” says Ruffini. “I enjoyed watching the crew perform its magic.” He laughs and adds, “That includes Steve’s wife Liz. She’s a master mason. I’ve never before encountered a lady mason. And I’m ecstatic over my new pool.”

Design Makeovers

This is not to say that making over one of those old rectangular pools is easy. The pros warn against simply bringing in a bunch of rocks in an attempt to give it that “natural” look. It’ll never succeed, they say.

However, there are many tasteful things you can do to upgrade such a pool, according to Gudgel and Hollenbeck. For example, both feel that new decking can be a terrific facelift. Choices include pavers, granite and quartzite. The latter is becoming especially popular because it’s extremely durable, resists stains and doesn’t reflect heat.

“Then you could change the coping, using tile or stone,” says Hollenbeck. “Also pay attention to such details as decorative tile trim and dramatic underwater lighting. I love adding fiber optic lighting to the pool perimeter. LED lights, too, can put on a fantastic pool show of changing colors.”

For the pool itself, designers and contractors rave about new finishes. One of them is an aggregate plaster, which has a lot of texture, lasts two to three times longer than old-fashioned finishes, and comes in many colors. The classic plaster color is white, which gives the pool a blue tint while tan and beige tend to add a tropical look.

Is the garden around the pool old and overgrown? If so, get a landscape designer to help you decide what plant materials are worth keeping and which ones to replace. Some pool companies, such as Cox, will do everything, the pool, the deck, the outdoor kitchen, the fencing and the landscaping. “We call it the Cox Complete,” tells Gudgel.

Functional Facelifts

Technology should be part of any pool makeover, says every pool builder and remodeler.

“It may not sound as sexy as waterfalls or a pool bottom studded with LED lights,” says Ryan Eiland of America’s Swimming Pool Company (ASP) in Destin. “But wait till you experience the difference it makes when you go swimming, plus it’ll save lots of energy and maintenance.”

Gone are the days of sore, red eyes and faded bathing suits from chlorine.

He’s excited about ozone generators, which reduce the need for as much as 90 percent of chemicals, and a cartridge called Nature 2 that uses elemental minerals to inhibit bacteria growth and eliminate contaminants.

Going Green

Eiland is an advocate of making pool systems more eco-friendly and has suggestions for a “greener” pool.

Switching from a one- or two-speed pool pump to a variable-speed model that runs on a free magnet motor (like those used in hybrid cars) can save from 30 to 90 percent electricity. He says few homeowners realize that a traditional pool pump can use more electricity than any appliance in the home.

Go for a computerized control system that can be programmed to trigger the circulation system, heater, lights and auxiliary equipment only when needed and turn on during off-peak hours when electricity rates are lower.

If you’re adding a spa, choose the type that recycles waste heat given off by the heater and pumps, redirecting it to help heat the water. Some types even put the jets’ plumbing directly behind each seat. That keeps the warm water from cooling off as it travels through the pipes.

Eiland sums it up this way: “Going green can save green as well as improve your quality of life.”

The Legalities

Consider the legalities of pool ownership. For example, it’s important to know your town’s zoning laws as they apply to pools. In some communities, the setback from the property line is measured from the edge of the pool, but others begin measuring from the edge of the deck. Also, some communities figure a pool and deck into the lot coverage equations.

Of course, you needn’t worry about any of that if a bona fide contractor does the work for you. He’ll get the proper permits.

How to find the right contractor? By all means, troll the Internet and check pool companies’ websites. It’s OK to drool over the photos, but read carefully what services are offered and how long they’ve been in business. Get at least three to four bids when you’re ready to buy and don’t just look at the bottom line. Pay attention to the types of materials the contractor will use and his specifications for filter, pump and vacuum as well as warranties and timelines.

Get references. Obviously you won’t get references from unhappy customers, but at least you can talk to homeowners, who’ve dealt with the company, and get an idea of how specific issues were handled.

But most importantly: Enjoy your cool, new pool.