There was a time when a firmly placed fiberglass shell signaled the end of a pool project. Add some decking and landscaping, perhaps, and there the matter would rest.
While those jobs still make up the majority of fiberglass pool construction, upscale fiberglass pool projects today are more of a mosaic, where the fiberglass pool itself is just one tile.
Although fiberglass vessels have evolved over the years, its the level of creativity and expertise on the part of the builder that has pushed the category to prominence.
One of the foremost practitioners of this kind of multifaceted fiberglass construction is Parker Pools, with a showroom, offices and a fiberglass pool workshop located just north of Bloomington, Ind.
There you will find various Parkers and some longstanding employees building 12 to 15 innovative fiberglass pools a year, some of them simply spectacular.
It's been a family business for over 30 years under the leadership of Jeff and Tom Parker. Jeff is more likely to be here at HQ than his dad, Tom, who inclines toward the job site.
Family businesses in the industry will recognize patterns in the Parkers' story; it's rarely a straight line of succession. Like many children of pool builders, Jeff Parker sort of backed into the pool business.
Sure, he'd grown up around his dad's pool construction projects, filling in around fiberglass shells and pouring concrete, but when it came time to decide on a career, he had other ideas.
College and a corporate executive lifestyle somehow seemed more attractive than diggers and dust in the sweltering southern Indiana summer, so Jeff and his wife left the family pool business for corporate jobs elsewhere.
Then came the car accident. Tom was hit head-on by a drunken driver. It was a bad one; the other driver was killed instantly, and Tom was lucky to survive. But he wouldn't be doing any pool building for some time.
Of course, his business wasn't laid up — there were construction jobs in progress, pools ordered and halfway done, and Jeff's mother was running herself ragged trying keep up.
"They kinda had a tiger by the tail," Jeff recalls. "Mom was trying to run things, and Dad was at the job site in a wheelchair trying to get stuff done."
So the younger Parkers came back to help out for a while.
It was over a year before Tom was able to return to full-time work, although he would remain partially disabled. And with Jeff and the Parker family pitching in, both the business and its owner survived the accident. At some point during that year, Jeff must have realized that he would be staying quite a bit longer than he'd originally figured.
That realization was 17 years ago and seems likely to be permanent. Parker Pools has all the work it can handle, and it's hard to imagine the Parker family anywhere else but right where it is.
Like other builders at the top end of the pool market, the economic downturn has not affected the Parker business. In that niche, where resources are still plentiful, word of mouth is a far more potent ad than any media can provide.
Which makes customer satisfaction absolutely crucial. In some social circles, an offended client can all but ruin a pool builder. By the same token, keep them happy and you don't need to advertise.
That formula has worked for Parker Pools. "Our customers sell our pools, as many as we can put in," Jeff says.
Putting Them In
Parker does pools differently than most fiberglass builders. They've never been afraid to try out their own ideas. Some of them have worked, and some of them haven't.
For instance, back in the early days, Tom had the notion that instead of buying a pre-made fiberglass shell, it would be easier to bring a fiberglass chopper to the site and just spray it in the hole.
"Dad thought he could build in-ground pools by digging the pool, spraying foam on the dirt to give you a surface, and then spraying fiberglass on the foam," Jeff says. "Then he just sanded the fiberglass down, and finished it. Then painted it with epoxy paint."
Tom tried doing a couple pools that way, but he noticed that with all the sanding and painting, it was pretty labor intensive. So he started doing pre-made shells like everybody else. Jeff is quick to point out, however, that "Dad built that in-ground pool in 1975, and it's still working fine today."
That idea didn't pan out, but a lot of other ideas have worked very well and given the company it's own particular style and character.
Most fiberglass pool builders order the pool, dig the hole, then set up a crane at the job site on the appropriate day, awaiting the arrival of the shell. The shell is then delivered from the factory, and the crane picks it up and puts it in the hole.
At that point, the shell is trimmed with plumbing and/or tile and other essential elements according to the customer's wishes.
Parker, on the other hand, takes delivery of the shells in advance. The company has its own trailer for hauling them. Sometimes they pick them up at the Royal Fiberglass Pool factory in Dix, Ill., and sometimes they have them delivered to the Parker warehouse.
There the shells are prepared for installation. The main drain, skimmer and returns are cut in and plumbed, and the ceramic tile work is done. When the customer, backyard and crane are ready, they load the shell on the trailer and take it to the job site.
Out of the sun and wind and rain, with tools organized and laid out in a workshop setting as opposed to the back of a truck, Jeff feels the pool prep work goes more smoothly than it would at the job site, where myriad problems, from thick mud to site constraints, can hamper efforts.
