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Speaking Out

When Not in the Swim, Fill Up Your Pool

April 04, 1993|MONA FIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Field is an associate professor of political science and sociology at Glendale Community College.

Can a swimming pool, that hallmark of California success, ever become a liability to a homeowner? Although it is rare, filling in a pool sometimes is the right decision.

In our case, we found our dream house but couldn't stand the idea of maintaining a pool that we (the adults) wouldn't use. Our kids complained, but we were adamant: the upkeep, the insurance and our basic fear of accidents outweighed their wish for a pool. Everyone (realtor, in-laws, neighbors) said we were crazy. We learned not to argue.

Very few pool builders will discuss "unbuilding" a pool. Those who do give dire warnings: "Well, you're taking at least $20,000 off the value of your home" and "I may need to smash the back wall out of your garage to get the job done."

After hearing their attitudes and getting their bids ($7,000 to $10,000) we decided to become homeowner-contractors and handle the job without paying a professional. The decision was stress-producing but ultimately correct.

Well-meaning folks might suggest you forget the city codes and just cover it over your own way. Don't do it. The city has reasons for its rules: If you just fill the pool without paying attention, you may end up with a floating bathtub rising out of the ground during a rainy season.

The basic method is to drain all the water, punch holes in the pool bottom, and then begin the process known as "backfilling."

Before you start any phase of the project, check with your city's building and safety department. City personnel are very helpful to the amateur; don't be intimidated.

Draining a pool is easy. Submersible pumps rent for under $25 from almost any equipment rental yard (listed in the Yellow Pages). Most cities permit the water to go into a toilet or shower. Our pool had been badly neglected and the water was definitely not chlorinated, so we recycled it onto the parched grass in our yard. The St. Augustine grass gained a lush second life.

Draining an average-size pool takes about 24 hours, not necessarily consecutively. While the pool drains, think ahead. How will you use the space? Do you want trees or paving stones? For trees, plan some extra large holes to allow for a tree to fully root over the years.

When the pool is empty, hire someone who really knows what to do with a jackhammer. We called Local 300 of the Laborer's Union. These are the folks who build our cities. Avoid our errors: Get your driller on the job and then go rent the equipment. There are numerous types of tools, and I wasted some time (and money) going back to the equipment rental yard to get the right ones. When our helper finally started drilling the holes (every eight feet and at least one foot in diameter), we felt just like real contractors. We paid him union wage for the day's work and everyone was happy.

To our delight, one phone call to city hall brought the city inspector out the next day and he signed off on the drilling. We figured the project was half over. If we had known more, we would have realized that the real work was just starting. There are at least a dozen types of sand, dirt and gravel to choose from.

Depending on your city's permit rules, you have several options. We went with the cheapest legal choice: sand for the bottom and dirt for the top three feet. A trucking firm brought in sand at wholesale prices. The trucker cautioned us about having adequate clearance for a 10-wheel dump truck and warned us that some driveways might not stand up to the weight. Luck was with us: both our driveway and home did fine. The worst part was the unorthodox prunings of our pine and orange trees by the truck driver.

If you are lucky, you can dump your sand into the pool with a bobcat (a small tractor) without breaking out a garage wall. Your rental yard may be able to suggest someone who can operate the machine. As you look for people to do the work, (and panic because no one is available when you need them) just remind yourself that this is what the contractor does and that you are saving hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars by coordinating it yourself.

Don't try to calculate the costs of disrupting your family by having to leave the house at 6 a.m. to meet your workers and supervise the job. Also, be sure to do the project when you are on vacation so you don't lose hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars by missing your own work.

Once you have sand up to the level you think you need, add another 10-20 tons. The sand compacts a lot once you bring in your rammer (also known as a compactor). Again, a union worker with construction experience can ram that sand down. The inspector will come, observe and sign off. Take good care of the permit, it proves everything is legal.

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