The ground rules for pools

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The ground rules for pools

Whether it's the calm of doing morning laps or the sound of your children and their friends laughing as they splash around that you're after (or maybe it's a bit of both), an in-ground pool is a family-fun focal point. But installing a pool is a major renovation that shouldn't be taken lightly. The following guidelines will help you get through the process.

Financial planning
The first step in planning an in-ground pool is getting your finances in order. After all, a typical installation starts at about $30,000 to $35,000 and depending on the size and style of pool, number of accessories, and how easy (or difficult) it is to access the installation site, the price can easily climb to double that or more. “You can drop $20,000 on a waterfall [alone] if you wanted to,” says Jeff Cassack, construction manager for International Pool and Spa Centers in Toronto. You'll also likely need to factor in some landscaping costs since a pool and its deck will radically alter your yard.

While you're budgeting, there are a few other financial matters to consider: the taxman will take note of the increased property value on your next assessment; your insurance premium may rise to cover potential liabilities; and there are annual operating costs to factor into the equation. (More on these later.)

Endless options
Round or rectangular? Kidney or Lshaped? Do you want a diving board? Will you be doing laps? Or do you plan on doing both? When it comes to in-ground pools there is a limitless combination of variables in size, depth, and shape to choose from. That said, “Bigger isn't necessarily better. Don't try to cram the biggest body of water you can in your backyard,” advises Cassack. “You want to have a nice blend between the living space – deck, tables, chairs, loungers – and the pool.”

Also keep the vertical dimensions in mind: Most pools slope down from a shallow, three-foot deep wading section to an eight- or 10-foot diving area so family members of all ages can have fun.

There are three basic types of in-ground pool construction materials: concrete, vinyl-lined concrete, and fibreglass. Concrete and vinyl-lined pools both start out the same, with concrete poured into a galvanized steel or polymer frame. The difference is in the surface finish. With concrete, you can paint it, line it with tiles or, most commonly, trowel on a specialized plaster. With vinyl, the liner in your choice of colour and pattern is stretched over a concrete base. The additional finishing labour and materials push concrete to the top of the price list. The last option is a preformed, one-piece fibreglass frame that is laid into the pit. The main downside with fibreglass is a relatively limited number of shapes and sizes to choose from.

Ultimately, you can install a pool in virtually any yard. But the harder it is to access, the more it's going to cost to do it. Sloped lots may also require retaining walls, adding more to the budget.

You should also be aware that a heavily treed yard can be a two-fold problem for pool owners: The foliage will reduce the amount of free, passive solar heating the sun provides, and you'll spend a lot more time cleaning out leaf litter.

Snow cover and frozen ground generally limit the installation season to between late spring and early fall, making winter the ideal time to do your planning and shopping around. Just don't try ordering a pool installation in May hoping to host your first pool party in early June. The busy season for installers starts as soon as the ground thaws and the installation process usually takes about two weeks start to finish, including the excavation of the pit, erecting the frame, preparing the base, pouring the concrete, and installing the liner or edge finish. (A fibreglass pool eliminates some of these steps and can therefore usually be installed a bit more quickly.) If you're looking to save money, many companies offer deals on late-season installations.

Properly maintained, an in-ground pool will provide about 25 years of family entertainment. There are two basic maintenance tasks with an in-ground pool: cleaning out debris and purifying the water. “Pools today are more maintenance-free than they used to be,” says Gary Walters, general manager of Seaway Pools in Markham,
Ont. “There are automatic cleaners, better circulation systems that keep the pool cleaner, and new automatic saltwater systems that are becoming very popular.”

Chlorine has been used traditionally as a water purification additive, usually as a liquid or in puck form. Saltwater systems are akin to having a mini automated chlorine manufacturing plant on site, that continually circulates a mildly saline solution. “The salt water in the ocean is around 30,000 parts per million [ppm]. The salt content in your body is about 7,500 ppm. We put 3,500 ppm in our pools,” explains Walters. The advantage is that it doesn't have the strong odour or skin irritation associated with chlorine. Other pricier systems use ozone or non-chlorine alternatives for purification.

During pool season, you'll need to regularly test the water's chlorine and pH levels, and adjust the chemicals accordingly. Other than that, you'll just need to maintain the water level to compensate for splashing and evaporation, periodically run a pool vacuum (there are many automated models to choose from), and occasionally scoop out any leaves or other debris that land in the water.

Your pool supplier will advise you on the procedures for winterizing the pool in the fall (and opening it up each spring). They vary in construction material and components but will include draining the pump and circulation lines, scrubbing the walls, and “shocking” the system with a heavy dose of chlorine.

Add-ons and upgrades
Given the brevity of pool season here in Canada, many owners consider it smart money to install a gas or electric pool heater. Your installation company can help you choose the correctly sized model based on the volume and surface area of water in your pool. Be sure to ask about money-saving timers as well. If you do opt for a heater, you'll also need a ventilated equipment shed to shelter it. Build it oversized and you'll have storage space for all your pool toys and supplies and other garden gear.

Pool covers help keep the heat in (Natural Resources Canada estimates that a cover reduces pool heating costs by up to 50 percent), inhibits the evaporation of water and chemical treatments, and reduces the amount of debris that falls into the pool when not in use. They can be operated manually, usually with a crank system, or fully automated with the cover retracting at the push of a button. (For safety, the cover should be fully retracted before anyone enters the water.)

Ultimately, a pool is supposed to be about having fun. If it's deep enough you can add a diving board or slide, along with a partially submerged ladder for exiting the deep end. If it's a workout you're after, you can install high-powered jets that enable you to do “laps” in even the smallest pool.

Of course, to make your yard a work of art you can frame the pool with highend materials like natural stone and perhaps incorporate one of those $20,000 waterfalls that Cassack mentioned. Don't forget recessed pool lights that add nighttime ambiance to the yard. And finish the whole project off with an outdoor shower for users to rinse off before getting in, and after leaving, the pool.

Safety and security
Before installing a pool, it would be wise for everyone in the house to take a first-aid course. If only Mom or Dad take the course, Murphy's Law says an accident could happen when they're not around.

If you do have young children, you might consider a product like the Safety Turtle a waterproof wrist strap that wirelessly sets off an alarm if a child falls into the water. For pets, you can add something like the plastic Skamper-Ramp which offers an easy to see and use exit from the deep end. Or protect both children and pets with a monitoring system that sets off an alarm if anything falls into the pool.

Finally, if your yard isn't already entirely fenced in, municipal bylaws in Toronto, Montreal, and most other municipalities require owners to erect a fence around a pool with a self-closing, lockable gate.

Planning parameters
Here are few questions to help guide your purchasing process:
- What's your budget (and how much wiggle room do you have)?
- What size and shape of pool will best suit your lot and lifestyle?
- What are your must-have accessories (diving board, slide, hot tub)?
- How much maintenance are you willing to do? Conversely, how much are you willing to pay for automation?
- Do you have to have your new pool ready for summer, or can you wait until fall (and potentially save some money)?


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The ground rules for pools