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White Plaster 101 for Swimming Pools

  |   Pool Plaster, Swimming Pool Resurfacing

If you are building a new swimming pool or resurfacing an existing pool, you may decide that white plaster is an option. There are a variety of plasters on the market for your swimming pool. White plaster is a tried and true plaster finish that is the most common concrete pool finish on the market. What exactly is white plaster? What are the pros and cons? And is white plaster the best choice for your swimming pool? Let’s dive in and take a closer look.

 

What is white plaster?

White plaster is a cementitious surface used to coat the interior of the swimming pool, composed by a combination of:

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portland cement

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pool mix used in white plaster for swimming pools

Manufacturers of components for white plaster

 

White plaster as a swimming pool coating

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“The great bath” – pakistan

Over 5,000 years ago in Pakistan an excavation used as an early swimming pool used a 1″ thick gypsum mortar and bitumen to create a watertight seal. In the 1920’s, Paddock Engineering Company, began using white plaster as the watertight seal for concrete pools.

 

Where is white plaster installed on swimming pools?

White plaster is installed on the interior surface of the swimming pool. Your swimming pool’s floor, walls, steps and benches will be coated with this white material. Once the swimming pool is full of water, the color of your water will appear a refreshing aqua color.

 

Why is white plaster used on swimming pool interiors?

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swimming pool interior with white plaster coating

There is one primary reason white plaster is used on swimming pools and several secondary reasons.

  • Primary Reason – White plaster provides a watertight seal to your concrete pool shell
  • Once your pool is completely filled with water, your pool water will appear a refreshing aqua color
  • The white color of the plaster makes it easy to see if someone is struggling underwater
  • Dirt, debris and objects are easy to see with a white plaster coating
  • White plaster is economical, as it us primarily made up of Portland cement and sand

 

How is white plaster installed?

Plastering a swimming pool with white plaster is a process that combines art and science and should never be attempted by the do-it-yourself types. The following steps are a general way for installing white plaster in your swimming pool.

Plaster prep

First, the swimming pool shell must be properly prepped. The plaster can only be as good as its bond to the pool shell. A poor prep job can spell disaster for the new white plaster, causing the new plaster to debond from the pool shell. The prep for plaster typically consists of an acid-wash, trisodium phosphate (TSP) (degreaser), neutralizing, and a high quality bond (scratch) coat.

Plaster truck & crew arrival

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macalite pool plaster truck

Second, most swimming pool plaster companies will arrive on plaster day with a large flatbed truck with pallets of material and a mounted mixer and pump. Depending on a variety of conditions, including the size of the pool, your pool plaster crew may be around 7 people for a residential job and as much as 30 people for a large commercial job (unless the commercial job is plastered over a couple of days with a tiled cold joint in-between sessions).

Mixing of the white plaster

The mixer (person on truck mixing the plaster components) typically works on top of the flatbed truck mixing batches of white plaster in the mixer to then be pumped through a hose to the pool interior where the crew is awaiting. The mixer is responsible for properly mixing the batches in the proper ratio according to the manufacturer. This mixture typically consists of no less than 1 part cement to 2 parts sand by weight along with any additives called for.

Plaster nozzleman

The nozzleman is the crew member responsible for properly placing the plaster inside the swimming pool in sufficient quantities and at specific times so that the rest of the crew can begin to apply the art of finishing. The nozzleman is typically very experienced and will distribute the plaster as it goes from the mixer to the pump, through the hose to inside the pool and out of the nozzle. The nozzleman also is typically responsible for communicating to the mixer crew member when to deliver more plaster and when to wait.

Pool plaster finishers

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resurfacing an existing swimming pool with white plaster

The difference between an excellent white plaster job and an average white plaster job can often be attributed to the quality, training and experience of the plaster finishers. The finishers are more craftsman artist than scientists, skillfully hand-crafting the final finish of the white plaster inside the swimming pool. Finishers often battle environmental elements and atmospheric conditions to make sure the white plaster is properly installed at the desired thickness; that the plaster is installed in a smooth and workmanlike manner; and that the white plaster is not over-worked or worked after its initial setup.

 

How thick should the white plaster be?

