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As the economy improves and the pool industry regroups, the time may be ripe for fiberglass pools to make their move. Proponents feel their concept of creating bodies of water for a broad spectrum of consumers positions them well to offer a powerful alternative to traditional gunite/plaster and vinyl- liner pools.
They point to durability, ease of maintenance and ease of installation as key benefits that will propel the product to new heights. And, as manufacturing techniques become more advanced, the creative possibilities are sure to broaden.
In preparing this discussion of the future of the fiberglass industry, we spoke with two leaders in the field, Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Pools and Tom Straub, president of Viking Pools, two of the industry's leading manufacturers of fiberglass pool shells. Both men convey a message of supreme optimism and confidence in the future of both the industry and the composite material known as fiberglass.
In speaking with Sullivan, he began his remarks by pointing out what he considers the three primary traditional objections to fiberglass, with an eye towards countering those potential misgivings with a series of benefits.
"The first negative is size," he says. "If you want your pool 20 feet wide, we could make that in the factory, but we couldn't truck it down the highway. The next negative is if you want your steps on the left-hand side, but in the factory mold they're on the right hand side, we'd have to make a whole new mold. The final negative is the shell is more expensive than a concrete shell. So the objection we've faced is that people say, 'you're asking me to pay more money for something of limited size that you can't customize.'"
Those objections, although troublesome in the past, are now easily dispatched:
On the issue of size, Straub admits the need to transport the shell to the site imposes some limitations on traditional, one-piece shells. He adds, however, "We do have modular designs that are assembled in the field that will solve that problem. I believe that's something we're going to see more and more as demand for the product grows across a range of applications that might call for larger structures."
For now, Sullivan adds, "Our largest pool is 45 feet long by 16 feet wide, which is large enough for most families."
The second objection, customization, is one that both men say is rapidly becoming a concern of the past. According to Sullivan, "We manufacture over 80 standard shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of configurations. By comparison, most concrete pool builders offer far fewer standard models."
Adds Straub, "We do a tremendous amount of custom work these days, more and more all the time. In general, you can say that any feature available in concrete can be achieved in fiberglass. There are no limitations."
As for the final objection, the cost of the shell, Sullivan explains, "In concrete the majority of cost is in labor. With fiberglass, the vast majority is in the materials and manufacturing. If you're in a market where you have inexpensive labor, a concrete shell is going to be less initially. If, however, you're in a market where labor is expensive, you might find that the fiberglass is less expensive."
Far more important, however, is the issue of longevity and durability. Sullivan explains, "On average, a fiberglass shell is 10 to 12 percent more expensive than concrete. However, the first time you have to replaster a concrete pool, it becomes more expensive over the long run than a fiberglass pool, which will never have to be resurfaced."
Beyond the counter-arguments to traditional objections, the upsides offered by fiberglass may be surprising to those who have never taken the product seriously in the past.
"Longevity is a major benefit," explains Straub. "Most manufacturers offer a lifetime warranty. We've found that homeowners love the idea that once they install their pool, it's going to be there indefinitely."
According to Sullivan, "We hear from people on a regular basis that their pools have lasted 30 or 35 years or longer. We've even heard of cases where the pools have been gifted to children or grandchildren, moved and reinstalled in new locations. Because of their longevity, fiberglass pools actually have the ability to become family heirlooms, and have service lives in more than one location."
Because fiberglass is a flexible material, proponents claim it's more resistant to ground movement than concrete pools. "Concrete pools have to be engineered to withstand movement in the soil," explains Sullivan. "A fiberglass pool has flexibility and will move slightly as the ground moves."
He's quick to caution, however, that "like anything made by human hands, there are conditions that will cause it to fail and you do have to be aware of any extreme condition. In our experience, we've found that most failures are caused by some sort of accident, rather than ground movement."
On the other end of the spectrum, the installation time required for a fiberglass pool is a fraction of that required for concrete pools, a factor that appeals to both builders and homeowners. Says Straub: "From the homeowner's perspective it goes in the ground very quickly. So typically, depending on the install, the homeowner is swimming within days as opposed to weeks or months. It's a perfect answer for homeowners who want to go swimming as soon as possible."
