It would be nice if every pool customer could afford a $500,000 vanishing-edge pool decked out with every bell and whistle on the market, but that's just not in many clients' budgets. However, there are millions of families that can afford a vinyl-liner package pool. Builders who serve this market stand to make a healthy profit if they deliver a quality product. How, then, do package pool builders create these utilitarian vessels of family fun? Following, a few vinyl-liner builders share their insights, tips and techniques for crafting a well-built package pool.
 
Getting Specs And Materials

In terms of how long it takes to get a package pool once the request is sent to the manufacturer, the builders AQUA spoke with say it takes about five to seven days. Vince Blasczyk, vice president of operations at Brown's Pools in Douglasville, Ga., gets his pools a bit quicker. "We place the order in the morning and the pool kit is delivered onsite by the afternoon," he says. "In the summertime, we'll typically get two deliveries like that in a day." Blasczyk has been building steel-walled package pools for about 30 years, but that's not why he gets them so quickly. "Kafko manufacturing is in Decatur, Ga., and we're basically 45 minutes from there."

Fred Williams, owner of Family Pools, Spas & Billiards in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., doesn't have to wait long to get his kits, either, but for a much different reason - he puts them together himself. "We buy truckloads of product that will be used on a number of different pools." So when putting together a kit, Williams just pulls whatever he needs from his inventory. Curvy, custom pools are no problem, either, since his supplier, Kafko Manufacturing Limited, makes the multi-flex panel. "The multi-flex panel is quite a unique panel because it enables me to store panels on a pallet flat, then attach what they call a strap and make any radius that I need, and that's one of the beauties of Kafko - I can make any shape or size."

Aside from the walls and other equipment, most package pools also come with blueprint-like plans. Lyle Davids, owner of Davids Construction in Lakeville, Minn., particularly likes the plans he gets from his supplier, Sentry Pool, because "they make the plan so it matches the code as opposed to leaving the installer as the resident engineer. For instance, they'll give you the configuration of what the diving bowl needs to be."

Digging In The Dirt

Before excavation, one of the most important steps in installing a package pool, it's important to check your
elevations, says Davids. "Make sure you have proper drainage, and make sure drainage moves away from the house."

Once that's done, it's time to excavate. And, according to Williams , "The hole has to be perfect. It has to be right in order for the liner to fi t and for everything to go the way it needs to go."

Says Blasczyk, "Our pools are dug in a way that's precise. It takes about five to six hours for us to dig a pool, and when our excavator leaves the job and the next crew comes in to build the pool, they don't have to put a pick or shovel on anything.

"A lot of companies don't spend enough time on the shelf of the pool, but we don't have to level a bit. Our crew comes in and they throw the walls up in about an hour and it' s ready to pour. We still check it, but the shelf is within a quarter of an inch and so there's rarely any adjustment necessary. Many companies spend two to three days just shaping the hole out because there's no definition on the walls, and that takes a lot of precious time."

Bolt, Level and Plumb

With excavation completed, it's time to set and bolt the walls, which only takes a few hours, according the builders AQUA spoke with. The key at this step it to be sure the walls are level.

"When we dig the pool, we shoot everything with a laser," says Blasczyk. "A laser will get it within a quarter to a half an inch. But we don't use a laser on the walls. We use an eyepiece level, or a builder's level, because we want it exactly level. Then after we pour the footer around the pool, we'll shoot it one more time to make sure we're not any more out of level than a quarter of an inch, and you're never going to see a quarter of an inch in a swimming pool.

"Of course, if for whatever reason it's out more than a quarter of an inch, we have to adjust it by digging concrete back, jacking [the wall] up and putting dirt under it. Most of your builders are going to walk away from it then. They're not going to do that." One thing you don't want to do is put wood shims under a wall. "Wood is going to rot, and when that wood rots, even though there's a concrete collar in the pool, you run the risk of a wall shifting and dropping, and in our eyes that's poor construction," says Blasczyk.

Next is plumbing the pool. Because he plumbs all his pools the same way, Blasczyk uses plywood jigs. "The measurements are made in the jig so that you can just basically slide the pipes right through the jig and then you can get everything backfilled with the jig holding it in place, so you have your plumbing exactly where it needs to be. The jigs take the guesswork out of it.

"A lot of times you look at plumbing on a pump and filter system and it looks like a collage of spaghetti. When we get done with it, everything is 90-degree angles and level. Every line is where it's supposed to be and it ties into the filter in a real neat way. "

Floors And Liners

One of the most difficult steps, pouring the floor, comes next. "The hardest part really is pouring all the concrete, to be honest with you. It's just a lot of intense labor when you're doing a concrete bottom," says Dean Attanasio, president of Caribbean Pools in Schenectady, N.Y.

