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Why You Should Never Ignore A Leak In Your Pool

Leak Damage In Pools It is no secret that owning a swimming pool can be a huge financial liability. Many pool owners live in fear of phantom repair bills that can spring out of nowhere, be totally mandatory, and be expensive enough that you need to get a second mortgage on your house to pay for it. Swimming pools are far more complex than the average person realizes. There are a lot of moving parts, components and interacting variables that can potentially fail and result in brutally expensive repair bills.


It might seem like you are at the mercy of your pool, and the cruel hand of fate, as to when (or if) you will be stuck with a surprise repair bill one day. This is not necessarily the case. Just in the same way that a car requires regular maintenance, so does a swimming pool. Most times, when a car breaks down, or is going to break down, there will be warning signs and symptoms. Things might start to make a funny noise, or a light may come on in the instrument cluster that indicates that your car has a problem developing. Swimming pools unfortunately lack an instrument cluster that monitors the health of your entire pool system. There is no "check engine" light for your pool. There are however certain early warning signs and symptoms that your pool will give you when you have a problem developing. As a pool owner you need to be watchful for these symptoms, any symptoms really, that might indicate an underlying problem of some kind.


Signs Of Pool Damage

If you own a swimming pool you need to be aware of any signs of damage or deficiencies in the pool system. A pool should be maintained like a car. Any component that is worn out, broken, or failing in any way, should be attended to immediately upon discovery. The biggest mistake that pool owners make is to "try to get one more season" out of a failed component. Imagine going to your mechanic and having them tell you that all four tires on your car are completely bald, leaking, and likely to experience a complete failure any point. Your response would not be "I was hoping to get one more season out of them". Or if the brakes on your car were completely past their service life - Would you drive your car with no brakes for a few more months? Probably not.


So why, when it comes to swimming pools, do owners attempt to put off critical repairs for one (or more) seasons more? The answer is simple - they do not understand the importance of the repair. A car is simple by comparison to a swimming pool in the sense that when your brakes don't work in a car, you notice. It's kind of hard not to notice. You do not interact with a swimming pool in the same way you interact with a car. A swimming pool will give you symptoms, sometimes subtle, and they can remain this way for a very long time. This is the real tragedy in this scenario - A pool can show signs of a problem but the problem appears to not get worse. Getting specific, let's look at the number one, holy grail of subtle swimming pool symptoms, an active leak.





You notice one day that you seem to be adding more water to your pool than you used to. It is a gradual change, but at some point you realize that you must in fact be adding more water than you remember needing to add in previous seasons. You start to watch more closely how much water you are adding, and you come to the conclusion that you are adding more, but not a huge amount. You just adjust your schedule from adding water every two weeks, to now adding water every seven to ten days. No big deal right? This, right here, is where the mistake first starts that will one day lead to a financially devastating emergency repair. The worst part, is that in many cases it will take years before the problem escalates, and by then there is serious damage done.


An active leak can and will undermine and break every part of your swimming pool if given enough time to do so. Like water eroding the landscape over thousands of years, water leaking from a swimming pool will do tiny, incremental damage, that adds up over an extended period of time. In the cases of many pool leaks, the water will not continue to escape faster and faster. You will develop a leak, and it will leak at a steady rate, constantly. Since the leak does not accelerate in water loss as time passes, the pool owner might not think the problem warrants further consideration. This story, of long term leaks that go unnoticed, is the start of many pool ownership nightmare stories. If you have a leaking pool then the importance of attending to this immediately can not be understated.


What Happens If You Ignore A Pool Leak?

As water escapes your pool system it can start to accumulate in areas where it should not be. Chlorinated water, when allowed to escape the pool, will begin to damage metal components within the pool structure such as galvanized steel walls of vinyl liner pools, and rebar embedded within shell of concrete pools. In addition to the concern of chemical damage, an even greater concern is the movement of water through the ground around the pool. Slow moving water can carve right through solid rock...if given enough time. Water traveling through the ground around your pool will strip the cement from concrete, leaving only sand and gravel behind. Over a long period of time enough cement has washed away from the concrete to reduce the strength drastically. Where once there was a lattice network of cement binder along with sand and gravel aggregate, only sandy gravel remains.


Water traveling through concrete will usually take a very long time to undermine the strength of the concrete. Think decades, not years. Water traveling through soil will have a similar effect to the concrete, but a much more advanced time scale. As soil washes away with moving water, the ground around your pool becomes unsupported, and structural failures of the pool and pool decking begin to happen. Nobody wants to tear out and replace a concrete pool deck any sooner than absolutely necessary. Tiny, incremental leaks from your pool are the most likely thing to force you into this type of pool renovation many years sooner than you would hope for.


Over a lifetime of swimming pool contracting, and being someone who specialized in difficult remediation projects, the worst pools that I ever had to fix were ones that had been leaking for an extended period of time. Swimming pools are built to last, but the specific type of damage that underground leaks do is pretty much a worst case scenario. No matter what type of swimming pool you have, vinyl liner, concrete or fiberglass, the last kind of problem that you want to have is a structural failure. Underground leaks that are left for an extended period of time will almost always cause problems for the pool structure. No pool is built to have an active leak and having one compromises the efficiency of the pool in the short term, combined with longevity of the installation in the long term.


