As recently as 10 years ago, the fiberglass pool
industry had a serious image problem. Customers
liked the convenience of speedy installation and
reduced maintenance requirements, but many shied away
from purchasing what they considered a cookie-cutter pool
that couldn't compete with gunite or vinyl-liner pools in
terms of customization.
The more discriminating customers wanted pools that
looked like the ones they saw gracing the glossy pages of
consumer magazines such as Architectural Digest, House &
Garden, Metropolitan Home and a host of other titles that
cater to upscale homeowners. In most cases, the pools they
coveted weren't the kind that came on the back of a semitrailer.
Builders were also part of the image problem, manufacturers say, because those that weren't selling fiberglass didn't
think they could be made to look custom, and many of those
who were tended to reinforce their image as backyard bathtubs by simply dropping them into the ground and surrounding them with a concrete deck.
But people's attitudes have been changing as manufacturers have worked on ways to improve their products' aesthetics
and have focused on educating dealers and the public
about the design possibilities for fiberglass pool projects,
says Alan Stahl, president of Viking Pools in Williams,
Calif. His company, along with most of the others in the
industry, has worked hard to convince builders and buyers
that with a little creativity and some help from manufacturers, a fiberglass pool can turn heads and elicit envy among
even the most discerning homeowners.
"What we really push is the higher end, trying to get
away from the stigma of the white bathtub," Stahl says. "We started that 10 years ago because the fiberglass industry seemed to be heading downhill. In theory, the product
wasn't customizable. You couldn't change the color, shape,
style, etc. They all looked pretty much the same.
"We looked at the gunite industry and saw upgraded finishes like Pebble Tech, in-.floor cleaning systems, mosaic
tiles and water features — none of which was available in a
fiberglass pool. But that's just where the market is headed
Viking is by no means alone in its emphasis on improving the overall look and appeal of fiberglass pools. Joseph
Fleming, sales manager for N. Largo, Fla.-based Blue
Hawaiian Fiberglass Pools, has been
in the industry for almost 30 years,
and he says the changes in the category since he started have been striking.
"The progression I've seen is the
appearance around the pool has
improved with cantilevered decks,
brick or rock coping, raised bond
beams, negative edges," he says. "These are all things that have
brought us up to speed with the
"And with those changes, we've
seen the quality of our dealers
improve, and they bring their creative
ideas to the plate, and all of that helps
improve what we can bring to the
Builders interested in raising the level
of their fiberglass projects are getting
help from manufacturers, and one of
the most noticeable ways they're
changing the product is with special
"We started offering a granite-looking surface, Crystite, which is our version of the Pebble Tec gunite builders
were doing," says Stahl, explaining
his company's gelcoat finish. "It's
sprayed on and runs the homeowner
about $1,500 to $2,000 more than a
standard white surface. We have
three standard color upgrades —
Sapphire Blue, Pebble Beach (a
brown tone) and Granite — but we
can do virtually any color."
The popularity of these colored gelcoats is rising, and today about 60
percent of Viking's pools are sold
with the upgrade, according to Stahl.
Fayetteville, Tenn.-based Trilogy
Pools also offers a premium finish,
but it's different from the gelcoats
available from Viking and other manufacturers.
"We are offering a solid surface finish on our pools," says Ray Cronise,
co-owner and vice president of the
company, which offers six different colors of the solid surface. "It's the
same sort of finish as Corian in a
kitchen. One nice thing about it is
that it's very repairable.
"When you get down to it, a kitchen
sink is a pretty hostile environment. And if solid surface can hold up to
that, it can certainly hold up to a little
chlorine and water."
Not all manufacturers are on the
colored-surface bandwagon, however. At Blue Hawaiian, white is the only
color available. Fleming says the company tried selling blue pools but
stopped producing them about seven
"We've found that white is what
our customers really want. The beauty is when the water fills up the pool
it still looks blue," he says. "The problem with colored surfaces is if the
customer doesn't maintain the pool,
the walls become discolored. But a
white mineral deposit won't show up
on a white pool."
Another option for improving the
shell of a fiberglass pool — whether
white, gelcoated or solid surface — is
with tile work, an area many considered exclusive to the gunite industry
"We've had customers spend
$10,000 just on tile work," Stahl says. "Those types of customers wouldn't
have bought a fiberglass pool before."
