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What's not to like about automatic covers. They make pools safer, they reduce heating and chemical costs, and generally make the pool easier to maintain. Plus, they're not hard to use, which means they'll actually get used. "If something is not convenient, even if it's a good idea, people just won't do it," says Wes Mathis, co-owner of Pool Cover Specialists, Nat'l. "So automatic covers today are just incredibly convenient. For example, we've cut down the closure time from about a minute to 20 or 25 seconds."
Of course, the one downside to auto covers is they can't be used as winter covers - or so you thought. This misconception may stem from the fact that years ago, when automatic cover tracks were screwed into coping, it was possible for covers to get pulled off tracks, especially if there was a heavy snowfall and/or the water level got too low. "The track was vulnerable to pulling loose, and it sometimes did because it wasn't anchored tight," says Mathis.
But that is not the case today. "The way we anchor the track today with track retainers facilitates a better anchoring," says Mathis. "The track retainer is embedded right into the side walls of the pool with the track, so there's just no way for the track to pull loose.
"Now, the worst case scenario is the webbing would be ripped off the side of the cover. Let's say if the pool had a leak and drained down and was empty and it got two feet of snow on it, you might have enough tension there to rip the sides of the webbing off and have to have that cover repaired. But we've improved the way we anchor the webbing on the covers, too, so it would take an awful lot of weight, just thousands and thousands of pounds, to actually compromise the fabric, and a track just can't pull out anymore.
"For instance," continues Mathis, "at my pool in Utah last winter, we had one bizarre storm that dropped about 2 feet of snow, all of which went on top of the cover, and on a 20by-40-foot pool that translates into about 20,000 pounds of snow. But it was no problem at all."
Harold Rogers, vice president of sales and marketing at Coverstar, says his company has also established a more durable means of securing the automatic cover track: "In 1992, we developed what we call track encapsulation, and that's basically a pocket the track screws to. So you put the encapsulation on top of the deck, screw it down to the deck and then you pour the coping on top or put your brick on top. Then, the track goes into the encapsulation with a spacer underneath to lock it in place." And with this method, Rogers says he no longer hears about covers coming offtracks, unless pools drain because of a leak.
So if pools and their covers are maintained as they should be, the cover won't come off the tracks during the winter, and there's no reason an automatic cover can't be a winter cover as well. There are, however, a few particular steps to take to properly winterize a pool with an auto cover.
Plug It Up
"It's a simple process," says Mathis. "Normally, when you winterize a pool, you lower the water level and blow out your lines to make sure you don't have any freezing pipes, etc. When you winterize a pool with an automatic cover, you lower the water level to somewhere between the bottom of the skimmer and normal water level and then blow out the lines and plug them up with inexpensive, little round rubber plugs. That prevents water from ever backfilling into the lines and doing some damage, and you're good to go.
"The rule of thumb," adds Mathis, "is you have to have enough water in the pool for 80 percent of the cover to still be resting on the water's surface when you're at the winterizing water level because that will support any amount of snow or ice that might accumulate on top of the cover."
Larry Hayes, owner of Anchor Spa & Pool in Huntley, Ill., employs a similar technique, but does not lower the water level. Hayes describes how he winterizes a pool with an auto cover: "There is a winterizing plug made by Gigit Inc., that you screw into a return fitting and it has a oneway check valve that allows you to blow water and antifreeze out and then when you shut the air compressor or your vacuum off, it seals. Then it has a rubber cap you snap over it, so that you can actually blow lines out underwater." After that, the skimmer must be winterized. Marketing World Pool Products makes the Gizzmo, also designed to protect skimmers from freezing.
The other key piece of equipment, notes Hayes, is an Aquador skimmer face plate. "This special face plate receives a Tupperware-type, snap-on lid that goes on the face of the skimmer. Because the water level is up in the skimmer, you need these covers. Then you pump or suck the water out of the skimmer boxes so you can blow the water out of the skimmer line and now the pool water is not going down in there, and you've winterized the whole pool without taking any water out of it." The Lid'l Seal made by Jedco Products is another winterizing snap-on lid for skimmers.
