There’s nothing quite like plunging into a secluded tropical grotto hidden in the jungle or sinking into a luxurious lounger by the pool at a posh resort.
But for those who strive to live an environmentally conscientious life, travel isn’t exactly the eco-friendliest way to spend your time: The carbon impact of air travel is mind-bogglingly high. That’s why people who want to balance their desire for a beautiful summer escape with their love for the planet can opt for earth-friendly designs, materials, and outdoor environments when planning their at-home poolscapes.
“Savvy pool buyers can ask their builder for equipment that’s kind to Mother Nature,” says R’nelle Lazlo, national vice president of Blue Haven Pools & Spas. “Today’s eco-friendly options include solar systems, energy-efficient LED lighting, low-emission gas heaters, water-sparing cartridge filters, advanced sanitizers that slash chlorine needs, and automation systems that manage pool functions more efficiently.”
Lazlo is right. Whether you choose to go with a natural pool or simply want to embrace materials, equipment, and plantings that have a smaller environmental impact, it’s getting easier to incorporate eco-elements into your pool area.
Although there are many elements of creating a more environmentally friendly outdoor living space, it’s helpful to break them down into three general categories: Water, equipment, and aesthetics.
Poolscapes can be lavish, beautifully designed places that capture our imaginations and give a respite from the grind of daily life, while providing all the comfort and style of our indoor living spaces.
But at their most basic, every pool is essentially the same: A vessel for water—and that water needs to be kept clean, clear, and safe to swim in.
“One of the smartest—but often overlooked—eco-friendly technology that pool buyers should consider are alternative sanitizers,” Lazlo says. “Methods like ozonation and advanced oxidation process cut down on chemical levels while ensuring a safe, gentle swimming environment.”
Not only do such alternative sanitizers reduce chemical usage, but they also actually help to stabilize the pool water, making it easier to maintain optimal water chemistries, says Alison Felschow, owner of Crystal Pools LLC., and Ali Enterprises Inc., in Columbia, South Carolina.
For example, she explains that ozone is an oxygen-based system in which free radical ions bond to and destroy bacteria and other impurities. She says that combining an ozone system with a UV system as backup provides a good one-two punch for maintaining clear water.
Not only will the water be clear, but you’ll be able to avoid “big chemical swings” that throw off pool chemistry, causing water to be tinged green one day and overchlorinated the next. Instead of “nuking” the pool in a circular pattern—and destroying interior finishes, tile, coping, o-rings, and other equipment—the pool water will be stable and easier to maintain.
“You’re not knee-jerk reacting to water chemistry color changes,” Felschow says.
Lazlo agrees. “Homeowners love how ozone generators and advanced oxidation process systems provide a safe, gentle swimming environment—but without the typical hassles and hazards that accompany traditional chlorine levels,” Lazlo says.
Another, more drastic alternative is a natural pool, which uses a simulated wetland to clean the water with a biological filter, rather than chemicals.
“Just like pristine pools in Costa Rica that people spend thousands of dollars to go to and jump in, you can have every bit of that in your backyard,” says Mick Hilleary, founder, owner, and president of Total Habitat in Kansas City.
Finally, saltwater pools are another option, but they have downsides; Lazlo notes that saltwater from pools can splash out, changing the pH in soil and potentially harming plants.
Homeowners often worry that eco-friendly materials won’t be as beautiful as traditional ones. But experts say that’s no longer the case, even when homeowners are trying to match the look of their homes to their outdoor living spaces.
“The materials you use really tie into what the architecture is,” Mark Scott, principal of Mark Scott Associates Landscape Architecture in Newport Beach, California. However, doing so can pose an eco-challenge, since many popular products rely on environmentally impactful processes such as mining, logging, and even shipping.
Fortunately, products like porcelain—which can seamlessly mimic materials like marble, travertine, and wood—offer a beautiful alternative. It doesn’t need to be mined or logged and is dense and strong, which is great for durability in the harsh pool environment.
For instance, “the porcelain wood products look so good now, and you can use them outside,” Scott says. “Theres no maintenance, and you’re not cutting down trees.”
The same is true when choosing the stones to place around a natural pool for features like waterfalls and rock outcroppings that mimic a natural landscape, says Hilleary, noting that a good chunk of the cost and environmental impact of stone comes from the fuel it takes to ship it from far-flung locales.
“We always try to be what I call geologically plausible. If nature had built this all by itself, what would that look like?” he says. “If we’re in Connecticut it’s going to be rounded granite; if it’s in Oklahoma, it’s going to be sandstone slabs.”
High-end artificial turfs and mulches made from recycled materials can also lend a beautiful and eco-friendly element to outdoor landscapes—with ease of maintenance as an added bonus. There’s no need to re-mulch every two years, for instance, or spend countless gallons of water per day on watering grass. Homeowners can also reduce or eliminate the need for herbicides and even mowing.
“The clients like the ease of the maintenance of it,” Felschow says, and buying high-quality products means it looks great, too.
“It’s hard to tell the difference,” she says. “You would have to pick it up and feel it to know that it’s a different type of material.”
Happily, there are also plants that promise a lower environmental impact, such as drought-tolerant ornamental grasses and succulents, says Scott. Felschow is also a fan of conifers; although they require upfront watering, they need less maintenance once established and provide year-round color.
Equipment and materials
Equipment and materials are other areas where homeowners can opt for eco-friendly alternatives, from automation systems to energy-efficient heaters. For instance, Felschow says using recycled glass as a filtration medium can be a better environmental option than something like diatomaceous earth.
In addition, techniques like smart irrigation and rainwater catchment can help save water.
“Drip irrigation saves a lot of money and water that you would use with a regular irrigation head,” Scott says.
Also, opting for low-voltage, energy efficient LED bulbs in and around the pool area saves electricity and looks stunning. Using them “not only cuts electric use but also creates dazzling jewel-tone colors for evening drama,” Lazlo agrees.
Homeowners who are wondering whether they’ll be able to create a poolscape using better-for-the-earth materials while still maintaining the highest level of performance and beauty will be happy to discover they can. Some may opt to go all-out with a natural pool, while others will take smaller steps. But whether they choose big or small steps, homeowners can be sure that the earth will thank them.