First World Problem

As we head into spring I am reminded of a task for which I used to be responsible. For fourteen wonderful years, we owned our home on Hillrise Drive in Penfield, NY and with it the pool in the back yard. Having recently moved to North Carolina, I expect I will be missing my pool any day now. That said, the ownership of a shimmering blue hole in the ground taught me a lesson I use nearly every day.

I recognize that ownership of a swimming pool of any kind is a luxury, unique to our blessed and (to be completely honest) wealthy country. With 780 Million people the world over lacking access to clean water, it seemed almost cruel for me to keep 32,000 gallons of the stuff in my backyard for solely recreational purposes.

That said, the house came with a pool, and as parents of four children, for about fourteen weeks a year, we were damn glad to have it.

If you ever purchase a house with a pool, “caveat emptor.” That is Latin for “let the buyer beware” and I bring it up because it turns out that standard housing inspections do not include pool equipment. When we made the offer to buy the house in May 2002, the pool was open, crystal clear and beautiful. The day we moved in, it was very hot and equally humid, but the pool still looked great.

My son Lewis enjoying the pool.

My son Lewis enjoying the pool.

After a few days of opening boxes and getting settled I decided I should probably look into what kind of attention the pool might require. I took a water sample down to the local pool store. They tested the water, looked up at me and said, “Go home right now, and I mean right now, and put chlorine in your pool! Your water sample shows none, and with the heat and bright sunshine your pool could experience an algae-bloom at any moment. I’m not kidding, go home now!”

Algae Bloom? It was at this point I realized that the pool was going to require a bit more attention than I thought.

I solved the chlorine problem and learned all I needed to about pool chemistry, but we had another problem.


The broken natural gas pool heater.

After closely inspecting and figuring out what all the pool equipment did, I realized that the pool heater was broken. I recognize that a heated pool takes the excess of the pool to a whole new level, but what can I tell you; my kids were little and my wife does not like cold water. An excessive, first world problem to be sure, but it was mine to solve just the same.

I called the phone number on the sticker on the side of the heater. It would be $400 for a repairman to come out and have a look, though they guessed that based on its age, the heater would likely need replacing for about $2,000. It was at this point I thought it prudent to figure out what it would cost to run a pool heater (even a new one) for the short fourteen-week season. Though impossible to calculate precisely, the answer was something like $1,500-$2,000 each year!

We had just purchased a new house and, child number three was weeks away; none of my options were even remotely financially feasible. We closed the pool that fall with no heating plan.

Over the winter, I researched every pool heating option and after several weeks of finding nothing new, I stumbled onto something different… solar.

It turns out that even in the northern climate in which we lived, it is practical to heat your pool using nothing but the sun and about $900 worth of parts. The best part is that once the system is installed, the annual cost of operation is $0, zip, nada, zilch.

If you’ve ever tried to cross a black driveway in bare feet on a hot sunny day, you know how the system works.


Our little solar heating system

On our roof I installed six, 2’ x 20’ black plastic solar heating panels. The principle is pretty simple:

  • The sun hits the black panels and heats them up
  • The pool pump pushes the water up to the panels where it is heated
  • Gravity brings the water back down to the pool

A cutaway of a solar heating panel

On a bright sunny day when the air temperature is at least 80 degrees F, the system will raise the temperature of all 32,000 gallons at least five and as many as eight degrees. I’m no science teacher, but that’s a lot of free energy.

In fact when the system is running on a hot sunny day, the water coming out of the jets into the pool is almost too hot to touch. I have measured it as high as 140 degrees F.

The installation of the system was no small task, as it involved installing 100 feet of pipes underground and then up the side of the house. There are valves and other messy connections involved as well, but once complete all you have to do is decide every morning if the weather is right for heating and turn a valve one way or another.

There is one unfortunate pitfall to the system, and that is if you forget to turn it off as the sun goes down, the system will cool your pool almost as efficiently as it heats it. That is a mistake you only make a few times.

Over the years the system has required only a little attention and the panels themselves need to be replaced every 7-8 years at a cost of about $500.

All in all, I saved thousands of dollars and kept the pool warm enough to maintain water temperature happiness across the whole family.

Of all the challenges I’ve ever faced, this is certainly not among the most important, but it does illustrate an important lesson…

Never rush into solutions that don’t work for you. Take your time, look around, do your homework and you just might find something better.

Conventional wisdom is usually workable, but rarely the best approach, and as far as I’m concerned it is for conventional people. I am not a conventional person, and I’m betting neither are you.

Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “First World Problem

  • Very smart Steve!!!!
    And you’re right I am unconventional -but then that’s why I appreciate you!

  • Hay dad its me again I remember onetime you left the valge on an the pool was like 60 digese burrrrrrrrr

  • One of the things that hit me the first time I flew from Rochester to Charlotte was how many backyards have pools in Rochester and how few there are in Charlotte (despite having at least another month of swim’able weather).
    When we moved to Charlotte our three kids were young and an above-ground pool seemed logical. (And with our cloud-free skies, solar works so well that no separate collector was necessary. In fact, friends visiting from Albany described it – slightly uncharitably but accurately – as “swimming in sweat”.)
    The first couple years were great. But then “our blood thinned” (no medical backing to that expression, but that’s exactly what seemed to happen) and we didn’t really want to go outside in a 97o day, even to jump in the pool. I was spending more time maintaining it that I was swimming in it and, instead of being able to proudly say “we own a pool”, I began to realize – like many worldly possessions – it owned us.
    I tried advertising “free for the taking”, but only one guy tried removing it before giving up after a couple days. I imagine the metal I ultimately recycled from it became a truck bumper or a refrigerator…
    (We had fun with it while it lasted – we even ice skated the winter we had several single-digits days in a row, and we once hosted a couple migrating mallards. But I was spoiled growing up where I could swim in the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario – and even a couple swimming hole along Irondequoit Creek.)

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