My name is David Penton, owner of Fluid Dynamics Pool and Spa Inc. in Southern California. I am a registered SWD Master and licensed Professional Watershape Designer. In other words, I design and build pools for a living, and I am writing today with a personal message to my peers in the pool business. We pool builders have a responsibility to our clients to deliver a successful project, within budget, that meets (and hopefully exceeds) their expectations.
This means we need to take ownership of the project from the beginning. And not just the planning and construction phases. That goes without saying. I mean we need to take ownership of the water itself from the start so that when we turn the pool over to the customer, their pool is beautiful, balanced, and ready to enjoy. It is on us to ensure that the pool is started up correctly.
Pool Builders Should Own the Startup Process
Ultimately, it is our responsibility as pool builders to present our clients with the best possible product within their price point. Pool startups are such a tricky service to perform properly; so why would you delegate it to someone you may be unfamiliar with, or is unfamiliar with the pool? There is nobody more familiar with the ins and outs of our new pools than we are.
There is so much potential for damage in the first few weeks after filling a new pool. Leaving startup to a potentially unqualified individual is asking for trouble down the road. In my opinion, startup falls under quality control and is one of the last items we must complete before turning the pool over to our client. Personally, I do startups myself, and sometimes with the help of service guys that I know and trust; service professionals that I have personally vetted. We do not perform startups for free either. We include a line-item in our contract so that our clients know exactly how much money they are paying for our startup service, which also allows us to explain why a good startup is so important.
The buck stops with us. We are the liaison with the client. We get the upset phone calls when there are problems. And if we want to control the outcome of our projects, we should include startups in our scope of work. I speak from experience.
Unattractive Finish = Unhappy Clients
For many years, just like you, I faced my share of pool surface problems. These problems make the surface look uneven and flawed, which translates to an unhappy client; an unhappy client who just spent a lot of money for a beautiful pool. Trust me, the client's vision of a backyard pool never includes streak lines, discolorations, and other unsightly blemishes on their surface.
The problem here is this: if we relinquish control of the startup process, then we have no idea where the problem originated. Was it a startup chemistry problem, or a genuine plaster issue? Was it an application and workmanship issue, or was it a problem with the plaster ingredients themselves? Without being on site and [at least] supervising the plastering/exposure/startup processes, how will you know? Startups alone will not stop all of these problems, which reinforces my point of why it's so important to take ownership of the entire process from the beginning. That means being on site when the plaster crew is there, and when the exposure process is being done, and yes, of course, the startup too.
Without a history of what happened in the first month, it is complicated to try and go back and figure things out.
Another factor is the client. Do they have realistic expectations? Did they expect perfection from a hand-applied material, which is imperfect by nature? I make it a point to guide my clients to have realistic expectations of what their pool surface will look like.
Why We Own the Startup Process
Let me go back to the beginning of my career. This entire topic started for me when I was a service guy in SoCal. I always felt nervous about startups. If I did anything wrong, the fingers would be pointed at me if there were any plaster issues. I still remember that feeling of pressure.
Now I'm an SWD Master pool builder, and I do not want to put anyone in that sort of situation. I also want to be able to have control over the final product that my client paid me to create for them. I would rather not risk someone rushing through the startup process and cutting corners. Instead, I want to make sure enough time is spent doing my startups properly.
So I have included pool startups in each of my contracts. This way, I take ownership of the outcome, but also control more variables. I ensure the people I hire to do my startups (if not me personally) are being appropriately compensated for the work. Going cheap is just asking for corners to be cut. And I do not tolerate cut corners. I find that too many pool professionals under-value their their worth and time. A thorough startup is a process that takes several weeks, and should not be rushed. I want to emphasize this again: people doing startups must be properly compensated for their time and effort. The notion that service techs should do a pool startup "for free" (in the hope of earning the service account) is frustrating to me. I believe the startup is some of the most important work that can be done in the lifetime of the pool...why are we doing it pro bono? This should not even be a consideration.
Many of my clients have had long-term relationships with their service professionals; this may be the 3rd or 4th property they have built a pool at. While I appreciate the long-term relationship they have with their chosen service tech, I do not want the service company I choose to lose interest because they have no chance of retaining the client after the startup is completed. So I insist that my chosen service tech is properly compensated for the hard work during the startup. I also want to ensure that they maintain a sense of pride and professionalism in their work.
For too long, we pool builders have have minimized the role of service techs. As far as I am concerned, those days are over, and I am writing this today to voice my opinion: I want to see this dynamic changed. It's time we pool builders respect the service pros for the hard work they do.
Our Preferred Startup Method
Thanks to a generous amount of research done by different groups and companies, we have far more information about pools today than we ever have in the past. We now know how fresh cement-based finishes (like plaster, pebble, and quartz) interact with water as a pool fills up. We see the timeline of events and can predict what will happen.
Not too long ago, it was rare for pool builders even to own a pool chemistry test kit. Those days are over. I personally test and log the tap water chemistry of every client's home, so I know exactly what will be filling up my pools. Do you?
Aggressive tap water is the norm, not the exception. We cannot predict tap water chemistry, so it is essential to test it. LSI calculator apps like Orenda make it easy to gauge the balance of water. We now know to fill the pool with water that falls within a slightly positive range of LSI, which will minimize–if not prevent–plaster dust. We can then dial the chemistry in further the next day, and get the equipment running. We have had tremendous success with this approach.
To make the process easier, my good friend and trusted pool professional, Dave Rockwell, came up with an innovation that helped automate the fill-up process: the startup barrel. Orenda has since adopted it and expanded upon its design to include an auto-shutoff mechanism. The point is, this barrel helps automate the process and control the flow rate of what is being introduced to the pool.
Beyond The Startup
I believe water chemistry–like so many other aspects of swimming pools–is moving toward full automation. This is a good thing for the industry, and as a pool builder, I take comfort in knowing that well after I am gone, the chemical automation system will help keep my client's pool balanced for the long term. Hopefully, the water chemistry stays well within range throughout the lifetime of the pool.
I really want the entire aquatics industry to begin working together as a unit. For too many years, pool builders, plasterers and service techs have been pointing fingers when problems occur. This constant blame-game is detrimental for our industry as a whole because, in the end, the homeowner loses. The continual in-fighting continues to divide our trades, but we need each other!
In the mind of homeowners thinking about investing in a swimming pool, pools come with a giant "buyer beware" disclaimer. Unfortunately, they are wise to view us this way. As an industry, we need to promote pools for the wonderful assets they are. Swimming pools bring joy and happy memories to families; they can increase the value of a property; they promote healthy living; they give families a place to teach children the invaluable life skill of swimming.
In conclusion, pool builders should take ownership of the pool startup because it is such a vital part of the project. Sure, it takes more time and diligence, but relinquishing control of the process is just inviting ways to disappoint our clients. If you cannot personally perform the startups, find people whom you trust that can do them on your behalf, just like I do with Dave Rockwell. In the end, the customer wins, and that's what really matters.
About the Author: David Penton is an SWD Master, Licensed Watershape Designer and Pool Builder in Southern California. David is active with the pool education group Genesis, and is one of the founding members of the Ask The Masters Podcast/Video Series online.
David has extensive experience in building some of the most stunning and structurally challenging watershapes in the country, if not the world. He now devotes much of his time to helping others in the pool industry grow and learn.