Fiberglass vs Concrete Pools–Which is better?
Updated: Feb 15
People love swimming pools. They always have, and they always will. Because of this, many of the most common questions I am asked by clients have to do with swimming pools. From questions about design, materials, size, and of course cost, navigating a project as big as installing a new swimming pool means being armed with the right information. One of the most common questions homeowners have is about fiberglass vs concrete pools.
More specifically, clients want to know what type of pool is right for their backyard–fiberglass, or concrete? This is an important question. For two materials that aim to serve the same purpose, there is a breadth of difference between the two. Understanding what will work best for your space takes a little bit of insight from an expert– insight I feel especially qualified to provide.
My Introduction To Fiberglass vs Concrete Pools
Before Water and Earth existed, before we had ever executed a design here in Richmond or across the country in California, my main job was selling pools. Specifically, selling concrete or gunite pools. In that time, much of the narrative I was taught was that concrete pools were superior in all ways, and that fiberglass pools had little place in great backyard design.
However, as time went on I realized that this narrative is not always true. During my transition from salesman to designer, I quickly came to learn that every kind of swimming pool has its place in backyard design, including fiberglass pools. Concrete, fiberglass, and even vinyl swimming pools all have their own application in landscape design. While many of our clients opt away from vinyl, many remain split between fiberglass and gunite models.
So, fiberglass vs concrete swimming pools. Which is better? Which is more cost effective? And which model will make the most sense for you and your family? Let’s dive into some of the most relevant pros and cons of each design.
Concrete Pools (Gunite)
Often thought of or referred to as concrete pools by homeowners, this type of swimming pool is usually referred to by designers and contractors as a gunite swimming pool. Gunite, or concrete pools, are exactly what they sound like. Constructed from a specialized concrete blend including sand, cement, and water, the exact type of concrete product used in each project can vary. What stays the same, however, is the process.
To build a gunite swimming pool, a hole is dug and a steel cage known as rebar is then installed. This cage is what gives the final pool its shape. Then, the gunite (concrete) blend is applied using a high pressure hose, curing until hard. Finally, plaster, tile, and coping work is done bringing the final design to life.
The Pros of Concrete Swimming Pools
When it comes to the benefits of concrete or gunite swimming pools, the name of the game is customization. From the size of your pool to finishing touches, concrete swimming pools put you in the driver’s seat, especially when compared to the limitations of their fiberglass counterparts. There are multiple ways that you can customize concrete pools that are compelling to homeowners looking to have as much of their personal taste reflected in their final design as possible.
Shape and Size
Whenever I describe how malleable gunite pool design is, I tell clients to envision a basement. When building a basement for your house, the blueprint will match the house that is built on top of it. The same concept is possible when working with concrete pools. That is, the pool you build can be fully customized to fit your space.
Long, skinny backyards can install long, skinny concrete pools. Larger yards can go as big as they’d like. Will an organic shape work best for your yard? Gunite pools make that possible. Whether you’re looking for a simple rectangle or a crazy, custom design, the custom potential of concrete makes that possible.
Another benefit to the installation of a concrete swimming pool is the pool’s ability to be designed for many kinds of elevations. Instead of needing to be installed flush with the ground on all sides, gunite pools allow designers the ability to install pools on sloping elevations as well as level ground. This makes them accessible to a wider variety of properties.
If you’ve ever admired a beautifully colored pool, then what you are really admiring is the plaster it was finished with. And underneath that beautiful plasterwork is a concrete pool base. There is an extremely wide range of plaster finishes available to place over gunite swimming pools. From blacks and grays, to greens and the ever popular blue, great plaster makes a world of difference. Popular plaster finishes include PebbleTec and Wet Edge.
One of the most fun parts of finishing a concrete pool is choosing the tile. If you thought plaster had a lot of options, just wait until you start looking at pool tiles. From browsing enormous warehouse style selections on nptpool.com, to looking for unique samples on sites like Etsy, if you can imagine a tile, it probably exists. The right pool tile can take a standard design and make it look and feel like a luxury experience. And due to the sheer amount of choice, you can adapt your choice of pool tile to match any aspect of your outdoor design from pool furniture, to kitchen countertops, to steppers.
