After spending years in the shadow of their well-heeled inground relatives, aboveground pools are finally finding the spotlight – and some respect. Many retailers point to the fact that today's aboveground pools are built with more durable materials and more interesting designs. These changes make abovegrounds capable of having many of the same bells and whistles that ingroundpool owners enjoy.
The changes go beyond the surface as well: Manufacturers also are offering better circulation and filtration options.
"Just about anything you can get for an inground, you can get for an aboveground now," says Jimmy Gladden, retail manager at Aloha Pool & Spa in North Little Rock, Ark.
That fact – the "up-scalability" of aboveground pools – seems to be what is driving the consumer. "Features are what it is really coming down to," Wakefield says. "And now, [because of how they're made], you can tell customers they are buying a lifetime pool, not something temporary that they're going to throw away in a few years. Then you can sell them a slide, or some lighting accessories or whatever they want because they know they're going to have [the pool] a long time."
But the first step manufacturers had to take was to simply make the pools look better and last longer.
One of the first things manufacturers did was change the overall look of the pool from a clanky metal structure with kitschy wood-grain patterns to a sleeker, resin-based vessel in more contemporary colors and patterns.
"The [design] of the outside walls has improved so much," says Eric Feigen, general manager of Pools, Etc., an online aboveground pool retailer in Canton, Mass. "It used to be this wood-grain stuff, but now they have [designs] that have more subtle gray or off-white patterns. It's a more contemporary design."
The improvements are startling, says Gladden. "These walls are just so different. The color coordination is so much better. We got three in the other day that have a nice, rustic look, with a pattern that looks like an ocean wave. It is really beautiful. [Manufacturers] just went from [producing] a dull, one-color pattern to this – something completely different – to give it a new look," he says.
Newer manufacturing materials accompany that new look. "They're using more resin, compared to the old steel products they used to make," Lanier says. "They're streamlining them to make them look more like they belong in the 21st century. With the resin product, it's blow-molded and all one complete form."
Resin-based construction, which began in earnest in the '90s, also aids in the pool's durability.
"The new resin rails are great because that plastic doesn't chip and you don't have any paint loss," explains Darrin Downing, part owner of Midwest Pool & Spa in Springfield, Mo.
Even the manufacturers of nonresin pools, those utilizing galvanized steel, have made changes to extend the pool's life and improve its design.
"They've added a covering for the wall that is put over the galvanized steel," says Mike Shorr, vice president and general manager for Arthur's Pools, a retailer in Fresno, Calif. "It's like a leatherette-type covering. Plus, they are making the top ledges wider, about 10 inches, and people like that because you can put stuff on it."
The vinyl liners for these pools have gone through somewhat of a metamorphosis as well in an effort to re-create an inground look.
"One of the biggest things that they've come up with in the last two years is, they are making printed liners with a border along the top," Shorr says. "They want that inground look with a tile line. Several companies have figured that out and it's worked well."
He says the newly designed liners have become a selling point. "The women want these things, but the men couldn't care less," he says with a laugh. "When a couple comes in, she always says, 'Oh, I want this!' It's become such a great selling point."
Sizes and shapes
Another good selling point is the variety of shapes, sizes and designs from which consumers now may choose.
"More and more people are buying houses these days and property sizes are dropping every year," Feigen says. "So now they have different shapes to fit into narrower yards – the buttress-less pool. It has a smaller footprint."
The ability to fit more pool into less space opens the door to consumers who previously wanted a pool, but had nowhere to put it. And that has translated to more sales.
"Because of the no-buttress pool, we sold a lot more ovals this year because they look so much better," Downing says. "Plus, the 12-by-24 used to take up about 18 feet across [including the buttresses]. Now, [with buttress-free pools], you get an 18-by-30 taking up the same area in the yard. They just cut out those big wings on each side."
Higher walls also are part of a strategy to attract more customers who normally wouldn't consider an aboveground pool.
"We are finding that the walls are getting higher," Shorr says. "They used to all be 48 inches, but now we are seeing 52 and 53 inches. It has an appeal. That's because 48 inches doesn't really mean 48 inches. The water level is actually 6 or 8 inches lower, so you only really have about 40 inches of water. People want it a little deeper than that."
Higher walls also mean consumers can add slides to their pools.