There are a couple of ways to add
tile to a fiberglass pool, and the
method the builder chooses depends
on where the tile is to be placed. If
the customer wants a tile border or a
mosaic dolphin in the deep end of the
pool, it's sufficient to simply glue
them on. But if the tiles are going to
be in the shallow end or on the steps,
where they'll come into contact with
swimmers' feet, the manufacturer
can go through a special process to
make sure they're flush with the
"A company that makes the mosaic
can also produce a piece of rubber
that's a half-inch-thick outline of the
pattern," explains Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Products, Lakeland,
Fla. "This rubber template is placed
on the mold and the pool is laminated
just like normal. When you pull the
pool off the mold, the rubber come s
off with it. Then when you pull the
rubber out of the pool, it leaves an
The installer then simply adheres
the mosaic into the recesses left by
the template, grouts it and the mosaic
is at the same level as the rest of the
At Sun Fiberglass Products,
Brooksville, Fla., tile is becoming
increasingly popular, according to
Curt Prystupa, president.
"It helps get away from the bathtub
look," he says. "This year 10 to 15 percent of our pools have some inlaid
mosaic or waterline tile. It just kind
of gives it a different look."
Shapes And Sizes
In addition to added colors and tile
work, the selection of shapes and
sizes is expanding, too. These added
choices address what was once the
biggest complaint pool shoppers had
about the category.
"When I started in this business in
1974, I had six models to offer, and it
was a real challenge competing
against gunite, where they could do
any shape," says Fleming. "Today, we
have 40 different models, including
nine new ones this year. That makes
it a lot easier for the homeowners to
find something they like."
Today, fiberglass pools can feature
sunloungers, shallow ends and a deep
middle for volleyball and other water
sports, attached spas and other features that enable homeowners to find
a pool that's suited to their needs,
both utilitarian and aesthetic.
Michelle Stewart, national sales
director for Aloha and Hawaiian
Fiberglass Pools in Adelanto, Calif.,
says the additional shapes, colors
and tiling are great ways to increase
the appeal of fiberglass pools, but
the decking is perhaps the most
effective and overlooked way to
beautify a project.
"A large base of the pool contractors are building pools for the average American family," she says. "These are not $100,000 pools. So
it's important that the majority
address the typical American family, which wants a nice pretty pool
in the backyard.
"So while you can do fabulous
things like vanishing edges and infloor cleaning systems, the builders
who are installing pools with cantilevered decks, stamped concrete,
deck coating or a combination of
those are a better example of where
the market is going."
Prystupa agrees: "The deck
makes all the difference in the
world. And the customer gets a lot of bang for the buck."
Stewart explains that these types of
improvements, along with adding statuary, built-in water features and raised
bond beams, are relatively inexpensive
and don't require much time to
"These types of things look custom,
and for the average homeowner,
they're attainable and they'll buy
them," she says.
And when builders do more customized projects, it helps the industry's image and shows people fiberglass pools don't have to be dull.
"When you build a pool like that
and the homeowner has a party, a
guest who's never seen a fiberglass
pool before wouldn't know it's fiberglass unless somebody told them or
they got into it and felt the surface,"
Stewart says. "When that person
learns it's fiberglass, they'll say, 'I
never knew fiberglass could look like
that.' So the bar has been raised,
because that person would never buy
a pool that looks like a bathtub again."
Conversely, if a builder has done a
"bathtub job," he's just eliminated a
large part of the pool-buying public,
according to Stewart.
"If that person throws a party, their
guests will write off fiberglass forever
because they don't know it doesn't
have to look like that," she explains.
"And those people will talk to others
about what they've seen."
Another inexpensive way of dressing up a fiberglass project and
adding to the sticker price is with
water features. Some manufacturers, such as Viking, are making it
easier for installers by developing
water features that come along with
"They can cost the dealer as little
as $300 or $400 and can retail for a
couple of thousand dollars," says
Stahl. "Water features can be a great
closing item to build into the price
or a great profit center.
"They do take some work on the
dealer's part. They come along with
the pool, but some plumbing is
needed. That shouldn't take more
than an hour per feature, though."
While fiberglass installers have a number of inexpensive ways to add to a project's appeal, there are some high-end
customers who'll want even more elaborate pools. Cantilevered decks, special
coatings and mosaics are just the
beginning for these homeowners.
San Juan is one company that's
helping its dealers with vanishing-edge
pools — a very popular feature in the
gunite industry and one that fiberglass
installers should know can be done.
"We do the engineering and design
for the vanishing edge and provide it to
the dealer," Sullivan says. "So if they
haven't done one before, it takes some
of the unknown out if it.
