When it comes to sloping, hilly backyards, pool builders are often limited in what they can offer to a homeowner in search of a pool. Consumers with big budgets are able to overcome the slopes in their backyard by building expensive retaining walls and bringing in heavy equipment.
But for the mid-range homeowner living on challenging terrain that wants a swimming pool, earth-moving may not be in the budget.
In this situation, pool builders typically sell and install a nice aboveground pool that matches their budget. But an aboveground pool installed on a hill still requires an expensive retaining wall to support the structure. Is there another option? Yes: the semi-inground hybrid pool.
A Pool for All Slopes
For years now, manufacturers of both inground and aboveground pools have listened to installers about the lack of pool options available for sloping, hilly backyards. In the past few years, several manufacturers have introduced a new "hybrid" pool, a model that is much stronger than a typical aboveground pool and can therefore be installed semi-inground — a perfect match for a sloping backyards because you can backfill right up against the pool itself. Rather than a single, rolled-wall sheet of steel that is typical of aboveground pools, new semi-inground hybrids are made of heavier-grade steel panels like those used for inground vinyl-liner pools.
The problems presented by sloping backyards are very common, says Jim Hughes, owner of Under The Sun Improvements in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Developers bought and developed homes on some awfully challenging sites over the past 20 years," he says. "There are hundreds of these nice, middle-class homes built on hillsides with space that is basically unusable — and then they want a pool." To address this, Hughes has focused on selling and installing a hybrid-semi-inground pool that works well on these steep backyards.
From an installer's perspective, installing a semi-inground pool is easier because it requires less ground preparation time because there is no need to worry about equalizing the distribution of water weight to ground to keep the pool in place. In addition, there is no sand/cement slurry mix required, and if the installer does need to dig into a slope, the same dirt can be used to backfill against the pool.
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There are a few installation tricks for these pools that help speed and smooth the process. "We use cap blocks below each panel point," explains Brian Zettle of BZ Pool & Decks of Johnston, Pa. "After excavation, we mark the ground with paint every 4 feet and place an 8-by-6-inch solid cap block using a transit level. We then place a small level on each block and assemble the panels on top of these caps without the need to worry about leveling the panels after assembly."
Every builder is different, but Zettle finds it takes more time to level the entire pool once the panels are bolted together, especially on sloped terrain. "We find it faster and easier to level the panels before they are bolted together," he says.
One of the biggest objections by consumers to traditional aboveground pools has been the wall itself. Consumers usually don't want to see the wall because it tends to stand out as an eyesore in their backyard. (This is just one reason consumers spend considerable sums of money on surrounding decks.) By being able to bury the wall partially or fully, this objection is removed. There are even some manufacturers that provide a vertical siding kit that snaps onto the sides of the wall panels and looks like the siding found on homes. Builders can 'dress up' any exposed pool panels by matching up the house siding to the pool siding.
With luck, the money the customer saved on earth-moving and retaining walls will be available for a patio and landscaping. Stone treatments on the backside of the pool are one the most popular options for this pool. With this pool, the slope can even provide a great place to hide the equipment pad out of sight of the home.
It's important to show consumers these options with photos and be sure to offer a wide range of pavers and stones both to cover the pool ways and to use them on surrounding patios. "We do a lot of home shows in our area and always show the stone patio options, photos of our work and landscaping stones available to dress up the area around the pool," says Hughes. "These options really get customers excited."
The pool industry is well aware that the deck or patio area is an important part of the backyard in today's market. Traditional aboveground pool dealers commonly sell "deck kits" that are bolted to the aboveground pool — but these have limited space and are limited in design. The strength of the hybrid pool allows builders to use the same kind, size and weight of deck as an inground pool. These pools can handle bullnose, aluminum coping, into which an installer can pour concrete. The ability to build a real deck and patio space for customers opens up new profit opportunities to builders as well as retailers — everything from the deck itself to BBQs, furniture and landscaping.
In addition, the hybrid pool can match up to existing decks. Many homes on sloping land already have a deck in back, and consumers often want to simply add a pool to it. The hybrid pool works well here because installers can easily match up the pool to the existing height of the deck.
Everyone wants steps. Most consumers would prefer to step into a pool instead of climbing down a ladder. This is especially important for consumers that have small children or elderly grandparents using the pool. A hybrid pool provides the option of replacing one of the panels in the pool wall with a standard, plastic step, just like an inground pool. This is a feature that builders can use to upsell a customer while also improving the overall aesthetics of the backyard, especially on a sloping backyard with a patio. (Note: If you aren't an inground pool builder and new to building this type of pool, it's important to remember to pour a concrete footing for any walk-in-plastic step you install.)
There are also many attractive drop-in step options available on the market today that work well with a semi-inground pool, even liner or steel step options.
Having a full four feet of water depth is very important to some consumers. Traditional aboveground pools have a 48-inch wall, which results in about 3 ½ feet of actual water depth.
Offering additional water depth can be a helpful selling point. Like an inground pool, the larger hybrid oval pools have a custom bottom with a flat, shallow area, slope and a deeper hopper area. These pools still must confirm to APSP specifications and will never be diving pools, but because of the construction, they do allow for more flexibility of design than aboveground pools. About 40 percent of the hybrid pools sold today are designed with a custom bottom.
There are pools for every budget and landscape, and builders should be aware that in addition to aboveground, inground, vinyl, fiberglass, concrete and steel pools, the semi-inground hybrid can be an excellent option in the right circumstances. "Knowledge is power when it comes to selling to every potential customer in your market," says Hughes. "As installers, we work to find a pool solutions in price range that is comfortable to the consumer, and the hybrid pool can be the perfect in-between price point that works for homes with sloping backyards in many of these middle-class neighborhoods in our market."
Eric Gohn is vice president of sales at Fox Pool Group and a 24-year veteran of the pool industry. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.