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Cuesta College's 710,000-gallon controversy

Workmen prepare pool site at Cuesta College.
Workmen prepare pool site at Cuesta College.

The pools at Cuesta College were recently in the news for water leakage.

It is not unheard of for large, aging pools to leak.

Hearst Castle’s 345,000-gallon Neptune pool was drained in 2014 due to leakage.

The two Cuesta pools hold a combined 710,000 gallons and lose about 13,000 gallons a day from various causes including leaks, evaporation and cleaning.

On June 17, 2015, the college announced that the small pool would be closed for emergency repairs.

Both the Neptune and Cuesta College facilities pushed the limits of design. The Cuesta pools underwent a major renovation in the late 1980s, partly funded by a $290,000 settlement paid by the builder.

On Feb. 20, 1978, Telegram-Tribune reporter Jeanne Huber wrote about the controversy:

Retired engineer challenges Cuesta pool plans

You’re not supposed to cook tomatoes in aluminum, because their acid will pit the pot.

Does this mean you should not choose aluminum to hold heavily chlorinated swimming pool water?

This question seems to be the nub of a difference of opinion between the Cuesta College board (trustees of the San Luis Obispo County Community College District) and a retired highway engineer, Wendell W. Ray of Atascadero.

The college board, citing assurances from an Ohio aluminum pool manufacturer and from some folks who have such a pool at the University of Nevada, says the question’s answer is no — that aluminum is okay.

Ray, whose view gains some support from scientists at Cal Poly, says the answer is yes, aluminum should not be used. The college trustees were impressed with promises of having a pool that would be easy to maintain and which would move as a unit when the earth shook or settled, rather than crack.

Ray is deadly serious about his criticism of the aluminum pool choice. He is also critical of the solar heating system chosen for the pool. And this isn’t the first time he has challenged public authority. He made headlines a few years ago when he criticized a sewer system then being built in Atascadero. He sees problems in the Cuesta pool because of aluminum's status as a highly corrosive metal.

College officials say Ray’s missing the truth because he’s refused to meet with the architect or engineers on the project to hear their side of the story. His criticisms could be answered with the facts, they say.

Ray says he hasn’t met with the architect or engineers because he wants to avoid a fight. He’s taken his campaign to the public instead, via a batch of letters to editors and a flurry of phone calls to public officials.

How much weight is there to his argument?

Against his case are comments by a dozen people who operate aluminum pools more than 15 years old. Without exception these people told the Telegram-Tribune that their pools had performed satisfactorily with only minor repairs. Most said they repaint the pools every year or two.

But an investigation by the newspaper over several weeks also turned up this factor: None of the architects or engineers — who are being paid $82,700 on the $1.06 million project — seems to have actually checked whether aluminum is suitable for a swimming pool. They said they simply accepted the manufacturer’s assurances.

Two professors in Cal Poly’s Department of Metallurgy bluntly stated that they would never build an aluminum swim pool. They said they wouldn’t do it even with the two relatively corrosion-resistant alloys chosen for the Cuesta project.

“Aluminum is the last thing in the world I’d choose to make a swimming pool,” said O.W. Simmons, a professor of metallurgical engineering.

“Aluminum swimming pools may be wonderful. I just don’t know. But if it was my money, I wouldn’t gamble on it.”

He brought out samples of aluminum to make his point. None was made from the specific alloys to be used in the Cuesta pools, which go by the technical names of 6063-T6, schedule 40, for the pipes and 505-H32 for the pool.

Simmons picked up a piece of aluminum sheeting made from an alloy he said was even more resistant to corrosion than the pool materials. The sheet crumbled between his fingers, dramatic evidence by his account of how it had stood up for six months as roofing for a chicken coop at Cal Poly.

Simmons picked another example, aluminum piping used to carry water. It was deeply pitted below the level where water had flowed. Simmons said the pits were caused when traces of mercury in the water reacted chemically with the aluminum.

He pointed to a chart listing 29 common metals, with the most active or corrosive ones at the top and the least active at the bottom. Aluminum was the fourth from the top.

Richard C. Whiley, head of the department, said he shared Simmons’ concerns.

“We’re in the metals business and should be promoting this (a metal pool),” he said. “But in the case where we’re taxpayers, too, we want to question it.”

Whiley said his skepticism about aluminum was bolstered by what he saw when he welded some aluminum pipes for a ladder for a friend’s pool.

Within a year, the ladder was covered with unsightly patches of corrosive products. He said he used an alloy even less corrosive than the ones specified for the pool.

Ben Franks, a representative of the pool manufacturer, Chester Products Inc. of Middletown, Ohio, said the problem is that West Coast people just aren’t familiar with aluminum pools because most such pools have been built in the East.

“Since 1953 we’ve heard that same kitchen pot argument about aluminum’s tendency to corrode,” Franks said.

He said the argument was not valid because aluminum pools are built from a special marine-grade aluminum, not common corrosive stuff like that used in pots and cheap pool ladders. The aluminum in pools is like that used in ships, he said.

Franks said the pools are painted on the inside to make them more attractive and to provide additional protection against corrosion.

But he said the pipes won’t be painted, nor will the outside of the pool, which comes in contact with the ground and groundwater.

