Until recently, most fiberglass used in pools was manufactured here in the United States. This all changed a few years ago when China began offering inexpensive fiberglass to the U.S. market.
In the 1990s, most American fiberglass manufacturers stopped building new plants in the States. Instead, they decided to open additional factories overseas. “They thought they were going to reduce cost and produce products without as many environmental regulations,” says Kirk Sullivan, president of San Juan Products Inc. in Lakeland, Fla.
Unfortunately, the plan appeared to backfire after the Americans started selling some equipment to the Chinese government, which built fiberglass factories of its own. Originally, the factories were inferior, but after extensive modernizing, China was able to improve the quality of its fiberglass — and at considerably reduced prices.
At that point, China began to capture most of the chop market. “Chop” is a form of fiberglass that is shot out of a pneumatic gun onto molds, as opposed to the woven kind that is laid in sheets. Aside from low labor costs, Sullivan points out that the Chinese plants could operate with one additional advantage over U.S. factories: government subsidies for natural gas.
With the Chinese government picking up the energy tab, U.S. companies felt they couldn’t compete. The cost savings and improved quality made Chinese glass more attractive to a lot of pool manufacturers. Instead, the U.S. fiberglass producers allowed the Chinese to take over the chop business and decided to focus their efforts on the high-end woven market.
Woven fiberglass is a more expensive form because of the additional processing required to make it. The Chinese have tried their hand at weaving fiberglass, but with little success, according to Sullivan. After learning the lesson from their first encounter with the Chinese, U.S. manufacturers haven’t been willing to sell them the additional processing equipment.
However, some domestic fiberglass plants now are weaving raw Chinese glass and placing their stamp on the final product, Sullivan says. In other words, fiberglass that some builders believe to be made in the United States may not be entirely domestic.