Fiberglass pools enjoyed another boost this summer because their speed of installation gave builders an edge as they struggled to keep up with historic levels of consumer demand. Less widely reported was the increase in demand for automatic pool covers, which, along with many pool accessories, benefitted from raised levels of spending in the backyard as consumers looked to improve their private space. However, combining the two — fiberglass pools and automatic pool covers — can present some unique installation challenges. Being prepared for these challenges can help installers avoid frustrating mistakes in the field.
As we all know, busy pool builders work hard to coordinate material deliveries and available labor for each project. This forces some builders to call in the order of an auto cover from their truck while traveling between jobs. They might ask for an auto cover for a 16-by32 fiberglass pool without considering the crucial inside dimensions of that fiberglass pool, which may be less.
It is very important to understand that when ordering an automatic pool cover, the builder or installer needs to provide the inside dimensions of the pool to the auto cover manufacturer. In most cases, the inside dimensions of a fiberglass pool are narrower than the marketed "size" of the pool. It's not uncommon for the inside water dimension of the pool to be just 15 feet wide for a fiberglass pool marketed as a 16-foot wide pool. So if the builder orders a 16-foot cover, the cover is going to be too big.
To avoid this mistake, pool builders and auto cover installers should either wait until the fiberglass pool is installed to take measurements or contact the fiberglass pool manufacturer and ask them for their inside pool measurements before ordering the automatic pool cover.
Automatic pool cover manufacturers use the inside dimensions of the pool for all of the under track applications (where the track is hidden) for auto covers. It's the most common type of installation. Understanding that most auto covers are essentially custom products can help those ordering remember the importance of providing precise measurements.
POOL WIDTH CHALLENGE
Fiberglass pool builders understand that keeping the width of a fiberglass pool consistent down the entire length of the pool is challenging. "Fiberglass pools, by nature, want to flex and bow along the length of the pool because of the pressure on the walls from the backfill or the water," explains Allan Horwood, owner of Pool Patrol in British Columbia. Builders need to be filling the pool with water while simultaneously backfilling the fiberglass pool to avoid having the backfill bow the walls in or the water pressure push the walls out. If this isn't done correctly, the pool width will not remain consistent down the length of the pool.
With the pool varying in width, says Horwood, "It might be 15 feet wide in the shallow end and the deep end but only 14 feet, 10 inches in the middle of the pool. Auto cover systems can accommodate for up to a 1-inch difference, but not much more."
Horwood explains that this variation in width along the length of the pool makes installing the track for the auto cover challenging. Placing the track in such a way that the automatic pool cover functions properly but is also aesthetically pleasing are both important to a successful installation.
INSTALLATION TIP: To help with this challenge, it's recommended that you keep the track components installed symmetrically down the length of the pool on both sides. Automatic pool cover manufacturers provide enough track for the entire pool but installers still need to cut the track on site during the installation. To help ensure a better installation, even if there is a variation in the width of the pool, it's important to install the track the same on both sides.
"We always first lay out the track around the perimeter before cutting any pieces and be sure the lengths of the pieces are the same on both the right and left sides," explains Horwood. For example, with a 36-foot long pool you might use three 12-foot lengths, and it's important that this be done on both sides in a mirror fashion rather than, for instance, putting two 12-foot lengths and two 6-foot pieces on the other side.
A successful install is one that is symmetrical — the right side of the pool mirrors the left side. Always start with corners as you lay out the track — then fill in symmetrically. And lay out coping around the pool before starting to cut any of the track. Fortunately, these aluminum extrusion tracks do give and move a little, allowing the installer to adjust for both functionality and beauty.
Alerting the auto cover manufacturer to the fact that you are installing the cover on a fiberglass pool should prompt the auto cover manufacturer to ask additional questions to ensure you get the correct sizing and components, which will make things easier for the installer.
By nature, an automatic pool cover requires that the cover be installed on a completely level plane. The track cannot be sloped or the cover mechanism will not operate properly. This can be a challenge to those installers that are working with different deck treatments or tile additions that might raise the elevation of the top of the pool from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool. "On a recent installation, the builder had added some tiles around the built-in spa in the shallow end of the pool," says Horwood. "The tiles were beautiful, but it changed the elevation significantly in the shallow end versus the deep end, which made placing the polybox for the auto cover challenging to install." The solution for Horwood was to use the auto cover components designed for a vinyl liner pool and adjust them to work in this situation. "We used several 'McGyvering' techniques including using the vinyl liner retainer in the 365-vinyl liner system by Automatic Pool Covers, which has a higher profile to accommodate the increased height created by the tiles used in the spa at the shallow end of the fiberglass pool," explains Horwood.
