State of the market: fiberglass pools have come a long way. Take a look at five hot trends shaping today's market.
"It's lightweight and can be installed in a week," says the president/owner of Premier Fiberglass Inc. in Austin, Texas. "In general, fiberglass pools are competitive with small gunite [vessels]. It's a growing market."
Fowler will install 100 pools this year, up nearly 70 percent from her 2005 figures. There's still plenty of room to expand, she adds.
In fact, until as recently as five years ago, fiberglass pools were considered the ugly stepsister to vinyl-liner and concrete projects. Now manufacturers report an average annual growth rate of 30 percent over the past decade, and high-end installations are on the rise.
"There's still some separation today between concrete, vinyl-liner and fiberglass, but I think fiberglass is quickly becoming the mainstay," says Scott Pearce, president of Blue Water Luxury Pools & Design Co. in Bettendorf, Iowa. His company installs more than 75 fiberglass pools a year.
Thanks to fiberglass' diversity in styles and options, as well as a knowledgeable customer base, dealers and manufacturers believe it may eventually become the U.S. market's pool of choice. Yet emerging as a leader means the fiberglass pool industry also will need to address rising costs and continue offering additional features.
In this article, Pool & Spa News looks at five trends driving the growth and changing the face of today's fiberglass market.
1 Client demographics have changed.
The predominant buyers still are families with children. However, more and more purchasers of fiberglass pools are previous owners of gunite or vinyl-liner vessels.
Dealers estimate that nearly 40 percent of second-time pool owners opt for fiberglass. "Though they've had a gunite pool before, State of the Market continued from page 42 when customers come in to buy their second pool, they prefer the finish that comes with the one-piece fiberglass composite vessels," says John Anderson, owner of Anderson Concrete Inc. in Murfreesboro, Tenn. "They're tired of the plaster and sharp surfaces."
Customers see a number of benefits in fiberglass. For one, shrinking backyards in many communities make a petite fiberglass pool appealing. In addition, most companies offer strong warranties and fast installations.
Still, it is the ease of maintenance that convinces many customers to convert. "Fiberglass is inert, so you use the same chemicals, just fewer of them," Fowler says. "It's easier to upkeep for the average homeowner."
2 More gunite and vinyl-liner builders offer fiberglass.
Another reason for the upswing in fiberglass pool sales is the widening dealer network. Increasingly, concrete and package-pool builders are becoming receptive to adding the product line to their offerings.
"We got on ServiceMagic about three years ago, and a lot of people who wanted fiberglass pools contacted us. That's when I started researching the category," says Ken Whitlow, owner of Watercolors, LLC, in Atlanta. The high-end gunite builder installed 10 to 15 fiberglass pools last year, and expects to do 25 to 30 this year.
"We won't try to steer our customers from gunite to fiberglass, or from fiberglass to gunite. They have an initial desire and concept, and we simply fulfill it," he says.
Anderson followed the same path. Nearly 15 years ago, the longtime concrete-pool builder installed a fiberglass pool that "looked terrible," and he decided to stay away. But then three years ago, he saw improvements in the product's quality, so he began offering it as an option. It's fully one-third of his business now.
Another reason that construction companies are expanding into fiberglass is the product's availability through distribution channels. When Latham International acquired Viking Pools, SCP Pool Corp., which owns a minority interest in Latham, began stocking fiberglass pools at its service centers.
"Once SCP allowed the contractors to come down to the distributor and buy a pool, more good conversations about fiberglass vessels are occurring than bad ones," says Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Products Inc. a pool manufacturer based in Lakeland, Fla. "It helped grow the market because it's exposing more builders, who are then interested in offering fiberglass."
3 High-end features abound.
As more high-end builders enter the segment, the product itself has taken a leap from cookie cutter to cutting edge. Fiberglass pool installations feature expansive decks, inlaid tiles and mosaics, swim jets, elaborate LED or fiberoptic lighting, and complex waterfeatures.
"We look at it like building a home," Pearce of Blue Water Pools says. "We have a palette of colors and textures. We're integrated with a landscape design company [and] build the pergolas and bar features, and everything is computer-integrated by touch remote inside the house."
Dealers estimate that 90 percent of fiberglass pools installed today include waterfeatures. Nearly half showcase a spillover spa. In many regions of the country, installations include a cantilevered deck to cover the unattractive outer edge of the pool shell.
"As short as five years ago, the majority of fiberglass pools showed the lip," says Jay Tucker, owner of Swim World Inc. in Nashville, Tenn. "Now we do a lot of brick and stone to form the coping over the lip."
Builders reap the benefits of such customization. "My average pool price is going up $10,000 this year, and most of it is accessorizing--adding waterfeatures, rockwork, a bigger deck and outdoor kitchen. [It creates] the whole backyard paradise," Fowler says.
Inlaid tile is another growing application. "Fully 90 percent of fiberglass pools sold in our area have waterline tile. Mosaics are also popular because the tiles adhere so tightly to the fiberglass that they do not need service or maintenance," says Curt Prystupa, president of Sun Fiberglass Products Inc. in Brooksville, Fla.
