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Mon, 31 Dec 2007

Pools for Dummies

Moving one's family to a new home is always disruptive for all concerned. And as hard as things are for us parents, moving is even harder, I think, on the children. Even moving from one side of town to another is not easy for kids –- they may end up having to attend a different school, ride a different bus, end up living further away from their friends, any one of which by itself is sufficient cause for youthful angst.

After moving once when I was an infant, and with only one two-year stint in California on a temporary assignment when I was fairly young, my father made a conscious decision to not move our family around, despite holding a number of senior technical and middle-management positions at IBM (which, during its growth period in the 1960's, wags commented stood for "I've Been Moved", as repeated transfers and relocations were often the norm for executives. Not until years later did I discover that Dad had turned down more than one promotion in order to keep us in the same home.)

So when my job required me to move to a new home several states distant from our old home, I felt I had to pay extra attention to making things as painless as possible for my children.

We had been searching for a new home for several weekends, each time taking the kids with us. I felt badly enough about having to uproot my family in the first place, and I wanted to make sure I got the kids' feedback on their new home. The trips were lengthy and tiring, but the kids stuck it out like troopers as we toured from one listing to another in the realtor's SUV. Each house we had looked at to date had one or more obvious flaws which made them unsatisfactory or unsuitable for us. After another long Saturday of house hunting, we had at least seen a couple of places which we at least considered as "possibles" –- nothing outstanding, nothing thrilling, but not bad. In the late afternoon, the realtor pulled into the driveway of a nice ranch-style house with a largish piece of property. "I think you'll like this one," she said as we got out and began to look around. My wife and I went with her into the house, while the kids went around to the back yard to explore the property. Everything was going well, and I finally started to get the feeling that this might just be the place for us, when the kids came tearing back into the house.

"They've got a pool!"

The realtor smiled, no doubt having seen this reaction before. "Oh, yes, it does," she said to us. "Let's go out to the back and look."

For me, a pool was something unbelievably luxorious. In the neighborhood where I had grown up, absolutely no one owned a pool. (Of course, our neighborhood was located next to a lake, so there was little or no motivation for anyone who lived there to own one.) The realtor knew our price range, so I had to assume that she hadn't made a mistake and taken us to a place we couldn't afford. With the kids leading the way, we went out to the back yard. And sure enough, alongside the garage, discreetly hidden by a fence and extensive landscaping, there was a large inground pool. Since it was late in the fall, the owners had closed the pool for the season, so it was covered with a tarp and thus I couldn't see the actual pool itself. But just the dimensions were impressive: it had a mildly irregular shape, roughly rectangular, but with slightly scalloped walls and rounded corners, about twenty feet wide by about fifty feet long. The kids were literally jumping up and down in their excitement. Heck, I was excited too. My wife and I returned to the house to finish our tour with the realtor, and, a few minutes later, after the initial excitement had worn off, the kids came inside as well. It was a very nice house overall, and the price the realtor quoted, while towards the high end of what we could afford, was not out of the question for us.

As we drove back home that evening, I tried to start our usual familial review of the houses we had seen that day. "So, did anything we saw today catch anybody's interest?" I asked, my standard discussion starter.

"The house with the pool!" the kids responded in unison. My daughter then launched into a lengthy monologue about how she was going to have all her friends from where were we currently living come down what seemed like nearly every free weekend the next summer for an endless series of pool parties, and my son chimed in about how he was going to do the same with his friends. Normally they were somewhat reluctant to share their opinions about the houses we had seen, typically limiting themselves to one or two word answers or a brief sentence of explanation, but this time we couldn't shut them up about it.

The house seemed sound enough, and my wife and I liked it just fine even before we found out about the pool. After a bit of haggling via the realtor, we even got the price lowered to something a bit easier for us to afford. But the kids' enthusiasm for "the house with the pool" was the clincher for us. Since we could afford it, it seemed like a nice bonus, a way to ease the transition to a new home in a new state. A few weeks later we closed on our new home, and moved in shortly thereafter.

As I mentioned, the pool was closed for the winter when we bought the house, so I didn't start to deal with it until the next spring. But the kids never stopped thinking about it: they talked it up incessantly to their old friends, and never failed to mention it to their new ones; they continually pestered my wife and me as soon as the new year came around, always asking, "When can we open the pool?" Of course, I didn't know what, if anything, might be involved in the actual "pool-opening" process. Not knowing better, I assumed it was pretty much a matter of taking the cover off, topping up the water, and turning everything on (whatever exactly "everything" was). It was time to do a little research.

