How To Know When To Replace Your Pool Liner
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How long should a pool liner last for, and more importantly, how do you know when it is time to replace your pool liner? This is a very common question that vinyl liner pool owners want to know since replacing the liner is one of the bigger and more common maintenance costs that you will need to deal with. It used to be that vinyl pool liners lasted much longer than they tend to in the current marketplace. This is a subject that I have written about previously in this article about problems with vinyl pool liners where I explain why pool liners do not last as long as they once did. In short, the chemicals used in the vinyl sheet manufacturing process are more controlled than they used to be and many of the most effective plasticizers are now banned altogether. Combine this with the fact that low price is the priority for many manufacturers as opposed to quality or longevity. The end result is that you have vinyl pool liners that last half as long, or less, than vinyl liners manufactured 25+ years ago.
Part of the problem with replacing old pool liners is it is not always clear to the pool owner when, precisely, is the right time to make the switch. At what point can you say definitively that it is now time to replace the liner? For technical subjects such as this I like to refer to cars as this is a technical product that most people are familiar with. So, how do you know when it is time to replace the brakes on your car? Some people replace them when they show the first signs of problems or wear, while other people continue to drive the car for months past the point where the brakes need to be replaced. If you were to ask a mechanic when the "right time" to replace the brakes on your car is then the answer would most likely be that you should replace your brakes when they are near to the end of their service life, but before any additional damage happens to peripheral braking components. A very common issue with not replacing your brakes on time is that additional (expensive) brake components will also end up needing to be replaced, which would have not needed to be done if you changed your brakes sooner. The same can then be said for swimming pool liners:
You should change your vinyl pool liner when it nears the end of its service life but before there is damage done to any other part of the pool due to the failing liner.
Unfortunately this is not the approach that most pool owners take. The average pool owner likes to "get one more year" out of their liners before they replace them. This is a faulted line of reasoning that will most often result in additional repairs being needed before the new liner can be installed. It is certainly understandable that people need to save money for expensive pool renovations however it can cost more than you might think to attempt to operate your pool with a failed liner. So this leads into the important question of how can you tell when a liner needs to be replaced?
What Happens When You Don't Replace Your Liner
A pool liner is the only form of waterproofing that a vinyl pool has. The liner should be replaced as soon as it no longer serves this function. If the liner no longer retains the water within the pool then this is where problems start to happen. This does not mean that you replace a pool liner only when the pool can't hold water anymore. A vinyl liner is a water retention system. As soon as the liner has a deficiency, any deficiency, that prevents it from holding water then this is when it should be replaced. Obviously large rips or tears in the liner would qualify as a deficiency...but so are small punctures or holes that allow water to escape the pool. It would also be a deficiency if you have a liner that is no longer able to attach fully in the corners of your pool.
Far too many pool owners turn to duct tape to fix problems where the pool liner has popped out of the coping track, especially in the corners of rectangle pools. If the coping is not staying in the track then this is a sign that either the liner, or the coping, has reached the end of its service life and needs to be replaced. You might think that taping the corners of your pool might be "good enough" until next year when you can afford a new liner, however this is how additional damage to the pool happens. If the liner is in perfect condition then no water is able to escape the pool. Any deficiency that would allow water to escape the pool, such as a rip, puncture or corner that will not stay in the coping track, is certain to cause additional problems. In the case of a single hole in a liner then you can simply patch the liner and continue using it. If you have multiple holes, or any larger rips or tears, then this means it is time to get a new liner right away.
Wall Damage - A vinyl liner pool that has a leak can allow water to access the area in between the liner and the pool walls. This results in chlorinated water being held against the galvanized steel walls which will very quickly result in rust forming. While the steel wall panels are designed for direct burial in the ground, chlorinated water in particular causes rust much faster than moisture from the ground would normally. Additionally, if the chlorinated water from the pool is able to escape the structure of the pool then this can cause external components such as the steel walls to become part of a galvanic couple with other metals in or around your pool. This would also result in corrosion forming at an extremely advanced rate.
Floor Damage - Any time that water travels through the ground it has an eroding effect. If you continue to operate your pool with an active leak in the liner then this can allow the water to weaken the concrete in the floor of your pool. With an aggressive enough leak, or with enough time, this can cause the concrete smooth bottom floor to become sandy and weak and develop cracks. If left long enough it is possible to damage the floor to such an extent that a new smooth bottom will need to be installed before the new liner can go in...which can easily double the cost of having your liner replaced!
Deck Damage - If water is allowed to escape your pool system then the eroding effect can also damage the deck surrounding your pool. As water passes through the ground it will dissolve dirt and wash it away. This can cause paving stone decks to sink over time, and cause concrete decks to undermine which will eventually result in sinking or cracking of the concrete.
Just like with the car brakes example, when you let a pool liner go too long then you risk damaging other (more expensive) components of the pool. Even a single season operating the pool with a deficient liner can cause extensive repairs that you could have otherwise avoided. You should always attend to repairs in a timely fashion for your pool however the liner waterproofing layer might be the very most important part to repair quickly when it fails.
Signs You Need To Replace Your Pool Liner
Other than a giant, gaping hole ripped into the wall of your vinyl liner by the family dog, how can you tell when it is time to replace a pool liner? The first symptom is simply that the pool is not holding water. If water is escaping the pool then you need to either find and repair the hole, or replace the liner. If you suspect that you have been adding water to the pool more often than you remember adding in previous years then you might likely have developed a leak in the liner. To confirm, the first thing that you would do is a simple bucket test to see if the rate of water loss in the pool is greater than the rate of evaporation. Information about how to conduct this test can be read in my pool leak detection article. So, other than the obvious, what are some other signs that a liner needs to be replaced?
