Real advice from a real pool builder, I build above ground swimming pools for a living. After reading this article, you will be able to choose the best pool for your family. I have read many other online above ground pool reviews, and they are not real reviews, they all have a marketing agenda. I am not saying I don’t, but as you read you will see I give it to you straight!
All pools are not created equal! There are huge differences in materials, design, and overall quality from one manufacturer to another. Even the same manufacturer will usually have models that are good and bad.
I will help you to choose the best pool and the best pool for your budget. This article is loaded with deep insights and lists the pros and cons of different models and manufacturers, as well my favorite top 10 models. I wrote this article a while back, but continue to update it a few times a year. The picture just above is a 17×32 Aquasport 52 I installed this year. Just getting ready to backfill the pool and finish the installation.
In an effort to compete on price, pool stores may package together a decent pool kit with a sub-par pump, filter, vinyl pool liner, or ladder. Every one of these elements determines your future maintenance costs, and how long your pool will last.
Consider this: I am frequently called on to replace pool liners for pools that are only 1 to 3 years old. With the average pool liner installation costing $1000.00 (good liner and labor), you can easily see where it may be beneficial to spend an extra $100 or $200 upfront for a quality liner. Premium pool liners last 8 -15 years.
Aside from considering construction and materials used to make your new pool, it is important to get a heavy/thick mil pool liner (17-20 mil), a good pool ladder with an extra wide base (distributes weight better on the liner), and a quality pool motor and filter. If you go for a package, make sure you are getting all quality accessories. You know the weakest link in the chain story, well it really applies to above ground pool packages.
Package pricing is the way to go, and each of the above components will never cost less than when you first buy your pool package. If you have to buy these components separately as if your pump dies, your filter stops working, or your liner is leaking, you will wish you opted for premium accessories. If you buy a pool online, you will surely save money on shipping if you buy many items from the same dealer.
I noticed Namco pools (big box store pool dealer) in my area starts of with a super cheap pool, way below cost, then they make their money on the accessories. By the time you add the “ultra accessories package”, which still has a shit liner, their package cost is similar to mine. But you end up with a steel pool (:(), a shit liner, and a weak wall. And this is their cheapest POS, internet only “special” pool.
Most people wouldn’t know a bad deal if it bit them in the face. That is no doubt why you’re on this page, to learn the difference. Also, consider reading my anatomy of an above ground pool article after this one.
If you are in the market for a great pool, but don’t want to spend all the money, and don’t want headaches, this article will be invaluable. Or if you want the best above ground pool ever made, you will also find all the information you need here. I review some of the top rated manufacturers and ultimately choose the best swimming pool for small and large budgets.
What Makes An Above Ground Pool Good?
Forget accessories like liners, filters, and pumps for a minute. When talking about buying a good strong above ground pool. You have to consider the pool wall. My opinion of the different pool models listed on this page, and the omission of pool names that were not even worth discussing, are based on the strength of the manufacturers’ pool wall.
Nine times out of ten, when an above ground swimming pool needs replacing, it is because the wall rotted/rusted out!
The frame of the pool is nowhere near as important as the wall. Manufacturers have taken to making huge resin top rails and upright posts. They would be way better off putting the extra money into thicker pool walls made of superior steel or even better aluminum. Consider this, once your pool is built, you could take off all the uprights and top-rails. It is the wall that makes a good strong pool.
They build these bulky pools to make them “look” stronger, and so China can’t compete. China suppliers need to ship via containers across the ocean. Bulky resin upright and top rails, that don’t nest well for packing, and cost way to much to ship. Most Americans are like Texans, they believe bigger is better. Consider though that most modern pools use resin/plastic top-rails and uprights for framing, they are just not as important as the wall strength.
With real estate, it’s location location location, with above ground pools, it’s Wall Wall Wall, and then good accessories. Most people don’t know there are two kinds of above ground pool walls. Rolled wall pools, which you see 95% of the time, and slat wall pools. The best-rolled wall pool is half as strong as the weakest slat wall pool. But, the truth is the best aluminum rolled wall pools last as long if cared for properly. Weak steal rolled wall pools are garbage and make up the biggest part of the above ground pool market.
Swimming Pool Packages and Construction Takeaways
For value, get as many components as possible included in a package. You are going to need a winter cover, shut-off valves, a way to maintain a maintenance dose of chlorine via a chlorine floater or something like a frog chlorinator. Try to get all premium accessories included in your package at time of purchase.
There are two types of rolled wall pools, Aluminum which is slightly more expensive but lasts longer and steel (most popular), which make up the larger part of the market. A good steel wall may do well in southern parts of the country, but aluminum is preferred in northern states.
