Vinyl Liner Pool Wall Comparison: Steel vs. Polymer vs. Aluminum
Whether you’re building the pool yourself or contracting it out, you need to know the differences between the material options for your wall panels. It’s only the second step in the construction process, too, so you can’t make much progress until you decide. And this decision will be with you for a long time.
As a refresher, here’s a super brief summary of the construction process for a vinyl liner pool:
- Excavate the dirt.
- Install the walls and braces.
- Pour the concrete beam and pool floor.
- Install the plumbing.
- Do the electrical work.
- Install the patio.
- Install the equipment.
- Start up the pool.
You bolt the wall panels together to create the perimeter of the pool. They, with the bracing behind them, provide the main structure for the pool itself.
You can break vinyl pool walls into two broad categories: polymer (plastic) and metal. For metal, your options are steel and aluminum.
Polymer vs. metal
- Doesn’t corrode
- Lighter and easier to install
- Becomes brittle and can crack
- Costs more initially
- Can bend with surrounding pressure
Polymer wall panels don’t corrode, which has important long-term benefits for you and your budget. If you replace a liner in a 25- or 30-year-old pool, most of the time metal panels will have corroded. It might be a little chalking, or it could even eat all the way through the wall panel, and it's difficult to just replace them.
Corrosion can compromise a metal wall panel to the point that it starts to fall apart in your hands. There’s not much you can do, but one option that will buy you some time is to buy sheet metal and attach it over the hole that formed.
Pro tip: you do have to actually do something about corroded metal wall panels. Don’t leave them there and hope for the best.
A metal wall panel is less expensive initially.
Polymer is more expensive on the front end.
Metal wall panels are stronger and more rigid than polymer. They stay perfectly straight even with the surrounding dirt pushing against it.
For comparison, polymer panels will bow in a little between the joints. Polymer also becomes brittle over time and can crack after decades.
By the same token, metal is heavier and harder to handle, whereas polymer is lighter and easier for the installer to carry around the jobsite.
Steel vs. aluminum
There aren’t a lot of aluminum wall panels on the market; most of the ones you see are galvanized steel. Steel is more expensive, but tends to be of better quality—in this case, you get what you pay for.
Steel is much stronger and harder than aluminum as a rule.
Rust vs. corrosion
Time for some science!
Corrosion and rusting are different processes. Rusting is a type of corrosion specific to materials containing iron, and it produces iron oxides. Other types of metals corrode, which produces salts or oxides of that metal.
Still, for our purposes, both processes come to basically the same conclusion: your wall panel is wrecked.
So how do wall panel manufacturers handle rust and corrosion?
Steel contains iron, so it has to deal with rust. Steel wall panels are hot-galvanized, meaning they’ve been dipped in liquid (such as zinc) that makes them more resistant to rust than non-galvanized steel.
Aluminum corrodes; it doesn’t rust. However, aluminum resists corrosion the same or better than galvanized steel resists rusting.
How do I choose the best material?
When you’re shopping for pool wall panels, look for a reputable manufacturer.
In addition, check the warranty—it quietly reflects on the manufacturer’s confidence and quality.
A good product should have a “bumper to bumper” warranty for 30 years or longer.
If the warranty is shorter than that and only applies to certain parts, it shows that the manufacturer expects it to fail.
What are my other options?
Unfortunately, none of the material options for vinyl liner pools will last you 100% of the life of the pool.
Although vinyl liner pools are less expensive initially, they actually cost you more in the long run because of this. If you’re planning to stay in your home for more than five years, you might want to consider a fiberglass pool.
If you’d like to learn more about how vinyl liner pools stack up against fiberglass and concrete pools, you can read this comparison of all three types. Our ebook provides even deeper detail.
Editor's note: This article was updated on October 17, 2018.