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July 22, 2009

In the swim of things

The luxury of your own swimming pool isn't out of reach

Natasha Evdokimoff

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When I was kid there was a family on our street that had a pool in their backyard. Back in the 70s in small-town southern Alberta, that automatically meant you were cool—and rich, at least in the minds of anyone under the age of 12 living within a ten-block radius.

Every year from late May through the end of August, the five kids in that family were like gods. All the neighbourhood kids clamoured to be among the select group who gained access to that private oasis, if only for one day. Unfortunately for me, the only girl in the brood was the eldest, and at 14, she was much too mature and sophisticated for my 12-year-old self to hang out with.

So I and a pitiful array of other dejected pre-teen girls would commiserate with each other over the summer, spending the days in each other’s arid backyards wishing we had pools of our own and wondering just how rich you had to be to have one.

Nowadays, incorporating a swimming pool into your home building plans isn’t such an uncommon occurrence. If you go by the number of permits issued by the City of Calgary for building in-ground outdoor pools, there are around 4,000 families right now enjoying their own little backyard paradise, and that number doesn’t include the people that have chosen to go with an aboveground option (a route that doesn’t require a permit) not to mention those who choose to incorporate an indoor pool in their home. It seems the days of needing a super-sized bank account to own a swimming pool are in the past.

“Swimming pools can be very affordable,” says Chad Piteau of Trevi Pools. “It’s certainly not an elite item anymore. Most of our customers are middle-class families with young children that live in outlying suburban communities.”

That’s not to say you can’t spend a small fortune on the project. Like anything related to home construction or renovation, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating your own pool. The price tag, of course, depends on the type and size of pool you choose.

There are two options for outdoor swimming pools: Above-ground and in-ground.

Above-ground pools are the most affordable choice and the quickest to install. Prices start as low as $2,500 for a decent quality product (not the kits sold at the hardware store) and go up to about $15,000 on the upper end of the scale. Affordability is one thing, but the biggest attraction of this variety is you can start installation on Friday and be swimming in the pool on Saturday—setup generally takes just one day. If you have a houseful of kids at home all summer, this option starts to look pretty good.

The drawback to above-ground pools is poor selection. You’ve only got two choices in terms of shape: round and oblong.

“The round pools are, generally speaking, a better choice,” advises Piteau. “Structurally they’re stronger and they hold a lot more water, too, which gives you more pleasure out of the use of the pool.”

Round above-ground pools come in standard 12-, 15-, 18-, 21-, 24- and 27-foot diameters, and have a depth of four feet. The largest model holds 65,000 litres of water—a more than adequate amount for paddling around. Oblong (sometimes dubbed oval) pools are typically 12-feet-by-24-feet, 15-feet by 25-feet or 15-feet-by-30-feet—an advisable choice if the purpose of the pool is for swimming laps.

In-ground swimming pools are the more classic choice. They just look better, and more importantly, they offer a lot more options for shape and size. There are dozens of shapes to choose from, from classic kidney-shaped models and standard rectangular pools to a variety of multi-form shapes that incorporate both rounded and square walls at various points in the design. And unlike their aboveground cousins, in-ground pools allow for the incorporation of a deck area that can be laid with stone, tile, brick or aggregate.

“It’s a landscaping feature that adds tremendous appeal to your yard, both visually and from a use perspective,” says Piteau. “The decking makes the pool area really inviting and easy to enjoy.”

The installation process is obviously more complicated with in-ground pools and can occasionally prove to be a bit tricky, especially if the pool is being placed in a fully developed area. Coming across a property that can’t accommodate an in-ground pool is still a fairly unusual circumstance, however.

“We always do a site inspection first,” says Lynn Lucyshyn of Oasis Pools & Spas. “There have been a couple of instances in the past where we had to tell the customers it wasn’t possible to do the job because we couldn’t get in to the yard to dig the hole. Now, with mini-track hoes, you can get in virtually anywhere. Most often the restrictions customers face are because of the size of their lot. There are bylaws that dictate how much land your pool can take up, how far in from the property line it has to be, what kind of fence you need—all these things have to be adhered to in order to get the permit. Most often it’s possible to choose a pool size and shape that will meet all the requirements. And of course, if you dig the hole while the house is being built, it’s no problem.”

Most in-ground residential pools in Calgary are the vinyl liner variety, constructed from steel walls and supports and made watertight with a durable vinyl sheet pulled taut and attached around the frame. Installation usually takes about a week, weather permitting, but more extensive deck designs that incorporate things like rock features and waterfalls can take more time.

Price wise, an in-ground pool represents a fairly significant jump in cost. You can expect a bill of at least $20,000, but if your budget allows, it’s possible to spend $100,000 or more.

“You’re getting better quality product,” says Piteau of the price difference between in-ground and above-ground pools. “An in-ground pool is sturdier and it’s a much bigger project to put together. It takes more time, more manpower, more materials. What you end up with though, is feature that you’ll enjoy in many ways for years to come. If you look at the cost over a ten-year period and compare it to what you might spend at a fitness club or recreation centre over that time, it’s not unreasonable.

Of course, once the pool is in, you have to heat it. Propane and natural gas heaters generally burn up about $1,500 worth of power over the season. There are more cost-effective methods of keeping the water warm, however. Water source heating pumps draw ambient air into the pool for heat, and cost between one-fifth and one-eighth less to operate than propane or natural gas. Investing in a good pool cover goes a long way too. Any heat the water absorbs during daylight hours will be better retained by dutifully covering the surface every night.

The weather being what it is in Calgary (unpredictable at best), the season for outdoor pools is relatively short. Granted, you’ll maximize your use when the days are conducive (nobody takes better advantage of a sunny 27-degree day than a Calgarian), but if you really want to make the most of your swimming pool, you should build it indoors. Whether you’re incorporating a pool room into your new home design or are planning an addition to your existing home, one of the biggest considerations is humidity.

“A proper air-handling system is essential in controlling humidity,” says Scott Lineker of Master Pools. If you have a good system in place that moves and exchanges air efficiently, it’s almost a non-issue. A good cover helps too. It’s almost as important to cover an indoor pool for humidity as it is to cover an outdoor pool for cleanliness.”

Master Pools specializes in concrete basins—an alternative to vinyl liners that, although more expensive, are worth considering when building an indoor pool.

“Concrete gives you complete customization and a level of durability you just don’t get with vinyl,” says Lineker. “If the pool is going to be an integral part of your home, you might as well have it built to last.”

Concrete pools are seamless; the walls and floor are not poured individually but rather blown out all at once through nozzles using what is called the “shotcrete” technique.

“That’s what makes a concrete pool waterproof,” explains Lineker. “Then a plaster coating is put on over the concrete to solidify it.”

Indoor or outdoor, aboveground or in-ground, vinyl or concrete—a pool is a pool when it comes to keeping it clean. Maintenance is part of ownership. Most pool installers offer some sort of seasonal package for cleaning, but filtration systems have come a long way in recent years, so with minimal work involved a lot of owners opt to do it themselves.

“Cleaning is pretty much automated these days,” says Lucyshyn. “The biggest thing owners have to do is make sure the water is always at its optimum pH level. You should check the water every day and make adjustments as needed so you’re not irritating your eyes and skin every time you get in.”

The finer points of maintenance considered, the benefits of having your own pool seem to far outweigh the liabilities.

“It’s a lifestyle enhancement,” says Piteau. “It’s healthy, it’s fun, it’s relaxing, it’s refreshing, it’s romantic—a pool brings more life to your backyard.” NL

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