Healthier Swimming in Gorgeous Natural Pools
Swimming can be great exercise and a lot of fun, not to mention an exciting sport at the Olympics. But the chlorine used in most pools can have some negative side effects, not the least of which is reliance on toxic (and finicky) chemicals.
Chlorine's damaging effects on hair are well known, but few people realize that a number of studies have linked inhalation of the chemical by swimmers to increased asthma rates (in fact a new Irish study published this April reported a significant link between the number of years a boy had been swimming and the likelihood of the child being wheezy in the past year.) A Norwegian study also documented an increased risk of wheezing among children who swim in pools before 6 months of age. Further, in an unpleasant reaction, pee and sweat in water can react with chlorine to form toxic breakdown products known as chloramines.
For health, environmental and aesthetic reasons, a lot of people have expressed interest in alternatives to chlorine pools, and luckily there are more and more options to get wet without smelling like cleaning products. A company called TechnoPure offers alternative pool systems that treat water by pumping it through a chamber containing coated titanium plates and copper and zinc ions. The units cost a relatively affordable $5,500. DEL Ozone makes ozone injectors that can reduce the need for chlorine up to 90% -- there's been one installed at the White House for years! Some systems rely on a combination of ozone and copper and silver ions, while others are saline, though saltwater pools result in the formation of chlorine in the water.
One elegant, eco-friendly solution that has had enthusiastic supporters in Europe for decades is the so-called natural swimming pool, which is slowly beginning to gain buzz in the U.S. Natural swimming pools, often called swimming ponds across the Atlantic, can be beautiful oases of greenery and sustainability, as well as safe, fun places to take a dip.
Managed properly, natural swimming pools have crystal clear water and require no chemicals to maintain, as they are self-cleaning mini-ecosystems. "You can drink the water if you want to, and you don't necessarily have to take a shower," says Morgan Brown of Idaho-based Whole Water Systems, LLC. The natural pools designer says the systems also have lower maintenance costs than conventional pools, and their installation costs are not much more than standard designs.
Read on for more info on natural pools -- sometimes called green pools or organic pools -- and photos of some of the most gorgeous designs around.
The materials and designs of natural pools can vary widely. Many are lined with rubber or reinforced polyethylene. In most popular models, such as those offered by Kansas-based Total Habitat, the swimming area is separated from a zone planted with aquatic vegetation, which acts as a biological filter. A small waterfall can add ambiance as well as valuable aeration. A skimmer may be used to collect large debris. Total Habitat typically adds a UV sterilizer to assure any germs are killed.
Worried about mosquitoes? Don't be! According to Total Habitat's president Mick Hilleary, natural predators and moving water make a natural swimming pools practically mosquito free. Hilleary says four tires stacked in your backyard will create 100 times more mosquitoes.
"Conventional pools that use ozone or chlorine are upsetting a natural balance. In fact it's hard to keep a chlorinated pool biologically dead, because nature gets in there," says Morgan Brown of Whole Water Systems, LLC. "With natural pools the living system takes care of itself."
Brown says he knows of a public natural swimming pool that opened in Europe 15 years ago, yet managers have never reported any instance of a health problem there. "That's astounding, because that's not the case for chlorine pools," explains Brown. "If a Caddyshack instance happens with a toddler in a conventional pool you shock it with chemicals, and it takes 12 hours before it is safe to go back in. That doesn't happen in natural environments because good bugs take care of the bad."
Brown says the hardest part about designing natural swimming pools is getting the water circulation right so that the water stays as crystal clear and appealing as a fresh alpine lake. When pools are first installed they sometimes take a while to settle to that level, and occasional growths of algae can discolor the water, even though they don't pose any health concern. Experts note that the longer the system has to stabilize, and the more established the plants in the filter zone become, the more likely it is that the water will be transparent. The reason wholly natural ponds are usually murky is because of nutrient overloading (often because of runoff from farm fields and treated lawns) and seepage of minerals and sediments from groundwater -- something blocked by a pool's liner.
According to Brown, people always ask the health question first. He says people just need to think about pools a little differently. "Instead of creating an abhorrence of nature where everything is dead, it's creating natural healthy water that takes care of itself," says Brown.
