Drought puts California pool repairman who works underwater in high demand

In water-starved California, pool repairman Kevin Wallace might be viewed as a hero in a scuba suit.

The 63-year-old Wallace dives underwater in some of the best pools in Southern California to fix rust spots, rebar, structural cracks and drains, using a secret concoction of plaster-based compounds, sterilizing agents and hardeners. The mixture seals within an hour.

The best part? No draining of the pool is required.

That's music to the ears of Wallace's clients, who include homeowners, big businesses and public agencies like school districts. All are grappling with a state mandate that requires steep reductions in water usage.

That push to conserve has put Wallace's services in high demand, he said. The mixture of compounds — a recipe he created — makes the underwater repairs possible.

"No, I won't tell you what I call it. It's a secret," said Wallace, who mixes up batches of the doughy substance before jobs and keeps some of the ingredients in a Trader Joe's coffee can.

In addition to saving water, the process saves on expensive chemicals needed to replenish the pools, and it means homeowners don't have to wait the several days it takes to drain, refill and treat a pool before they can swim again.

"I think it's fantastic," said Edward Scheibler, a homeowner in Rancho Santa Fe who inspected a rust spot repair this week.

Wallace, who founded his Encinitas-based Underwater Unlimited business in 1985, has repaired Olympic-sized pools at the Sheraton in La Jolla, Hyatt Regency Mission Bay and UC San Diego and the big training pools used by Marines at Camp Pendleton.

He said he's also fixed rebar in the pools of comedian Don Rickles and singer Kenny Loggins, as well as nasty cracks in the Rancho Santa Fe pools of Dan Fouts, a former San Diego Chargers quarterback, and Jay Pritzker, the tycoon who built the Hyatt hotel chain. "He'd sit on his chaise lounge and make phone calls all over the world," Wallace said.

Scheibler called Wallace because of a structural crack that was causing his pool to leak.

"Every two months I get my water bill. It's thousands of dollars. It's another mortgage," said Scheibler, whose community is under new mandatory restrictions to cut water use by a third. "Since we moved here in 2003, our water bill has doubled."

Repairing a swimming pool without emptying it isn't an easy feat and few are trained to do it, so several companies refer clients to Wallace.

"We have to drain. We don't have the capability to repair underwater," said Marcus Greene, an office manager at Encino Pool Service, who has called on Wallace several times over the years for pool repairs in the San Fernando Valley.

"If I do it, it takes two weeks. It takes him a couple of hours," Greene said.

For many types of repairs, Wallace climbs into a wet suit, straps on an air tank and uses a pneumatic tool with a diamond cutting blade to carve out plaster down to the gunite layer that encases rebar. He charges $900 to $1,800 to plug a structural crack, $1,400 to redo plaster that is peeling away and about $500 to repair rust spots.

Draining a pool to make those fixes can add a few hundred dollars to the cost, and consumers might face an additional hit when they want to refill and get dinged by their water agency for exceeding usage limits.

A certified scuba instructor, Wallace says that he receives several calls daily for his pool-repair services and recently took on a partner, Cody McCain. The two can work seven days a week thanks to homeowner worries over leaky pools and skyrocketing costs of water brought on by the drought.


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