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Few things are more relaxing than floating away a summer afternoon in your own swimming pool, and nothing is more frustrating than being unable to do so because of a small yard—or an even smaller budget. But there is a solution: an above-ground pool.

Once thought of as the product you settled for when you couldn’t afford an in-ground pool, above-ground models offer a number of advantages. The most obvious is that on-ground models are significantly less expensive than in-ground pools, which can cost as much as a major addition to your home. A good-quality pool, including pump and filtration system, can cost under $3000.

Of course, that price can climb to as much as $15,000 for a larger model that includes a heater, decking and landscaping, but it’s still a good deal when compared to the $10,000 starting point for the typical backyard in-ground pool. Another advantage is the relatively short installation time. The typical gunite contractor (gunite is a blown-in concrete mixture used in the construction of in-ground pools) will take about two to three weeks, depending on conditions, to complete a pool. A crew installing an in-ground vinyl-liner pool will require a week or two. Pool kits, on the other hand, usually can be assembled in a couple of days—sometimes less time than it takes to fill them.

This project was originally published in the June 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.

Step 1: Planning for a Pool

Above-ground pools come in a variety of sizes, but they’re limited to three basic shapes: round, rectangular and oval. The ovals aren’t true ovals but simply rectangles with rounded ends. Round pools typically range from 10 to 24 ft. in diameter, and rectangles and ovals go from
12 x 24 ft. to about 18 x 33 ft. These pools are usually 48 or 52 in. deep. Pools require a level surface and access to electricity and water. If you have a small yard, be sure to check the installation instructions of the pool you are considering. Most oval and rectangular pools require an extra 3 ft. of clearance on each long side to accommodate the supports. This means an 18-ft.-wide pool actually needs an area that’s 24 ft. wide. For convenience, try to place the pool as close to the house as possible. “It doesn’t matter if they own an in-ground pool or an above-ground pool,” says Dave Short, vice president of Custom Pools, a pool contractor in Newington, N.H. “People always say they wish they had put the pool closer to the house. It is just more convenient for entertaining and relaxing.” It’s also a good idea to select a spot where rainwater drains away from the pool. And try to stay away from trees and tall shrubs. They won’t harm the pool, but leaves and other debris will make cleaning more of a chore. Many communities require a building permit for any pool that’s deeper than 24 in., more than 500 sq. ft. in surface area or has a water circulating system. “People can save themselves a lot of time by finding out some basic information before shopping,” says Lou Trigiani, pool specialist for Pelican Pools and Ski Shop in Morris Plains, N.J. “They should call the local building department and ask about the code requirements and zoning laws. Many homeowners are surprised to learn that setback requirements apply to pools. That means they may need, say, 10 ft. between the pool and the property line. If they don’t have it, they must apply for a variance.” You also may find that pools cannot be built under overhead powerlines, or over buried powerlines or septic systems. Most codes call for a 48-in.-high fence to surround a pool. For above-ground models, the pool walls serve as a suitable barrier. But a fence with a self-closing and latching gate should enclose permanent ladders leading to the pool.

Step 2: Pool Installation

Richard Sobel from Sharkline tells us that at least 70 percent of the pools sold through dealers are installed by the dealer. Homeowners who do the job themselves will find that two or three people can usually get a pool ready for filling within a few days.

“The biggest problem with homeowner installation is in preparing the ground,” says Sobel. To level the area, first remove all the sod and any stones or roots that could damage the pool liner. Instead of filling a low spot, use it as a starting point and remove the soil to this point. Most manufacturers require a 2-in. sand base under the pool.

Follow the instuctions for pump and filter placement- the pump is usually installed right next the the pool. your pump size is based not only on the amount of water in the pool, but by the resistance in the pipes. If you move the pump away from the pool, it will be less effective.

