Building Eco-Friendly Aquatic Environments

photo of vanishing edge of pool in southwest US
Photos courtesy of Keven Woodhurst

According to Kevin Woodhurst of Precision Aquascapes in Phoenix, Ariz., designing and building aquatic environments that are environmentally friendly is much more than jumping on some sort of eco-bandwagon. To Woodhurst, going green means embracing an integrated approach to system design and materials selection through which the results are far greater than the sum of the parts.

When we consider ways to create swimming pools and other aquatic features that are “green,” I believe many people miss the point. It should not be about promoting some sort of Johnny-come-lately product that’s labeled “eco-friendly,” but instead an overall, holistic approach to designing and building systems that function efficiently and make wise use of resources.

There’s no question that these days many swimming pools are genuine works of aesthetic art and I’m among those who have passionately embraced the creative aspects of design. In my view, however, a big part of that art should extend well beyond appearance and also encompass functionality that is reliable, serviceable, long lasting and efficient. In that sense, in a perfect world, all pools should be “green” because they’re well designed and well built.

Of course in the real world we have a long way to go on that front, but we also all have an opportunity to move in a positive direction. That’s why last year I introduced a concept of pool design and construction I call “Eco-smart/eco-advantage,” and quickly afterwards saw a 60 percent increase in business. (For the record I was working under the banner of Dolphin Pools and Spas at the time, and have since moved on to establish my own firm, Precision Aquascapes.) In many ways, Eco-smart/eco-advantage is an approach that cuts to the core of creating enjoyable aquatic experiences for my clients, and I’ve been gratified that many homeowners have eagerly latched onto the concept.

SMART WORK

Certainly part of that upswing in business has been due to marginal improvements in the overall market, but far beyond that I’ve found this approach resonates with clients looking for long-term value in their pool systems — those taking into consideration life cycle costs. It’s not simply about creating a body of water that costs less to operate. Yes, that is part of it, but the idea also involves selecting materials and products that when matched properly will last longer, require less maintenance and therefore generate less cost and waste down the line.

From a business standpoint, we’re able to decrease warranty calls and other after-market issues where clients spend time worrying about and paying for fixing problems. No one wants their clients spending time on maintenance or repairs.

It’s all based on the idea that economic efficiency and ecological efficiency go hand in hand. I explain the concept in terms of the initial cost of the pool, the monthly operating costs and the long-term maintenance costs, and how those issues relate to each other in terms of life cycle costs. I show them that by spending 15 to 20 percent more initially on quality, time-tested products and technology, over the lifetime of the pool they will realize tremendous savings and other benefits in terms of monthly energy use, repairs and equipment replacement — and also experience superior water quality from day one.

The pools stay cleaner, use less chemicals and waste less water, which is a serious issue here in Phoenix. (Even in areas of abundant water supply, it’s hard to argue with its wise use combined with energy and operational efficiency.)

As a brief side note, a few years ago, I contributed an article to the Arizona Republic in which I calculated that in the Phoenix area, if we used only cartridge filters, we’d save around 4,300 acre feet of water each year. That might not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but if you look at nearby Lake Meade, our country’s largest man-made body of water, it’s down 100 feet, one of many constant examples of how serious an issue water conservation has become.

As a result of concerns over drought, I’ve found that a great many customers are interested in minimizing water use in their pools. They still want luxury — and great water quality and to save money on energy, maintenance and repair — but they also want to feel good about the decisions they’ve made to conserve precious resources.

Image of pool at night with reflective lighting

Image of outdoor hot tub with water fountains in background

Designing and building aquatic features with serviceability, energy efficiency and durability in mind does not mean that you have to sacrifice luxury. Any pool, spa or fountain system can be made efficient and convenient, while still delivering the recreational experiences our clients crave.

WISE WATER

As designers and builders, there are a number of specific ways that we can make this happen for our clients. Understandably, there’s a great deal of discussion among professionals about what works and what doesn’t, and I believe we need more of these exchanges — online, in classrooms, on trade show floors and everywhere else.

For my part, I’ve worked on more than 4,000 pools for several companies under a variety of conditions, and through that experience I’ve developed a core set of beliefs that I’ve found work consistently.

As a prime example, I’m a big proponent of in-floor cleaning systems. Some might say that these systems require energy to run, so how could they be beneficial? I counter that argument by saying that they’re really the ultimate circulation system because you’re moving the water from the bottom up, which is far more effective than trying to circulate it from the top down.

I’ve found that by generating flow from across the pool floor you create an even distribution of chemicals and ultimately enhance skimming action at the surface. I use a specialized skimmer made by A & A Manufacturing (Phoenix, Ariz.) that has a venturi in the bottom of the unit. This innovative venturi skimmer entrains air in the flow that in turn creates a vortex in the skimmer throat. In effect that means with a low 8-to-10 gallon flow rate through the skimmer, I can achieve full skimming action on the surface while at the same time running a variable-speed pump on an extremely low speed. Because technology has advanced in the past few years, we’re now able to take advantage of combining some of this to create the ultimate low-maintenance pool with a real eco-advantage.

Also, by contributing to an even temperature distribution because there are fewer dead spots, we help stabilize the saturation index throughout the pool, which in turn helps stabilize pH and alkalinity and overall, maximizes chemical efficiency.

FREQUENTLY VARIABLE

By now, we all should know that variable-speed-drive pumps can provide huge benefits in efficiency and electricity costs. That’s why this wonderful technology is elemental to the concept. It’s important to realize, however, that they only provide benefits when the plumbing systems are properly designed to maximize pump efficiency.

