“how to find the best cheap products” — kiplinger

Cheap Pools Buying Guide

Many frugal consumers opt for inflatable backyard pools with depths up to four feet and diameters ranging from 8 to 18 feet. We researched a few cheap pools that garner decent user reviews, but safety issues convinced us to limit our list of best cheap above-ground pools to models with structural frames that can be disassembled and put away for winter storage.

A recent article in Consumer Reports notes the risks associated with inflatable pools when proper safety protocols aren't followed (e.g., it's easy for a youngster to push down the sides and topple in). To be sure, safety is always a critical issue where swimming pools of any type are concerned. Some communities require fencing with a latched gate for pools deeper than a few feet, so be sure to check local regulations before purchasing and installing a cheap pool. Regardless what the laws say, there are safeguards you should take, such as removing ladders or securing covers tightly when the pool isn't in use and having adults present when it is. With smaller backyard pools, the best precaution is to drain the water between uses.

Cheap Swimming Pool Size and Shape
Above-Ground Pool Filtration, Accessories
Pool Reviews
Above-Ground Pool Reviews

Cheap backyard pools are readily available at big-box stores and from ecommerce vendors. But be forewarned: Do-it-yourself backyard pools, including those on our list, tend to have shorter life spans than high-end models or in-ground pools. Overall build quality isn't as sturdy, installation jobs may not be perfect, and weak pumps and filters are major factors that limit a cheap pool's longevity and users' enjoyment. Then again, you may be happy to reclaim your backyard when the kids have moved on to other summertime adventures.

Intex, Heritage, Seaview Club, and Summer Escapes are the big fish in the cheap swimming pools sea. Most framed backyard pools are round, with widths ranging between 8 feet and 30 feet and depths ranging from 30 inches to 52 inches. Framed rectangular pools start at about 12' x 24' x 52" and swell to 16' x 32' x 52". Most cheap pools are sold as kits that contain a liner, pump and filter, and skimmer, and some include bonus items such as a ground cloth, ladder, top cover, maintenance kit, and vacuum.

Our search for the best cheap backyard pools hit a few waves due to the limited number of reviews, minimal differences among models, and different brand names splashed onto what otherwise appear to be the same pool. Still, we identified several cheap pools that should give your family warm-weather fun for several years. At the top of our list we put the Intex 15' x 48" Metal Frame Circular pool (starting at $240) for its price, mid-range size, durability, and user-friendly setup, and the Intex 18' x 9' x 52" Ultra Frame Rectangular (starting at $751), also for its durability and easy assembly. The Heritage 12' x 42" Circular pool (starting at $399) and Seaview Club 18' x 42" Galvanized Steel Above Ground pool (starting at $650) qualify for second place. They're both decent swimming pools but require more setup time and are subject to relatively more grousing about leaks and overall build quality than the Intex pools. Little praise but lots of criticism (parts that break, water that leaks, poor customer service) about the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" (starting at $450) suggests your money would be better spent elsewhere.

Know what you're getting into before rushing out to buy a cheap pool. Maintenance requirements are ongoing and the cost of accessories adds up quickly. But if you follow the installation instructions and take proper care, the rewards on a hot summer day more than compensate for the time and cash you've sunk into your backyard pool.

Cheap Swimming Pool Size and Shape

Swimming Pools Size and Shape.

The first step in figuring out how large a pool to buy involves determining how much level space is available. If the ground isn't perfectly flat, you'll have to do some digging or importing of sand or earth to create a level spot. Bypassing this critical step means the water in your cheap swimming pool won't be distributed evenly, causing the over-weighted side to bulge and making the water level uneven. The need for flat ground is even more critical with soft-sided inflatable pools, like the Intex line of Easy Set pools, which starts at $84 for an 8' x 30" model and tops out at a starting price of $279 for an 18' x 48" model. Water provides the support structure for inflatable pools and the plastic wall on the low-water side will sag.

