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Tile - Pool / Spa

Prerequisites for Tile:

  • Decking concrete completed, but before final Acrylic surface is put down.  For Kooldeck, the tile should be installed after Kooldeck is completed.

Pool Tile is extremely versatile.  The most common application is to put standard 6" ceramic tile at the top of the bond beam and have it descend 6" down into the pool.  Since the water line is about 3 inches below the top of the bond beam, this would insure that the waterline would always be in contact with the tile instead of the Pebble-Tec or plaster.  



Because tile is a lot less porous than Pebble-Tec or Plaster, cleaning off scale is much easier to do on tile than it is on Pebble-Tec or Plaster.  Regardless of tile or no tile, scale will build up no matter what.  Having tile just makes it easier to clean it off with standard cleaning products.  Besides the practical application of helping to keep waterlines easy to clean, there are a myriad of artistic applications in brightening up an otherwise drab pool.  You can put Tile Deco pieces around fountains, scuppers, entry steps, pool floors, walls, just about anywhere you want.  Also, something that has gotten quite popular here in AZ is using tile to create colorful and bold Mosaic designs to make the pool come alive.  The more popular pieces today are shaped like animals (e.g. dolphins, geckos, kokopelli's, birds, ... you name it).  A lot of people here in AZ feel it adds a little southwest flare to their pool.

With all that said, I decided not to go with tile on my pool.  It was a tough decision and I had gone back and forth for the longest time before making a final decision.  I could have probably debated the issue another few months, but I needed to move on.  Basically what it boiled down to was this:  I want to create lagoon-style pool - as natural and as tropical as I can make it.  Being from Hawaii, I want to put in a lush tropical landscape around the pool and I thought that putting tile around even the waterline would ruin that look.

There were two camps of people who were giving me advice:

  1. Tile people - they said that if I didn't do tile, it would make it darn near impossible (or at the very best difficult) to clean off the scaling around the waterline.  They also offered that tile colors nowadays are so versatile, that I could find a virtual match with the color of Pebble-Tec I was planning to use.

  2. No-Tile people - they said that for sure tile would ruin the tropical look of Pebble-Tec and that scaling is going to occur no matter what.  Being in AZ where the water is as hard as a rock, its going to happen whether you do tile or not.  People in this camp said, "Why ruin the look and still end up with scaling anyways?  You might as well had done nothing and get the great look."

Almost from the beginning of the pool project, there were a couple of Pebble-Tec colors that kept coming up in conversation when I told people I was after the tropical lagoon look:  Tahoe Blue and Caribbean Blue.  I was told that these two colors do more to bring out a deep blue color than any other Pebble Color.  Most said that the Tahoe Blue was actually a better choice.  I kept this tucked away in my mind through the course of the project.  As far as tile was concerned, a lot of people (including tile subs) told me that a tile color called HR Blue was a good match to the Tahoe Blue for those would like to have the tile blend with the Pebble as much as possible.  When I first saw it, I didn't think the match was all that great.  For sure there was a lot of blue in it, but there was a lot of reddish brown in it as well.  Supposedly, it matches the brown color of surface select granite found in the pebble aggregate.  You can see a sample of standard 6" HR Blue above.  Even more than the question of whether the tile color matched the pebble color was the question of whether I should use tile at all.

Before I made my decision, I wanted to find out:

  • What colors are really out there and how close can they come to matching my Pebble-Tec color?

  • How well will tile aid in making it easier to clean scale off the waterline?

  • How difficult will it be to take scaling off Pebble-Tec?

  • How much scaling is there really - on a no-tile pebble interior pool?

I knew I had to make up my mind fairly soon as the tile phase typically comes in between the concrete pour and the Acrylic application stages for a pool deck.  I had the tile catalog that Mike (BBQ sub) gave me earlier, so with an address on the back, I purposed to pay a visit to the National Pool Tile Group in Tempe on Saturday to get my questions answered.  I was actually going for two purposes.  The other was to pick out a tile color for my BBQ, which Mike was also doing.  He wanted me to have something selected by Monday AM, so that he could order the tile and start work on Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