"The warehouse just gives us better control over the working conditions than after the pool is delivered to the customer's home," he says. "Plumbing in the warehouse gives us better glue joints and we can work on the pool in bad weather. We think that setup makes the work quicker, easier and of better quality than we can do at the job site."
In addition, the system minimizes the amount of time Parker's customers have to deal with a construction crew.
"See the pool on that trailer?" Parker says as he gestures toward an already-plumbed and tiled pool, strapped upside down to a trailer in the parking lot. "When we take it to the customer's home, we'll have the crane set up to meet us, and in an hour we'll have it in the hole.
"A day or two later, there's water in the pool, the equipment's all there and running off temporary power, the joints, the main drain, the skimmer and return lines are all checked. Then we bring the water level up and backfill the rest of the way, and deliver permanent power to the equipment."
"The other thing we like to do," Jeff says, "is have a flooded suction on the pump. So we figure out where all the equipment is going, and then slope all the plumbing downward toward it. That way, all the water flows to the pump, and it's always primed in case the power goes out or something like that.
"And that makes it easier to winterize, because you plug everything up on the pool, and pull the plug down below and all the water drains out of the plumbing."
Needless to say, on Parker's top-end jobs, the equipment itself is nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be heard. It's underground in its own concrete bunker with a discreet access door. On combination pool and spa installations, tunnels connect the two equipment sets in their own mechanical rooms.
In this scheme, Parker is aided by the hills and steep ravines that dominate the Bloomington area. The pool and house are usually near the crest of a ridge, leaving a natural placement of the equipment room through a barely noticeable entrance down the slope.
Continuing with the overall Parker dictum of building pools to last forever, they put hydrostatic drains underneath the fiberglass shell.
"It's not the main drain of the pool," Jeff says. "It's like a perimeter drain for the foundation of a house — just a two-inch pipe, buried in gravel under the pool. It keeps the hole dry, so if you ever want to drain the pool, you could."
If the house and pool are on a slope, they just outlet the drain to the side of the hill. If there's no convenient slope, "we'll run a well casing down to the drain and cap it. That way, if you ever want to drain that water out from under the pool, you can just pop that cap off, drop a sump pump suction down the pipe, and suck the water out."
He knows what you're thinking right about now.
"Some people call that overkill," Jeff admits, "but you never know, somebody may want to drain that pool. We had a storm once, and a big tree limb came down and went right through the fiberglass bottom of the pool.
"When things like that happen, if you can drain it, you can get down there and patch the hole without any problem."
Tools In Good Hands
Over time, every business acquires certain principles that guide its course as it navigates the future. This one is particularly committed to trouble-free, attractive and durable fiberglass pool installations. And given its market, that commitment has served it well.
Parker Pools can't afford unhappy customers, and given its attention to detail, it's not likely to have them. Fiberglass makes sense in that scheme, with that market, because it requires almost no maintenance. Parker's customers do not want to replace liners or re-plaster.
On the other hand, Jeff says, "The biggest disadvantage is you're restricted to certain shapes, but we've always been able to find a shape we need."
Jeff's ease and familiarity with his work make you believe that if one day he woke up and the company's pools had to be given away for free, he'd go right on building them.
Chatting with friends and family, customers and co-workers, it's hard to discern exactly where Jeff's life ends and his work begins. "I haven't had a job in years," he says, "this is just my life."
Big Pools, Little Pools
Expensive custom fiberglass pools continue to sell in a struggling economy. At the other end of the market, small fiberglass pools have seen some sales as well — mini-pools, in the 2,000 gallon range.
These little pools are perfect for retirement communities and condos, places where there's not a lot of backyard space and frankly, little need for it.
Often these communities have been served by a large central pool where members would congregate, but as society has turned ever more inward, more and more people would rather have their share of the water in its own little vessel off the back patio instead of joining the throng down at the clubhouse.
The idea is that everybody gets their own little 2,000-gallon fiberglass pool at the condo.
One reason for the popularity of the small pools, says Curt Prystupa, Sun Fiberglass Products, Brookville, Fla., is the simplicity of their installation. "The pool only weighs 16,000 pounds full of water. Put it in wood framing with 2-by-10 joists along the bottom and a flat cross floor, and you're done."
Scott Webb has been with AQUA magazine in one capacity or another since April 2001; he now serves as executive editor. Scott has a degree from University of Cincinnati in Aerospace Engineering and lives in Madison, Wisc.