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Pool Types – Fiberglass vs. Vinyl vs. Gunite pools

There are 3 main pool types, Fiberglass, Vinyl & Gunite…

There is quite a bit of information available debating whether you are better off purchasing a vinyl pool, a gunite pool (or more generically, a concrete pool), or fiberglass pools. There is so much debate that it has become almost impossible for a consumer to make heads or tails over which would serve him better. And you know, contrary to what certain dealers would like you to believe, sometimes it simply boils down to what features, characteristics, and textures you would prefer.

There are some similarities between all of these types of swimming pools, (more so with a gunite pool and a vinyl pool over the various fiberglass pools), but these similarities are outweighed by their differences. Their construction widely varies, and each can be said to have a series of strengths and weaknesses. All inground swimming pools must follow pool construction standards that have been developed by the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (APSP) and approved by the American National Standards Institute. Anything less than this is completely out of the question.

Aside from needing to conform to the established pool design and pool construction standards, another similarity would include the need to have adequate access to the area where the pool will be built. Whether the swimming pool builder needs access to dig the hole, or whether it also involves bringing in a crane or cement truck, you will need to remove any fencing or other obstructions which would be in the builder’s path as he tries to do construction. Interestingly enough, your ability to provide adequate access can affect the cost of your construction. If the builder cannot get his primary digging equipment into the area, he’ll need to fall back to smaller equipment, thus his costs of excavation will increase. And this cost will be directly passed to you.

Other similarities would be not so much pool related, but in negotiating with the swimming pool builder himself. Some of this discussion will make more sense once the various types of swimming pools are discussed, so we will discuss this below.

Let’s take a look at each of the swimming pool types.

Fiberglass pools

And we will begin with a discussion on fiberglass swimming pools. Fiberglass pools are large pre-made “basins” which will arrive to your home on the back of a truck, looking suspiciously like a giant’s bathtub. The builder will first dig a large hole in your backyard, and fill the bottom with sand, and then use a large crane to lift it from the truck and drop it into this newly excavated hole. Once it is dropped into the hole, the process of filling it with water and backfilling the (outside) wall/gap is completed, then the deck is built or poured, and viola, you have a pool.

These swimming pools are quickly constructed, can be just as costly or slightly more than a steel frame vinyl or concrete pool, but they are slightly less costly to maintain.

One unfortunate consequence of their ease of installation and low costs to the swimming pool builder is that this creates a very low barrier of entry into the swimming pool installation business, so this attracts lesser quality installers.

The initial impression would be that it would be hard to “mess-up” a drop and fill operation, but if not done properly, you will have a pool where the sides bow inward and it will look more like a rectangle that secretly desires to be a bowtie, instead of a swimming pool.

Don’t let them talk you into exposed coping, but instead go with a cantilever deck, stone or pavers. If you find the straight-from-the-factory look too plain, you can give fiberglass pools some personality by having it tiled, but have this done onsite, not with a factory install, so you don’t have unleveled tile at the waterline.

To allow the tile to flex with the pool, it should be installed and grouted with silicone, and should never come off.


Since these pools are made of fiberglass, it will feel a bit like a slick bathtub, and if you expect your pool to feel like a boulder under your feet, then you will be disappointed.

It is possible that the steps will “give” slightly as you use them, which can give the pool a “cheap” feel, but you can rest assured that you won’t punch through the steps. Also, depending on which part of the country you are in, you may have access to ceramic core fiberglass pool which provides a little more strength.

The slick wall of this swimming pool can be considered a little too foreign for some, but it is also one of its strengths. These sides are not pitted like a concrete pool, so there isn’t anywhere for algae to take hold, and this all translates to less chemical consumption.

Also, the flexing that this swimming pool does means that it will be slightly more tolerant of abuse through severe freeze-thaw cycles.

Fiberglass pools are pre-made, and will come in only so many shapes and designs, so if you wanted to design a pool with a unique shape or features, or even something which looks different from the neighbor’s fiberglass swimming pool, then a fiberglass pool is not for you.

Depending on the manufacturer, fiberglass swimming pools are predicted to last in the thirty to forty year timeframe, but there is a good possibility that it will develop stains and hairline cracks around the 20 year time frame.

Vinyl pools

Actually, the name vinyl pool is slightly misleading as the swimming pool is not actually made of vinyl, but is in fact a concrete or steel-sided pool which has a vinyl lining. This lining can vary in thickness, where obviously the better liners are thicker liners, and sport some very brilliant and diverse patterns. So much so that it would be fair to say that there are adequate patterns to satisfy virtually any taste, whether you desire an elaborate tile look or a simple earthy pattern.