The final aspect of customization that makes concrete pools so adaptable is the amount of modification that can be done. Much like the overall size can be adapted by yard, the inside of a gunite pool can be modified to include as many or as few bells and whistles as you’d like. Include a huge baja shelf, stairs, laminar jets, lighting, speakers, automatic covers–the list goes on. For families who are looking to get a truly custom, adaptable finish to their swimming pool, there is simply no beating the versatility of gunite.
The Cons of Concrete Swimming Pools
While the versatility of gunite is its biggest strength, it’s not all custom tiles and bells and whistles. There are valid reasons some clients decide against going with concrete pools in favor of fiberglass.
Long Installation Time
It’s hard to deny that installing a concrete pool is a pain. The process is long, usually between 8-12 weeks. During that 2-3 month disruption you will be largely unable to use your backyard space. And that’s not the only issue with this time frame. As we talked about in our post on phasing your backyard project properly, most other elements of your outdoor space cannot and will not begin work until after the pool contractors have finished with their part. This can be frustrating and initially progress will feel slow.
Maintenance is a Pain
Another common deterrent that steers clients away from concrete pools and towards fiberglass is the reality of their maintenance demands. Because of how concrete pools are constructed, layered as they are with plaster and tile- they require more upkeep than a fiberglass mold.
While materials have come a long way (replastering used to be necessary at far more frequent intervals), any homeowner planning to stay in their home for longer than 15 years can anticipate necessary replastering at some point down the line. Additionally, this plaster and tile combination can make the standard cleaning process a more extensive chore.
Raw Material Cost Fluctuations
The last major piece to consider when it comes to fiberglass vs concrete pools is how the inevitable fluctuation in raw material cost will affect the process. While this is less of a consideration when purchasing a single fiberglass shell, all of the components needed to fully construct a concrete pool mean raw material costs are a guaranteed factor you will need to consider.
Materials will change in price in accordance with the market. This includes essentials like concrete, wood, and every other item needed to build the gunite pool of your dreams. If the idea of unstable market prices scare you, then it is a valid reason to take pause before pursuing the construction of a concrete swimming pool.
Fiberglass Swimming Pools
Let’s start by talking about fiberglass pools. What exactly is a fiberglass swimming pool? Put simply, a fiberglass swimming pool is a pool made from a precast, fiberglass model that is lowered into the ground. Often I tell clients to imagine a bathtub being fully lowered into the ground until the perimeter is level with the grade of the yard. Once placed, contractors will finish by adding coping and the pool deck.
The Pros of Fiberglass Pools
Despite what concrete pool loyalists will tell you, there are a number of upsides of fiberglass pools vs concrete pools. From simple installation to low maintenance demands, an increasing number of individuals have begun choosing fiberglass models for their backyard swimming pools.
Speed of Installation
If a huge drawback to concrete pools is the amount of time it takes to install them, the exact opposite is true for fiberglass. The installation process for fiberglass swimming pools is breezy in comparison to concrete. Unlike the intricate and layered process of constructing a concrete pool, fiberglass installation simply follows a few main steps: Dig the hole, get the basing material right, put in the fiberglass mold, and fill it with water. Hardscape and coping follow, and you have a complete pool. Not only does this quicker installation mean your backyard is more usable more quickly, but it also means the rest of your design can begin sooner.
As the quick installation would imply, another benefit to going with a fiberglass vs concrete pool is that fiberglass pools have far fewer working components. In terms of the pool itself, you are essentially dealing with only the pool mold. This means that it is much more difficult to run into bumps in the road when it comes to production and delivery. The fewer working parts, the less opportunity there becomes for delay.
