Sept. 1 2007 12:00 AM

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5_11.jpgYou're taking potential customers to one of your client's homes to show them an example of the type of work you do. You've made arrangements with your client and received their permission to show off your skills. As you're walking through the backyard gate, your potential customers suddenly stop and look around with an expression you're now familiar with, and you smile to yourself. You've been there before. Your potential customers are frozen in their tracks; there's a look of awe and amazement like they've been magically whisked to another part of the planet.

What they're seeing is a 'swimming pond' paradise complete with fish, birds and water lilies everywhere that your company installed last month. Children are swimming, diving and frolicking in the pristine-appearing crystal-clear water that, you make a point to inform them with pride, is chemical- free. There is even a family of colorful wood ducks that have made this body of water their home. Your potential new customers are blown away by the overall impact. Another five- or six-digit sale -- slam dunk -- what more could you ask for? This must be the key to the mint.

In case you're not familiar with the term 'swimming pond,' or how it differs from a swimming pool, here it is. On the surface, a swimming pond will look like a natural garden pond, but it's what's below that's different. It is made up of two zones -- a deep swimming area and a shallower surrounding area with plants chosen to purify the water. Where a swimming pool utilizes chemicals to kill bacteria, a swimming pond relies on nature's ecological balance.

As a full-time professional pond builder, I've watched with acute interest the marketing trend of swimming ponds. With a footprint the size of an Olympic-sized pool and a price tag to go with it, what an appealing thought to a man who makes his paycheck building ponds. I wear two hats: one is that of a businessman, and I say that tongue-in-cheek, because I'm a contractor who builds ponds. As you know, many contractors, although excellent artisans, are not very good businessmen. However, when I see an opportunity to have happy clients and increase the volume of my business, I'm all ears.

The other hat that I wear is that of executive director and chairman of the board of the International Professional Pond Contractors Association (IPPCA). In this capacity, I want to make sure pond contractors are not overstepping their bounds by entering into the swimming pool market. I felt it behooved me to find out more about this marketing trend, and to see if it could potentially benefit myself and fellow members of the IPPCA.

As a result, I've looked at a lot of information and websites over the last several months, and have talked with many authorities in various municipal, state and federal agencies, along with pool and pond industry pros as well. I've got to tell you, on the surface, this initially looks like a great idea. Big bucks, fairly quick turnaround on the projects, and they photograph real well, too. It looked like a no-brainer. So why did I get this nervous feeling that something isn't quite right here?

While conference-calling with a prominent international pond supply company's president and his independent Canadian consultant on this subject, (they are currently promoting swim pond kits as well as 'swim pond certification' classes) I heard some troubling statements that I have researched and drawn my own conclusions from.

12_2.jpgSome of the statements made to me were along the lines of " most parts of the U.S., there aren't any rules on swim ponds," or "These ponds are extremely popular in Europe, we've had great success with them there." How about, "We don't need to worry about codes on submersible pumps, we're using 12-volt," and "We realize that the water is colder in Europe and Canada, but we've modified the design to take warmer water into consideration." Also "No, we actually don't have any in the Southern states, but we're confident it should work," or "They're very popular in British Columbia, and we've had no problems with them there." What about, "Well, we've actually built three nationwide in the last three years, but we're confident the trend is growing."

By the time I got done with that one twenty-minute call, plus a two day email correspondence with another group, I had warning sirens and red flags going off in my head to rival a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza.

One of the first things I did was download a copy of my local swimming pool regulations, obtaining a copy of the national standards as well. If people are going to swim in this thing, it's going to have to be safe, right? I also received a set of EU (European Union) standards, but unfortunately they did me no good, as private pools there aren't required to be permitted. They only regulate public bathing and beach areas.

Now, I'm not currently licensed as a swimming pool contractor. I'm licensed as a general contractor. As a general contractor, I can build a swimming pool as long as I secure and follow the conventional permit and health department protocols.

A landscape contractor can probably get away with the permits, but his insurance carrier will throw a fit when they find out he built a pool. (My GL [general liability] carrier had a fit when I showed him pictures of a stone walking bridge that I built for a customer, and he was emphatic that I needed to talk to him before I ever did another one). It's a higher degree of liability.

To get back to the point, there are more than 50 pages in the National Spa and Pool Building Standards book. They are all there for one reason: for the safety of humans that will be interacting with the pool and its water. Trying to circumvent or ignore these codes may happen for a short while, but it will catch up to you with a vengeance.

When you look at building a swimming pond from the aspect of human safety rather than profit margins based on speculative marketing reports, some interesting things start to become self-evident.

Our pond skimmers aren't approved (290-57-.11) Surface Skimmers. (Among many other specifications "Surface skimming devices shall comply with NSF [National Safety Federation] International Standard 50. Any submersible pond pumps aren't safe for human exposure. Our pond filters aren't approved for pools. At best, they're modified pool filters now designed to host colonies of bacteria to break down organics, and at worst have never been tested or rated by either the NSF, UL or ANSI.

When you get to the appendix section of the pool and spa code book, some other interesting (I feel insurmountable) challenges appear. There can be no algae visible in a pool -- it's a safety issue. There can be no bacteria in a pool (as a side note, E. coli bacterium doubles its population every twenty minutes in an organic-rich environment like a pond.) It's not considered safe to have any bacteria in a swimming environment. So much for natural bacteriological filtration.

The nationally recognized U.S. code recommendations for both algae and bacteria, if found in a swimming environment, is to 'shock with disinfectant chemicals and increase daily dosage of disinfectant chemicals supplemented with brushing and vacuuming.' So much for plants and fish. The slopes and pitches of pool walls and bottoms have to be carefully sculpted for a reason: human safety. When was the last time you successfully walked across a bare liner pond without slipping and sliding, and more than likely taking an unwanted bath? Do you relish the feel of algae (and who knows what else) squishing between your toes? Kind of hard to sell the reality versus the fantasy, isn't it? Do you notice that I am using the term 'pool' rather than 'pond'? See how they're getting blurred and mixed up as one and the same in your mind?

What do you suppose regulators and legislators are going to do? Lump them all in together with the toughest regulations governing them all, that's what they'll do. (See: Davis County, California; all water features, including Koi ponds by name, are regulated and defined as swimming pools.) As a conventional swimming pool, a pond is a big failure.

As a conventional pond, a swimming pool is a big failure. They each have a specific purpose and set of goals that they are clearly designed to achieve. I suggest that it is self-evident that we keep them as separate entities and not try to blur the definitions of each. I can't think of a faster way to get landscaping ponds regulated out of existence than to have them get lumped in with swimming pool codes after some accident involving someone's loved one in a 'pond' built intentionally for swimming. We'll all be happier in the long run without the new rules and regulations that are confusing to begin with. I think you'll agree after careful consideration, a downright misleading marketing term like 'swimming pond' is sure to affect the green industry.

I have built many family friendly ponds, designed for the possibility of occasional intimate interaction with pets or people, but when you put it all together with safety and responsibility as the main criteria rather than questionable marketing and dubious profitability, 'swimming ponds' really just don't add up the way they're being promoted.

I do want to make it perfectly clear that the opinions expressed in this article are my personal ones. I am not speaking for any group or entity.