This not only applies to tiles in builtin spas in the shallow end, but also applies to the various deck treatments chosen around the perimeter of the pool. Pool builders need to consider the height of the stone, travertine and mortar being used around the pool perimeter because this added elevation must match the elevation in the deep end where the auto cover enters and exits the housing. Auto cover manufacturers provide risers to accommodate for the increased elevation, but there is a limit to the height accommodation. Matching the height of the lid to the different coping and retainers is crucial to ensure the successful operation of the automatic pool cover. Builders need to plan this out in advance of the auto cover installation. This isn't unique to fiberglass pools, but it's more common among them as many fiberglass pools now come with built-in features such as spas, tanning ledges and steps that span the full width of the pool.
POLYBOX/AUTO COVER HOUSING CHALLENGE
Before completing the backfilling of the pool, the automatic pool cover kit is attached at the deep end. The process begins with a one-piece encapsulated coping with a wall cap that supports a slide-on polybox. The polybox is a pre-made housing that is screwed into the wall in a 'tongue-and-groove' style that is easily attached to the fiberglass pool wall. However, the attachment of the polybox to a fiberglass pool doesn't come with a pre-designed solution.
"We have been using the vinyl liner retainer, and we treat it like a steel wall structure," explains Horwood. "Once again, we do a little McGyvering to be able to support the polybox by freestaking into the ground, which works pretty well."
It is very important that in this process, the polybox needs to be leveled in order for the auto cover to function properly. Both the polybox housing for the cover and the lid covering the top of housing need to both be perfectly level. This entire process needs to take place in the pre-pour stage of the auto cover installation. "There is always a bit of a dance to make the timing work — we as auto cover installers want to get that polybox attached before the concrete is poured, and the builder is anxious to get the concrete poured quickly," says Horwood.
Installing the track around the corners of a fiberglass pool can present another unexpected challenge, explains Horwood. "Because the corners of most fiberglass pools have a radius, we notch out the lip in the coping that was originally designed for a vinyl liner bead receiver." The manufacturer can provide these corners pre-built for the dealer to make them ready to screw down the corner for the installer. Providing these pre-built corners makes the track sit flush on the wall in the corner to ensure the coping remains level.
As mentioned earlier, the lid on the top of the auto cover housing, or polybox, also needs to be level for proper functioning of the auto cover. The manufacturer usually provides a flush, pre-painted walk-on lid to make the installation fast and easy. However there are also many lid-tray options available that can be filled with concrete in order to accommodate popular stone, paver and stamped concrete options. But it is important to remember that there must be an area for the cover and lead-edge to exit the housing area.
"Sometimes we have customers that want a particular finish that is different than the standard lid tray system we prefer," says Horwood. "However this presents challenges if you only have about a quarter of an inch to work with because you can't have a lid that is higher than the track or the cover cannot operate."
OUTSOURCING AUTO COVER INSTALLATION
Fortunately, there are now many pool professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada who now exclusively install and maintain automatic pool covers so it's easier for pool professionals to subcontract this portion of the job, allowing them to easily offer automatic pool covers and still profit from selling them — without having to train or have personnel or staff on hand to install and maintain these covers.
Horwood specializes in auto cover installation. Passing the work on to him makes sense for his builder customers because it makes the initial installation easier and faster, and also because his company is there to help with servicing the auto cover after the installation. "With auto covers, you always have to go back and make one or two adjustments on the cover once it's installed," says Horwood. "Many pool builders like outsourcing the auto cover portion to me and my crews so they can stay focused on the front end of the building, not having to mess with things after we are done with the pool."
Installers like Horwood agree it's important to talk with builders early in the project in order to avoid potential problems later. "Those [of us] that specialize in auto-cover installation realize there are 'tips and tricks' that can be used during installation to avoid problems like the smashed track," explains Chris Hunt, an auto cover specialist in Wichita, Kan. "Knowing how to prepare the concrete to be poured is key. We use small supports above the mechanism to stabilize and reinforce the track below it, ensuring the track isn't compressed by the weight of the concrete deck above it," says Hunt. "In addition, when we install the cover, we put little pieces of track that act as a shim so that if we are brought out to fix, we take out the shim, straighten the track and fix — which is much easier post-installation then having to break up the deck."
Fiberglass pools have been on a growth trajectory for years because they streamline construction, and as a repeatable, factory-made product, they also facilitate the sales and marketing process. At the same time, automatic pool covers are experiencing tremendous growth as home-bound consumers look to extend their swimming season on both ends. With children home doing digital learning and families in staycation mode, homeowners are looking to get the most out of their pool. The two are growing together as demand soars during this pandemic year. With attention to the details of combining the two popular products, pool professionals can maximize their profits while avoiding frustrating mistakes in the field.
Mike Shadoan has over 25 years of experience working as a service tech in the field before working his way up into the position of Vice President of Sales for Automatic Pool Covers in Westfi eld, Ind. He can be reached at [email protected].