White plaster will approximately vary between 3/8″ to 3/4″ in thickness. Remember, the plaster coating is used to seal the concrete in order to retain water, and is not structural in terms of support for the pool. The pool structure is made up of steel and concrete and typically varies from 6″ to 12″ thick.

 

Can white plaster be used in lieu of waterline tile?

While there may be some who have used white plaster instead of waterline tile for their swimming pool it is far from recommended. First, the white plaster has to hydrate in order to achieve its proper strength. The waterline tile area is typically the first 6″ below the coping. The normal operating water level of a swimming pool is approximately 3″ below the coping. If white plaster was used instead of waterline tile, this would mean that the first 3″ of plaster below the coping would never be submerged. If the plaster is not submerged it is not hydrating. If the plaster is not hydrating it is not reaching proper strength. If the plaster is not reaching proper strength, you can have failure. In addition, there would likely be substantial shrinkage of the plaster and cracks and crazing may quickly develop. And if that was not enough, in some parts of the country the exposed plaster would be highly susceptible to freeze-thaw damage.

As an example, lets suppose you used water plaster instead of waterline tile, perhaps to save on overall pool installation costs, by deducting the waterline tile line item. The air-exposed plaster would likely not hydrate, not reach full strength, would experience shrinkage and would like crack. The cracking may extend under the water level causing water to constantly penetrate the crack. The penetrating water, carrying pool chemicals, would be constantly contacting the bond coat bonding the plaster to the shell. With the bond coat under attack, plaster debonding and delamination may quickly occur and may grow to a size much larger than initially occurring. The delaminations would need to be removed and plaster patches installed. Now the pool would have noticeable plaster patching and the plaster patch contains portland cement. If any of the patch is above the operational water level, the same process can occur to the patch that happened to the plaster.

If that was not enough to sway you, over time white plaster can begin to erode and pit throughout its normal lifespan through years of use and chemical degradation. So let’s pretend that your white plaster substituted in placed of the waterline tile is holding up without failing. Remember, the operational water level? Over the years, the water surface of your pool will be filled with its fair share of floating suntan lotion, tanning oils, cosmetics, hair products, dirt, debris and algae. This phenomenon gives rise to a nickname for the operational water level of your pool. Its rightfully called the scum line. Now picture yourself constantly cleaning, brushing, scrubbing and using chemicals to clean this ugly ring-stain scum line off the bright white plaster waterline of your swimming pool. Not a pretty picture, right? Now imagine, a porcelain tile band around the perimeter of your swimming pool and how much easier the tile is to brush, clean, scrub and hide the nasty scum line.

 

What is the Lifespan of White Plaster?

The lifespan on your white plaster can vary tremendously based on:

  • quality of the prep
  • quality of the mix
  • quality of the install
  • draining of the pool for maintenance or other reasons
  • improper maintenance
  • aggressive chemicals
  • heavy traffic or flow
  • and many more reasons

I have heard of pool white plaster jobs that only last a couple years before needing resurfacing again, but this is the exception. Most white plaster jobs will last 7  to 14 years, let’s say an average of 10 years if it was properly installed and maintained throughout its life.

 

Signs your white plaster needs to be resurfaced

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discoloration and etching of white plaster after many years

  • erosion of white plaster in high traffic areas revealing the gray concrete shell underneath (loss of watertight seal)
  • heavy pitting that easily traps algae making it nearly impossible to remove
  • substantial delamination
  • heavy staining
  • heavy etching
  • abundance of calcium nodules
  • substantial peeling
  • substantial blistering
  • substantial spalling

 

What is the cost of white plaster?

The cost of white plaster will depend on a variety of factors that can include the size of the pool and any special features, site challenges, existing pool challenges, environmental challenges, timeline challenges, along with quality of warranties, quality of crews, along with seasonal and regional markets. Due to even regional differences the cost to install white plaster can vary widely.

Range of costs for white plaster

Due to the many factors listed in the above paragraph, there could be a wide range in the cost for white plaster. To see a range of costs, we will consider a residential 16′ x 32′ pool that is 3′ to 8′ deep. The floor surface area is 16′ x 32′ = 512 sqft. The wall surface area is perimeter x average depth, in this case 96′ x 5.5′ deep = 528 sqft. The total interior square footage of this pool is 512 sqft + 528 sqft = 1,040 sqft.