"They've come out with a slide for abovegrounds," notes Wakefield, who says the accessory has become a hot item. "It's only 3 feet tall and has a lip at the bottom that lifts up in the air [as you enter the water]. You only need 3 feet of water for it."
Shorr says he knows customers find the deeper pools more palatable because they are seeking them out.
"They walk up to one in the store and measure it with their chests," he says. "They say, 'Oh, this is a deep one!" We also had one customer buy one from our Internet site. She called us back and actually ordered from us because of the 52-inch height even though that wasn't [what she was originally looking for.]"
These days, aboveground-pool customers are buying a lot of things they didn't intend to buy, thanks to the proliferation of accessories now available, including decks, fiberoptics and covers.
"The customers are looking for more of a packaged product now," Lanier says. "Beside the pool, [they want] decking, fencing and things like that.
"More and more don't seem to mind spending as much as $15,000 to $17,000 for decking and fencing. They seem to like that over just a $3,000 to $4,000 entry-level pool."
There's another benefit to having a deck surround the aboveground pool: Now the customer can purchase and employ a safety cover.
"When you have a complete deck around it, you can use a safety cover and close it up and make it look just like an inground," Wakefield says. "That makes it very safe and [therefore] very marketable."
Lights, never widely available for abovegrounds, are another new safety option. With the advent of fiberoptics and other technologies, lights now are becoming de rigueur.
"More and more people are interested in having an underwater light," Downing says. "Most opt for the [type installed through] the return fitting. You put the hose and the light through it, and it converts the return fitting into a standard underwater light."
Still, it's fiberoptic lighting that seems to have become a mainstay of the aboveground consumer.
"With fiberoptics, not only can you see at night, but it looks so much nicer," Feigen says. "It becomes a more attractive backyard item. Even when you're not using it, it's still nice to look at."
Wakefield says fiberoptic lighting is just another example of a feature originally designed for inground pools that's now available for abovegrounds.
"They are taking a lot of inground stuff and putting them on abovegrounds to make them classier," Wakefield says. "With fiberoptic lighting, you can run them around the pool, or up the ladder. It's really nice."
Other innovations, say retailers, include the advent of add-on steps that take the place of the traditional ladder. These make it easier for swimmers who are older or in rehabilitation.
And because waterfeatures are all the rage for backyard inground pools these days, the aboveground market was not to be left out.
"We have three-tiered fountains, rock formations, swans, angels and cherubs," says Shorr, who notes that the waterfeatures for abovegrounds have become extremely popular. "Our most popular [fountain] is the cherub and then the swan. When people see them, they buy them. It's that simple. [Manufacturers] are very much after the [waterfeatures for aboveground pools] market."
Changes in design and construction were all well and good, but manufacturers knew that circulation and filtration equipment had be improved as well, or their pools would never find credibility.
"The pumps and filters have gotten so much better," Wakefield says. "They've really increased the horsepower and the filter size. So now, the turnover ratio is much quicker than it used to be and, therefore, they're using [fewer] chemicals. It was just a matter of making the filters physically bigger."
He says manufacturers are finally escaping the old mind-set that aboveground pools are economy pools and therefore should "have the cheaper stuff."
Wakefield says that old strategy didn't necessarily work. "I didn't agree with it. You give the customers better quality and they will be happy and they will come back," he says.
Several other add-ons, long stalwarts of the inground pool market, are beginning to show up in forms adapted for aboveground vessels.
"Automatic cleaners are becoming a big part of [aboveground pool sales]," Downing says. "We include them in all our packages. They are cleaners designed specifically for aboveground pools, and both pressure and suction cleaners are available."
In addition, automatic chlorinators have been designed to fit aboveground installations.
"It's a lot like the ones on inground pools," Gladden says. "It's hooked up by the pump and has a little chlorine pack that has a container with tablets in there."
Retailers say it's been the manufacturers' willingness to adapt, change and improve that has helped regain consumer attention.
"Most people buying a high-end, aboveground pool expect all this sort of stuff," Downing says. "They want it. The better-looking aboveground pools are definitely taking over some of the inground market."
When customers get to see all the bells and whistles they can add to an aboveground pool, it makes all the difference, says Gladden.
"Most people don't know they can get stuff until they do their research," he says. "Once they know they can get the same sort of accessories [as inground pools], it really turns their heads."
[This article is a reprint from Pool & Spa News, March 2002.]