Slat wall pools are superior to all other above ground swimming pool types.
Metal (aluminum) framing is superior to resin/plastic if you can’t keep kids from sitting or walking on the top-rails but do not add much in any other way to the structure or strength of the pool.
15′ x 30′ Oval Pool Compared To A 24′ Round Pool
If you want the best value, you should know, you will always get more pool for your money, if you buy a round pool. A 24 round is bigger than a 15×30 by 55 square feet. A 24 round actually holds, one thousand five hundred gallons more water than a 15 x 30. The 24 will accommodate more people in the pool, if that is important.
The 24 is also easier to maintain. Round pools naturally have better circulation. This leaves less dead spots for algae to form, and allows the skimmer to catch more debris.
If you put an end-deck on a 15 x 30, like so many do, you will not be able to skim, or vacuum the entire pool without getting into the pool, or by working over the side wall. Service poles just aren’t long enough.
By design, the 24 makes more sense. Oval pools require buried straps or buttresses to support the straight side walls. Often you find these side walls leaning out as the straps or buttress supports begin to settle over years. Often as the side supports settle just a little, the strap that runs from one side to the other begins to raise up, causing the somewhat sharp metal strap to contact your pool liner.
A 15 x 30 is tougher to install and as such installation cost about $800.00 more, the 15×30 pool package usually cost $800.00 more, so that is $1600.00 more for a smaller, weaker pool. When you compare the differences, you begin to understand why the 24 round is the most popular of all the above ground pool choices.
I actually prefer a 21 round pool size over a 24. It’s a perfect size pool and offers incredible value. Unless you have 4 kids, and they will all be bringing friends over, the 21 round above ground pool is plenty of pool, is easier to maintain, doesn’t take up as much yard space, cost less, etc… Everything looks bigger when your a kid anyway.
Rated Top 10 Best Built Above Ground Pools On The Planet
- Buster Crabbe – Admiral’s Walk Pool (Aluminum) Slat Wall with Deck
- Buster Crabbe – Aquasport 52 (Aluminum) Slat Wall
- Wilkes / Gibraltar Rectangle (Steel) Slat Wall with Deck
- Kayak Pools (Aluminum) Panels with Deck
- Radiant / Optimum (Aluminum) Insulated Panels
- Oasis or Integrity by Wilbar (Aluminum) Slat Wall
- MGK Pool’s – (Aluminum) Rolled Wall Dauntless Pools
- Buster Crabbe – Aluminum) Rolled Wall
- Doughboy – Saratoga or Tuscany (Steel) Rolled Wall
- MGK Pools Atlas (Steel) Rolled Wall
- Intex “Bonus Pick” (Soft-sided) for people with budgets around 1k or are definitely not building a deck.
There are literately several hundred above ground pool models to choose from. Each of these manufacturers makes 12 to 20 models alone, combining for hundreds of pools. These are my top ten favorites based on strength first, and then value. Plus my bonus pick…
My opinion and that of every installer I have ever talked with agree, the best above ground pools on the planet, are the Buster Crabbe / Aquasports Pools LLC Aluminum Slat wall pools (#1 and #2).
The main thing that separates these pools from all other pools is their walls. They are made of thickest extruded aluminum. It really should not be compared to other above ground / on ground pools. The strength and durability are in a class by itself.
I have personally worked on, repaired, assembled, and disassembled thousands of above ground pools over my career. There has never been a better swimming pool kit.
Above Ground Pool Brands Versus Pool Models
There are several great above ground pool brand names to choose from. Most of these brands, or manufacturers have been around for 30- 70 years with good track records. All of these brands each sell a variety of sizes and shapes.
The reason each of these brands sells different models is so that they can fit the budget of anyone. If you bought the top of the line model from any of the brands I mentioned above, you would get a good pool. But that cant be said, for all their lesser offerings. Except for Buster Crabbe, and my MGK Pools, as we use the same premium grade of coil steel, or aluminum, on all pool models.
Some of these great pool brands sell some real garbage when you get down to their less cheap pools, and pool packages. Not inexpensive… cheap!
I have individually reviewed each of the following brands, and pool companies. I have listed which of them sell the best pool, and the best pool for small budgets. The companies I have selected below to review in no particular order are Wilbar, Swim & Play, Buster Crabbe, Wilkes / Gibraltar, Hoffinger Industries / Doughboy, Namco Industries, Radiant, Optimum and of course our own MGK Pool’s (mine), and Intex.