Cheap framed above-ground pools are usually round with diameters measuring as little as 10 feet and spreading out to 18 feet; higher-priced models run as large as 30 feet across. Framed pools generally provide more swimming area than inflatable pools with comparable dimensions. Two of our picks, the Heritage 12' x 42" (starting at $399) and the Intex 15' x 48" (starting at $240), qualify as mid-size pools. The Seaview Club 18' x 42" Deluxe Pool (starting at $650) and 18' x 48" Summer Escapes Metal Frame Pool (starting at $450) hit the outer size limit for cheap round swimming pools. If right angles are more your style and better suited for the available space, check out the Intex 18' x 9' x 52" Ultra Frame Rectangular (starting at $751), which just tips into the Cheapism range.

Swimming Pools Construction.

Not everyone wants a cheap swimming pool in their backyard all year, which is why inflatables are an easy option for winter storage. But our preferences for the best cheap swimming pools lean toward models that are semi-permanent structures with walls and metal frames or supports. The Intex series of round, above-ground, framed pools features triple-ply sidewalls and bottom and rust-resistant steel beams and joints that fit together without tools. The Intex Ultra Frame line (we researched a rectangular model, but round versions are also available) features rust-resistant galvanized-steel piping and a reinforced, patented PVC shell. Again, no tools are needed for assembly. Specs for the Heritage 12' x 42" and Seaview Club 18'x 42" pools describe both the walls and frames as hot-dipped, painted galvanized steel, and the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" frame is rust-resistant metal, with soft sidewalls. The Excalibur 12' x 52" Sea Wind Aboveground Pool (starting at $850) sounds far beefier, with its coated 6-inch top rails, 5-inch verticals, and baked-enamel walls, but treads out of our price zone.

The lining for cheap swimming pools with metal walls is typically a heavy-duty vinyl. The shell on the Intex metal frame and Ultra Frame models does double-duty as the liner. Many pool owners report problems such as pinhole leaks that often show up in the liner (or shell) during the summer or after winter storage. Among the few reviews we found for the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" pool were complaints about tiny holes in the triple-layer PVC liner even when brand new. Patch kits for liners are sometimes included with cheap swimming pools (Intex, for example), but you can buy them separately for less than $10.

Above-Ground Pool Filtration, Accessories

Above-Ground Pool Filtration.

Whatever type of cheap above-ground pool you buy, it's guaranteed to collect dirt, grass, bugs, and other pollutants that must be filtered, skimmed, vacuumed, and shocked with chemicals to keep the water clear and clean. (By the way, don't even think about transferring lake toys that could be contaminated with algae into a cheap above-ground pool; doing so could leave you with an above-ground pond.) The pump and filter systems for inflatable swimming pools such as the Intex Easy Set models and the framed pools by Intex, Heritage, and Seaview Club that we researched come with a replaceable cartridge filter system that should be changed as often as weekly; make sure to read the instructions. In reviews of these pools, however, many pool owners gripe about the undersized pumps and filters included with cheap above-ground pools, noting that filters clog quickly and water doesn't circulate sufficiently. Several consumers say hosing down the filter every few hours or even daily helps ensure clean water and can extend the filter's useful life.

Many pool owners insist that buying a heftier pump and better filter is a worthwhile investment. But you can also step up to a different type of filter system. A sand filter is easier to maintain than regular cartridges -- Intex says the sand on its filter needs to be replaced every five years. (Note: This is a schedule that could outlast your cheap backyard pool.) But sand filters are also far costlier, starting in the neighborhood of $200.

Pricier equipment doesn't release you from weekly checks of the water's chlorine and pH balance and less frequent tests for calcium hardness, alkalinity, dissolved solids, and, depending where you live, metals. And let's not forget the need to add all the chemicals required to get and keep things right. One alternative to the chemical-based routine is a low-maintenance, eco-friendly saltwater system sold by Intex that relies on salt, rather than chlorine, to keep swimming pool water sparkling; the starting price is about $190. Intex says this system can be used on any make of above-ground pools and doesn't leave the water feeling or tasting like the sea. Based on the user reviews that we read, the saltwater system has won numerous converts.

