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My new pool companion

Behl, the writer’s pool robot, at work after a recent storm
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Behl, the writer’s pool robot, at work after a recent storm

I have three ways of gauging how much rain falls at our house during a storm like the one we had this week, or was it last; and another one between the time I wrote and recorded this commentary. Fortunately, our home in Columbia County was spared the floods that struck the lower Hudson Valley and Vermont.

The first way is the plastic rain gauge in our garden. But I don’t really trust it, fearing it leaks. And also because I neglect to empty it between deluges so it’s completely inaccurate, in any case.

The second way is whether our roof leaks and our basement floods. This didn’t used to be a problem. In fact, I could be accused of something like hubris when it came to how watertight our house seemed. And I continue to believe that the problem isn’t the exorbitant quantities of rain that seem to come these days with average rainstorms; in other words climate change.

No, the issue turns out to be an intentional hole in the foundation of the home’s 1980’s addition. Our contractor drilled it to run an electrical wire to the outdoor patio lights. Why it only started acting up in the 21st century, creating a conduit for torrential quantities of water to form a small lake in our basement is anyone’s guess?

Maybe it is climate change, though our able current contractor plugged it up between recent storms and it has remained bone dry since. So I can no longer, at least for the moment, fingers crossed, use that metric to determine when it’s time to board the leaky rowboat we keep parked at our pond for occasional joy rides.

That leaves but one tool left to determine how much precipitation we’re getting per meteorological event. I mean I can always consult my weather app. And I do. Often. Almost as often these days as I do my emails or newsfeed.

But, for all their European and American computer weather models and heavily armored tornado and hurricane chasing vehicles I consider weather experts about as reliable as the average tarot card or palm reader, not that I regret either profession their ability to earn a living.

No, the best way to judge how much rain our property gets is by how much storm runoff – a combination of rain and silt -- cascades into our swimming pool from the surrounding landscape.

The pool was my mother’s folly. Her concept was to nestle it in the woods so that it would look like a vernal pond. It doesn’t for any number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that vernal ponds aren’t typically kidney shaped. And also their water tends to be green or brown, reflecting nature. Not the striking chlorine blue that ours is when things are going well. When they aren’t, such as after that storm we had on July 4th, it does, in fact, resemble a forest pool, turning a dispiriting shade of ochre.

Depression once turned to despair because I knew that restoring the pool to presentability, let alone swimability, would include making a pricey call to our pool man of whose services I’ve been trying to wean myself, with his full blessing.

In fact, he’s the one who politely suggested that I look into purchasing one of those pool robots. I’ve resisted for several reasons. They’re expensive. Also, I have little faith in technology, and even less so in my ability to follow instructions and get it to function the way it’s advertised.

But on the off change that it actually worked – and why shouldn’t it; pool vacuums aren’t exactly cutting edge technology – the possibility that I might be required to summon my pool service only twice a season, to open and close it, and save all that money, made it almost worth the risk.

Performing due diligence I visited friends who owned the robot brand and model I was considering and watched it do its impressive thing on their more straightforward swimming pool. They even returned the visit with their robot and visyla mix in tow, allowed the former to sink to the bottom of our pool, and hit the power button.

I may have indicated that our pool is unlike many others. It’s large, deep, oddly shaped and has whatever the swimming pool equivalent of old age liver spots, among other idiosyncrasies. I feared that our friend’s pool robot might have met its match. But it seemed to putter along the bottom of the pool amiably, even climbing the steepest walls.

So I bought one. I even named it – Behl – after David Behl, my friend who generously let us road test his robot, risking physical injury to the machine if not to himself. The rumor is that these things have a brain, that they remember the contours of your pool from cleaning to cleaning. That’s not true. At least not according to the instruction manual that accompanied the device. “No,” is the answer to one of the instruction package’s frequently asked questions. “The Dolphin cleaner performs a new mapping sequence with each cleaning cycle.”

But it seemed to do a decent job of sucking up the debris at the bottom of our pool, no matter its modus operandi. Indeed, my family claimed the pool has never looked cleaner. I even enjoy standing at the pool’s edge like a mesmerized fool as Behl methodically travels back and forth like something with analytical skills, occasionally even climbing the tiles as if trying to escape and making a loud gurgling sound before it accepts defeat and plunges back into the depths.

But then came that storm. When I went to bed the night before the pool looked pristine. At least as pristine as it ever does. But when I visited the next morning – mostly to see whether a mature oak or maple had tumbled into it as it has after previous violent storms – the runoff had caused the water to turn brown and brackish.

I feared for Behl’s health. And it did, indeed, require three sessions before the robot restored the pool’s appearance. I also hosed down the filters between successive journeys. I’m proud of Behl and of me, for my limited involvement in its success. That doesn’t mean that the water won’t confound me tomorrow, turning green or opaque, growing mold or algae as it’s often done in the past.

But at least I no longer feel totally helpless. And in an age when we seem increasingly to be at nature’s mercy I suppose that’s a good thing.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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