Current Thinking

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There's something missing from a lot of pools. Sure, the designs are getting more elaborate. There are more high-tech features and automation devices available — and affordable — even in moderate price ranges. Faux rock, swim outs, fountains and jets and waterfalls, vanishing edges and slides. Around the pool and spa, grills, bars and furnished living spaces are commonplace. So what's missing from this total backyard retreat?

Swimming.

That's right, most residential pools are too small to really swim in. "There's so much cool technology in pools, like salt chlorinators and automatic covers and solar and all kinds of architectural and water-feature designs, and the thing that gets overlooked is the swimability of the water," says Peter Davidson, president of Current Systems, Calabasas, Calif., manufacturer of the Riverflow, a swimcurrent generating system.

"Swimming is one of the most popular sports," says James Murdoch, president of Endless Pools, Aston, Pa. "As we get older, we all recognize that need for aerobic activity, and swimming is the one that doesn't hurt your joints."

But the vast majority of backyard pools are seen as a leisure amenity rather than a health and fitness product. "The average pool, 25 to 40 feet long, is just too short for effective lap swimming," says Davidson.

Value Added

Although they’ve been around for about 20 years, systems for swimming in place are catching on as the population becomes more interested in — and savvy about — health and fitness, and in particular, the enormous benefits of aquatic exercise. As customers start asking for functionality in addition to the inherent leisure benefits of a backyard pool, builders are starting to see the advantage of offering additional value and satisfaction to their clients.

"I don't think the industry has taken people's enthusiasm for swimming seriously," says Murdoch. "From the industry standpoint, clients buy a pool because it's for relaxation. It is a leisure product as opposed to a health and fitness product. There's no question that it's a leisure product, too, but for some segment of the market it is also a health and fitness product. And the industry has not capitalized on that niche group."

Davidson has a similar view: "There isn't much attention paid to functionality and swimability, it's more the other bells and whistles," he says. "The few of us niche people are trying to emphasize that, 'Wow, you have this great environment for exercise and health and fitness, why not do something with it?

Murdoch, who does extensive consumer marketing, says homeowners grasp the concept quickly. "They realize, 'Of course! Here I have a $60,000 pool and all I need to do is add this and now I can swim. I don't have to go to a club pool.' That becomes clear to them."

Renovation Up-Sell

The available variety of current machines address just about any pool design and any pool owner's pocketbook. Many builders are finding that a swim current is a profitable upsell during a renovation or remodel. "We get quite a few retrofit projects," says Davidson. "Usually it's when people are doing something else, whether they're replastering or they're going to completely redo the pool."

Murdoch has seen a lot of activity in the renovation sector, too. "We've had a lot of interest at the shows from builders large and small. And, interestingly, from people who renovate pools; the renovation market is very large. Offering a product that a renovator can use is a great opportunity. If you're already resurfacing the pool and you're changing some things, to be able to say to the customer, 'why don't you swim in this pool, too.' is a win-win," he says. "There are some upgrades like programmability, digital displays, things that make it even more profitable for the dealer."

Bee For Every Blossom

Whether new construction or renovation, gunite, vinyl-liner or fiberglass, there are multiple options for the builder adding functionality to a backyard pool.

The most involved installation is a behind-the-wall unit like the Riverflow system. Wall penetrations and fittings are placed and the plumbing then travels underground to the pump, which can be as far as 100 feet away. Davidson's system propels as much as 5,000 gpm to create a smooth, nonturbulent current that is controlled by a variable-speed remote control.

"It is a pump that comes with its own wall-penetration fittings, whether it's for gunite or fiberglass or vinyl liner," says Davidson. "So there are lots of different models of fiberglass and vinyl-liner pools that we adapt to."

For a renovation, or to install on an existing pool, the builder will have to cut into the wall. "We provide the engineering. It's not a big deal," says Davidson. "There are either two or three holes required and then our fittings are set in and then it's recemented and replastered. All the plumbing goes underground back to wherever the pump is located."

The advantages of a behind-thewall system are that it's mounted flush to the pool wall, so it's unobtrusive, aesthetically. "We get a lot of calls from people who don't want anything with them in the pool or hanging over the deck or visible in any way," Davidson says.

Hanging Out

At a lower price point and lessinvolved to install are over-the-wall or wall-mounted units. These are typically self-contained units that are — as you might guess — mounted on the deck or the pool wall. Some types blow water and air with a large jet like those found in portable hot tubs. Others have a propeller and intake system. (Note: the two types provide noticeably different swimming experiences, so be sure to choose the one your client prefers.) Other differences may be found in the motors, some are electric, others are hydraulic.

Portability and appearance are other differentiators. Homeowners who have spent heavily on a beautiful pool will likely have strong opinions on how they want it to look. "The concept with the deck-mount is to retrofit and you want it to have as light an imprint as you can, but the fact of the matter is that you have a serious machine there," says Murdoch. "What we heard at the trade shows is, 'I don't want to see anything,' and I can appreciate that. But on the other side is the people who want this for its functionality. There are a lot of people who like cool gadgets, and this is a cool gadget for a swimmer."

Is It Safe.

"One of the challenges here is, because you're moving so much water, (the Fastlane can pump 5,000 gpm) you don't want to have any kind of entrapment issues," says Murdoch. An advantage of a deck- or wall mounted unit is the opportunity for the intake to be spread over multiple planes. "A 16-inch propeller inside the unit pulls water up through grills on five sides — front, back, two sides and the bottom — so there's no entrapment hazard," says Murdoch. Behind-the-wall systems should have at least 5 square feet of safety grate over the intake.

"We just got NSF certification for our pump and for our grate — we manufacture our own safety grate," says Davidson. Additionally, the design of the grate box enhances safety, and the company has provided a plumbing stub where an SVRS can be installed if the customer wants one, or if local regulations dictate.

Who Wants to Swim?

Builders know their customers better than anyone else, of course, but the manufacturers pay close attention to demographics nationwide. "There's a spread, of course, but the lion's share would be the fitness-minded," says Davidson. "It's people who, if they're not swimmers, they want to be, because every other exercise that's shock and gravity oriented is harmful to them. It's not just baby boomers, though, I think everybody has become more aware of the ways to achieve fitness that are less harmful. There's sophistication all the way through the age groups."

That sophistication is translating into sales in the swim-in-place niche. "It's doing really well, says Murdoch. "We're very pleased entering our second year [with the Fastlane unit]."

Says Davidson, "The market is great. This winter has been surprising. This last quarter we've had about three times the inquiries and about double the sales." Davidson attributes the success to consumer awareness; clients are seeking out the product.

"It surprised me because money is getting more expensive," he says. "The big rush of home-equity money is pretty much over as the market adjusts. It's surprising us that demand has been so steady." It's not surprising that fitnessminded people are, at the moment, the primary customers for a swim current installation; they're seeking them out. The pool of potential customer is what's really exciting. "I think that in this arena it's crucial that we recognize that the consumer needs to be educated about the possibility of swimming in their backyard pool," says Murdoch. "They've never thought of their backyard pool as a play where there could swim. The backyard pool is a place to relax. So it's incumbent upon us to teach them that such an opportunity exists."

Davidson makes similar observation. "We have a few builders that promote [the swim current] on renovations; most of it is consumer-driven, though," he says.

"My goal is to make something that's for the everyman," says Murdoch. "I want a pool builder to be able to say to clients, 'Look, you have a swim-out, you have a slide, your spouse wants to swim, how about you get one of these?'"

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