Cleaning My Swimming Pool Is Like Building Strong Towns

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I never thought I’d be the type to own a swimming pool. Too much work, and besides, I’m a public parks kind of guy who grew up taking swimming lessons at the neighborhood municipal pool. But when in Florida, do as the Floridians do, so ten years into living down here, I finally took the plunge and got the bare minimum version: an assemble-it-yourself, above-ground pool 15 feet in diameter.

All was well until we went away for a month to visit family. Although we instructed a friend to do the basic routine maintenance (no special troubleshooting), we got home, and the pool was green. Like, ninja-turtles-might-pop-out-of-it green.

The following few weeks were a frustrating but kind of fascinating lesson in a key fact about systems thinking, and the reason I’m writing this piece:

Maintaining a healthy system in a stable equilibrium is relatively easy.

Restoring an unhealthy system back to equilibrium is very hard.

A truth at the core of the Strong Towns approach is that cities are complex systems, in which millions of individuals and institutions make decisions that all affect each other, and causes and effects are difficult to discern, let alone accurately predict.

Tortured-metaphor alert here, before I begin torturing it: A city is of course not a whole lot like a swimming pool. Human agency is far more complex than anything algae have figured out how to do. Nor is a backyard pool really a complex system in the way an ecosystem is. It’s a simplified version of one, in which the chemistry can be reduced to a countable number of variables that are understood—and as for biology, if there’s much biodiversity in a pool, well, that means you dun screwed up. 

But complex systems thinking is hard to communicate in writing, and for that, a simplified metaphor is perfect. 

I had it in my head that I’d buy a couple chemicals, treat the water, kill the algae, and be back to normal in no time.

Instead, getting back to clear, clean water was a three-week ordeal of dealing with not just the algae, but chemical attributes like the alkalinity and pH, water hardness, and so forth. If any of these things is out of the right, narrow range, the system as a whole might not be stable.

And fixing one thing repeatedly seemed to alter something else. I was instructed by my friendly local pool supply store to use an enzyme solution to remove dead algae after shocking the water with intense amounts of chlorine for 36 hours. The problem? Chlorine itself rapidly kills the enzymes that clean up the algae. So, I added a chlorine neutralizer to the pool, but used too much. Then ensued a week in which I couldn’t get the chlorine levels back up, and the algae began to return. Back to the store for a non-chlorine shock, which tends to affect the pH, so add to that some soda ash. Certain chemicals also only work if you add them in the right way, such as just after brushing the pool walls with a stiff brush.

So what’s the point here? Simply maintaining a pool with healthy water chemistry involves as little as 10 minutes of maintenance a week. Bringing a pool back to healthy water chemistry, on the other hand, is a frustrating process in which things affect other things, and the system doesn’t always behave the way the package directions for this chemical or that one say it should.

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