The strides that vinyl-liner pools have made toward customization are well known: The liners have become more attractive, special-order panels allow contractors to build in virtually any shape, and plastic copings are often cast aside in favor of higher-end materials.
But over the past few years, the product has made even deeper inroads into customization, with vanishing edges and commercial installations becoming more common. Progress in product development has helped, as have widening public perceptions about vinyl-liner pools.
“There’s pretty much nothing that you can do in a concrete pool that you can’t do in a vinyl-liner pool,” says Mike Giovanone, owner of Concord Pools in Latham, N.Y., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
Here, builders discuss the strides they’ve made in commercial and vanishing-edge applications, as well as trends in vinyl-liner pool shapes.
Over the edge
For many vinyl-liner builders, vanishing edges still remain somewhat of a rarity.
But for those serving the high-end market, vanishing edges have become more prevalent, in part because of the installers’ comfort level and its effects on price.
“When we first started putting them in, the fear factor was your price of the pool times two,” Giovanone says. “Now it’s adding about 50 to 60 percent to the price, but not as much as it used to. We’ve refined techniques and ways of building catch pools that make it much easier.”
Giovanone still constructs his vanishing-edge walls from concrete at 14 inches thick. The liner is sealed with gaskets below the waterline. Then the weir and back of the wall can be veneered with any material the customer wishes. Some will even use natural stone to create a white-water effect on the back of the edge.
But the goal is to use panels wherever possible to keep the price down. The availability of shorter panels and braces that are appropriate to construct catch basins has helped. Where in the past he’d have to make the whole catch basin of concrete, now Giovanone can build three walls of the smaller pool using panels and braces, then bolt them to the concrete vanishing-edge wall.
Shape: Fast forward to the past
When it comes to the most popular shapes of vinyl-liner pools, there has been something of a return to tradition.
For decades, these pools came in rectangles, other rectilinear shapes and kidneys. With the advent of radiused and customized panels, clients began to take advantage of the ability to create free-form pools. This especially became more appealing when combined with darker vinyl liners and natural rock and boulders to create a lagoon look.
But in some regions, it appears that the clock has turned backward. “We’ve seen more rectangles go in here this year than we have in a very long time,” says Ron Fronheiser, president of Fronheiser Pools in Bally, Pa. “I’m going to say that we’re maybe doing 10 percent more rectangles — not a significant change, but enough to know there’s definitely more interest than in past.
Some point to modern architecture as the reason for the trend. “We like to refer to it as sort of going back to the classic look, and the classic rectangular or geometric straight-lined type pool is ‘in’ big time,” says Ed Gibbs, president of Gib-San Pools Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “On a lot of the newer homes architecture is going straight-lined.”
Then there’s the more practical reason — the desire for an automatic cover. The only cost-effective way to install this popular feature on a freeform pool is the deck-in-deck configuration, but some people don’t like the look. “I don’t want to do it on a free-form — you can, but I don’t want to,” Fronheiser says.
But some builders, especially those serving clients with hilly properties, report that free-form shapes are still popular. “A lot of it has to do with our sloping topography,” says Ed Nejame Jr., co-owner of Nejame and Sons in Danbury, Conn., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder. “We more nestle freeforms into slopes. We could use our radiuses to work around other obstructions, like wells and setbacks.”
In those cases, building with flex panels can make the job easier. “We can make whatever radius we want — as big as we want and down to a 2-foot radius,” Fronheiser says.
Flex panels are installed basically the same as regular panels. “You just have to be a little bit more careful with the backfilling, preferably with more stone behind there instead of using dirt that will compact and push,” Fronheiser says.
Some vinyl-liner pool builders report an increase in the use of their product in commercial settings.
Not only are more municipalities allowing the use of package pools in commercial settings, but a certain stereotype has been largely removed. “We’ve been putting in commercial pools for 30 years, but it was a tough concept to get by hotel/motel owners, camp resorts and so on,” Giovanone says. “When you’d say vinyl liner to someone years ago, they pictured Johnny’s aboveground pool that you could put your fingernail through.”
Now, though, with the use of concrete floors and availability of thicker, commercial-grade liners, more facility owners can see the benefits. “I invite you to take a 30-gauge commercial, high-quality liner, put it on a piece of concrete and hit it hard with a pointed pen,” Giovanone says. “You’re not going to put a hole in it. It’s just not something that’s going to happen.”
He estimates that approximately 10 percent of commercial pools in his area are vinyl-liner products. Not only can this option save money upfront, but builders make the case that these pools offer a long-term economy and convenience that’s less obvious. “For them to get a new interior takes basically one day — you drain the pool, take out the liner, put the new liner in, fill it with water and they’re back swimming. [But with concrete] if you had to put tile and plaster, it’s weeks and a significantly greater cost,” says Gibbs, who offers both vinyl and concrete.
Vinyl doesn’t make sense for every commercial setting, and professionals are most comfortable installing them in HMAC properties (hotel, motel, apartment, condo), bed-and-breakfasts, recreational vehicle parks and similar settings. Vinyl-liner pools are probably not appropriate for facilities with very high bather loads or a susceptibility to vandalism, they say. In commercial settings, vinyl-liner builders also try to limit their product to 1,500 square feet or less.
Additionally, the pools should be built with concrete floors and the highest-grade liners available.
Some builders still try to avoid selling vinyl-liner pools at commercial properties. “I would have reluctance because of how rough people are with commercial pools,” Fronheiser says. “I can remember doing one for a camp a number of years ago, and the lifeguard was taking a telescopic pole with nothing on the end and leaning on the liner with the aluminum end and putting round holes into the liner.”
Some structural modifications may be necessary to meet code. For instance, Canadian officials do not allow hopper-bottom pools in commercial facilities. Instead, they require a slope of no more than 11 percent from the shallow to the deep end. Additionally, the walls must be completely vertical until they hit the floor.
To make this possible, builder Hollandia Pools & Spas installs the panels differently. In the transition area and deep end, the London, Ontario, Canada, company often will place the panels on their sides to make them taller. “We have the manufacturer make the panels to the length to match the [maximum] depth of the pool,” says Walter Schmoll, CEO of the company.
If the pool will be a maximum of 6 feet deep, for instance, Schmoll’s company will order the panels to measure 6 feet in length. During installation, crews will install the panels normally in the shallow end, but begin placing them on their sides at the transition toward the deep end, when they need to stand taller than the standard 42 inches. These taller panels will sit deeper in the ground so their tops are level with the others.
With the panels in place, crews then pour a concrete floor, sloping it to meet code and burying portions of the panels. “In some areas the panels are going to be quite a bit below the floor,” Schmoll says.
This pool requires two levels of footing. In the shallow area, it will be placed 42 inches in the ground. In the deep end, crews pour it at the bottom of the taller panels, so it may be 6 feet underground.
“That allows us to build a pool very similar to a concrete pool, where the walls go straight down to the floor, as opposed to the floor going down 42 inches then sloping into a hopper in the deep end,” Schmoll says.
Gibbs addresses this differently. He orders additional panels and stacks them to achieve the depth he needs. Supporting them may require customized braces or the use of concrete to support the bottom panel and a standard brace for the top component.