A Guide to Swim Spas

Lap pool in a modern home

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An swim spa, endless pool or lap pool is a swimming pool primarily built and used for fitness and health purposes. Swim Spas are long and narrow, and ideally between 13 feeet and 45 feet in length (depending on whether the pool has resistance jets installed) and are typically rectangular shape. They are a good solution for narrow or shallow gardens in which the homeowner would love to own a swimming pool to get frequent exercise in the privacy of his or her own back garden. They also serve as a focal point of the garden, especially when viewed from the house.

As residential gardens have become smaller and smaller, swim spas have gained in popularity and replaced the swimming pool as an aquatic exercise solution.

Early Swim Spas

The ancient Greeks and Romans built pools most likely in the form of a rectangle for athletic training in the palaestras (ancient gymnasiums), for the nautical games, and also for military exercises. The private pools of Roman emperors were stocked with fish and were known as piscinas.

While others existed in various forms and for various purposes, it was the late Cleo Baldon of the Venice, California-based landscape design firm Galper/Baldon Associates who is credited with having brought the lap pool to California with her designs in the early 1970s. Baldon’s design innovation helped to fuel the fitness scene that followed and her work was featured in the book she co-authored with her husband, Ib Melchior, Reflections on the Pool: Calfornia Designs for Swimming. She also held a patent for the first prefab fiberglass spa (the Hydro-Spa) with contoured seating.

Baldon, who grew up in Washington state, said that the long, narrow irrigation trenches that run between apple orchards were one of the inspirations for the lap pool.

Baldon on Lap Pools

Although Baldon’s mother didn’t allow her daughter to actually go swimming in those Washington irrigation trenches, the designer went on to create some of the most beautiful lap pools in which to swim and enjoy. With the serious athletic swimmer in mind, she believed that a pool that was only 8 or 9 feet wide (and at least 45 feet in length) would allow someone to comfortably perform swim strokes. Optimal lap pool depths are 3 feet at the shallow end, 4 feet in the middle, and 5 feet to stand up in the deep end. A “leg” area at the shallow end is ideal for children to play and to locate access steps.

Building, maintaining, and heating a lap pool is similar to other pools, although this type can be used like a swim-in-place pool if it is equipped with a machine that creates a strong artificial current. This allows a swimmer to swim against a continuous flow of water without moving forward or needing to turn at the ends of the pool, all the while perfecting strokes and toning.

Design Considerations

When planning or constructing a lap pool, think about the following:

    • If you will be using the pool mostly to swim laps, it is more convenient to enter the pool via offset or niche wall steps with a metal grab rail rather than internal steps
    • If there is room, consider adding an integrated spa, which extends the enjoyment of the pool and can economize on space if you desire both a pool and a hot tub in your backyard
    • The deck surround is an integral part of the design, so think about the materials you’d like to use: wood, concrete paving, or tile. The standard space around any swimming pool is 4 to 8 feet wide on all sides. This permits easy access, keeps debris out of the water, prevents the garden from becoming waterlogged, and allows for easier maintenance
    • When will you most likely use the pool? In the morning, afternoon, or evening? Really think about this, because it can affect how you heat your lap pool. Do you plan on using it just in the spring and summer, or all year? This can make a difference when building a heating unit into your lap pool
    • Get a cover to make contain the heat in your pool, which makes it more efficient and can reduce your utility bills. Cover styles include thermal blankets or fully automated

Woman relaxing in spool

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When discussing pools, a spool is a portmanteau word or a blend of the words pool and spa. Measuring approximately 10 to 16 feet long and 6 to 8 feet wide, a spool is obviously much smaller than an in-ground swimming pool, but at least twice the length of the average spa. Consider it a hybrid or the best of both worlds.

Working out in a Spool

Unlike a swimming pool, a spool comes equipped with powerful jets that create a swirling current against which to swim. This allows you to get a workout in a relatively small amount of space; often swimming in place. When using a swim spa as a pool for exercise, the temperature should be kept down, as it gets uncomfortable and can make you tire more easily if you’re doing laps in a warm body of water. With this in mind, you might want to first use the spool as a pool; then, later in the day or evening, heat it up to relax tired muscles in warm, therapeutic water.

Some models include a removable partition that makes it possible for one person to use the swim spa as a hot spa, while another person swims laps in a cooler section of the spool.

Deciding If a Swim Spa Is the Right Fit

Reasons for building or installing a spool include:

    • You’re tight on space.
    • You can’t afford a swimming pool and a hot tub/spa, but you want to enjoy the benefits of both.
    • Versatility: It can be kept cool for swimming or warmed up and used with the jets for hot water therapy.
    • You’re hesitant about committing to building an in-ground swimming pool.
    • It can be used year-round in mild climates
    • Because a spool is smaller than an in-ground swimming pool, it is easier to maintain
    • It doesn’t take up lots of space in a yard. Even if you have an average-to-large -sized yard, you may not want a good part of it dedicated to an in-ground swimming pool and surrounding deck.
    • When not in use, a well-designed spool can look like an appealing water feature in a yard, especially if designed to complement the home’s architecture or with tile, fountains, landscaping, etc.

Attractively designed swim spas can be bought from a spa dealer and can be freestanding—that is, they don’t have to be sunken into the ground or have a deck surround. One of the more popular brands is the Coast Spas Wellness Series. One of the models in the line measures 19.5 x 7.8 x 4.25 feet and includes a propeller design, which offers a deeper, wider, smoother current that is fully adjustable to the desired level of resistance. Several other spa companies have gotten into the spool or swim spa market in recent years, incorporating currents, jets, and other features for multiple levels of training and, afterward, relaxing.

Before Making a Commitment

While a spool, or swim spa, sounds like the best of both worlds, it’s not for everyone. Take one for a “test drive” at a friend or family member’s house or try one out at a local spa dealer before buying or building one. Make sure the “current” is not like the blast of a pressure washer or fire hose.

In doing so, you may find out that you can’t live without a full-sized pool in which to swim laps or entertain a large crowd. Alternatively, you may find that all you want is a hot tub that will allow you to receive a nice, hot soak and high-pressure, massaging jets targeted on your sore muscles a few times a week. Like anything, it takes time and consideration before taking the plunge and becoming a proud spool owner.

By Lisa Hallett Taylor