Pool designers painstakingly consider many details when creating a client’s dream backyard — materials, colors and lifestyle just to name a few.
But how much thought is given to a poolscape’s sound?
“I think it’s an afterthought,” says Kyle Peek, owner of Peek Pools in Nashville, Tenn. “For 90% of people, it’s about aesthetics.”
The acoustics of a project are every bit as important as the visuals, and overlooking (overlistening?) this crucial detail can result in a project that’s easy on the eyes but hard on the ears.
Here, builders discuss ways to mask unwanted noise and create pleasing soundscapes.
Pool builder/sound engineer
Traffic, barking dogs and noisy neighbors are not what you want to hear when relaxing in a chaise longue on a tanning shelf on a Sunday afternoon. Fortunately, these distractions can be muted through a thoughtful selection and placement of waterfeatures.
If the objective is to drown out unwelcome noise, there is a simple rule to follow: The more turbulence, the more sound. Therefore, consider rock waterfalls, rain curtains and multi-tiered streams and fountains — features where water falls on hard surfaces or from tall heights.
Laminar sheet falls and arcs won’t add much white noise on their own. That’s because these are designed to spill gracefully into a catch basin or pool — a swan dive instead of a cannonball, if you will.
But a combination of these features can produce a symphony of splashing and gurgling, creating an effective sound barrier. And every symphony requires a conductor.
To orchestrate a soothing soundscape and block audible nuisances, begin by walking your homeowners through available options. Mark Hegedus, owner of Coastal Coating and Resurfacing in Jacksonville, Fla., shows his customers videos of the types of features he can install. He prefers video to photos because it allows clients to consider not only how the waterfeatures will look, but how they’ll sound.
That’s one advantage of using engineered rock over natural stone. Homeowners will know precisely what they’re going to get.
“When we used to do real stone, it was pieced in. You couldn’t really give them a picture,” or a sense of how the finished product would sound, Hegedus says.
Builders also can use advanced 3-D design software to plan a project’s audible backdrop. Some design software allows the user to experiment with waterfalls, jets, bubblers and other features in a virtual environment to screen out annoying sounds that might bug the homeowner in real life. Some software can even help determine optimal speaker placement and where to stash noisy pool equipment and central-air fans.
Knowing precisely where to put waterfeatures, how many and how big before construction eliminates the guesswork.
Nearby traffic can make a backyard retreat feel like a drive-time commute, and it’s one of the most common sounds builders have to combat.
Peek was tasked with shielding an outdoor entertaining area from the din of a busy neighborhood entrance. He achieved this with a combination of plantings and white noise. To muffle the road, Peek installed a 10-foot tall, 16-foot curved radius rain curtain. Water fell on a bed of 6- to 8-inch river rocks to create more splashing. Also, the curtain was incorporated into a freestanding pavilion. Its roof not only hid the plumbing, it amplified and directed the sound.
“Any noise that was traveling up and over, we were trying to totally get rid of that,” says Peek, star of Pool Kings on the DIY Network.
The rain curtain, along with a vanishing-edge pool and sheet waterfeatures insulated the yard.
“It got rid of 99% of the noise,” Peek says.
Dan Lenz describes a similar project that involved a variety of accessories to block the intrusive bangs and rumbles of vehicles. The vice president of All Seasons Pools and Spas, serving Greater Chicago, recalls a backyard that abutted the neighbor’s driveway. Says Lenz: “You could get out of your car and fall into your neighbor’s pool, it so was close.” Engines turning, doors slamming — it was driving the homeowners nuts.
The trick was engineering a wall of water sounds between the pool area and the driveway on the other side of the fence.
The sound of an elevated spillover spa was amplified with the addition of frothing vertical jets in the elongated spillway. This was crucial, since the spillover spa alone wasn’t much of a noisemaker.
Several foam jets on the tanning ledge, plus a series of laminars and deck jets near the fence line contributed to the sound barrier. Also helping blunt neighbor noise was a series of arborvitae trees along the fence.
The project was completed in the nick of time. Shortly after, those pesky neighbors installed a basketball hoop.
But sometimes noise comes from unexpected places. You wouldn’t think the owner of a home on a golf course would have much to complain about, but the swear words flying off the green had become grating. To protect his grandchild from the profanity, the backyard pool was off limits. The child could only splash in a kiddie pool on the front porch away from foulmouthed golfers.
Lenz effectively censored the language with a fountain in the corner, a water slide, deck jets and several outdoor speakers disguised as rocks along the fence line. All this allowed the little one to splash in a G-rated environment.
Yard in stereo
While running water can be an effective buffer, too much can be an assault on the ears. Overdesigning a feature is a real danger.
“Obviously the bigger the feature, the more noise,” Peek warns. “I could make it sound like Niagara Falls if I wanted it to.”
The acoustics of grottos warrant serious consideration. Water spilling off the top of a hard hollow structure can create a sound canon. Be careful where you point it. The homeowner probably doesn’t want the reverberation directed toward the outdoor dining area.
Lenz recalls a massive feature that included a grotto, tunnel and shallow pond with a stone wall behind it creating a cacophony of splashing water. “We found after the fact that the sound of certain waterfeatures amplified through the tunnel like blowing a horn,” Lenz recalls. “It was like a bugle, which is kind of cool, but not at all what you want to happen.”
Several waterfeatures had to be valved off to reduce the flow.
Certainly, high concrete border walls can create a literal echo chamber in the backyard. Vegetation can help overcome this. Builders say ivy and evergreens along the border help diminish the noise reflection. Hegedus, the Jacksonville builder, devised a clever solution of his own: He makes planters out of the same engineered rock he uses to create waterfalls. Not only does the greenery soften hard surfaces, but the palms and other plants look like they’re naturally growing out of the artificial rock waterfall.
The contrast is also true: In some cases, a homeowner will want more sound. Some features are easy to manipulate to achieve this. Take a stream with a sheet waterfall spilling into a pool. You can change out the flat flagstone with river rock to create more turbulence, Peek advises.
Even easier, tie waterfeatures into an automated system. The advent of internet-connected variable-speed pumps allows homeowners to adjust the volume, so to speak, with an app. This is one reason why builders recommend operating some features with their dedicated booster pumps.
That way, consumers can ramp up or throttle back the flow on whichever water accessory they want more or less of.