Breaking The Mold - Fiberglass pool makers fight the category's image.

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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 now."

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 gunite industry.

"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 homeowner."


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 coatings.

"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 years ago.

"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 until recently.

"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 fiberglass surface.

"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 indent."

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 pool.

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 install.

"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."

Water Features

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 the pool.

"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 there."

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 be done."

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 an 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 commentary."

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."

— B.K.

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