Short Cuts to Big Trouble

Eric Herman Headshot

photo of pool with large crack on edgeSeveral years ago I was working on an article for another publication about structural failures in concrete pools. My source for the piece was well-known engineer and industry instructor, Ron Lacher.

At the time I was already familiar with structural-related failures, but even so, some of the problems Ron described seemed almost too bad to be true. An engineer with literally tens of thousands of projects to his credit and many years of experience performing forensic work and acting as an expert witness on failed projects, Ron’s litany of horror stories was epic, to say the least (and has only grown in the years since the scenario I’m about to share.)

At the time, Ron was investigating what was looking a lot like an epidemic of failures of spa steps and benches in Southern California. For some reason, steps, seats and benches in gunite spas were cracking and suffering massive delamination of the plaster finishes. A number of lawsuits were brewing and fingers were being pointed in all directions.

A case very typical of the problem was unfolding in the San Gabriel Valley and Ron invited me to attend a poolside meeting in which he was confident he could reveal the problem. I was eager to find out what was up with these failures, so I hopped in the car and made the 45-minute drive to the jobsite.

I remember it was a brutally hot summer day complete with smog, bad traffic, no wind and the sort of stifling feeling typical of the region’s inland valleys. It was exactly the kind of weather that motivates homeowners to eagerly buy swimming pools and their children to spend large portions of their waking hours beating the heat by staying wet.

The home was in a typical middle class neighborhood and the house was virtually indistinguishable from every other home on the street – a neighborhood typical of the massive suburban expansion that took place in the area in the years following World War II. In the backyard was a relatively ordinary pool and spa combination, but I couldn’t help thinking this should’ve been their own little slice of paradise in their backyard.

Knowing how much pools can mean to regular working-class families, like mine growing up, I felt more than a small twinge of melancholy when I arrived to find the pool was drained and a number of industry representatives gathered around the dirty and forlorn-looking vessel, which actually had been built only two years prior.

Just as Ron had described, the spa benches were indeed badly cracked. The question on everyone’s mind: Why the spa benches and not other parts of the pool?

Keep in mind that Ron had investigated scores of pool failures, written engineering specs for projects of all types including every kind of feature imaginable and had spent countless days watching pools being installed. Based on what he told me leading up to the meeting, I was fairly confident we were in for something of a revelation.

In this case, the builder of the pool (who was not present at the meeting) had told the homeowner that the problem was due to a combination of ground movement and possibly weak plaster – a rather nonsensical and highly suspect explanation, it seemed. After all, why would ground movement cause only the spa steps to fail? And relating the problem to a plaster issue also sounded implausible, even to a layperson like me. That said, not being an expert, I did my best to keep an open mind.

We all said our hellos and got down to business. Ron produced a small sledgehammer and began tapping the plaster on the spa steps. Within seconds, the solid thud of the tapping hammer took on a distinctly hollow note, as though nothing was beneath the plaster. When Ron heard that sound, he raised the hammer and with one swift smack, cracked the plaster wide open.

What we saw beneath was shocking. Instead of a solid concrete substrate, the material beneath the plaster was the consistency of loose, coarse sand. Whatever it was, it was clearly not what anyone would label concrete. In fact, the only thing holding up the steps was the plaster itself, which is there for aesthetic purposes and is never used as a structural element.

Ron went on to explain he had personally witnessed gunite crews using rebound hand-packed to form steps in spas. Apparently, using the loose material was much easier than moving the hose and nozzle into proper position to shoot the steps, due to the spas’ tight constraints.

I had been around the pool and spa industry for quite awhile at that point and was well familiar with our industry’s reputation for shoddy work, but even so, this problem was bewildering. I wondered: How could anyone try to pass this off as competent work?

On a personal level, I really felt for the family that was denied the use of their pool during those brutally hot summer months due to simple laziness. This situation was flat out wrong on a multiple levels, and sadly it was just one of many such situations.

After that demonstration and others like it, I became something of an evangelist for proper workmanship standards and practices. It doesn’t take an economist or psychologist to know that homeowners that go through this kind of failure are probably not going to give our industry rave reviews when relating their experiences to family and friends.

My thought then, as it is now, is that if we have any real hope of seeing our industry expand and reach its true potential, we must become more scrupulous when it comes to promoting proper design, engineering and installation practices.

All of that is why you’ll find a fantastically practical technical piece by my dear friend Bill Drakeley titled “Perfecting Placement.” It covers the basics of shotcrete and gunite methods of concrete placement. Among the many measures in the article, Bill makes it clear you should never use rebound when creating steps and benches, just one caveat that should be ingrained and observed in every project involving a concrete shell.

Our industry has an ethical, financial, legal and moral responsibility to follow guidelines set down by organizations such as the American Concrete Institute and American Shotcrete Association to ensure reliable concrete structures.

And of course this goes beyond concrete installation. The same should be true of plumbing and hydraulic designs, proper equipment selection, electrical installation, placement of finishing materials and every other aspect of pool and spa construction. As the experts, we as industry and as individual practitioners are obligated to get it right, not sometimes, but every time.

Anything short of that and we’re not in the business we claim to be!

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

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