Remember when I said gunite pools were the high maintenance players in the swimming pool world. Well, fiberglass is the definition of low maintenance. Due to the mold being made of essentially what is a smooth plastic, cleaning is a breeze. There is very little space for algae to live, and when it does need to be cleaned homeowners do not need to contend with tile, grout, or plaster. If cleaning your pool is a dreaded task, then this becomes a compelling argument in favor of fiberglass vs concrete pools.
Fiberglass Pools are Cheaper Than Concrete
Last but certainly not least, one of the most significant benefits to choosing fiberglass vs concrete pools is the cost margin. Historically, fiberglass pools have been notably cheaper to construct than their custom concrete counterparts. However, in recent years this gap has begun to close as their popularity has increased. Even still, installing a fiberglass pool will come with a lower price tag than concrete. At the end of the day, every homeowner needs to do what makes sense for their budget. And a lot of the time, fiberglass is the logical choice.
The Cons of Fiberglass Pools
Fiberglass pools have grown in popularity over the years as selections have improved. However, there are good reasons why Water and Earth, and most of our clients, still prefer the investment of a concrete pool vs a fiberglass model.
The ROI Isn’t Guaranteed
For many homeowner’s a pool is an investment. While they may be looking to enjoy their swimming pool while living in their home, not everyone expects to spend the rest of their life in one place. With that in mind, pools can add value to your home. However, the best ROI comes from the highest value model of pool, which remains concrete. There is debated evidence available to suggest the extent to which a fiberglass pool adds value to your home, but if you are looking to get the most back for your money, gunite is still your safest bet.
Very Limited Customization
Concrete pools are a chameleon, changing shape and color to fit their outdoor surroundings. Fiberglass, on the other hand, is not quite as versatile. For every item you can customize on your gunite pool, there is no fiberglass equivalent. Fiberglass molds are the finished surface of your pool. You can not pick custom plaster, browse through tile, or create a shape or size that is unique to your home.
Of course, not everyone cares about this, however if you are trying to create a truly seamless design, the comparative lack of options begins to stand out. Coping and the surrounding pool deck can go a long way to blend a fiberglass pool with the rest of your space, but never quite to the same extent as concrete.
Difficult to Repair
While one of the major benefits of fiberglass pools vs concrete pools is their relative lack of ongoing maintenance, when something DOES need to be done, it’s no walk in the park. Fiberglass can not be patched or replastered in the same way a gunite pool can. So, in the event of a crack, many homeowners are forced to replace the mold altogether. Of course, this is relatively infrequent, however if it happens to you, you are effectively erasing the savings you gained by opting for a fiberglass vs concrete pool in the first place.
Limited Contractor Contribution
A great pool contractor is essential. One of the best parts about pool contractors who are skilled at gunite pool work is their ability to do work on other areas of your home. The same team who built your concrete pool can also do the rest of your hardscape, build an outdoor kitchen, etc. This is not the case with fiberglass pool installers. Because of the simple installation process, most pool contractors working mainly with fiberglass stop their contracting services at the pool. This means you will have to talk to more contractors overall than you would if you were to install a gunite pool.
Less of a Luxury Experience
At the end of the day, a fiberglass pool is simply not as much of a luxury pool experience as their concrete competitors. From the overall feeling underfoot, to the limited material options, the user experience just cannot compare. Of course, much of this is objective. Many people are fully satisfied with a fiberglass pool experience. The best choice for you will come down to your design requirement, expectations, and budget.
Fiberglass vs Concrete Pools–Which should you pick?
At the end of the day, nothing in landscape design is ever black and white. In the debate of fiberglass vs concrete pools, there may never be a clear winner. If speed of installation and low maintenance demands are at the top of your list, a fiberglass swimming pool will check those boxes over a gunite model. At the same time, homeowners who are looking for a truly luxury backyard experience, and who are invested in a custom swimming pool that is made uniquely for their space, concrete is incomparable.
Different families have different budgets, expectations, preferences, and lifestyles. The right pool for you is one that puts your highest priorities first. At Water and Earth, we work with clients to have those conversations, and find the design solutions that work for you and your family.