You also need a skimmer to collect undesirable solids floating in the water. The Intex models on our list come with a floating surface skimmer that's attached to a tube feeding into the filter. The Heritage and Seaview Club pools we researched feature an in-wall skimmer, and the Summer Escapes model comes with a trademarked all-in-one filter/pump/skimmer with a chlorinator and ground fault circuit interrupter.

Above-Ground Pool Kits and Accessories.

All the cheap above-ground pools on our list are sold as kits, which minimally include a pump filtration system and a skimmer. Kit components vary by pool size and manufacturer. The two framed Intex pools we researched also come with a ground cloth, pool cover, ladder, and maintenance kit that includes a vacuum; round, metal-frame Intex pools measuring 18 or 24 feet across also come with a volleyball set. The Heritage 12' x 42" and Seaview Club 18' x 42" kits additionally feature a pool liner, ladder, and porthole. In addition to the necessary pump filter system, the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" package contains a ladder, pool cover, ground cloth, and maintenance kit. To add to the fun, there are oodles of optional pool accessories, from solar covers and water heaters to floating LED lights, slides, and float lounges, that you can buy online or at stores that sell pools.

Above-Ground Pools Warranty.

As with many less expensive items, the warranties for cheap above-ground pools are short and limited. Intex offers 90 days on manufacturer defects in the liner and one year on the filter pump. The Heritage 12' x 36" comes with a one-year limited warranty, as does the Seaview Club 18' x 42" model. By way of contrast, the pricier Excalibur line of pools features warranties that extend at least 20 years. Note that the warranty on a cheap pool is typically voided if it's not set up properly -- and that includes being placed on ground that's level.

Pool Reviews

Except for some of the more popular brands and models, like those by Intex and Heritage, swimming pool reviews are relatively few in number. Pool owners who are satisfied with their purchase tend to post pool reviews that comment on the ease of setting up and the hours of fun logged by friends and family. While reading through pool reviews, we noted that the three major complaints concern small holes in the pool liners that often appear after a winter in storage, pump filtration systems that are too small or underpowered to keep the water clean, and ladders that feel flimsy.

Swimming Pools Setup.

Do-it-yourself installation of a cheap above-ground pool demands close attention to the instructions. Still, there's much to be said for learning from others' experience, and pool reviews are rife with tips and warnings. One recurring theme is the importance of siting the pool on level ground and regrets about surfaces that weren't totally flat and smooth.

In a swimming pool review on Walmart, one pool owner writes that the Heritage 12' x 42" pool is an excellent value and goes on to offer setup (and maintenance) instructions in her own words because she found the included directions difficult to follow. Some of her pointers include starting with lots of sand, leveling the area, topping off with more sand and leveling again, and adding the white clips for the wall supports as you build rather than waiting to finish off the assembly. Owners of the Seaview Club 18' x 42" likewise warn in swimming pool reviews on the Kmart website about prepping the ground with lots of sand. Instructions for assembling Intex pools suggest using earth instead of sand because the frames can sink into sand and leave you with an uneven support structure. Prepping the area for any backyard pool also requires clearing away grass, stones and pebbles, and other debris that could puncture the pool liner and make the surface uncomfortable to walk on. A ground cover to protect the pool's underside is critical, but some risk-averse pool owners also suggest putting down a foam pad or old carpet as an extra barrier.