Vinyl pools and gunite pools (or shotcrete pools) are similar in that they take a little while longer to construct.

You can loosely estimate that you need 6-8 weeks to do the swimming pool construction, and this will be impacted by weather conditions.

Much like when building a house, this swimming pool requires that the ground be allowed to settle prior to completion its construction. Obviously, this is to prevent cracking and shifting from any ground settling which occur after the swimming pool is built.

The beauty of a vinyl pool is not only the fact that there are many pattern choices to use for your liner, but also the fact that it can be shaped into almost anything you can imagine.

Unlike a fiberglass pool, where you are restricted to shapes that the factory produces, a vinyl pool is built with a series of walls, which can be combined to make curves, corners, indents, half circles… you name it.

You could even make yourself an inground swimming pool in the shape of a star and you can include steps, benches, sun-bathing decks, vanishing edges, spas, a variety of wall heights, and other custom features. .

These walls may be made from concrete or high grade stainless steel, or a combination of both, and upon completion are lined with a vinyl liner.

The liner will be smooth to the touch, although not as smooth as a fiberglass pool and will resist algea moreso than a concrete pool. Estimated life of the liner is apporximately 8-10 years, depending on how the pool is maintained, but can be torn should that windstorm through your pool furniture into the pool.

Depending on the size of your swimming pool, a replacement liner will run in the $600-$1200 range.

Gunite pool (or shotcrete pool)

You may hear both the terms gunite and shotcrete mentioned whenever concrete pools are discussed, but you need not worry too much about which material is used. Different builders will prefer different materials, but both will provide an excellent pool. (Those that prefer shotcrete argue that they get a better consistency as the mix is established at a plant instead of onsite, and although it can develop cracks during shrinkage, they will argue that it provides “keys” for the plaster to bite into, which seals the cracks. You don’t have to worry about this with gunite. There was a problem back in the mid 90’s with too much gypsum in the gunite mixture, but this is a thing of the past. So again, it’s a matter of personal preference for the builder and you really don’t need to worry about it.)


For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll use the more familair term, gunite pool, but recognize that everything applies to the generic conrete pool.

A gunite pool’s initial construction steps are similar to a vinyl pool in that you design almost whatever you want. You can have swim up bars, beach entries, heart shaped pools, and sunken BBQ pits. You can have fountains, spas, and baby pools. It’s all up to you.

Concrete pools do also require a settling of the ground prior to completion and are also built with a series of walls, (using concrete forms) structured into your design of choice.

These walls and floor are essentially built in layers. Initially, the walls are built with concrete forms and rebar and the gunite (or shotcrete) is applied by spraying it on with large hoses.

Once sprayed, the crew will smooth and sculpt the walls and steps and you will end up with the bulk of the pool completed. Once this is done, it is plastered and sealed.

This is a very durable pool, and is the primary construction of choice whenever you need of pool of any size or durability (i.e. Olympic size pools). And it does tend to be the type of pool that folks first think about when they think “inground swimming pools.”

It can be decorated with tiles of various colors, and can even have artwork painted on its walls and floor. It is necessary to occasionally replaster this type of swimming pool, perhaps every 12-15 years, depending on the care of the pool.

Regardless of the type of pool you choose, the installer is everything, and I can’t say enough about the value gained by using a licensed contractor.

We have already discussed how inground swimming pools must conform to certain standards set forth by the American National Standards Institute, but if the inground swimming pool builder does not comply, then you need a course of action.

By using a licensed contractor, the contractor board will assist you and ensure the contractor does is right, or makes it right, or they will be fined and potentially lose their license. You can also use these organizations to research the builder and determine if he deserves your business.

Also, to construct an inground swimming pool requires permits, and you can use this to your advantage. Obviously, you should get a list of referrals from each builder you are considering, but above and beyond this, you can get additional referrals from the permit department.

These referrals will give a much better sampling of the work done by the builder, as they are obviously NOT had-picked by the builder, and will provide a fresh unbiased review of the builder’s work.

Realize that you typically see the same work habits from an individual, even as they complete one pool and move on to the next, so reviewing their past performance can be considered to be a solid gauge of future work.

As we discussed each type of pool construction above, it should have been obvious that only so many pool installations can be completed over the course of a single season.

Between the digging, and the settling, and the pouring, there just isn’t enough time in the calendar to complete hundreds of pools…. unless the builder uses subcontractors. You should establish whether this is the case, as it introduces a level of complexity for you as you try to determine the quality of the builder.

With a smaller company, the odds are that you will get more personal attention and that the builder will pay closer attention to his “crews”, even if they are subcontractors. The message here is that you shouldn’t automatically assume that a bigger company is better as you may actually get lost in their chatter.


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