The top 6 on my list are slat wall pools, making them superior to any coil/ rolled wall above ground pool.
Best Pool On The Planet
The best above ground pool you can buy is manufactured and sold by Buster Crabbe aka… Aquasports Pools LLC out of New Jersey. I am speaking about their Aquaport 52, and Admiral’s Walk models. Both models have the thickest and strongest aluminum slat pool wall in the entire market.
As previously mentioned, the majority of pool walls available today are made from rolled steel or aluminum coil stock. They are one piece walls that are mechanically fastened with hardware. Without water in most pools, the wall becomes extremely vulnerable. Most builders will not build a rolled wall pool on a windy day for this reason. The walls are literally thinner than a dime, and flop like bologna when empty.
Not so with the Buster Crabbe. Their Aquasport 52, and Admiral’s Walk pools are made of extruded aluminum panels with ribs, that lock in together. These panels are twice as thick and 10 times stronger than coil stock walls. Slat wall pools do not depend on water to hold up the wall. You could take a bat to this pool when its empty, try that with a coil stock wall, and you will be scrapping it for its metal value (not much value if its tin / “steel”). These models are able to be buried partially or completely in the ground.
The only pool you could compare this to would be a Gibraltar or Kayak. But the Gibraltar and Kayak cost about 7,000 more to purchase and install (minimum). Kayak and Wilkes/Gibraltar pools are shallow compared to the Aquasport 52 and Admiral’s Walk.
I actually prefer the Aquasport 52 pool over the likes of a Gibraltar or Kayak. The Gibraltar also has a wall made of strong extruded slats that interlock, but theirs are made of steel (may last longer in the south), and frequently rot out, especially the panel around the skimmer and return jet. The core of the Kayak pool wall is wood. Don’t even get me started on how bad wood walls are.
Best Least Expensive Above Ground Pools
MGK Pool’s has a new pool called: Lamark. It features a Steel or Aluminum wall. It’s a Hybrid. The only pools less expensive than the Lamark, are trashcans that rot out in a year or two, and they are not always cheaper. The Lamark is the least expensive pool I ( MGK Pool’s) make but has the exact same wall as our best most expensive Atlas or Dauntless pools.
When you buy a coil walled pool from Buster Crabbe Pools or me, no matter your choice, it is the same premium thick wall. They don’t buy any cheap steel walls, and neither do we. That cant be said for other companies like Swim N’ Play, Doughboy-Pools, Wilbar, Namco, Sharkline, Atlantic. The list could go on forever.
Both Buster Crabbe and my aluminum pool models have the absolute thickest rolled aluminum walls available from any manufacturer. I know I sound biased, but its a fact. If the Lamark is out of your budget, I would recommend an Intex Pool (more info below).
Best Value Above Ground Pool
There is no doubt in my mind, the pound for pound winner of best value is my MGK Pool’s Lamark Edge (steel wall). It offers a really great pool, and back it up with an industry leading warranty. Offering an unprecedented full 4 years of non-prorated warranty on the pool wall. Read any other manufacturer warranty, and you will see they are prorated after just two years.
Dollar for dollar you could buy at least 2 MGK Pools for the same cost of any so-called premium pools mentioned above (Doughboy, Atlantic, Sharkline, Etc). But no other company is willing to put their money where their mouth is, and back theirs up with a similar warranty. Or if they do, the model cost a fortune. You could buy an Aquasport slat walled pool for the same money as the high-end pool from Doughboy.
Check our above ground pool packages
Low-Cost Asian, and Canadian Metal Pools
I find the metal of the imported pools to thin, and prone to rotting out (cheap steel). I suspect it is because they use cheap recycled metals, though I can’t say for sure. But, cheaply imported pools sure are more prone to rotting for some reason.
It pisses me off when I find people have been sold a tin can for a swimming pool, with a trash bag for a liner, for the same money they could have bought something decent.
There are only two steel suppliers that sell steel wall pool stock to pool manufacturers here in the US. If your pool wall is not coming from one of them, ask your self one question. How can a manufacturer outside the USA buy and transport steel for less than it cost to buy it here??? Steel is a commodity, Cheap slave labor is not a factor in the cost of the metal.
This company has been buying up a lot of pool companies/brands but has itself only been around since 1986. They carry many different brands now: Sharkline, and Atlantic to name a couple. There are a lot of different models for the Sharkline and Atlantic Brand. I have no use for the Atlantic, but I like one of the Sharkline models. I like their Oasis slat wall pool.