A quick trip to the local Barnes and Noble soon revealed that, while the otherwise fairly comprehensive series included titles telling absolute beginners everything they needed to know about Unix Programming, Macramé, Sex, or Gardening (among other topics), there was no "Pools for Dummies", about which I was clearly one. The book racks in the nearby big box home improvement stores likewise carried nothing much on pool upkeep (although there were several titles on how to build a pool should I feel so inclined). Clearly I needed to consult a specialist, but rather than choose a name at random from the Yellow Pages, I decided to contact the house's former owners and get their recommendation. Everything they had done in and around the house was "first class", so I trusted their judgment about which of the local pool places was the best. They gave me the name, and a couple of weeks later I drove over to the shop. It was a fairly small father-and-son operation, with other employees hired for "the season". The owners were personable and knowledgeable, and once I told them where we lived, they immediately began to describe the pool, and to go over with me briefly what they would need to do when we opened the pool up in the spring –- a task they offered to handle for me when the time came, and which they strongly recommended that I have them do, since I had no clue about what needed to be done. I agreed that they would certainly have my business, and as we shook hands, I told them I would call them some time in May or so. They thanked me, and said that they would explain the things my wife and I needed to know about operating and maintaining the pool when the crew came out to open it in the spring.

Sooner than I expected, winter had melted away into spring, and my first week of May reminder to "Call Pool Guys" came to the top of my agenda. I dialed the number and spoke to the son, trying to get a sense of when would be a good time to schedule the crew to come out and open up the pool. He explained that the period starting in the middle of May was the beginning of their "busy season", and everyone rushed to get their pools open in time for the Memorial Day weekend. He recommended that we either try for early May, or wait until the first week or so in June, to avoid the scheduling crunch. When I mentioned this around the dinner table that evening, the kids insisted that we get the pool open as early as possible. "But it will be too cold to swim," I reminded them, but they insisted that they didn't care, and that they would go in anyway. In particular, my daughter swore she was going to go swimming every day after school, no matter what the water temperature was. So the next day I called the pool guys back and scheduled the opening day for the second weekend in May.

The crew arrived that Saturday, and so did my education on pools. The son took me and my wife aside and walked us through the basics as the rest of the team removed the cover and began the opening process.

A pool has a fairly straightforward mechanical system for circulating water. Water enters the system through the skimmers located along the top edge of the pool, pulled in by the suction created by a powerful pump. Additional water is drawn in from an inlet at the bottom of the deep end of the pool. Through buried pipes, the water comes to a series of valves (allowing one to open or close off the flow from one of the inlets), then into the pump and immediately into the main pool filter, a container filled primarily with sand and topped off with a layer of diatomaceous earth (which resembles nothing so much as ground up blackboard chalk). Leaving the filter, the water enters a series of return pipes and valves, finally reentering the pool through water jet nozzles located in the pool walls. A separate, smaller electric pump provides high-speed water and aeration for the spa section, a cozy little cove attached to the shallow end of the pool. Water circulation, the son explained, is the key to keeping a pool wholesome and clear; stopping the water circulation in the pool has similar effects as stopping the blood circulation in a person –- doing so will quickly turn it from a crystalline oasis into a algal quagmire.

Besides the mechanical systems and their upkeep (primarily involving emptying the strainer baskets in the skimmers every couple of days to keep the water circulating freely), there is a regimen of chemical maintenance that must be regularly performed to keep the water fit for swimming. Chlorinating the water was the most obvious and recognizable treatment, the primary means of keeping algae and bacteria at bay, fairly easily accomplished by simply keeping a small chlorinating tower attached to the water pumping system filled with chlorine tablets as needed. But there was a great deal more that needed to be done to keep the water properly conditioned. Especially important for an inground pool is the proper maintenance of the levels of pH and hardness in the water -- should these get out of whack, the water will actually begin to leach calcium and other minerals out of the concrete body of the pool itself, leading to cracks and potentially even worse damage. So we had to invest in a supply of chemical testing swabs and measuring reagents, and once a week, we would swab and swish and measure, running out to the pool store on occasion for a bottle or two of pH Balancer or Alkalinity Increaser or Hardness Balancer as needed.

But finally the pool was opened, and all the necessary chemicals added, and the water level topped off. Now we had only to clean out the leaves and debris and muck that had settled to the bottom of the pool over the course of the winter. The crew showed us how to attach plastic hoses to ports in the bottom of the skimmers, and to reconfigure the water values to generate a strong suction once the hose was filled with water. So, using a long metal pole with a flat, wheeled nozzle that connected to the suction hose, we had our first lesson in what would turn out to be our most frequently performed maintenance activity –- cleaning. It's not terribly difficult, but doing it by hand turned out to be tedious and time-consuming. Fortunately, the previous owners graciously left us all their pool maintenance equipment, which included a device that turned out to be invaluable to us in keeping the number of hours spent on cleaning the pool to a reasonable number: a motorized, semi-automated cleaning machine called TurboBot. TurboBot consists of a powerful submersible electric motor which sucks water up through slots in its bottom, through a cloth filtering bag contained inside, and out the top as a jet. Rubberized tank-style treads run along the sides, each turned by a separate motor. Finally, TurboBot has a hollow floating handle that is free to move up and down over the front, top, or back of the device; sensors measure the angle and position of the handle relative to the body, and thus allow it to determine the orientation of the body in the water. A quasi-randomizing movement algorithm allows you to simply plug in TurboBot and toss it into the pool, whereupon it sinks to the bottom (driven by the water jet emerging from the top) and proceeds to crawl across the bottom of the pool, suctioning the dirt and muck off the bottom, periodically turning or reversing direction. When it came to a pool wall, the rubberized treads would grip against it and start the front to nose up; the orientation of the handle would move to "tell" it that it was at the base of a wall, and, by increasing the flow through the top jet, it would actually climb up and clean the walls up to the waterline. It's a remarkable device, and a tremendous time and labor saver for lazy, harried pool owners like myself.

