Surface Deep

Aq 505 83pg 0001

Water's ability to instantly devastate and destroy both natural and built environments was emphatically demonstrated to the world when the now infamous December 2004 tsunami sent the Indian Ocean ashore in Indonesia and much of South Asia. But water can alter seemingly invulnerable substances and structures in a more subtle and patient way. Gradually and relentlessly over time, the Colorado River carved the geological feature we now call the Grand Canyon. While it may seem counter-intuitive, water is, in many respects, a pool's worst enemy.

Even in its most balanced state, water is a powerful solvent, breaking the chemical bonds of many compounds and carrying those component parts away in suspension. For this simple fact of nature, people in the pool industry have worked to perfect the way they protect the very vessel that holds the water. While the collective industry isn't foolish enough to suppose it can ever conquer an element of nature, improvements in research, education and materials have bettered the odds considerably.

The Scientific Method

While engineering schools around the country do research aimed at building stronger bridges, taller buildings and safer highways, the research community has by and large overlooked the swimming pool industry. That changed when the National Plasterers' Council decided to try to put an end to the speculation and finger-pointing over what plays the biggest role in pool surface deterioration by establishing the National Pool Industry Research Center at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

"We're currently the only university institution in which the pool industry has conducted studies," says Damian Kachlakev, Ph.D., associate professor in Cal Poly's civil and environmental engineering department and the research program director. "A lot of people overlooked the pool industry. All other industries, you name it — concrete, steel — they have one or more research institutions that conduct research for them on a regular basis." And now the pool industry does, too.

"Pool surface material and how to make it last longer and look nicer, that's the reason why NPC decided to have someone very reputable like Cal Poly do research for us instead of us trying to do it on our own," says Mitch Brooks, NPC's executive director.

Kachlakev says, "Initially the project began as a one-year study where we looked for deterioration on the surface of plastered pools," he says. "As a result of the first study, other organizations got involved, like IPSSA and a variety of private companies from all parts of the swimming pool industry. We decided it was worth it to establish a research center dedicated exclusively to the pool industry."

Questions To Questions

In most scientific research, questions yield as many new questions as answers. The first part of designing an experiment usually involves narrowing the focus and refining the questions. Kachlakev describes how the first pool surface study evolved: "We initially were trying to figure out which possible variables or parameters may in.uence etching deterioration. And we had a very, very long list of variables ranging from different aggregates, different cements, different environmental conditions," he says. "Water chemistry, different methods of preparation and applying the plaster: We saw that in order to research everything on the list in detail, we would have to have something like a half a million samples.

"So we got more realistic, and we thought probably if the deterioration appears in California and Arizona and Florida and in Boston, there's got to be something different besides the local water and the local aggregates, and the local type of cement. So we excluded these as variables. Just applying this common logic, we came up with three different groups. One is water chemistry; aggressive vs. balanced and how the pools are maintained. Second is the way in which the pools are prepared, the plastering techniques and that part of the construction process. And the third is materials." The first study examined water chemistry and application variables, and found water chemistry to be a rich area for further investigation.

Kachlakev has a very practical approach working on the problem, "Coming from the conclusions of last year, the water chemistry is responsible for the etching deterioration, but we know that water chemistry is very hard to control. If indeed the plaster that we know now is so sensitive to small adjustments of the water chemistry, well the idea that the water chemistry is to blame for the etching deterioration, it means absolutely nothing.

"What we have to do, it's the scientific engineering approach, is create a material that is more durable, that is more resistant to aggressive environments. And I believe that by altering the materials, by introducing some silicones, some modifications, we can achieve that. Of course, if someone chooses to maintain extremely aggressive water, there is nothing that can be done. Even the most durable material is going to deteriorate in an extremely aggressive environment.

"There is a mid-point where the materials and the water chemistry have to shake hands. Where the material is more durable and the water chemistry is more precisely adjusted in order to create a final product that makes everybody happy: clients, service guys, plasterers, pool builders, everybody."

One of the unexpected results of the investigations was that the test kits used to monitor the research pools yielded very different readings from one another. Says Kachlakev, "We have used most of the commercially available kits and we measure a list of variables — pH, alkalinity, etc. — twice a week. At the same time, we conduct an analysis of the water using standard analytical methods. And the results are all over the place."