"The shell is modified and the vanishing edge is created in the factory. It's just sent to the dealer to be assembled. Having it done in the factory
reduces the challenge, but it doesn't
eliminate the work. But the builder
doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every time he does one."
Vanishing edges obviously require
more time to install, because they
must be plumbed and the installer has
to create a catch basin. For now, that's
left up to the installer.
"The dealer needs to sell it for an
additional $15,000, and it probably
costs him about $10,000 to $11,000
to do if he can't do the gunite catch
basin himself," he says. "That
$4,000 margin is based on having a
gunite contractor come in and do the
basin, but if the dealer can do it himself, he makes even more on it."
But are such well-heeled customers
likely to choose fiberglass over gunite
or vinyl? Yes, according to Stewart.
"There are the high-end customers
who've educated themselves and
have read what's consistent among
all manufacturers' Web sites: ease of
maintenance, longevity, reduced
chemical requirements and the nonabrasiveness of gelcoat," she says. "Even though they have money
falling out of their pockets, they still
appreciate those benefits. If those are
your clients, you need to know you
can do some really incredible things.
"You have to be tenacious. The
really aggressive installers aren't
afraid to cut into the shell and do
whatever it's going to take to make it
how the customer wants it. Most
guys wouldn't dare do that, but these
guys have enough faith in their ability to make it work."
Stahl says Viking also encourages
its dealers to do things like vanishing
edges, raised bond beams and builtin bars.
"We like to say our dealers can still
build custom pools. We feel at the factory it's our job to make it as easy for
them as we can to do those types of
pools," he says. "The more we build
in the easier it is for them. We still
want them to be in and out in five to
10 working days. When you start
adding high-end items you don't want
the job to slow down."
While all the manufacturers AQUA
spoke with emphasize that almost
anything can be done in fiberglass,
they point out that it's the quicker and
more common jobs that are the
biggest area of growth in the industry.
"When you're asking if a fiberglass
pool can be done like this or that, of
course it can," says Stewart. "Does it
require a builder that can do those
types of things. Yeah. It requires a
skill level and a sense of adventure.
"Having said that, that's not the
majority of the consumer base out
For the majority of pool shoppers,
more modest and cost-effective ways
of improving the look of fiberglass
projects are a better fit. Gelcoats, water
features, tiling and especially cantilevered decks or rock or brick coping
can make a project look like a pool in a
magazine spread, but don't cost the
homeowner an arm and a leg.
"Much of the hang-ups lie in the
builder who's afraid to try something
different," says Stewart. "Builders
need to know they can work with
their manufacturers to build a product that will suit their customers'
needs, because almost anything can
The Shell Game
The cat fight among pool builders and manufacturers hurts everyone involve.
Ray Cronise is co-owner and vice president of engineering for
Fayetteville, Tenn.-based Trilogy Pools, a newcomer to the fiberglass industry. He and his partners come from the aerospace
industry (rocket scientists!) and now own a fiberglass composite
factory. Coming in from the outside, he says, has helped the company look at the market differently.
"If I have one criticism of how it appears the industry works, it's
that all of these builders segment themselves based on what type
of shell they install," he says. "But a shell is not a pool, it's just
element. A pool is a system with the shell, decking, hydraulics,
filters, pumps, lights and landscape. Any company that ignores one
or more of those isn't building first-class pools.
"If you don't believe a pool is a system, turn it off and it'll turn
into a pond. We're not in the pond business."
Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Products in Lakeland, Fla.,
agrees with Cronise.
"Us telling people that vinyl will break down in the sun, or the
concrete guy saying fiberglass will pop out of the ground doesn't
do anyone any good," he says. "In reality it doesn't matter what
the guy puts in. We're not selling concrete or fiberglass or vinyl,
we're selling backyard excitement.
"You don't hear the companies in the car industry bashing each
other. It just comes down to professionalism, and the more professional
the business, the less need there is for all the derogatory
The infighting among proponents of the different types of shells
brings the entire pool industry down, according to Cronise. A better approach, he says, is to focus on the real competition.
"When we came in and looked at how fiberglass companies were
selling the product, we saw a lot of literature geared toward selling
against gunite and vinyl," Cronise says. "We don't see those as
our competition; we see RVs and boats as the competition.
"Of course, we'll talk about the advantages of our pools for the
consumer, but if they don't choose a fiberglass pool they should at
least put a pool in and not buy an RV."
Barrett Kilmer, has been on the editorial staff of AQUA magazine since 2000. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and currently lives in Madison, Wisc.