Proponents of vinyl-liner/package pools believe the time has come (and passed) to let go of the stigma that once plagued their branch of the industry's family tree. No longer should vinyl liner pools be considered simply aboveground pools sunken into the ground nor should the term "baggies" ever be uttered again.

The reason, they say, is that the package pool industry has evolved dramatically in recent years and now offers a list of benefits that compares favorably to other types of construction, especially gunite, and at reduced costs both in original installation and ongoing maintenance.

AQUA recently asked a number of vinyl liner professionals key questions about those developments and how they think their preferred method of construction stacks up in today's market.

Here's what they had to say.

What are the cost differences between vinyl liner and concrete pools and spas?

Dan Lenz, All Seasons Pools, Orland Park, Ill. (designer installer of package, fiberglass and gunite pools):

"All things being equal, selling a vinyl pool versus a comparable gunite pool, the gunite pool is going to be about 60 percent more. In other words a $60,000 pool in vinyl will be $100,000 in gunite. But keep in mind in our market here in the Midwest there are higher costs for gunite because of the needs of construction due to the climate. We have to build thicker shells with more steel than you do in areas where the ground doesn't freeze. There's more cost in materials and our labor costs are higher than they are in the southern states, largely because we're a seasonal market and can't employ crews year-round."

Kristen MacDowell, west coast regional sales representative, Cardinal Systems (direct sales to Pacific coast dealers):

"Based on my experience talking to builders, a vinyl liner package pool is about two-thirds of an equivalent gunite pool. A large part of what makes that cost difference is the gunite itself. I sold remodel projects in the Bay Area for seven years; even if someone just wanted to extend their steps, for example, there's a minimum cost associated with simply getting the crew and truck out there. Ironically, there really wasn't that much difference in cost between building a spa or shooting both a spa and the pool. Any way you look at it, gunite is a huge expense.

The big savings, however, is really in the time and effort of installation. A package pool can be installed in two weeks; a gunite pool can take much, much longer.

Another factor is package pools require fewer inspections. Most places you can have the pool installed and full of water after two inspections, with gunite it can be many more than that depending on the location and local building department requirements. With package pools, you're making fewer trips to the jobsite, which alone is a significant savings."

How has liner technology and manufacturing evolved in recent years?

Dennis Chamberlain, i2M director of sales (OEM liner manufacturer):

"We've formulated an 'Endurance' material that is more UV resistant and isn't easily bleached by chemically treated water. It costs more, but it will definitely last longer than other vinyl materials. Given proper maintenance, this material should last 15 years or more. A typical liner will last seven to 10 years. So the durability of the product has increased dramatically.

We also have a textured material that is meant to give you the feel of a gunite pool because some people like that textured feel instead of the smooth liner. Really the whole purpose is to duplicate the look of a gunite pool. You have tile lines that look like gunite pools. Well, we decided to take that a step further and give it texture so it has the feel as well as the appearance."

Brian Naumann, Pen Fabricators (package pool manufacturer):

"We're starting see more and more liner vendors thinking out of the box. The iridescent inks in the sheets, for example, give the liner what some people call an almost high-definition look. Also, every pattern we have available we have both smooth and embossed, which is a relatively new development."

What features are the most popular right now?

Brian Naumann: "We're seeing tremendous growth in the popularity of different types of steps and especially tanning ledges. The designs with a single step down into a broad area of shallow water and then steps down into the pool, that type of design has become extremely popular. We're also seeing demand for beach entries, going from zero down to 8 or 10 inches of water.

People love to sit in the shallow water, and they often put patio furniture in those areas. That's why we keep a lot of embossed material on hand for those applications. If you put a layer of foam between the liner and the concrete bottom, it will help provide more resistance to damage from things like lounge chairs.

On the other hand, we've seen a decrease in perimeter overflows and vanishing edges. I'm not really sure why that is, sometimes different features come and go in terms of what homeowners want."

Kristen MacDowell: "Right now we're seeing huge demand for custom steps as well as custom shapes. We rarely sell any two pools that are exactly alike because there are so many variables and available features. In one way or another, they're all different. We're building every single one of our kits, per order.

Of course, what made all of that possible has been CAD technology. Before that, it was just the standard shapes, L's, Lazy L's, rectangles with rounded corners. Now the shape can be almost anything you want."

Dan Lenz: "The shallow water areas have become very big. In the vinyl market we're doing more and more vinyl-covered steps, benches and tanning ledges. What's great is that manufacturers are responding by coming up with more standard options. It makes it easier to offer them because we are not having to reinvent the wheel every time. We can go to a book or a brochure and suggest the different options. There was a time when those things were really only available in gunite.

Across the board, a pool just isn't what it was 15 or 20 years ago. They've become a living room with water."

Have package pools developed to the point where they become a design element that can harmonize with the entire setting?

Brian Naumann: "Absolutely! That was a trend that homeowners were pushing for before the vendors caught up to it. We're seeing more rock patterns, different types of tile patterns and now the patterns in liners work visually outside the way a tile backsplash works in the kitchen. Overall, vendors are working to meet the demand for the pool to be part of an entire backyard design, which is why we're seeing so many different types of patterns available. And it's also why package pools come in so many different shapes and sizes. Homeowners want their pools to fit in with the rest of the backyard."

Dan Lenz: "We build the entire environment with outdoor kitchens; we use different hardscape features, fire and water features and we do that for all types of construction and there's no question you can use package pools now the same way you would a gunite pool in terms of design flexibility.

That being said, our main competitors in vinyl are building in excess of 100 projects a year; they're volume builders. When you go look at those projects, every one is the same. These companies have become very, very good at providing standardized work for their clients. There's value to those builders who systematize their work. They become effective at it, they keep their costs down and they're able to provide pools for people who don't have $100,000 to spend in their backyard.

I think that's a positive for the industry. It's just a different way of approaching the market. Not everybody has to do custom work. Vinyl liner pools are great for both types of businesses."

 

The 60-mil Factor

Although much different from package pools, the use of 60-mil liners as a surface option, both for renovation and new construction, has caught on as an alternative to surfaces typically associated with gunite pools. Advocates of these systems point out that they're being used in fiberglass and stainless steel pools, as well as in both residential and commercial projects.

What are the savings and benefits of using vinyl as a surface option?

Steve Comstock, RenoSys (manufacturer of 60-mil liners used with concrete pools):

"In terms of installation cost, if you compare our liner with a new plaster job, it's probably about the same, but that's not where the savings are!

With our 60-mil liners, you can be 15 to 20 years into it before there will be any kind of issue. With paint, you're redoing it every two years, plaster is susceptible to all kinds of problems, but once you go with the liner surface, it's good to go almost indefinitely. Over the life of the liner, you might be replacing the plaster three or four times. The savings is in the longevity.

Also, using a liner is a great way to prevent cracks from leaking. Once water starts getting into the gunite, it can be disastrous. It's impossible to calculate what you might save by preventing leaks."

Ron Melbourne, Membrane Concepts, New Bedford, Mass. (60-mil liner installer):

"The price of the PVC membrane seems very affordable compared to the cost of re-surfacing, re-plastering and repainting the same pool over 15 to 20 years. The PVC membrane works well as a complete waterproofing solution with a life of at least 15 years or more. This type of liner is also an excellent solution for pools in freeze/ thaw areas or areas where the ground shifts and moves regularly."

 

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.