Liner Slips Out Of Coping Track - One of the most telltale signs that a liner is reaching the end of its service life is that it keeps slipping out of the coping track that holds it in place. A "liner pull" as it is called, is not always a sign that there is a problem with the coping. It could be that the coping is fine, but the vinyl has lost (or is losing) the stretch than newer vinyl has. Every year that the liner gets older, the more pull and stress it puts on the coping track. Eventually the liner loses near to all of its elasticity and this results in the liner pulling out of the coping track. If the liner is so tight that it is pulling out of the coping track then you should replace the liner before it starts to damage the coping. Eventually there will be so much stress on the coping track that it will crack (PVC) or stretch (aluminum). If left like this too long then you will find that you need to replace the coping as well as the liner. On pools with a deck integrated coping this can prove to be very expensive, costing far more than just the liner replacement itself.
Fading Liner Colors - While fading colors of your liner do not constitute a reason to replace your liner itself, fading is an indication that the liner is getting old and will need to be replaced sooner rather than later. UV inhibitors are added to the vinyl during the vinyl manufacturing process. These UV inhibitors are expensive and cheap vinyl versus expensive vinyl often comes down to how much UV protection the liner has. If your liner is fading, especially above the waterline, this is an indication that the liner is failing. Eventually the liner will tear in these areas and often this will happen suddenly when adding water to the pool or trying to stretch the liner back into the coping track if it has slipped out. If you notice aggressive fading in the color of your vinyl liner then you will need to replace it soon. If your liner is only a few years old and you notice this fading then you might have purchased inferior vinyl with not enough UV protection added to it. Vinyl that fades quickly could also be due to poor water chemistry however this would affect all of the liner, not just the parts above the waterline.
Problems Around Return & Skimmer Flanges - There are a number of different kinds of problems that can develop around the return and skimmer flanges in a vinyl liner pool. These can include wrinkles in the liner under the flange, bumps under the liner, or rust stains visibly developing around these areas. Some of these problems are from failures in the liner, while others are an indication of a failure of the flange and gasket itself. Regardless, if you are seeing problems around the flanges of your vinyl pool then this might mean the liner will need to be replaced. The older the liner is the more likely that any serious problem around the return or skimmer can not be dealt with without also replacing the liner. Conversely, the newer your liner is the more likely that there is enough stretch left in the liner to perform more serious repairs. Ultimately if you have water escaping the pool at the returns or skimmer then you need to stop it one way or another and many of these repairs require replacing the liner.
Something that experienced pool technicians understand is that a pool can leak water but continue to be operated and used day to day. Even serious leaks can sometimes be hidden from the pool owner as the pool will slow down the rate of water loss once the entire area around the pool is also saturated with water. These somewhat misleading symptoms of water loss often lead to pool owners operating their pools for extended periods of time with water leaking from the pool. It is this chlorinated water from the pool that leads to additional problems and the potential for expensive repairs. If you receive advice from a pool technician that it is time to replace your liner, then you should strongly consider this option as opposed to getting "one more season" out of your leaking liner.
How Long Do Pool Liners last?
How long does a pool liner last? Again, looking towards a car as a reasonable technical comparison, how long does a car last? To answer this accurately you would need to know a lot about the car, how it was cared for, how it was used, the climate it was located in etc. Swimming pools are much the same way. In order to answer how long a liner lasts you need to qualify how the pool is cared for, and where it is located. In the world of cars, regular maintenance makes a car last a long time. For swimming pools the same is true, and the chemical balancing in the water is the most important thing you can do if you want your liner to last a long time. Liners are not made to last as they were in previous decades. This compounds the problems associated with poor water chemistry destroying liners. Poor management of your water is extremely hard on vinyl liners, and now that they are made cheap, any problems with the water chemistry are sure to take life out of the liner...if not kill it completely.
"In The Olden Days" - Vinyl pool liners used to last between 20 to 30 years in the average pool. Virtually everyone got more than 10 or 12 years even if you were terrible with your maintenance and water chemistry. The days of seeing this kind of longevity from a 30 mil inground pool liner are gone.
1 to 3 Years - Poorly maintained pH and chlorine levels can result in very fast failure of a pool liner. So much that a single event where the pH gets too low, or the chlorine gets too high, can result in permanent damage (wrinkles) that can not be repaired. If you have chronically out of balance water then you might get as few as one to three years out of your liner before it needs replacement.
3 to 7 Years - Three to seven years should be considered the average lifespan for a modern pool liner. The amount of time that your liner lasts will depend on how well you balance your water chemistry, as well as how high (or low) quality the vinyl was that was used to make your liner. The amount of stretch used to place your liner in the pool can also contribute to earlier versus later failure.
7 to 10 Years - Seven to 10 years is on the high end for liner longevity and if you want to get this long out of your current liner then you will need to care for your water properly. It is even possible, with optimal conditions, to get 12 or 15 years out of a modern day liner however these pools should be considered the exception as opposed to the rule.
With liner quality and longevity at an all time low, pool owners need to put more emphasis on taking care of the one you have and learning how to properly manage your water chemistry. Additionally when a problem develops with the liner be sure to deal with it immediately as opposed to letting it continue to get worse. Worst of all, never try to get one more season out of a failed or leaking liner as this will often require further repairs which you could otherwise avoid. Also remember that some items like the coping and skimmer must be inspected thoroughly before replacing the liner in your pool. Should you develop a problem with one of these items that can not be fixed easily, then replacement of the coping or skimmer often require the liner be replaced again - even if it is not very old!
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