4 Manufacturers offer more variety.
Fiberglass pool manufacturers are meeting the demand for high-end installations by offering a wide selection of styles and finishes.
The engineering team at San Juan, for example, creates an average of three new molds a year and currently offers 65 designs to its dealers. Most recently, the company introduced vanishing-edge and perimeter-overflow styles.
To combat the perception that fiberglass pools look like "bathtubs," manufacturers are rolling out a variety of alternative finishes. At San Juan, pools can be custom-ordered in 14 colors, including untraditional shades such as canary yellow. Leisure Pools USA offers five color options standard on its pools. And Viking Pools, LLC, and Trilogy Pools offer their own patented finishes.
"Today, in Australia, fiberglass pools enjoy a 50 percent market share [and] colored finishes are the driving factor of the market," says Ashley Gill, CEO of Leisure Pools USA in San Antonio, whose company is based in Australia. "In the United States, the trend has been to first build more shapes, and second, to try and pretty up the pool with add-on options. The consumer has not bought it, and fiberglass in the United States still represents only 7 percent market share."
Dealers seem to concur. "The colored finishes definitely add the zing," Fowler says. "You can't get that rich blue color with a plaster. The color has classed up what a fiberglass pool is."
Some builders would like to see the introduction of super-dark finishes that mimic natural ponds but won't fade over time. The current body of colored gel coats and other alternative finishes, they say, are more similar to the pebble aggregate surfaces applied to concrete pools. "They have the greens, blues and speckled finishes like a lagoon," Whitlow says.
5 DIY installations are on the rise.
One interesting trend is the increasing number of do-it-yourself fiberglass pool kits being sold, notes Jason Housel, Western regional sales manager for Composite Pool Corp., a subsidiary of Viking Pools in Williams, Calif.
"It's good and bad," he says, estimating that as many as 20 percent of installations are DIY. "It's a percentage of the market we want to, and have to, serve; the sales are definitely there. On the other hand, we want to ensure the quality of the installation, and that's difficult with a do-it-yourself installation."
The reason is because many homeowners simply don't realize what it takes to install a pool. DIY kits include the pool shell, basic equipment and a starter chemical kit. Most companies deliver the pool to the home. The homeowner then hires a contractor to dig a hole and pour a deck.
Simple process, right? Not exactly, says Pearce of Blue Water. "What typically happens with a DIY kit is that within the first 24 or 48 hours, we'll get a phone call from the customer," he says. "And 75 percent of the time, the DIY installation turns into an assisted or full installation."
Yet dealers continue to offer customers the option. "The benefit for us to offer DIY kits is that we get happy pool customers who are out there telling other people about fiberglass pools and pools in general," Tucker says. "The more people out there enjoying pools, the better it is for our company and the industry."
Some dealers convert do-it-yourselfers into regular retail clients or new service contracts.
A few manufacturers, however, are skeptical of the trend. "The homeowner is not in the position to handle the whole job," Prystupa of Sun Fiberglass says. "The owner must work with people who have knowledge of excavation and plumbing.
"It is not reasonable for the average homeowner to have sufficient familiarity with pumps, filters, chlorinators, etc. to handle that technical component," he adds.
RELATED ARTICLE: A regulatory concern.
Manufacturers of fiberglass pools may be in for a surprise during their next factory inspection.
In April 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published new air emissions guidelines, called the MACT Standard, for composites manufacturing plants. Makers of composites, which include everything from bathtubs and showers to fiberglass pools, had until April 21, 2006, to comply with the new rules.
The EPA published modifications to those rules last August. Some manufacturers still weren't able to meet the new standards by the deadline. "We are all required by law to have a Title V Permit, but not all of the pool industry has complied," says Ray Cronise, vice president of Trilogy Pools, a Fayetteville, Tenn.-based manufacturer.
"Many pool manufacturers do not have correct permitting," he adds. "Many don't even know the rules apply to them."
The American Composites Manufacturing Association has information on understanding the MACT standard and how to comply with it. To learn more, visit www.acmanet.org
RELATED ARTICLE: Northern exposure.
For years, the fiberglass pool industry has focused its energies on big pool markets such as Florida, California and Australia. But recently, many manufacturers say they are signing a greater number of dealers in cooler climates in the Northeast than ever before. In addition, Canada has experienced phenomenal growth in the fiberglass pool segment.
"The construction cycle there is short, so it's difficult to build a concrete pool business because you don't have many good warm days," says Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Products Inc. in Lakeland, Fla. "We had never really marketed into Canada. I thought that if you went above the United States, people don't swim. But that's not true.
"In some subdivisions of Montreal if you want to install a pool, you have to tear one out," Sullivan adds. "The density is that tight."
Since beginning distribution in Canada two years ago, he says his dealer base has doubled. "It might be about 'keeping up with the Pierres,'" Sullivan jokes.
U.S. Fiberglass Shell Installations * 1994 61,540 2004 256,000 2005 283,800 * BASED ON FIGURES FROM PK DATA Note: Table made from bar graph.