Saturday, November 2, 2002 - 10:45am
With the catalog in hand (and a map on the back of it), I made my way over to the National Pool Tile Group (NPTG) showroom in Tempe.  I got there about 10:45am or so.  When I walked in the door, I noticed that there was only one other customer in the store.  One of the gals walked out and asked if I needed any help.  Her name was Gerise (sounds like Grace).  She was really helpful and showed me the layout of the store and how things worked.  She's the one on the right in the picture below to the right. Typically, the way it works is tile subs and pool builders will send their customers to NPTG's showroom where they are shown all the tile choices they have to pick from.  When people pick out the tile that they want, they jot down the name of it and give it to their pool builder or tile sub.  The pool builder/tile sub will then pick up the tile from NPTG and do the installation.  I found out that keeping with their namesake, they really do have stores all over the country.  In fact, they have a great website where they have picture samples of all their tile choices and you can see what it looks like against an image of a pool to get an idea of how it looks with a pool behind it.  They also have special software on a CD that has their catalog and a bunch of tile viewing applications.  They handed me a copy before I left.  Like the decking surfaces, there are a dizzying number of tile color and design choices that a person can choose from.  On one side of the wall, they had all the standard/basic colors, and on the other side were the fancier and more expensive upgrades.


I explained to Gerise that I wanted  lagoon pool with deep blue water and that if I decided to go with tile, I wanted something that matched the Pebble-Tec color that I wanted.  She brought out a couple of samples of Pebble-Tec that she said would bring out the deep blue lagoon look that I was after.  She said she couldn't give me the Pebble-Tec samples, because they don't see Pebble-Tec, but that I could use the samples to match a tile color.  She gave me a sample of the Tahoe Blue and the Caribbean Blue.  She said that a lot of people try to do what I'm doing - make the tile disappear into a pebble pool.  You can see both pebble colors below.


For the Tahoe Blue pebble, a lot of people like to go with the HR Blue tile.  She showed it to me side-by-side and when I saw it,  it didn't even look close (see picture above to right).  There was a lot of brown coloring in the HR Blue while the Tahoe Blue pebble was this sort of consistent bland blue/gray.   It looked like the browns would really stick out like a sore thumb.  She said that she had even a better tile.  She brought out a sample of a tile called FRP Ocean and it was amazing.  It was a dead-on match with the Tahoe Blue.  You can see the color comparison in the picture above to the right.  However, when I ran my fingers across it, it was like running it across a piece of fine-grit sand paper.  This was somewhat disconcerting because the HR Blue on the other hand was much smoother - not glossy smooth, but smoother.  Great - I find a tile color that I like and it turns out that the surface is so rough/porous, that it may not make any difference in making it easier to clean the waterline.  I asked her about it and she said that certain tiles will be naturally more porous than others just due to the manufacturing process and there was not a whole lot they could do about it.  She agreed that it would be harder to clean scale off the FRP Ocean tile than the HR Blue tile.

So here's the dilemma:  my goal is to still achieve as natural a lagoon pool as possible.  The pebble color that will achieve that is Tahoe Blue.  I want to use tile to make cleaning the scaling off the waterline easier, but only if I can find a color to closely match the pebble.  If not, I'll probably forgo the tile.  I thought I had found what was possibly the best match in tile color (FRP Ocean) to the pebble color I was going with, but the tile was so darn porous, it seemed liked it wasn't going to do much to prevent scaling.  I needed to think about it a little more.  I tucked away all the tile samples she gave me and continued on with the next task - picking out my BBQ tile.

When I was done, I thanked Gerise for her time and left.  On Monday AM, I was still no closer to a decision, although at this point, I was leaning towards no tile.  After all, to do the tile around the waterline was going to cost me $600.  I wasn't going to throw that money away if it wasn't going to achieve what I wanted it to achieve.  I called National Pool Tile Group again and I inquired about the porousness of the tile I had looked at over the weekend.  I wanted to know if the FRP Ocean came with a more glossy finish.  The gentleman who spoke with me agreed that the more porous the tile is, the harder it will be to clean when scaling builds up on it.  He also said that the way the FRP Ocean is made is how they sell it.  They didn't have a "glossy" version per se.  What you see is what you get.  Thats it.  End of story.    Man, thats too bad - because the tile color was perfect.  I wish there were a way to show you how scratchy/porous the tile was.  You'll just have to take my word for it.

At that point, I decided to find out just how bad scaling gets when you have a pebble pool with no tile.  Fortunately for me, I work with a lot of folks who have pebble swimming pools.  I was able to find a couple of guys who also decided not to do tile on their pools.  I had asked one of them, Scott, a few weeks earlier if I could be nosy and come over to see how bad his scaling problem was.  He gave me a standing offer to swing by anytime and go into his backyard to check it out.  I decided to drive by on Monday morning before work and have a peek.

Monday, November 4, 2002 - 7:40am
Bright and early on Monday morning, I drove over to Scott's house.  When I got there, I decided to knock just to let him know I was there.  He was working from home that day and took me through to the back to show me his pool.  This is what I saw when I got out there.


