Natural Pool-Owners Are Kissing Chlorine And Chemicals Goodbye
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Natural Pool-Owners Are Kissing Chlorine And Chemicals Goodbye

Homeowners are hopping from chemical-treated pools to greener alternatives.

By Karen Bruno
Thu, Jun 24, 2021 11:28amGrey Clock 4 min

This coming summer, some homeowners will be swimming in their backyard pools au naturel. The iconic, aqua-blue vessels of chlorine-treated water are starting to see competition from the leafy, greenish waters of natural pools.

Waiting lists for in-ground pools and a chlorine shortage are sparking interest in these so-called bio pools, which are chemical-free. Swimmers are invited to lounge, naiad-like, close to water mint and water lilies as dragonflies hover.

“Prices are going through the roof on chlorine tabs—if you can even find them,” says Christopher Paquette of Robin’s Nest, a natural-pool company in Buxton, Maine.

Natural pools are a tiny fraction of the U.S. residential pool market, which is dominated by pools that use chlorine and other chemicals to keep bacteria and microbes at bay. They are a sustainable choice, requiring less energy to operate.

The result is green water—somewhere between a mossy hue to a jade colour. The roots of aquatic plants, such as water lilies, and materials like gravel create a naturally occurring ecosystem with biofilms called a regeneration zone. Water is kept clean and algae-free as it recirculates over the film of micro-organisms. Newer technology replaces this regeneration zone with a smaller, self-contained, plantless biofilter, which uses material such as lava rock and gravel to build up a biofilm.

The appeal to homeowners is water free of chlorine and other chemicals that keep pool water bacteria-free. Natural pools cost about $125 a square foot, excluding decks, electrical and landscaping. That is about 10% more than installation costs for a chlorine pool. But they are slightly less expensive to maintain. A traditional 500-square-foot pool costs about $1,800 to $3,200 a year during a season, according to Home Advisor.

The energy costs for a natural pool are one-half to one-third of a traditional pool, from $35-$50 a month, and there are no chemical costs. Natural pools can be made of a rubber membrane or gunite, and pool sides may be lined with river rock or special sand bags. Ladders, heaters, and diving boards can be added, but pool covers aren’t needed and water doesn’t need to be drained annually.

Liz and Steve Magoun, tech entrepreneurs in Rye, N.H., installed a natural pool at their home, where the couple like to cool off after long bike rides.

It wasn’t their first choice. Chlorine pools are prohibited in their development, where they recently built a 5,000-square-foot, shingle-style house. The development also prohibits saltwater pools, which turn salt into chlorine.

“It’s like swimming in a crystal-clear pond with a wonderful greenish hue,” says Mrs. Magoun. She says she finds the pool water more sublime than the chlorinated water the couple had in the two previous pools they owned. She did, however, insist that the aesthetic be “neat and manicured,” hence the biofilter, which does the work of plants grown in regeneration zones.

“Like many in the outdoor home-improvement business, we’ve been slammed with demand because of the pandemic,” says Allen Schnaak, vice president of business development at BioNova Natural Pools in Chester, N.J., which supplied the biofilter for the Magouns’ pool.

Mick Hilleary, owner of Total Habitat, based in Kansas City, Kan., says he saw demand shoot up nearly 30% over the past year. He says he installed a natural pool in Tennessee for environmentalist and former Vice President Al Gore four years ago.

Most natural pools in the U.S. are based on the European style. In Europe, 16% of residential pools are natural, compared with less than 1% in the U.S. Europeans use regeneration zones—water gardens filled with aquatic plants and other natural materials—to purify the water. That zone is equal in size to the swimming zone and often separated by a submerged stone wall or a waterfall feature.

In the U.K., architects Emma and Spencer Guy recently installed a 38-by-18-foot natural pool in Buckinghamshire, about an hour from London.

“There is nothing better than a swallow dipping next to you to drink as you swim in clean, odorless, warm water,” says Ms. Guy, 46. The pool complements the 3,000-square-foot, net-zero-energy house they designed and built.

“We sited the pond to bounce light back into the house,” says Mr. Guy, 47. “We enjoy seeing dragonflies, newts, pond skaters and kingfishers. The increased wildlife is the main reason we installed a natural pool.”

Their 34,000-gallon, black, vinyl-lined pool cost $56,000—about half the price of a typical natural pool—because they supervised much of the work themselves. A natural-pool company supplied the water-circulation kit and the planting medium for the two plant-filled regeneration zones. The plants are embedded in soil imported from Italy overlaid with a membrane and gravel.

Another way to cut costs is to convert an existing pool to a natural one, which runs about $60,000,” says Michael George, head of the U.K.-based Gartenart’s U.S. division in Jaffrey, N.H.

Mike and Heather Dooley, both 60, of Napa, Calif., installed a 30-by-60-foot natural pool in 2019, with decking and a beachlike area, for about $160,000. It is integrated into the landscape, Mrs. Dooley says. “It mimics swimming in a creek; we didn’t want a sterile environment.”

Blue heron, mosquito-eating dragonflies and frogs frequent the poolscape.

Natural pools require about as much work as a traditional pool to maintain. “We have to cut back the plants in the regeneration zone for the winter, treat water with beneficial bacteria a few times a season, drain pipes, and vacuum the bottom and sides of our natural pool,” says Avery Pierce, 70, of Buxton, Maine, whose natural pool was installed in 2006, for $50,000, including a complicated excavation.

“It looks good four seasons out of the year,” her husband, Tom Lanucha, 63, adds, saying he believes it won’t detract from the value of their home, as chlorine pools can in the Northeast. “You can skate on it in the winter.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: June 23, 2021.

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House values continued to fall last month, but the pace of decline has slowed, CoreLogic reports.

In signs that the RBA’s aggressive approach to monetary policy is making an impact, CoreLogic’s Home Value Index reveals national dwelling values fell -1.0 percent in November, marking the smallest monthly decline since June.

The drop represents a -7.0 percent decline – or about $53,400 –  since the peak value recorded in April 2022. Research director at CoreLogic, Tim Lawless, said the Sydney and Melbourne markets are leading the way, with the capital cities experiencing the most significant falls. But it’s not all bad news for homeowners.

“Three months ago, Sydney housing values were falling at the monthly rate of -2.3 percent,” he said. “That has now reduced by a full percentage point to a decline of -1.3 percent in November.  In July, Melbourne home values were down -1.5 percent over the month, with the monthly decline almost halving last month to -0.8%.”

The rate of decline has also slowed in the smaller capitals, he said.  

“Potentially we are seeing the initial uncertainty around buying in a higher interest rate environment wearing off, while persistently low advertised stock levels have likely contributed to this trend towards smaller value falls,” Mr Lawless said. “However, it’s fair to say housing risk remains skewed to the downside while interest rates are still rising and household balance sheets become more thinly stretched.” 

The RBA has raised the cash rate from 0.10 in April  to 2.85 in November. The board is due to meet again next week, with most experts still predicting a further increase in the cash rate of 25 basis points despite the fall in house values.

Mr Lawless said if interest rates continue to increase, there is potential for declines to ‘reaccelerate’.

“Next year will be a particular test of serviceability and housing market stability, as the record-low fixed rate terms secured in 2021 start to expire,” Mr Lawless said.

Statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week also reveal a slowdown in the rate of inflation last month, as higher mortgage repayments and cost of living pressures bite into household budgets.

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