The success of the vinyl-liner pool category is a testament to the hard work and professionalism of three distinct players — manufacturers, fabricators and installers. When all three perform correctly, the end results can be breathtaking, mimicking the look of custom gunite pools with waterline tile or glass mosaics at a fraction of the cost.
Of course, shortcomings in any of these areas can cause problems. Lately, one particular problem — wrinkling — has been increasing in both frequency and severity, says Thomas Kennedy, marketing director for Tara Liners, a fabricator based in Owens Cross Roads, Ala.
"People are seeing bad wrinkles in liners that are only a few years old," says Kennedy. "And these aren't the kind of wrinkles that can be removed by repositioning the material, either. It usually requires an expensive replacement. The situation could really damage vinyl's reputation. And we wanted to get to the bottom of it."
At first, people pointed fingers at low pH, but that alone wasn't enough to account what was going on.
For answers, Tara turned to its manufacturers, who had noticed similar issues and suspected a fault not in the measuring, fabricating or installing but in the material itself.
"A couple of our suppliers investigated and found a common source — offshore vinyl," Kennedy says. "This is a low-cost alternative to vinyl produced in North America. It looks and feels the same. But it's not the same."
Two separate manufacturers tested the offshore vinyl and found it had a high percentage of calcium carbonate (between 18 and 20 percent), which Kennedy says adds no value but does reduce cost. In effect, it's chalk filler that's cheaper to use than plasticizers.
The issue with calcium carbonate, Kennedy says, is that it absorbs water, and if it's present in significant amounts, it can cause the types of wrinkling and puckering his field reps had been reporting. The wrinkling issues are only exacerbated when the pool's water is out of balance.
"Just last October one of our manufacturers tested foreign-sourced vinyl and found it expanded by between 18.75 and 25 percent in an exaggerated low-pH environment," he says. "That's compared with only 3.25 percent expansion for domestically produced vinyl with no calcium carbonate."
Another supplier did a battery of head-to-head comparisons between North American and Chinese vinyl on resistance to abrasion, wear, light and other factors. In almost every test, Kennedy says, the imported material proved to be inferior. Often, the differences between the materials were clearly visible.
Spreading The Word
Thankfully, the problem remains small in scale. Kennedy notes that Tara's competitors are overwhelmingly using the same North American vinyl as his company, with marketing and proprietary patterns being the key differences. But in terms of the impact on the consumer opinion about vinyl-liner pools, the problem is a big one.
"Even if there aren't that many failing liners, the people who have them will be bad-mouthing the whole category," Kennedy says. "They aren't going to say, 'I should have gotten a better liner,' they're going to say, 'I should have gotten gunite.'
"I think the fabricators that are using it are the smaller guys and the upstarts who are just trying to compete on price," he adds. "Our main competitors would agree with us and get behind our efforts to spread the word about offshore vinyl, because it's a problem we are all forced to deal with."
Asked whether awareness has trickled down to consumers, Kennedy admits few know there's a difference between one liner and another, and that people have come to expect products they buy to come on shipping containers from Asian markets.
"We're trying to raise awareness of the value of North American materials, and trying to inform the dealers that there is a difference between North American and offshore," he says. "The bottom line is that this is what we offer, and this is why we offer it. The choice is up to the consumers."
Thomas Kennedy is marketing director of Tara Manufacturing. For more information visit taramfg.com