Franks said those surfaces would be protected by a series of replaceable plugs of a metal more corrosive than aluminum. If chemicals become unbalanced or an electric current develops in the ground, the plugs — not the pool — will be eaten away, he said. It would be relatively easy to replace the plugs if needed.

Franks said Chester Products began installing the plugs in what is known as a cathodic protective system because his firm had started to install more and more year-round pools. Because the pools were operated more months of the year, Chester Products had started to notice some corrosion, he said. He said none of the earlier pools had developed serious problems, however.

Franks said the cathodic protectors had been used for only a few years so it was too early to tell how often they would have to be replaced. He said much would depend on how well the pools were operated.

Cal Poly’s Simmons said such a system of cathodic protectors probably would be effective in controlling corrosion, especially in the pipes. But he said he doubted if they would do much good on the outside of the pool, because the surface area will be so large. Simmons said he feared tiny spots inside the pool would be left without paint, no matter how carefully workers applied the three layers of vinyl paint called for in the plans. Corrosion would concentrate at those points and it could rapidly eat through the quarter-inch pool wall, he said.

Ray said he is more worried about the pipes than the pool. He said his concern was prompted by what the saw on a visit to the construction site: pipes made from aluminum three-eighths of an inch thick. Ray said the pipes don’t need to be that thick for any structural reason and he suspects that they were made that way only so they would not corrode all the way through before the pool’s five-year guarantee expires.

Frank, however, said the pipes are that thick for two reasons — because the kind of aluminum specified comes only in that thickness, and because the pipes will be underground. Things in inaccessible places usually are designed to carry more of a load than they’ll handle simply to guarantee that nothing goes wrong, he said.

What do college officials and architects and engineers working for them have to say about this?

Dr. James R. Duren, Cuesta’s assistant superintendent for business services and the college official most involved with the planning for the pool, said people should have confidence in the pools because they were designed by “professional people.” All public buildings are designed by licensed architects and engineers, and school plans must pass extra scrutiny from the Office of the State Architect, Duren said. “We have the engineers and they are the professional people and we have to rely on them,” he said.

But Duren’s experts turned out to be solely the salesmen for the swimming pool manufacturer.

Others who are getting taxpayer’s money for designing the pool said they had nothing to do with the pool itself, just with the things around it.

The college architect, Bruce B. Bader of Morgrudge, Bader, Richards, Coghlan of Los Angeles, said he and its consultants firm will receive $77,840 to design the utility connections to the pools and the site.

Bader said neither his firm nor Archer-Spencer Inc. of Santa Barbara would or had questioned whether aluminum was suitable for swimming pools. Archer-Spencer is a mechanical engineering firm acting as Bader’s consultant on the pools. “Our office and the engineers’ office based their decisions on the assurances fo the Chester Products company because they have been doing this (building aluminum pools) for 20 years,” Bader said.

“As far as I know — or as far as they tell us — they have built over 1,000 of these.” Fred W. Cheesebourgh, chief structural engineer for the State Architect’s Office, said his agency merely checked the Cuesta plans to make sure the pools would be structurally sound and strong enough to resist collapse in an earthquake.

“We don’t go into the question of whether it will function correctly,” he said. The State Architect’s office will be paid $4,865 for this work in checking the plans.

What about the solar heaters?

Ray, who has built several solar heaters which he uses to keep his swimming pool at a nice temperature, says he was flabbergasted to learn that the solar collectors were simply a network of black pipes welded onto panels on the roof of a nearby gym.

He said the panels would be far more efficient if they were covered with glass on top and insulation on the bottom.

James McKenzie, chief mechanical engineer for Archer-Spencer Inc. in Santa Barbara, said Ray would be correct if the panels were used to heat water for household use or space heating.

But he thumbed through a thick book listing details of commercially available solar heaters — including some made by companies Ray said were reputable — to illustrates his confidence in the Cuesta heaters. Every firm which made solar collectors for both households and pools left off the glass tops on their pool models.

McKenzie said the laws of thermodynamics explain why.

The glass reduces the heat loss from the pipes into the air, but it also cuts the amount of radiation which can heat water in the pipes, McKenzie said.

He said the glass is needed when there is a big temperature difference between the water in the pipes and the outside air. But the glass actually works against the system when the water is only a few degrees hotter than the air, as it would be in a swimming pool heating system, he said.

A representative of the state’s Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission said McKenzie’s explanation was correct.

McKenzie said the $38,000 solar heating system was designed to provide 26 percent of the pools’ annual energy needs. The size of the gym roof limited the size of the collectors, he said.

Ray scoffed at that low percentage. He said that if school officials were really serious about conserving energy, they would have built at least the smaller of their two pools indoors. Duren said college officials stopped talking about indoor pools when they learned it would cost $1 million to cover them. He said they never looked into how much it would cost to cover just one.

McKenzie said it would be possible to get more heat out of the collectors by covering them with glass and using them to heat a relatively small amount of water very hot — then diluting that with the colder quantity of water in the pool.

He said the idea was rejected because the glass-covered panels would have cost 130 percent more and added 10 tons to the weight of the gym roof.

The gym roof would have had to be built differently if that much weight were added he said.

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