Troy Derheim, president of Tubs of Fun in Fargo, N.D., says because his company has been putting automatic covers on almost every pool it builds, he also does not lower the water level and uses the Gigit plugs and the Aquador to winterize pools. "The Gigit plugs save time and get the water out, so you know you have the lines sealed properly," says Derheim.
"Typically, when you blow a line, you dump antifreeze in there and you blow it all the way through. And as the line is blowing, you screw on the fitting and you should have all the air out of it. With these Gigits, you can put them in all the lines and turn the pump on and start it blowing and you can go from one to the other and close them all off without having to stop and start the process over.
"Then," continues Derheim, "once the Aquador is on and the skimmer is empty, we'll take an antifreeze bottle with about 8 to 10 ounces left in it, turn it upside down and put it in the skimmer in case the Aqudor leaks. We also put plugs in the bottom of the skimmer, too, so then it will allow for expansion in there if the Aquador leaks."
Rogers agrees the best situation is to keep the water level up throughout the winter, but notes this may not work well on gunite pools with tile at the waterline. "The tile tends to freeze and pop off," he says. To prevent this, he recommends lowering the water level to 1 inch below the tile. "Normally, the water doesn't come up to the top of the tile anyway, so you're only lowering it about 2 to 4 inches at the very most."
Pump It Off
Something pool owners should do year-round, but absolutely must do in the winter, is keep the automatic cover pump on top of the cover. According to product literature from CoverP ools, "It is important to keep all water pumped off your cover as freezing weather approaches so you can go through the winter with as little weight as possible on the cover. Your pump can be left on the cover through freezing weather."
This last piece of information might surprise some pool owners, but it's true. "The automatic cover pumps are designed to actually withstand being frozen," says Mathis. "It's amazing how they've been designed. You look at them and think, 'My gosh, the pump's probably damaged, it's frozen in ice,' but the reality is they work very well. If, for instance, the pump was encased in ice and then you had a thaw, the pump would activate itself and expel the water from the cover so that by the time it got cold and froze again, you would have eliminated most, if not all, of the water on top of the cover."
So once the pump is placed on the cover for the winter, pool owners are pretty much set - they don't need to manually turn the pump on and off. "ASTM requires all automatic pool cover manufacturers who want to call their cover a safety cover to have an automatically activated pump," says Mathis. "You just leave it plugged in all winter."
Hayes describes what can happen if the pump is not kept on the cover throughout the winter: "If this is an undertrack system and they let the snow and water and ice build up on the cover, it's going to displace the water in the pool and that water is going to go up and over the wall into the auto cover box."
Pool cover manufacturers also recommend inspecting the water level in the pool at least once a month, if not more often, during the winter to be sure water has not drained out of the pool. In addition, check to make sure any drains in the cover housing are kept free of debris to allow water to drain freely.
Each fall, it's also a good idea to look for holes in the cover and to clean it. "Because if there's a hole in the auto cover," says Hayes, "that means the pool water is going to come through that hole, and if there's a pump on top, it's just going to keep pumping it.
"I had a customer do this. Real early in the spring he told me his pool had a leak, and I told him to open his auto cover because if the pool is leaking, that cover is just going to fall in. He didn't open the cover and it started dipping way down into the pool. I said, 'I told you to open that thing.' He said, 'I know, I forgot, but my pool is still losing water.' Then I asked, 'Is there a hole in your cover and is it next to the cover pump.' Sure enough, there was a hole right next to the pump. He basically drained his pool because he had a hole in his cover."
Rogers describes why it's important to clean the cover each fall: "If you roll up leaves in the cover, then they can stain the fabric, and if you don't clean it, you also have the potential of having a concentration of chemicals on top of the cover that are going to be there all winter. Because when the cover comes off the pool, it rolls up on a tube and what you're doing is transferring the water from the bottom of the cover to the top of the cover. And then when you roll it out, the sun dries that and the water evaporates, but any chemicals stay."
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