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The advantages of automatic pool covers are well documented. From safety to increased heating efficiency, ease of service, aesthetics and convenient operation, owners of both high-end and middleclass pools are opting for automatic covers in greater numbers.
Complicating matters for auto cover manufacturers, however, is increasing customer interest in customized pools, pushing manufacturers to create covers than can cooperate with the myriad features that can be found in today's backyards.
"I don't think we have what you could call a 'standard' pool package anymore," says Gary Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Pool & Lawn Service in McCordsville, Ind. "Especially with vinyl pools, there are all different features with tanning pads, steps and bench designs, water features, automation. Everything is about meeting the homeowner's needs. The cover has to fit different sizes and we do whatever we need to do to accommodate the many different features."
Today's auto cover systems are manufactured to suit both the form and function of custom designs. For example, encapsulated tracks and are far sturdier than surface-mounted ones because the channels are embedded in concrete.
"It's definitely the preferred method of installation," explains Aaron Burningham, owner of Intermountain Pool Covers, a Latham dealer and service firm based in Vineyard, Utah. "An encapsulated track is right under the coping, sandwiched with the top of the pool wall. We used to screw the tracks in on the underside of the coping. Now we use encapsulation, whether it's gunite, vinyl or fiberglass. Your track will just slide into that channel. All you see is the front side and you don't have issues with the track coming loose, because it's embedded."
And manufacturers have supported the market with a range of track and bracket solutions that accommodate different types of installations and cover sizes.
"All of the coping I use with vinyl liners and fiberglass is manufactured to be able to accept the cover track," Hendrick says. "They also provide a polymer vault that attaches to the pool wall and joins to the coping. We provide what we need in terms of width, length and track space, and they provide the system ready to install."
Related: Pool Covers as Art
Of the design details popular among pool owners, vanishing edges can be especially tricky to accommodate with an APC. Fortunately, new tracks and hardware have been designed for such applications.
"With a vanishing edge, it all depends on what you're trying to accomplish," Burningham says. "Some might be on the end of the pool or along a portion of one side. If you have the weir angle out, we use a top track that's slanted. If the weir is angled into the pool, you'll use an under-track mounted vertically at a 90-degree angle from the cover."
Higher water levels are another design trend impacting cover installations. "It used to be that a 4-inch water drop from the top of the coping was normal," says Allan Horwood, a cover specialist and APC dealer at Pool Patrol in Vancouver, B.C. "Now we see a lot of pools with a 2-inch drop. If we size the cover for a 4-inch drop, it will appear to be too big, so you have to adjust for the water level."
When it comes to cover size, there are two contrasting trends. On the one hand, Horwood explains, there's a strong movement toward smaller pools. "It used to be a 20-by-40 was an average sized pool — it's not anymore. Many homeowners have smaller lots and want to do more in their backyards, so they're interested in making the most of the space they have."
On the other hand, there are still customers choosing extremely large pools, and those can be challenging to cover for a number of reasons. Two years ago, Horwood's firm installed a massive 95-foot cover, which at the time was believed to be the longest APC ever produced.
As he explains: "The length makes it an enormous piece of material that's traveling a long distance. When it rolls up, for example, the drum gets huge, much too big for a standard vault. So the builder had to construct a special below-grade room at the end of the pool just for the cover. I don't remember what that cover weighs, but it took four guys just to move it into place."
The sheer size also impacted the mechanical system. "We used the same ¾-horsepower motor that we always use, but we did use a different gear ratio to accommodate the weight of the cover," Horwood says. "Even how long it takes to open and close is unusual. It travels about a foot per second, so it feels like you're standing there a really long time when we go to service the cover."
Also, because of its size, the cover creates momentum that pulls water with it. "That's something we never expected and we have been challenged by it," he says.
Related: The Case for Automatic Pool Covers
Intermountain recently installed a massive 60-by-30-foot cover. "Size was definitely a big part of the challenge; the lead bar had to be larger, the roll-up had to be larger, and the vault had to be larger than a standard pool," Burningham says. "This was also an example of a vanishing-edge pool where the inside track is higher than the track on the vanishing-edge side, 4 inches higher. So you have to accommodate the change in elevation with the bracketry you use."
One aspect of automatic covers that hasn't changed is the supremacy of the rectangle. While it is possible to cover freeform pools or those with irregular geometric designs with automatic covers, the solutions are often either extremely expensive or visually disruptive. Techniques such as the pool-within-a-pool design, extreme cantilevers or deck-mounted track are adapted to non-rectilinear designs, but with varying results.
"You can cover almost any pool, if you plan for it," says Burningham, "but rectangles are certainly the easiest."
Horwood agrees: "If I was building a pool and wanted a cover, I'd definitely build a rectangle. Actually, rectangles have become very popular in the last five years or so, with or without a cover. Most of the high-end homes in the Vancouver area have pools that are rectangles. When you think about it, most properties themselves are rectangular and certainly homes almost always have primarily rectilinear designs. So the rectangle fits neatly in a majority of settings."
Joshua Hall is not one to shy away from a challenge, so when I called to schedule an interview about a pool he'd dug by hand, he agreed, despite the reconstructive surgery he had scheduled the day before we were to talk. "It's part of the story that adds intrigue," he said in a way that promised it would be worth my...
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