Step 3: Pool Products

Although there are dozens of companies that make above-ground pools, all of the models fall into one of two categories: soft- and rigid-sided. Rigid-sided pools are more common and are considered more permanent, but soft-sided pools have their place. With soft-sided pools, the vinyl sides are part of the support structure. One type consists of an inflatable ring attached to a heavy-duty vinyl liner. Inflate the ring with a tire pump and begin to fill. The rising water lifts the ring and the pool’s sides at the same time. At about $200 to $500, these pools are available in sizes up to 24 ft. in diameter and can be as deep as 30 in. A pool like this is great for a vacation home that’s closed up for the winter because you can easily take down the pool at the end of the season.
Rigid above-ground pools consist of a structural wall and vinyl liner. Walls can be made of steel, steel and resin, aluminum or wood. All of the materials provide adequate structural stability and are designed to last for many years. So how do you choose one over the others? Here are some points to consider. The steel used in the steel walls is galvanized and then coated a number of times to resist rusting. Inquire about the coating system and be sure that the pool warranty covers corrosion. Aluminum pools consist of panels that are either flat or extruded. Extruded panels lock together and are stronger than flat panels. Aluminum is lighter than steel and easier to work with—a consideration if you’re installing the pool yourself. “For steel and aluminum pools, it is safe to say that a smooth coating is the cheapest and least effective,” says Richard Sobel, vice president of Sharkline Pools, a manufacturer in Hauppauge, N.Y. “Textured finishes last longer.” Pressure-treated wood pools provide a unique look that can blend with a new or existing deck. If you go with a wooden pool, look for one that includes stainless steel hardware. As for comparative costs, a 15-ft. x 30-ft. x 48-in. steel pool with pump and filter can cost about $2000, while the same pool with aluminum walls will run about $3000. Wood pools in that size cost about $5000. Many dealers will give you a break on the basic pool, hoping to sell you accessories and upgrades later. The vinyl liner is probably the most vulnerable part of the pool. “Liners go from 15 mil up to about 30 mil,” says Short. “I recommend you stay away from anything below 20 mil.” It’s also important to make sure the thickness of the liner is consistent throughout. Some liners may be advertised as 20 mil, but that thickness refers to the portion hung on the wall and not the floor. Manufacturers use two methods to attach the liner to the pool. In the overlap method, the liner is hung over the top of the pool and then secured with a coping that’s then covered by the top rail. If the installation isn’t perfect, the liner may be visible on the outside of the pool. A beaded liner has a thick bead along its edge. The bead fits into a bead receiver that hangs over the edge of the pool. There is no problem with overlap here, and it’s easier to get the liner pattern to be straight when the bead is in place. It’s also easier to replace a beaded liner than an overlap liner.
Vinyl liners must stand up to a lot of abuse. The ones that last the longest have been treated with ultraviolet and fungus inhibitors. Also inquire about how the warranty pertains to the liner. Under normal usage, liners wear out after about 10 to 15 years. A replacement liner will cost from $250 to $300. Many of the pools sold today are packaged with a pump and filter system. The pumps used on above-ground pools are rated from 3⁄4 hp to about 11⁄2 hp. The size is determined by the amount of water the pool holds. These pumps operate on a typical 20-amp circuit. A dedicated circuit is best and because the outlet will be outdoors, it must be equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). Pool pumps require little maintenance. Most have a strainer basket to catch large debris like leaves and grass clippings. Clean out the basket daily, or at least a few times a week. At the end of the swimming season, drain the pump and store it indoors. There are three types of swimming pool filters: diatomaceous earth (DE), sand and cartridge. Above-ground pool kits usually include either a sand filter or a cartridge filter because they are generally cheaper than a DE filter. A DE filter can capture particles down to about 5 microns in size—anything below 20 microns is invisible to the naked eye. These filters are the most troublesome to maintain because the diatomaceous earth must be replaced from time to time. The filtering medium in cartridge filters consists of a fine mesh material, usually polyester. These filters capture pollutants down to about 20 microns. They’re easily cleaned by hosing them off once a month. Cartridges need to be replaced once every swimming season. Sand filters capture material down to about 35 microns. If the pool is used most days during the season, plan on cleaning the filter about once a week according to the pool instructions.

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