The safest accessory is an automatic pool cover.
As one of the most brutal winters in Madison history mercifully comes to a close, residential swimming pool owners -- and there are plenty of them -- must be feeling antsy, awaiting those long and lazy days spent poolside with family and friends.
But not so fast, warns Fred Bachmann, owner of Bachmann Pools & Spas, one of the Madison area's leading pool builders and service providers. "I've been installing pools for 30 years, and this has been the coldest winter I can remember," Bachmann says. "The frost has never gone deeper."
Which means Bachmann and his counterparts likely will spend a good chunk of this spring repairing severed plumbing lines and buckled pool walls.
Such is the risk that residential pool owners in Wisconsin take when they commit to shelling out an average of $40,000 to $60,000 for a slice of paradise that typically lasts from Memorial Day through Labor Day. But even with such a limited season, Joe Van Tassel has no regrets.
"I always had buying a pool on my agenda," says the Sun Prairie resident, who added an amoeba-shaped, 15-by-40-foot in-ground pool and attached spa to his spacious property in July 2011, while his house was still under construction.
"It was about finding the right house and the right backyard. We have our home set up now so we don't really have to leave it. With the hot summers we've had, we don't want to go anywhere else."
In the three years since Van Tassel, 45, became a pool owner, he's added amenities every year. Lighting and vegetation are on the docket this summer, with future plans including a fire pit and tiki bar.
Van Tassel, who works in the plastics business and doesn't have kids, fits into neither of the two most common demographics of Madison-area pool buyers: families with children and retired adults who want to give the grandkids a reason to visit more often. But he's proof that people desire pools for all sorts of reasons.
"I can't swim," Van Tassel admits. "I just want to be outside. And if the temperature is 100 degrees, you can't go outside without a pool."
But with a pool come added responsibilities.
"A lot of people are intimidated by pools," says Jeff Kjelland, owner of Recreational Concepts, a pool retailer, builder and service company in Oregon. "I haven't met a person out there who is not a little a gun-shy when it comes to owning a pool. But now it's easier."
Technology has made upkeep easier. Options now include automatic pool covers, saltwater chlorination systems, remote-access controls and solar heating.
"You shouldn't have to spend more than an hour a week working on your pool," says Tim Andrews, owner of Capitol Pools, a Sun Prairie-based builder, installer and service provider.
Helping the environment, and yourself
Several of the top-10 swimming-pool features and add-ons that pool owners find most exciting (as told to the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals) also happen to be practical and efficient. Not surprisingly, some of them have become standard on pools built in the Madison area.
Automatic pool cover: This is the one thing any pool builder or pool owner will tell you is a necessity for safety, energy efficiency and ease of maintenance. Strong enough to support children, pets and sleepwalking adults, an automatic pool cover is made of reinforced vinyl and spans the surface of the pool. Depending on the pool's shape, it runs along rails either installed on the pool deck or mounted inside the pool's perimeter. The cover rolls out and retreats with the turn of a key and is commonly stored in a long box recessed in the deck.
"It is the safest thing you can do to your pool in terms of drowning prevention," Andrews says.
Bachmann notes that "the safety factor is probably the biggest reason people buy these." He says the extra cost -- about $10,000 -- is essential if toddlers will be onsite.
Covers also keep in heat when the pool is not in use. This brings down heating costs and potentially extends the seasonal life of the pool. Naturally, covers also keep out leaves, dirt, insects and other debris.
Some municipalities in Dane County waive the backyard fencing requirement for pool owners if an automatic pool cover is in place.
Saltwater chlorination system: Although the swimming-pool industry introduced saltwater chlorination systems back in the 1980s, they've become more popular since the early 2000s. That's because the saltwater chlorination process, while not entirely chlorine-free, uses dissolved salt to produce chlorine. That, in turn, prevents the pool owner from needing to purchase, manually add and risk exposure to chlorine, a dangerous chemical.
A saltwater chlorination system adds about $1,500 to the pool's price tag -- an investment that usually pays for itself within four years, builders say.
Saltwater takes a little getting used to for swimmers accustomed to chlorine, but it's ultimately easier on the eyes and reduces chloramines, which are created by a mixture of chlorine, ammonia and organic byproducts of the human body such as hair and sweat. They hover above the water's surface and can cause breathing difficulties.
Accent lighting: LED lights create vibrant illumination both above and below the water. Some industry professionals compare the quality of previously widespread incandescent lighting to that of a VHS tape and LED lighting to a Blu-Ray disc. LEDs can also reduce electrical costs by as much as 75%.
Kjelland tells the story of a pool owner in Maple Bluff who retrofitted her existing in-ground indoor pool (plus the light fixtures inside the pool room) with LED bulbs, which eventually lowered her monthly electrical bill from $400 to $130.
Automation: The above features, as well as several others, can be either automated or controlled by remote access. Pool owners can, for example, bump up the water temperature on their way home from work or permit service technicians to monitor a pool's chlorine levels and pH (the acid-alkaline balance) from their shop.
"If I can take care of the water chemistry without even seeing you all summer, isn't that a great selling point?" Kjelland asks.
Solar heating: An energy-saving option that hadn't been feasible, because of space limitations, is solar panels to collect the sun's heat and transfer it to the pool via a heat exchanger. In the past, most solar panels needed to measure the same square footage as the pool in order to be effective in Wisconsin's climate, prohibiting some houses from using them.
Now, new panels roughly the size of a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood could make solar heating a much more practical and affordable choice.
If you decide to invest in a pool, you may need to wait. The installation process can be as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks, depending on numerous factors. But some builders are almost all booked for this year.
"Most people call in the spring, and they want a pool right away," Kjelland says. "We really have only 22 weeks of the year to do our building."
Above-ground pools remain a faster and less expensive option (beginning at around $2,500) and have improved in quality and appearance over the years, while indoor pools like the one in Maple Bluff remain rare in the Madison area.
"Some people don't even think they can have a pool because of the grade of their yard," Bachmann says. But unless utility easements, storm drainage easements or septic systems are standing in the way, a pool can usually be built. Steep sloping, a common impediment, can often be addressed with retaining walls (although the increased level of difficulty also translates into a higher price tag).
"There are very few homes where we can't put in a pool," Andrews says.