Brown believes properly designed natural pools provide virtually no risk of dangerous contamination, provided they are used reasonably, and not constantly stuffed to capacity with bathers. He says most health departments don't have any regulations on residential pools, so consumers have little worry about breaking any local codes. However, that's not necessarily the case with public pools, which often do have strict requirements.
"Some of the current regulations for public pools are things natural pools would never be able to do, like zero E. coli. There probably isn't a natural body of water anywhere that has zero E. coli," says Brown. Instead, Brown designs to German regulations, which he says are twice as stringent as the rules that govern beach closures in the U.S., in terms of acceptable levels of contaminants.
Morgan Brown says he first experienced natural swimming pools when he was living in Germany. In Munich a large public natural pool was his daily haunt, and it has safely supported sizable crowds for years.
"Natural pools evolved from ponds that people swim in," explains Brown. "People started gradually making them better for swimming, and fixing problems with water. Europeans have decades worth of experience."
The idea has admittedly been slow to catch on in America, some say because of our obsession with everything being clinically clean, and our apparent need to be in control of things. The well-heeled chemical industry certainly has had its stake in the popularization of pools. More Europeans, on the other hand, have been attracted to a back-to-nature mentality, and a people that has long popularized natural spa vacations, mineral water and walking for good health has found an appealing way to cool off.
So far most of Whole Water System's natural pool business has been aimed at eco-resorts and new planned communities. However, Brown says he is also excited to begin getting more into the residential pool market. He hopes green pools will resonate with eco- and budget-conscious Americans.
Taking up the natural pools banner in California is Vista-based Expanding Horizons, which has been designing and installing water features, gardens and other projects since 1978.
The approach of Expanding Horizons founder Bryan Morse is to construct what he calls a "hybrid pool," which incorporates technology commonly found in conventional pools such as pool cleaners, surface skimmers and main drains. The designs often include beach entries, and water plants are seeded into the nooks and crannies between the perimeter boulders to enhance the natural experience.
The regeneration zone is separate and forms an additional water feature in the garden -- what Morse calls a bog. In one design, a 70-foot long stream feeds purified water from the bog into the pool. Expanding Horizons digs a depression for the bog, lining it with a distribution network of pipes and washed aggregate. Then water-loving plants are seeded, such as cannas, dwarf horsetail, water cress, pennywort, rushes and umbrella palms. The result is a gorgeous garden that attracts wildlife and beneficial insects.
Based in Bristol in the United Kingdom, Clear Water Revival makes some of the most appealing, sparkling, drool-worthy natural pools anywhere. The company's goal is to bring back an essence of Victorian England, with modern understanding of science and ecology. The gorgeous pools can even replace some of the ecological functions lost with the vast destruction of wetlands, particularly in the form of habitat for plants.
Clear Water Revival tends to focus its natural pool designs around maximizing biodiversity and the educational value of the space, creating a very natural look and feel. There are a number of options offered, from simple clay linings to more advanced systems. Customers can even order DIY kits.
As an added bonus, many Clear Water Revival designs can also be used for ice skating in the winter!
gartenART Director Tim Evans explains that the company's international design and consultancy service does a good business with English ex-pats abroad, including in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Carribean and elsewhere. "We have had a lot of interest but not much actual business from the U.S. so far," says Evans. "We consistently get more website hits and email enquiries from the U.S. than from any country except the UK, but this has not yet translated into real action."
Will Woodhouse of UK-based Woodhouse Natural Pools has been developing and building natural swimming pools since 2000. Woodhouse has partnered with Austria's Biotop Natural Pool, which is one of the industry's original pioneers.
Woodhouse points out that, besides being beautiful, his natural pools naturally warm up fast and efficiently in the sun, meaning they don't cost a fortune to heat (like many conventional pools). Woodhouse also touts the "softness" of the water, which he promotes as being especially gentle on skin and hair.
Woodhouse Natural Pools offers a range of exciting options, from ultra-contemporary designs to features that integrate seamlessly into gardens or the surrounding landscape.