Should You Buy an Above-Ground Pool Online?

They're cheap and come right to your door, but the hidden costs can be astronomical.

There are two ways to think about getting a backyard pool. The first is as a serious home improvement project, akin to adding a new deck or expanding the kitchen, that shouldn’t be attempted by amateurs and doesn’t come cheap. The second is as a toy, something that sits in your backyard like a charcoal grill or patio furniture and that you can buy and set up yourself.

The allure of the above-ground pools sold by online retailers like Amazon is that they feel like they’re part of this second category. But the reality is that a backyard pool of any size is always in the first. You might save money by opting for a delivered, install-it-yourself above-ground pool, but that means sacrificing safety, durability, and hassle down the line. Here’s why the idea of an online pool is way better the reality.

They can make your family sick.

Alison Osinski, an aquatic expert with a Ph.D. in aquatics and an aquatic consulting business who’s worked at water parks, hotels, municipal parks, private homes, and pretty much anywhere else you might find a swimming pool. She says that the above-ground pools you install yourself often come with inadequate sanitation and filtration systems or no systems at all.

“The problem with these is the lack of circulation and water treatment, and the big problem with that is disease transmission.” Amoebae, bacteria, and protozoa that can grow in these kinds of conditions are also aided by aeration, which in this case is just a fancy word for splashing.

Deodorant, sunscreen, hair products, body oils, sweat — all will come off in the pool, and all will fester. At best, it’s gross. At worst, it can make people sick. Osinski compares these pools to giant bathtubs, and if the prospect of sharing bathwater sounds gross, then you shouldn’t share a pool that’s doesn’t properly filter or circulate its water.

They won’t last.

“Most of these lower-end pools don’t comply with industry standards for on-ground storable residential swimming pools,” Osinski says. They’re typically manufactured in a rotating set of overseas factories by companies that don’t specialize in pools, which isn’t exactly a recipe for quality control.

Osinski says you shouldn’t expect one of these sub-$1,000 pools to last longer than a season. And if you’re paying hundreds for something that won’t make it next summer, how good a deal are you really getting?

They pose specific safety risks.

Shoddy construction means unsafe pools. Inflatable pools are the most at risk of collapsing, but those with metal structures aren’t much better, in Osinski’s experience.

Ladders are a particular problem, as they often can’t support the weight of an adult or a jumping kid. Another: so-called taco drownings, in which thin covers that are more like dry cleaning bags than ASTM-certified pool covers ensnare and suffocate kids.

Then there’s the inherent size limitations of a pool that has to collapse into an easily-shipped box or series of boxes. “The big danger with these backyard pools is that they’re not deep enough…. Most of them are three, three-and-a-half feet at the most. There’s no lifeguard, and pretty quickly people are diving and jumping into these things,” Osinski says. That means injuries are almost bound to happen.

Drowning, according to pool safety consultant Dr. Tom Griffiths, is another risk that tends to be greater with shallower pools. He says it’s “a problem for little children because parents get distracted and don’t think there is enough water to drown in. A child can be dead between 90 seconds and 2 minutes.” That’s not the pool manufacturer’s fault, but it is a side effect of the backyard-pool-is-just-a-toy mindset.

They’re not easy to install.

Every pool should sit on an even surface, and that means some amount of excavation is usually needed. That’s a lot for an amateur to do before the pool is even in place. There’s also a need to set up proper drainage; otherwise, the ground around the pool can become muddy and slippery, increasing the risk of injury.

Then there’s the matter of running power to the filtration system. Without something hardwired by an electrician, people end up just running extension cords up to the edge of a giant vat of water. Not something we’d recommend.

Unfortunately, amateurs tend to cut corners. Osinski’s experience is that “When you’re depending on the homeowner to do it, it probably doesn’t happen.”

That can also apply to pool maintenance, which is more work that it seems.

They’re not easy to maintain.

Pools need to be drained regularly, and smaller pools that get heavy use need to be drained more often than most. Regularly cleaning is also a must. Alternately, they sit full of dirty water or exposed to the elements, a recipe for waterborne disease the next time they’re used.

Responsible pool owners also have to make sure their pools are visibly clean — free of debris and scum — and invisibly clean — with correct chemical levels throughout. Managing water chemistry is tricky and it requires either hiring a professional or learning more than you probably want to about the science and best practices. Either way, it’s an investment that eats into the supposed advantage of ordering a pool online in the first place.

They don’t always come with enough information.

Regulations designed for safety — think: isolation fencing and other measures designed to prevent kids from accessing the pool without adult supervision — are often not outlined in the user manual for pools you buy online. Neither is information about safe signage, home insurance implications, or pool maintenance. Aquatic professionals know all of this information, and they’re trained to make sure their clients do, too.

So what kind of pool should I get?

Any pool installed by a certified professional who knows how to prepare the site, safely run electricity, and maintain safe water chemistry is fine. That, of course, means doing less yourself and spending more money. The effort needed to safely install a pool outweighs the cost savings, and the fact that they just aren’t all that safe should make passing on cheap pools sold online an easy choice.

Osinski says to expect to spend about $2,500 to $7,500 to purchase a low-end (but safe) on-ground pool made by a company that specializes in pools. Larger rectangular models can be had for about $10,000. Either way, professional installation should cost $1,000 to $3,000.

Those are way more than the pools available on Amazon, but way less than any sort of in-ground pool installation. The cheapest vinyl options there will run you $25,000 to $35,000; fiberglass options, $45,000 to $80,000; and concrete or tiled options from the mid-$50,000 range to $100,000 (though you can obviously spend much more).

Osinski says the only pools you should buy online are kiddie pools: very shallow, narrow, often inflatable options that will only really be entertaining to younger kids. Their small size means they’re easy to dump after each use, a step that’s absolutely necessary, as is keeping them clean.

And remember to heed Griffiths’s advice: “Active vigilant supervision of children without distractions is required.”

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