So the pool was finally now open, and, as she promised, my daughter changed into her bathing suit and plunged in, even though both the air and water temperatures were nearly identical (in the low 60s). She did not stay in long, of course, but the pool was now "baptized" and was really "ours". A few weeks later, as the weather and water both warmed, we joined her on her evening swims, and we all used the pool nearly every day throughout the summer. Besides the regular upkeep, the biggest problem we encountered was the occasional creature that wound up trapped in the downflow in the skimmer baskets –- insects (especially yellow jackets), toads, the odd field mouse, and (once) a baby bird. As soon as my wife saw these, she decided that emptying the skimmers would be my responsibility from then on, which I did dutifully before my regular after-work swim each weekday evening.

Right now the pool is again closed for the winter, a process which involves both mechanical and chemical preparations for the cold weather. The first step requires removing every possible leaf and twig from the pool and giving the thing one last thorough vacuuming, much the same way that you clean up a vacation house before leaving it at the end of the season. Next, pumping out about fifteen or so percent of the water in the pool (to bring the water level down below the level of the intakes and skimmers) is required. Thanks to the backwash setting on the pump, this process takes a relatively short amount of time; but the process must be monitored carefully, since once the water level is sufficiently low, the pumping system is then only taking in a relatively small amount of water from the single drain on the bottom of the pool, and if the pump is allowed to run for too long without sufficient water to properly cool it, the motor windings will burn out, quickly transforming it into a seventy-five pound doorstop. After lowering the water level, though, I place a call to our "pool guy" and his crew, and leave the remaining steps (and any heavy lifting) to the trained professionals.

The arrival of the close-out crew means the start of the chemical preparations. The return jet nozzles are unscrewed and replaced with rubber stoppers, and then a water-antifreeze mix is poured into the skimmers, more of less filling up the underground plumbing lines to minimize the risk of any of the piping freezing and bursting over the course of the winter. At the same time, others on the crew add massive quantities of chemical reagents to the remaining pool water, hyper-chlorinating it and massively elevating the water's hardness, to discourage any algal or bacterial growth that might occur over the winter (or, as is more likely, in the event of a sudden, early, and unexpected warm snap the next spring).

The final closeout step involves the biggest expenditure of effort on the part of the crew: wrestling the pool cover into place and anchoring it securely against winter gales. The cover is an enormous, waterproof plastic tarp, one piece large enough to cover the entire pool with room to spare. The grounds crew at Yankee Stadium rushing to cover the infield during a cloudburst has nothing on the skills and coordinations shown by the pool closeout team trying to wrestle a recalcitrant tarp into place by hand on all four sides simultaneously in the midst of a steady late-September breeze. The tarp is finally positioned running close to the edges of the pool itself, with the surplus material allowed to sag down to the level of the remaining water in the pool. Then the edges of the tarp are anchored in place by laying down large, hot-dog-shaped, water-filled bags, each about eight feet long and a foot wide, all along the perimeter of the tarp. Between the water bags and any snow and ice that accumulates in the middle which helps weigh it down, the tarp is extremely unlikely to be blown away by anything less than sustained Katrina-force winds. My final effort involves filling out and signing the check to cover the cost of the closeout, which, to my great relief, is not based strictly on the time and effort involved, but is a more-or-less prix fixe charge for an in-ground pool of a certain approximate size.

My family and I no longer think of having a pool as an unimaginable luxury, but, as an amenity into which we put a fair amount of time, money, and effort each year, and in return for which we receive a great amount of enjoyment. And so our pool sits now as it was when we first came to our new house, quiet and dormant, muffled in inconclusive drape, awaiting the arrival of spring five or six months hence, ready to emerge once more into the sunlight and to resume its proper place as the center of family activity, as the days grow longer, the sun climbs higher into the sky, and the nearby trees cast their dappled shadows on the rippled surface of the water.

Posted Dec 31, 2007 at 17:02 UTC, 3364 words,  [/richPermalink