But it's worth it. "It's the strongest bottom you can get," adds Attanasio. "And it stays strong forever - and smooth. We sand it all down with grinders before we put the liner in." Blasczyk also does concrete bottoms for durability and appearance.

"When you turn the light on at night, you don't see all these little ripples in the bottom of the pool due to footprints," he says. "And if you ever have a groundwater situation such that water comes up, you'll never have to worry about your bottom deteriorating. We back our bottom with a liftime warranty, so it's a big selling feature for us."

When Blasczyk pours concrete floors, "we'll cover the steps with plastic, so that the steps aren't getting splattered and dirty. Usually they're white and if you just take 10 minutes and cover them, then whenever you get done, all you have to do is take a razor knife and cut off the plastic and your step looks like a new step out of the package. We also cover the skimmer and drains, because if you don't cover that stuff up, which few builders do, at the end of the project, you've got steps covered in concrete. It's a mess. And when you scrape off the concrete, you' l l scratch the step."

When you're ready to install the liner, Williams says, "Don't cut corners. It's possible to stretch a liner and get that liner to fit, but the problem is that you're doing the customer an injustice because you're stretching it here and it's loose over there and over a period of time, guess where you're going to get the problem - that part where you stretched it out. And that's easy to do. It's construction - you can make stuff work."

Backfill And Deck

Even though backfilling is not a complicated task, local codes and ordinance may make this step challenging. "In many parts of the country, many municipalities won't let you put water in a pool until 80 percent of the permanent fencing is around the pool," says Davids. "But you really can't put the fence up until you do the final grade on the pool, and you can't put the final grade on the pool until you have the liner in the pool and all the water is in there.

" But Sentry has in their warranty that their pools can be backfilled without any water being in them, and this is huge. So you can backfill the pool, re-grade the whole yard, put the fence up, get the inspection and then finish the inside of the pool and put the liner in without breaching the warranty."

The last, but certainly not the least important step is installing the deck. Many builders let the backfill dirt settle for a week or two, and then do the deck. If you do a concrete deck, Williams says, "To do it correctly is an art in itself. You have to really concentrate on water drainage -away from the house and away from the pool. Not to mention, you need to have a qualified cement mason who really knows cement." Of course, package pools can have almost any type of decking, just like a gunite pool. In fact, if it's in the budget, package pools can be equipped with just about any high-end feature these days. But the beauty of a basic package pool is it offers wet, refreshing fun and relaxation - what everyone wants on sweltering summer days -at a price point that many families can afford.


TO SUB OR NOT TO SUB?

Whether or not to hire subcontractors is a question all pool builders have to answer, and what they choose to do is ultimately determined by what works best for each business. Some only use subcontractors, others use a combination of subs and in-house employees, and yet others use in-house employees exclusively. Below, two package pool builders explain their choices.

Fred Williams, owner of Family Pool, Spas & Billiards in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., subcontracts every step of the pool-building process. "But we do enough business where we keep most of them busy 365 days a year. The reason I use subcontractors is because my subs can be held to a very high standard, whereas an employee cannot be held to as high a standard . A sub knows that if he does not do his absolute best that you will get a new one, and you don't have problems with employment laws, hiring, firing, all of that. For a sub, it could be his last day any day of the week. Not to mention the fact that if a subcontractor's work is not up to standard, you tell him to do it over again until it's right.

"Let's say, for example, that I go out there and the liner doesn't fit. You look at a sub and say, "Fix it." I don't have any more expenses. My deal with a sub is I'm going to pay you X amount of dollars to build this pool the correct way and for it to be beautiful, for it to make me look great. If it doesn't look that way, the sub is bound to fix the pool and not charge me another dime; whereas if I had an employee, that employee could really dig into my pocket." Dean Attanasio, president of Caribbean Pools in Schenectady, N.Y., prefers to work with an in-house crew when installing package pools. "We've used subcontractors in the past and every time we've used them, we've had problems. If there's a problem, they just don't want to go back and fix it, ever. So we've learned that we're better off just doing everything ourselves.

"I've been installing in-ground pools myself for about 30 years, so they come like second nature for me to be able to do them, and that's what I do best. So I've learned that No. 1, if you do sub them out, the subcontractors make all the profit. They 're charging me what I charge the customers, so literally I'm not making anything at all on it. And then if I do have a problem, yeah, I can fire them, but who's going to go back and fix it? The guy's not going to fix it and now you fired him, so you've got to go back and fix it yourself. You 're not going to get a new sub to go back and fix any other sub's work without having to pay big time for it. We've had this happen with above-grounds because we sub out above-ground pools, and it's just a nightmare dealing with subs for me. We've been in business 16 years and we've just never dealt with subs on in-grounds."

If you'd like to weigh in on the great sub debate, send comments to editors@ aquamagazine or call 800-722-8764, ext. 114.

-K.E.