The Oasis is tough as nails, and “similar” to the Buster Crabbe Aquasport 52. The Oasis has an aluminum slat wall. The Buster Crabbe can be completely installed inground, while the Oasis can only be buried 27 inches. Also, Buster Crabbe’s extruded aluminum wall is thicker.
Wilbar is a tough company to deal with. Even as a dealer, it is difficult to get a call returned (they never answer). I really like their Oasis, pool, but it cost more than Buster Crabbe’s better Aquasport pool so I do not sell them.
Namco Above-Ground Pool Reviews
Keep in mind that the pool industry is not regulated. What one company calls a 25 gauge pool liner may not even be 15 mils in reality. My personal experience with Namco pools is that the majority of their pool kits and liners are garbage.
I can not explain how cheap and thin their pool liners are. Often customers go buy their own liner at Namco and ask me to install it (I use to install them). I know a thick mil pool liner when I have one in my hands and when I have it heating up in the sun, getting ready to install it. I can tell you right now, I’ve been afraid that one of my fingernails might cut through a Namco liner. Although it says 25 gauge on the box, I often felt like I was working with a garbage bag, not a pool liner!
My experience with Namco above ground pool kits is limited to installing liners. In order to replace a pool liner you usually have to disassemble the upper rails and support bars. All I can say is that the pool walls are much thinner than the ones I usually deal with, and where most other pool manufacturers use metal upper support rails, NAMCO often has a cheap plastic piece, and the walls flop around like a thin piece of bologna.
It may be that I have only worked on their cheaper models, but I am not familiar enough with their products to say which I have had the displeasure of working with. All I can tell you is I am not a fan of their pools or their liners. But people here in Massachusetts keep buying this stuff. They had a new pool in 2013 that looks like a spaceship, it is manufactured by Wilbar, it’s really ultra modern looking, I have actually heard that it is a sturdy pool, just a bear to install.
So they do carry some decent pools from time to time, but they cost way to much. I guess it is easier for them to justify getting more money for their higher end pools when you compare them to their overpriced cheapo models they mostly sell. Namco Pools Comparison.
Namco is the only company in this review of above ground pools that do not manufacture a pool. But because of their large brand and popularity, I included them. They are also in direct competition to me as I sell pools in the same area. I point out this conflict of interest, as I am sure some of you may wish to take what I say about them with a grain of salt.
I have been told by someone who used to work for Namco, they buy most of their pools from Asia, and they are not sized well. One of their 24 round pools is in fact only 23 feet 7 inches. So if you try to install a thick USA liner, it will not fit, and you will end up with wrinkles.
Some of my pool models are a little smaller than the advertised size too. But that is why every liner I sell is manufactured specifically for my pool size. My liners fit like a glove as they are made custom for me. It makes a huge difference, Namco buys stock liners and packages them with pool sizes slightly different in size. This is why you get wrinkles, or their already thin liners are stretched thinner and fail within 2 years.
Let me just say this about their Water Way filters and pool pumps: They are not plug-and-play friendly, if something breaks or leaks, you have to go to Namco for parts.
Hoffinger Industries Reviews
Hoffinger Industries manufactures and markets two brands. One is the well known Doughboy line, and the other is called Embassy Pool Co. I think they actually have another brand under their banner called Lowmart.
Doughboy pools have extremely strong pools. Their premium line of pools features the best steel you can buy. While a fan of their round pools, their ovals take a lot of extra work to install.
Doughboy premium (Saratoga/Tuscany) pool walls are thicker than their less expensive models, and less prone to rotting out than cheaper walls.
Doughboy pool accessories are above average in strength and made of quality materials. While most of their pools are really good, their order fulfillment leaves something to be desired. As an Ex-Doughboy dealer, I might steer you away based on price and order fulfillment. Their pools cost way to much for what they offer.
I do frequently recommend them to people who need a pool installed, as they have the largest network of dealers that also install. If I do not have a dealer in your area, and you can’t find an installer to install one of my pools, I will recommend Doughboy’s premium line.
Doughboy has a lot of different models, my favorite being the Saratoga. But their Tuscany is the strongest of them all. The Tuscany appearance is a little too much for me (kind of Roman Looking). I’m a fan of the Saratoga. One other good Doughboy pool is the Palm Shore.
Embassy Pool Co Review
As a dealer, I really got behind one of their promotions in 2014. They put out a package called the Centennial pool package. I sold probably 25 of these packages before complaints started rolling in from customers. Missing components, wrong top-rails, dead on arrival pool motors.
This package was supposed to be based on the Century pool. But what they failed to mention, was the top-rail support skirts were not included in the promotion. If you bought the Century pool the skirts were included, but not with the Centennial package which is a Century pool?! For this reason, I will not recommend them anymore. Nevermind that they also packaged filters that were to small and plain blue overlap liner.