He told me that he had never really tried to clean the waterline or do anything special to get rid of waterline marks.  This was exactly what I wanted to see.  I wanted to know how bad it really got - left to itself.  Scott said that he had purchased the home used.  He had been in there only a few years, but he said that he thought the pool was about 6 years old.  Judging by the age of the equipment, I had estimated that the pool was at least 8 - 10 years old.

As you can see there is a uniform band near the waterline.  It was definitely noticeable, but I actually didn't think it was that bad.  When people told me about scaling, I thought about the ugly powdery calcified buildup around faucets that has thickness to it.  If this represented anywhere from 6 - 10 years of build up, I didn't think it was all that to be concerned about.  The thing that made it somewhat acceptable was that there was no thickness to it.  And it was very uniform in color, just a tad bit lighter than the dry pebble above it.  As we talked more, Scott said that his pool guy had suggested to him a good acid washing or sand blasting.  He said that would take it right off.  I don't know how much it costs to do either, but I figured that doing that every 6 - 10 years to remove that band was no big deal.  Here are some other shots from a different part of the pool.


When I drove into work, I mentioned to some of the guys what I had seen that morning.  One of those guys, Murali (who's in the white shirt in front), said that he also had a pebble pool with no tile.  He said that he had not really had any problems with scaling.  He offered to drive me over to his place at lunch (and feed me too!) to go check it out.  It was only about 5 minutes away from our office.  I agreed and off we went.


When we arrived out in his backyard, I couldn't believe my eyes - there was no scaling at all!  I asked him how old the pool was and he said it was exactly 6 years old.  I asked him if he bought his house new and he said he did.  He said that he had the pool installed himself, so he knew that it was for sure 6 years old.  I asked him if he had ever cleaned the waterline and he said that his wife did most of the pool maintenance.  She was home at the time and came out to join us after awhile.  I asked her if she had ever cleaned the waterline and she said she didn't.  All she did was brush the walls of the pool for dirt.  Hmmmm - that's a great data point.  If you look closely at the enlarged pictures above and below, you won't see much scaling at all - on a 6 year old pool!  


At that point, I figured that either Scott had severely underestimated how old his pool was or his water hardness levels were way different than Murali's.  I couldn't really believe that because they just live less than 3 miles apart.  However, I don't know much about pool water chemistry and I don't know what kind of additives they each have put into their pools.  However, from what people have told me, there isn't a lot you can do about reducing water hardness by just adding chemicals.  They say that you can prevent the water from getting much harder than it already is by adding soft water to it (via auto-water-leveler) but there's not a whole lot you can do to significantly reduce it from its current levels.

A few days later, I was at home, and my next door neighbor John was out in the yard.  As I was driving out of the garage, I pulled the car over to chat with him.  I started to tell him about my tile situation and interestingly, he told me that he also had decided not to put tile on his Pebble-Tec pool.  I asked him about the scaling and he said that he hasn't noticed a big problem with it.  John said that his pool is about 3 years old now.  He had it built when his house was being built.  He also said that his wife does most of the pool cleaning.  He said that she does try to brush the waterline occasionally.  I asked him if I could go around back some time to take a look at it and he said sure. This is what I saw:


Even though it didn't look too bad, It actually looks like Murali's pool (which is twice as old) has less scale than John's pool.  I guess differences in water chemistry in different areas within the same city make more of a impact on scaling than on age alone.  I don't know what else it could be.  I'm actually concerned more about John's pool since he's my next-door neighbor and we have identical water sources.  I know that for all these pools that I viewed, regular (extremely hard) tap water is being used to feed their auto-water levelers (AWL).  I'm seriously considering using a soft water source to feed my AWL to help out with the scale.  If I can determine for sure that soft water won't throw anything else out of whack (pool water chemistry),  I'll probably tap off the soft-water spigot next to my equipment and put my mind at ease.

At this point, I've decided not to tile.  I'll be able to preserve the tropical look of the pool by going tile-less and deal with scale at some future point when I was getting ready to cross that bridge.  Maybe the $600 I'm saving in tile installation costs will buy me a few acid wash treatments or sand-blasting rounds when the scale gets to the point where it becomes enough of an eye-sore.

For now though, I'm  ready to move on.  So no tile for the pool or spa, but I still have a BBQ to tile.  Next up, Mike returns to finish up the BBQ and wrap things up with the deck structures.

Problems with the Tile Phase / Things I would have done differently:

  • I will probably be forever debating in my mind whether it was the right decision to tile the pool or not.  For now, the data I collected tells me that it would be best not to.  Time will tell whether I made the right decision or not  ...


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