When Australian fiberglass pool professionals look at their industry, they see the future — for the United States, that is.
These premanufactured pools are part of everyday life in Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they comprise about 50 percent of the approximately 35,000 pools sold each year, says David Pain, director of Leisure Pools in Brisbane, Queensland.
The products down under come in colors that rival the most sophisticated finishes for shotcrete. Installing them with stone or pre-cast coping is standard. “The homeowner has a real decision to make now,” says Ian Mewett, a director of Compass Pools Australia in Newcastle, New South Wales.
“Fiberglass and concrete compete evenly, and the homeowner has got to pick the one that’s going to be the best,” adds Pain, whose company also has a branch in San Antonio.
What a difference more than a decade makes. Fifteen years ago, only about 5 percent of Aussie pool buyers chose fiberglass. Today, Australians continue to experience steady growth. They capitalize on the relative ease of shipping the product to remote areas, user-friendly pool shells and the increasing availability of high-end features.
A long journey
While nearly 300 million people live in America, the population of Australia is a mere 20 million. Most folks reside east of the Great Dividing Range of mountains. The state of Western Australia boasts a few urban centers, most notably Perth. In-between, residents are scarce.
Such a small, spread-out population means that pools must be able to find their way into desolate areas of the bush. Australians have found that fiberglass pools answer the need to reach remote residents. They travel more easily than the materials, equipment and craftspeople it takes to build a concrete pool. Some areas don’t have a readimix plant nearby, so concrete isn’t feasible unless builders are willing to blend everything by hand.
“Reasonably light materials and modular construction have been popular not just in pools, but also in most construction around the country,” says Chris Maher, editor of SPLASH! magazine, an industry trade publication based in Sydney.
Because the shell takes less than a week to install, it’s much easier to have a small crew stay through installation. Plus, some farmers even install their own pools.
Color their world
Australia’s sparse population puts pressure on fiberglass pool producers to remain competitive. “We’ve got a market one-tenth the size [of America], and concrete dominated it for so many years,” says Pain of Leisure Pools. “So we had to innovate.”
If you ask an Australian fiberglass pool manufacturer the main difference between their product and America’s, most will give the same answer. “Color has certainly opened up the overall market,” Compass Pools’ Mewett says.
Australians can find vibrant blues, a selection of greens, beiges and even, in some cases, black. Some manufacturers offer as many as a dozen choices.
To achieve these hues, colored chips sometimes are added to a tinted gel coat to give a granite look. It makes the water sparkle under sunlight or nighttime illumination.
The colors were critical in the growth of fiberglass in Australia, not only because of their visual appeal. They also helped the industry recover from a spell in the ’80s when the number of osmosis cases began to hurt its reputation. Fiberglass makers first responded with vinyl ester, a corrosion-resistant resin placed behind the gel coat that prevents water from migrating through the fiberglass.
Though the vinyl esters prevented blistering, they also added cost. Manufacturers then began marketing the new color palettes, in part to compensate for the price hikes required by the vinyl esters. The colors also helped fiberglass compete with the pebble and aggregate finishes that hit the concrete scene.
The fiberglass pool configurations became more consumer-friendly as well. Shoppers now find safety ledges and spa nooks molded into the shells. Some are even outfitted for in-floor cleaning systems.
Custom tile lines — a few made of natural pebble — also are offered by manufacturers.
While they want to promote high-end installations, manufacturers also need to remain price-competitive. That’s why they’ve mechanized production. “We use machinery to apply our layer systems, compared with the old days when you used to hand-roll a swimming pool,” says Andrew Bain, export sales and marketing manager at Barrier Reef Pools in Beau Desert, Queensland.
“It used to take three times [longer] to make that pool,” he adds. Now his company can produce 8,000 pools annually at a single plant.
To keep shipping costs down, some manufacturers design various styles to stack inside one another. That way, more models can go on the same truck to dealers, or on boats to other countries.
In Australia, fiberglass vies with concrete for the low- to mid-range backyard. Twenty thousand dollars will secure you a pool. However, it’s becoming increasingly common for installations to exceed $50,000 in Australian dollars, which is approximately $38,000 American.
Besides landscaping products, fiberglass installers offer convenience items. Automatic levelers and pH controllers provide time-saving options for customers. “I think salespeople are realizing that if they don’t get into that marketplace, they’ll miss out because everyone’s pretty busy these days,” says Cliff Cooke, managing director of Cookes Pools & Spas in Mildura, Victoria, which sells fiberglass and concrete.
Installers have taken their designs to the next level as well. For example, Mark Naughton recently created a feature dubbed the “sun pod.” This combination waterfeature, sun shelf and slide is built with concrete and tiled. Naughton places three or four bubbler fountains on the outside and fills them with a half-inch of water.
“My children actually use it as a slippery slide,” says the managing director of Naughton’s Poolside in Echuca, Victoria. “With the water running, they lie down on their bellies, push off and then slide into the pool.”
Other installers have found ways to design vanishing-edge and perimeter-overflow pools for fiberglass shells. Ted Martin, managing director of Compass Pools Vic in Melbourne, Victoria, recently completed a three-sided, slot-overflow fiberglass pool with a single vanishing-edge wall. To help the wall sit lower, he built a beam about 2 inches tall over the other three sides. That way, they were taller than the weir, and water could hover at the top of the shell and spill over.
Martin’s manufacturer makes a special wall with ribbing that’s filled with concrete to make it self-supporting. Though he usually orders one wall for his vanishing edges, he had the whole pool made this way so he could anchor the vessel with concrete, delete the perimeter beam and, in its place, build the gutter configuration. The gutters are made from 12-inch pipes cut in half.
Other builders make a gutter system inside the traditional edge beam, Naughton says. They may finish by placing coping around the pool and allowing water to spill over before falling into a grate or slot.
While the Australian fiberglass pool industry enjoys a boom in sales, many of its installers expect the American market to do the same. “I think you’ll see a big surge in fiberglass pools in the next 10 years,” Martin says. “I suggest it’ll be 20 to 25 percent.”
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