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How Infinity Pools Work: The Optical Illusion, Explained

Posted on 06/27/2014

They’re staples at high-end resorts and exotic photo shoots. And like most beautiful things, infinity pools are mysterious.

Also called vanishing-, negative-, zero-, or disappearing-edge pools, infinity pools appear to simply drop off into the horizon on one or more edge – so that you see a seemingly infinitely extending horizon. These pools look amazing – and downright impossible.

An infinity pool could probably transform even the least scenic spot into an oasis, but they have the most impact in an area with plenty of sky and an already breathtaking view. The “vanishing” edge turns the whole pool into a sort of mirror for the scenery.

How the infinity effect is created

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Don’t worry – knowing how an infinity pool works isn’t likely to spoil the view for you!

An infinity pool features one or more walls that come to water level rather than above it (as with a conventional in-ground pool). These walls slope downward away from the pool, creating that serene waterfall effect.  But where does that water go?

Overflowing water falls into a catch pool – a sort of basin that sits beneath the vanishing edge. From here, the water is collected and pumped back into the main pool. Sounds simple, right?

But there are a few tricky components to the infinity pool – and they can make the view either scenic or awkward.

  • Views are everything. For an infinity pool to have the best effect, the vanishing edge must be positioned so that you can’t see the catch pool from the prime viewing spots.  The easiest site to build on is a gentle slope; flat land and steep slopes mean the builder might have to do more engineering work before installing the pool.
  • Get the catch pool right the first time. Overly ambitious designers can get into trouble with the catch pool. The basin must be deep enough to collect all of the spillover water – but not so deep that the water level is constantly low. (Engineer Ron Lacher, CBP, explains more specifications for the catch pool in this article.) 
  • Double the pumping power. While the main part of an infinity pool uses the same kind of plumbing as a conventional pool, the catch pool usually requires its own pump and filter to keep water circulating back into the main pool. The filter ensures that the pool itself is free of debris – and always photo-ready.

infinity pool

Is your space suitable for an infinity pool?

We’re all enamored with the idea of eternity – but your space will dictate whether or not an infinity pool is appropriate.

  • What’s your view like? If you have a smaller back yard and views of your own fence, an infinity pool might be a bit ambitious. For one thing, these things tend to take up a good amount of space (you have to account for the catch pool). And infinity pools create a reflective, almost mirror-like surface – which might not be the best thing if you’re reflecting an old swing set and your neighbor’s huge trampoline.
  • What’s the style of your home? A country cottage is probably better suited for a naturally landscaped in-ground than for a sleek infinity pool. A mid-century home in the desert or a stark, modern house on a hill, on the other hand, is practically begging for some dramatic waterscaping.
  • How do you feel about chasing waterfalls? If you want a dynamic waterscape, you can position an infinity pool so that the pool is elevated and the vanishing edge is facing the viewer (and adequately covering the catch pool). This creates a dramatic waterfall effect. If your space is small or your view is less than idyllic, a reversed infinity pool can give you a dramatic look that’s not out of place.

A lot of planning goes into making an infinity pool look truly mesmerizing – but all that forethought is worth it.