Wilkes / Gibraltar Pool Reviews
If you own a Gibraltar pool, you probably already know it is actually a Wilkes pool that has been re-branded. Wilkes gave Gibraltar the whole New England territory. It is rumored that the Gibraltar family bailed out Wilkes when they were going under.
Anyway, what that means for people in Massachusetts is that the Gibraltar family has a monopoly on the pool, as the Wilkes company protects the Gibraltar brand, by not selling parts or pools to anyone in New England.
Their pool is really good and last a really long time, especially now that they have gotten away from their wood decks. The new Aluminum decks are a real improvement on the pool. Also, the slat walls make it a billion times stronger than other regular steel above ground pools. The only knock on the pool is that the slats rot out and need to be replaced, well that and the cost. Well, and the fact that the walls are short (48 inches).
I install Wilkes liners and have heard from so many customers of Gibraltar, that their customer service is super bad, and they hold you hostage for parts. I have liners custom made, and do not need to buy them directly from Wilkes or Gibraltar. I do occasionally need parts, like their slat wall skimmer pieces, and bottom tracks. It is always inconvenient to deal with the jerks in the Topsfield parts department. Hope they don’t read my blog 😉 There is a really rude lady that manages the department.
Radiant Pools Review
These pools are just coming back onto the market after a 20-year hiatus. They used to be sold as Dover pools back in the day, and they were an inground pool then. Now they are being marketed as an above ground pool you can bury. The Dover pools were awful, and sales competitors used to carry a section of their wall to show how the super thin aluminum skins oxidized and turn to Swiss Cheese.
I looked them over at the 2014 pool show in Atlantic City, and they said it was redesigned. Looks the same to me, and my buddy Dave who actually spotted it right off as a Dover Pool.
I personally liked the way they’re assembled and thought the idea was good.
Radiant Pools are marketed as an insulated wall making them cheaper to heat and keep warm. But what they don’t tell you is most heat is lost off the top of the pool, not through the pool walls. Silly marketing people.
I met with a Radiant Dealer at the 2016 pool and spa show in Atlantic City, who had several pools with ice damage. He was pissed that they did not cover the cost of labor or the liner. They gave him replacement panels only, ouch… Here are some pictures he sent me.
The walls are like 2 1/2 inches thick. However, they sandwich Styrofoam between two thin pieces of aluminum.
I believe these pools would be fine in warmer climates. However, they are more expensive than the Aquasport 52, which I consider a better pool.
Optimum Pool Review
Guess what… The optimum is basically the same pool as the Radiant. Dover’s design patent expired a while back, and Radiant knocked them off. Well guess what, Wibar noticed the success Radiant was having and knocked them off too. Ha 😀
I’m guessing the Optimum is cheaper than the Radiant, though I do not know that for a fact. I just know Wilbar’s manufacturing capacity is better than just about anyone. Both of these models are definitely better than any rolled coil wall pools. As the old saying goes “The good is the enemy of the best”. Meaning, why purchase a good pool when you can buy the best. Especially if the best is less expensive.
I was also told that the process of making the Optimum is more environmentally friendly than the Radiant. Something to do with adhesives. If you live in the south and can get this pool cheaper than the Aquasport 52, I say buy it. Could just be I don’t buy enough of them to be competitive on price?
Intex Pools Review
I had to add this company to my list. Nobody makes a less expensive pool. There are companies knocking off the Intex, but they are not as good. I actually have bought both Intex and their competitors. I use them for water storage when replacing inground pool liners
I actually went to Walmart to buy one, and all they had were the cheap knock-off brands, so I bought a couple. They were awful compared to real Intex pools.
I wish I could buy them without the packaged pump, filter, and ladder. First of all, I don’t need them for my use, and second, they are awful. In another article where I suggest which Intex models to buy, I tell you to get a real filter.
There is no dodging the conclusion that above ground pools with slat walls are stronger than those made of rolled coil stock. I am not knocking rolled walled pools. I have seen Doughboy’s high-end models, and those of Buster Crabbe last over 30 years.
I believe a super strong and thick liner will prolong the life of any pool. Here is why… Reason #1: Pool chemicals are corrosive, especially chlorine. Thin liners develop small pinhole leaks allowing pool chemicals to contact your pool wall. Leaks so small you wouldn’t even notice the water loss. Reason #2: Cheap liners need to be replaced more often, which means disassembling and reassembling the pool structure. A screw never holds as well the second time, and most pools have lots of screws.
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