Beware Of Buying A House With An Old Pool

Buying a house with an old concrete pool The worst and most expensive pool problems are the ones that add up over time, usually from underground leaks. In the above example I compared swimming pool maintenance to the regular maintenance you need to do to a car, in that maintenance should be performed as soon as a problem is found. This is a great way to care for your pool - most specifically if you own the pool from the time it is newly installed. This gives you the unique perspective of knowing the baseline operation of the pool. You have the opportunity to notice if the pool starts to lose more water at some point in the future. Unfortunately this is not the case for most pool owners. Most pool owners assume ownership of the pool and the problems the pool has both known and unknown long after the pool has been built. You have no idea of the history of the pool, any problems it has, or any repairs that have been made to it over the years.


This is how swimming pools can be owned and operated for so long with active leaks. This is also how huge, expensive damage can happen to the pool. The unfortunate reality is that many unscrupulous people will sell a home with a pool that has a known deficiency, and make attempts to hide this from the new pool owner. Again, given the long term nature of damage from leaks, many years can pass before a leak develops an unmistakable symptom of a problem. By this point the new pool owner will be left holding the bag, and paying the bill, even though the problem may have existed for ten years or more before they bought the house. Buying an old pool, especially old concrete pools which can remain in serviceable condition for 50 to 70 years or more, is the biggest area of concern.


When I see a young couple buy a house with a 30, 40 or 50 year old concrete pool I become very uneasy. It is not as hard as you think to make a pool "look" to be in good shape, at least for a short period of time. Again, going back to my example of comparing pool maintenance to car maintenance, an old concrete pool is like a 1950's jalopy rust bucket that has been sitting in a farmers field for two decades. Could it be beautiful again? Actually it probably can as long as the "bones" of the pool are good. The thing is, you can't do something like that for cheap. If you are going to buy any pool that is older than 10 to 20 years old you have to go into it expecting that it has major hidden problems. You have to be watchful for any signs of deficiency, but more importantly, you must have the funds to cover a worst case scenario.


Are concrete pools worse than fiberglass and vinyl liner pools? No - the reason why concrete pools are more of a concern is that concrete pools tend to last longer than other pools. A vinyl liner pool or a fiberglass pool that is 40 years old will, first of all, probably not exist. If they do exist you can probably tell that they are very, very old. A concrete pool can fool you. A concrete pool can more effectively hide its age, and with a service life two to three times longer than other pool types, you can end up buying a pool that is much older than you think. The older the pool is, the more likely it will need structural repairs. Concrete pools are also the most expensive of the pool types, and the hardest to remediate the structure. When you add all of these factors together you can begin to see why buying an old concrete pool is such a concern. On the flip side of that coin, a well built concrete pool without any deficiencies can last for a very, very long time - so long as you keep an eye on the rate of water loss.


Water Loss In Concrete Pools

There is a unique consideration that is worth noting when discussing pools leaks, as well as pool longevity. While all swimming pools are supposed to be water proof the reality is that they are not. Both vinyl liner and fiberglass pools have an interior surface that is non-porous. This means that water will not pass through the surface of the pool unless there is some kind of deficiency. Concrete pools are not the same. Concrete pools are highly water resistant - but NOT waterproof.


Now remember, I am (was) a world class concrete pool builder. I am not someone unfamiliar with concrete pool installations trying to say that fiberglass and vinyl liner pools are better (they are not). I am someone specifically familiar with concrete pools, and the reality is that almost all concrete pools leak. Concrete is a porous substance. Plaster, and other pool interior surfaces, are very dense mortar that has a special hard trowel finish. Others are like exposed aggregate. At the end of the day, all interior surfaces in concrete pools leak. This is just how they work in the real world. Concrete pools are definitely not supposed to leak water - but it is very common for them to leach water. Water will wick through the pool interior surface and into the shell. Even under optimal conditions pool plaster is still made from a porous material and water can, and will, pass through it. Again, does this mean that concrete pools will all leak? No, not really.


Concrete pools do not actively leak - they wick water. This causes the pool shell to be damp, and the ground around the pool to be damp, but not like a leak. A leak is actively flowing water. A concrete pool wicks water but should not have water actively flowing anywhere through the ground. The real problem with this whole equation is that concrete pools will have varying rates of water loss, much more so than vinyl liner or fiberglass pools. During wet seasons a concrete pool will not wick as much water. During dry seasons you will be adding water to the pool slightly more often. What this all adds up to is it is harder to notice when the rate of water loss in a concrete pool increases. Since that is the only warning sign that you will get, it is significant that it will be hard to notice this in a concrete pool more so than with any other type.


How To Avoid Expensive Pool Repairs

Even by asking the question "how to avoid expensive pool repairs" you are already ahead of the curve. Chemical maintenance is the most likely thing for you to make a mistake with that will cause damage to some part of your pool. Any pool owner looking to avoid costly repairs needs to understand the importance of chemical balancing as it relates to pool equipment longevity as the two are directly related. A great starting point for pool owners looking to avoid early repair bills is to read this article on how to get the most life from your pool.


Small and medium sized leaks in your pool that last for an extended period of time are one of the most important things that you must avoid. The leak itself is usually not expensive to repair if you are lucky enough to notice it quickly. The expensive part about a leaking pool is the peripheral damage the moving water does to the pool structure as well as the area around the pool. The best defense that you have as a pool owner is to be aware that even a small leak is a concern. If you suspect that you have a pool leak then you should contact a leak detection expert in your area, or begin the leak detection process on your pool using this article on swimming pool leak detection.





Swimming Pool Steve


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