Using the example above of 1,040 sqft of interior surface area to be plastered, in the southeast United States you can expect a price range between $1.25 to $2.50 per sqft for prepping the pool properly, plus a price range between $2.00 – $5.00 per sqft.  In Florida, Texas, Arizona, California this price may be a little lower, in the northeast United States, this price could be as much as 3 times higher.

  • White plaster prep – $1.25 to $2.50 per interior square foot
  • White plaster installation – $2.00 to $5.00 per interior square foot
  • Total = $3.25 – $7.50 per interior square foot
  • 1,040 sqft x $3.25 = $3,380.00; to 1,040 sqft x $7.50 = $7,800.00
  • Remember this is wide range based on dozens of factors. Prices will be lower in other parts of the country and much higher in other parts of the country.

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Consider these factors when comparing costs from different pool plaster companies:

 

  • reputation – check reviews and contact references to make sure they stand behind their work
  • offerings – some plaster companies only offer pebble plasters, make sure they install white plaster
  • availability – can they install the plaster within your timeline
  • warranty – what are they specifically offering a warranty on, for how long, with what exclusions and get it in writing
  • pricing – sure we all would love to pay the least, but with white plaster you get what you pay for
  • crew experience – green finishers and crews that lack white plaster experience can negatively impact your finish
  • communication – was the company easy to reach, easy to get along with and easy to address concerns to
  • quality – ask to see some of their work in person so that you can see what type of quality to expect
  • call-backs or problem solving – ask to speak with a reference where there was a problem and how the company made it right
  • plaster start-up – ask the company if they included the plaster start-up and balancing or if they offer this as an additional service
  • insured – ask for a certificate of insurance to make sure they have general liability coverage, auto coverage and workmans comp
  • association – ask if they are member of the National Plasterers Council (NPC), members are held to stricter standards and ethics

A poor plaster job may only last 1 to 3 years or may be riddled with defects or abnormalities. A great plaster job could last between 10 to 15 years and give you over a decade of memorable use. Cheaper is not always better, and often ends up being more expensive in the long-run. An experienced crew is well-paid and well-worth the extra cost.

 

White plaster warranties

Warranties are created by each individual company based on their pricing, their quality and what they are willing to warranty and what they are excluding from the warranty. Even in a single market, while the warranty from different companies may be for the same length of term, they will often vary in what each company is expressly warranting and what they are expressly excluding from the warranty. There are a few issues that can occur over time with your plaster. 

White plaster is typically NOT warranted for:

 

  • shading
  • color variation
  • mottling
  • evenness of color
  • check cracks
  • hairline cracks

 

White plaster is typically warranted for:

 

  • delamination
  • spalling
  • peeling
  • blistering

 

White plaster “start-up” and balancing

Start-Up is a term used to a specific way to begin caring for the new plaster once the pool is completely filled. The “start-up” is a set of procedures and guidelines developed by the National Plasterers Council that is used to make sure the hydrating plaster is able to achieve its strength in order to give you a longer lasting finish. 

Some companies offer the start-up as a service, others do not. The procedures can be followed by homeowners and customers or they can obtain a pool company who offers start-up to perform that as a service. There are often versions of start-up offerings as balancing and brushing would need to occur twice a day for two weeks or more.

 

White plaster pros and cons

Pros

  • Most economical plaster surface for a swimming pool
  • Tried and true surface used since the 1920’s
  • Gives the textbook aqua color for your pool water
  • Able to easily see when it needs cleaning
  • Smooth finish for hands and feet (until enf of life – becomes pitted and very rough)

 

Cons

  • Can more easily reveal cosmetic artifacts over time from improper water chemistry or other factors
  • Shows stains more easily
  • Shows dirt and debris more easily
  • Will not last as long as aggregate plasters like pebble or glass-bead plasters

 

Is white plaster the best plaster for you?

Selecting the right plaster for your swimming pool can be a tough decision based on pricing, pros and cons, lifespan, warranties, and desired aesthetic. This article should give you some insight to help you make an educated decision based on several factors to consider when selecting the type of plaster surface you would like to install and swim in for the next decade.

What are your experiences with white plaster?

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