Setup for some pools is more user-friendly than others. Intex framed pools rely on a system of steel beams and piping that snap or pin together without need for tools. The company claims that setup can be accomplished in 60 minutes or less, and many owners agree that getting the pool up and running is a no-brainer, even if it takes more than one person and longer than the advertised claim. Swimming pool reviews on Poolproducts.com, for example, mention two people assembling the 18' x 9' x 52" rectangular model "in no time" and on Amazon, a self-described petite woman boasts of having put together the 15' x 48" pool in an hour without having watched the included DVD. Assembling the Heritage 12' x 36" pool is variously described as simple and a hassle in swimming pools reviews on Walmart. One commenter writes of needing four people, another reports hiring professional installers, and another says six people finished the job in less than three hours. The slightly larger 12' x 42" version gets dinged on Walmart for unhelpful instructions and steel walls that don't line up with the holes for screws and bolts, and in reviews at Target, one owner says the job required two days and another reports needing five people to help out. Experience with the 18' x 42" Seaview Club also seems divided, with one swimming pools review on Sam's Club attesting to simple setup and another saying mechanical knowledge is required. Both report drawing on the skills and muscle power of several people.

Above-Ground Pool Reviews

Above-Ground Pools Maintenance.

Don't kid yourself -- swimming pools are not all fun and games. They require ongoing maintenance and constant vigilance. Owners' above-ground pool reviews recommend running the filter daily during swimming season to keep the water free of debris and algae. (This is true whether you're enjoying a framed or inflatable pool.) We read numerous reviews about all the pools we researched complaining about the inadequacy of the filter pumps and skimmers that come packaged in pool kits. Consumers say the water doesn't circulate enough, the filters easily clog, and the skimmers are too small or flimsy. The wall-attached filter pump and in-wall skimmer on the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" model suffers some particularly hearty dunks in above-ground pool reviews on Amazon, where users gripe about equipment failures and the difficulty of getting replacement parts or substituting some other pump/filter/skimmer system. One disgruntled owner reports spending $600 above and beyond the initial cost to make the Summer Escapes pool serviceable (the bill included a new ladder in addition to new purifying equipment) and another says he replaced the impeller twice within three years. One handy buyer of the Intex Easy Set 12' x 30" inflatable pool offers specific instructions in a review on Amazon for reinforcing what he describes as a flimsy plastic impeller in order to prolong its life.

Many owners of cheap pools assert that upgrading to more powerful pumps, bigger filters, and sturdier skimmers is the only way to keep the water fresh and free of debris and algae, and is definitely worth the extra expense. So, it seems, is upgrading to Intex's saltwater filter system. According to above-ground pool reviews on Sears, pool owners who have made the switch are thrilled with their decision, noting that the water stays clear and fresh and salt is far cheaper and less abrasive than chlorine.

Above-Ground Pools Longevity.

Our research indicates that if you get five years out of the best swimming pools, you've gotten your money's worth. Proper and regular maintenance, including fix-it patches on small holes, is definitely required to get your pool even this far. Intex pools are considered among the best swimming pools, and earn the most accolades for multi-year service, but they're not problem-free. We read several swimming pool reviews on Intheswim.com from owners who left the Intex 18' x 9' x 52" metal-frame pools outside through northern winters to no ill effect, and on Toys R Us about having enjoyed the 15' x 48" model for a good four years. Still, a few above-ground pool reviews report that pinholes tend to show up in the liner after a season in storage and spots of rust occasionally appear on the frame. One owner notes that bulging water from an unlevel pool caused the rods to bend. (Um, what do the instructions say?)

Users' experience with the Heritage 12' x 42" pool is mixed. One owner was well into her third season when she posted a pools review on Walmart, but another found leaks as soon as setup was complete. More than one review for this model says the ladder could be sturdier, a common refrain among owners of even the best cheap above-ground pools. The Seaview Club 18' x 42" gets a shout-out in a review on Sam's Club for its seeming stability, support structure, and substantial liner while the smaller 12' x 36" Heritage pool seems flimsy, according to above-ground pool reviews. The few reviews we could find for the Summer Escapes 18' x 48" pool are mostly critical. In comments on Amazon, owners share a litany of complaints about burst seams, leaks, broken pumps and impellers, and customer service that's seasonal, which heightens owners' frustrations when undertaking maintenance and repairs during the winter.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Pools
  2. Discount Pools Features Comparison Table
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