As a result, Kachlakev has invited representatives of test-kit manufacturers to the research center. "We will have tests conducted by our students, and the same test conducted by the company representative, to eliminate the human factor," Kachlakev says. "If the results are the same as what we have been seeing for the last six or seven months now — that different kits predict different things — obviously we will have to investigate in this direction in more depth."

Water chemistry testing will probably be a topic of investigation in the next academic year. But the Cal Poly researchers will also look at the other side of the vessel-longevity equation. "Something that is already planned for next year is looking at the materials," say Kachlakev.

Group Effort

Research on pool-finishing materials — plaster, coatings, surfaces — has some manufacturers pretty excited. Manufacturers have been independently working on making more durable coatings for much longer than the Cal Poly research center has been around. While they are understandably unwilling to disclose trade secrets, manufacturers will characterize the direction they'd like to take their R&D efforts.

"We have a full research and development team that is always evaluating other forms of cement," says Chris MacDonald of Pebble Technology in Scottsdale, Ariz. "There are additives that make it more durable, longer lasting, aesthetic. We have to take climate into perspective as well. It also depends on the equipment they're using to pump it. We try to help applicators share information, and we are also evaluating things on our own."

Michael Bell, national sales director for Southern Grout and Mortar in Pompano Beach, Fla., says, "A lot of these products are really pretty basic, and sometimes it's reinventing the wheel. We've made a number of improvements to existing products that have increased their life span, stability of the product and ease of application. That's an ongoing process."

Randy Dukes of Aquavations in South Miami, Fla., says while he believes that fluctuating water chemistry is the main cause of the staining and damage he sees in pool surfaces, it makes sense to continue to improve pool surface materials so that they are less effected by uncontrolled water chemistry.

"The goal is to make the cement that holds all the aggregates together harder. The slower it dries, the stronger cement gets. We put an additive in the mix to do that. We also use an additive — and I'm not going to tell you what it is — to prevent shrinkage, and it helps make the product harder. Lots of manufacturers do that. We're not the only ones. That's probably what the pre-blended products have over the job-site mixes."

The industry has a good resource in Kachlakev, who has a long research history in materials engineering. "My love is composite materials. I have years of experience with polymers," he says. "I believe that finally, this will be the solution: Some kind of modification of existing plaster." He points to technical advances as a good sign. "The technology is changing. Concrete can now be produced at the strength of 10,000 psi. Just five years ago, this was out of the question."


For their part, the manufacturers recognize that the success of their products depends on a delicate combination of the material, the method by which it is applied, and the way it's maintained after it's installed. Recognizing that they have limited control over their product once it leaves the warehouse, many companies take a multifaceted approach, working both to improve the product so it is less affected by the human applying it, while also working to improve the skills of those human applicators.

"One of the things that we're always looking for is a better mouse trap. A product that is easier to apply, that is more foolproof," says Bell.

At the same time, SGM provides education for the workers who apply their product. "We bring in applicators from all across the country, and we train them hands-on how to apply the products," Bell says. "Part of it is classroom work, but the great majority of it is them putting the product on the wall and us showing them how the various processes work. They are working hands-on perfecting their skills." SGM also has a certification program for companies that meet its requirements, and companies must be recertified each year.

Pebble Technology guards its brand with a strong emphasis on education, as well. "We bring our new applicators in and we do a two-week training program, says MacDonald. "The education part is a huge factor. Our company is only as good as the people applying the finish."

The company has a seven-member quality-control team that travels throughout the United States. "They are seeing different things being done by different applicators and then taking that information and sharing that with others," says MacDonald. "So it becomes a big network of information and resources."

Dukes recognized the human factor, too. "We are dealing with a manual trade, so we are limited by human skills and how we train them and how they think about their finished product," he says. "We try to teach them: 'That's your fingerprint. It's not just a job, look at the pools you're doing, it's your workmanship.'"

Making the Grade

Manufacturers are not the only ones focused on the role education plays in ensuring high-quality products and processes. "We are in the process of setting up an accreditation program for plasterers," says the NPC's Brooks.

The research center at Cal Poly will be a site for industry education as well. "Another of the functions of this center is to do seminars for the pool industry," says Kachlakev. "We are hoping as soon as the next academic year to have regular seminars one or two days, here on the campus. Service, water chemistry, plastering, anything that's needed." He points out how the academic setting can help raise the level of professionalism in the industry. "Getting students working with us on this project, I think it's going to increase the level of education overall in the pool industry," he says.

Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library