Fact is, if you install a VSD unit but still have undersized plumbing, you’re not going save much energy. Without proper pipe sizing and plumbing layout this fantastic technology is not being used to its maximum benefit; but when used in the correct operating environment, the savings compared to standard pumps are astronomical!

Also because these pumps can vary flow relative to the demand based on the operating scenario, as is the case with an attached spa or decorative water feature, we’re able to use only one pump instead of two or even three, while at the same time reducing energy cost and maximizing system efficiency.

Another key element is filtration and the important benefits provided by cartridge filters. They don’t require backwashing and greatly increase ease of maintenance. I use huge cartridge filters for most pools, which many people would believe are drastically oversized. The flow rates and time between cleanings are worth the investment. At the end of the day this is all about flow and turnover; the more flow and the more turnover you have, the more the pool stays clean and ready for use.

On the chemistry front, I’m a huge fan of using ozone with very, very small residuals of chlorine. Ozone is the most effective sanitizer and oxidizer and radically reduces the need to purchase chemicals. Here in Phoenix with the 110-plus temperatures, there is a need for some chlorine residual, but by using ozone it’s possible to reduce chlorine consumption by well over 50 percent, and the water quality is fantastic.

Putting it all together — combining upsized filters with large plumbing diameters, variable-speed-drive pumps, special A & A skimmers and in-floor cleaning, we’re able to create systems that move water with little energy while generating beautifully polished water.

When it’s all dialed in, you’re circulating, skimming, treating and filtering the water with about the same energy used to run a fan inside the house. It’s amazing how well it works!

Image of complex pool with multi-level water features
This complex design includes water-in-transit edges, rich materials and a host of other top-drawer features. It’s also built to minimize maintenance, conserve chemicals and maximize energy efficiency. It all adds up to affordable and reliable luxury.

STRUCTURE AND SURFACE

A big part of creating pools with economy and ecology in mind simply means building them well so they structurally stand the test of time. That may sound like a simplistic idea, but it flies in the face of people who cut corners on the basic structure to squeeze out nickels and dimes of profit. I go in the exact opposite direction and always use heavy-duty steel schedules that are above industry standards and other upgraded engineering details to prevent the slightest chance of structural failure.

It’s simple common sense. The small amount of resources required to upgrade the shell is minimal compared to the financial and environmental impact of a failed structure, which might leak badly or require a major renovation, all of which is a costly and unnecessary waste.

Surface durability is another important issue. For my part, all of my pools use some sort of product from Pebble Technology (Scottsdale, Ariz.) because pebble is more durable than plaster. The issue with plaster is that maintaining its original appearance is relatively tricky. Minding all the chemical parameters is a challenge far beyond the capability of almost all homeowners and, truth be told, many if not most service technicians.

Plaster may well be able to contain water adequately over time, but when it stains, etches, mottles or degrades in any way, homeowners want their pools resurfaced, the cost of which far exceeds the initial added cost of a pebble surface. And now there are so many options and choices, it just makes sense.

It’s all part of creating a system that is as close to fool-proof as possible.

WITH PURPOSE

The Eco-smart/eco-advantage model is my version of designing and building at the highest level, whether it’s a low-cost, bare-bones pool or the most elaborate with multiple bells and whistles. This model is just a way of doing business that in the end protects the investment of the client and minimizes my backend expenses, like warranty and service calls.

There are so many ways to deliver value beyond the initial cost of a pool, and I’m dismayed by builders that discard a quality-based approach in favor of running a down-and-dirty, fly-by-night sham. I am guilty of loving our industry and the opportunity we have to collectively enhance people’s lives. I won’t make any apologies for that; in fact, I will continue to do what I can to drive the industry forward and on to new frontiers. We need consumers to love their pools and backyards, because if they don’t we will lose them to other industries and we will have only ourselves to blame.

I’m among those who feel the pool and spa industry has been badly lacking in leadership and education, with a few extremely outstanding exceptions. That’s why I push the point that more of us need to step up and give back in an effort to elevate the entire trade, and to a large extent that means thinking differently about what we’re doing in the first place.

Speaking only for myself, I don’t consider myself a pool and spa builder, but instead a designer and builder of entire exterior environments or as I call them “AquaScapes” that deliver pleasure, luxury, excitement and beauty for my clients on a daily basis. And these environments do so with systems that generate value on all levels — economically and ecologically.

In the broad view, we need to ask ourselves, why are we in this business? Are we here to create something very special for our clients, or to make money on slicing margins? I believe those of who are dedicated to doing the best and smartest job possible have an obligation to give back by way of setting positive examples and educating those who have similar high-minded desires.

That all starts, I think, by embracing the unlimited potential waiting in the many shades of green.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Covering Up

It might surprise some that a builder in Phoenix is a huge proponent of automatic pool covers; after all, heating efficiency in the boiling Southwest isn’t all that important — or is it?

Personally, I love covers and think that more people should use them. The safety factor is self-evident and for anyone with small kids, and that alone should justify the use of a cover. Another important benefit is that the water stays cleaner, again requiring less maintenance and less running time when the cover is closed. Filters don’t get as dirty, and there’s far less demand on chemicals.

All of that adds up to a huge complement to the system described in the adjoining text. And, when it’s cold, which happens even here in the Valley of the Sun, covers save tremendous amounts of energy by reducing evaporation, the No. 1 cause of heat loss.

The problem here is that in this market, many sales are still driven by price only and covers are viewed as costly. That’s shortsighted and my hope is that this common disconnect will someday be a thing of the past as more people think more strategically about their pools. (Oddly, I’ve found that people moving in from other areas have a greater appreciation and willingness to invest in a cover than some of the locals here.)

Bottom line: Covers make all the sense in the world and I’d put one on every pool if I could.

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