Adds Sullivan: "With a concrete pool, there's no exact date that you get your pool. The construction takes place in phases over weeks and even when you add water, there's a start-up phase necessary to protect the plaster. That's not the case with fiberglass. It's delivered and lowered into the ground, and in many cases filled in the same day. Oftentimes, it's an event that's recorded on video by the homeowner culminating in people swimming right away. It's exciting and tremendously rewarding because the process doesn't drag on and on."
Another huge benefit with fiberglass pools is the decrease in required maintenance. As both Sullivan and Straub point out, the fiberglass gel coat is non-porous and smooth, dirt doesn't stick and algae blooms are less likely to find footholds in the surface.
"There's very little opportunity for anything to stick or grow on the wall or the floor of the pool," explains Straub. "Concrete surfaces, or even vinyl, will tend to hold dirt a little bit more. Pool cleaners have an easier time removing dirt and cleaning the surface, you don't have to brush the pool as often and your chemicals don't have to work as hard."
To further make the point, Sullivan offers this simple analogy: "If you leave a glass of water outside for a several days or even weeks, you're going to find green film on it, but you'll be able to clean it with some soap and a paper towel. If you leave a concrete birdbath full of water unattended for an extended period of time, it too will be filled with muck, but because it's a porous material, you're going to have to go at it with a wire brush and muriatic acid. Even then, you're probably not going to be able to clean it completely."
Also, in terms of maintenance, fiberglass surfaces do not interact with water the way cementitious materials do. Fiberglass proponents point to the constant struggle to maintain proper chemical balance in concrete swimming pools in order to protect the plaster surface and how the soluble materials in plaster will impact pH and alkalinity.
"Fiberglass does not impact water balance because there's no mineral exchange with the water," says Sullivan. "Once you set the pH and alkalinity in a fiberglass pool, it remains far more stable."
As a result of the increased stability in terms of water balance and greater resistance to chemical attack because of the inert nature of the surface, fiberglass pools retain their original appearance more reliably than other types of surfaces, Straub says. "As time goes on, raw material suppliers are developing better products that enhance durability of the end product. Swimming pools will never be maintenance free, but the fiberglass product does provide a level of longevity and ease of maintenance that is very appealing to many homeowners. Those benefits are only going to improve as we go forward."
One of the big challenges fiberglass manufacturers have faced is positioning their products so that they compete in the custom swimming pool market. As has been widely reported over the past several years, the "swimming pool industry" has largely morphed into the backyard entertainment industry, or the home resort industry. Likewise, fiberglass pools also have evolved to become part of the overall exterior design and luxury scene.
Fiberglass pools now come with a variety of features including vanishing edges, attached spas, associated water features and even all-tile surfaces. "We've reached a point," explains Sullivan, "that we can do anything with fiberglass that you can do with concrete."
According to Straub, fiberglass manufacturers welcome new challenges in order to show the industry and consumers the spectrum of design possibilities. "The very best projects," he says, "are those that include tile inlays, or mosaics, or associated water features that are designed to complement an overall design scheme with beautiful decking, plants, complementary color palettes — all the elements that you expect from the best custom work."
He adds, "We've been challenged by builders to develop new designs and applications. We've developed pools for installation on the rooftops of condominiums, where weight is an issue, and for very small bodies of water for interior applications, among many others."
In addition to the increasing design flexibility, Sullivan adds a provocative point about the material itself, one that few have likely considered. "When you think about other situations where water and human skin come in contact, fiberglass is almost always the material of choice. Think about it, water-park slides, sailboats, surfboards, jet skis, all are made with fiberglass. The material is very skin friendly and performs well in the presence of water. It's a perfect material for swimming pools for the same reasons."
As for the immediate and long-term future of the product: "Fiberglass swimming pools are still in their infancy," says Straub. "Will they ever completely replace concrete pools? The answer is no, of course not. But they are going to gain ground as more and more people become aware of the benefits of the product.
"I see it as all part of the evolution that's happening with composite materials across a range of industries," he adds. "Composites are now being used in the manufacture of airplanes, high-performance automobiles, and even down to common items such as cutlery. As the materials continue to develop, the applications and benefits are only going to increase."
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