Like just about everything else in this world, above-ground swimming pools have become much more diverse. Above ground pools used to be about the same. Now there are at least three categories of above grounds depending on who you ask.
The biggest difference with above-ground pools is what the wall is made of. The much less expensive pools that come all in one box and sold mostly at Walmart have walls made of a synthetic canvass-like material.
The more traditional above-ground pools have walls made of either steel or aluminum. These pools cost more and last a lot longer than the canvass-like walled pools.
By far, the two biggest differences between metal-walled above-ground pools and soft-sided ones are the price and lifespan. Metal-walled pools will cost around a few thousand dollars and commonly last more than ten years while soft-side pools cost only a few hundred dollars and last only a season or two on average.
13 THINGS TO COMPARE WITH METAL-WALLED ABOVE GROUND POOLS VERSUS SOFT-SIDED ABOVE GROUNDS
Considering which type of above-ground pool to get has become very common. There are pros and cons to each, so let’s look at the differences.
By far, price is the biggest consideration between getting a metal-walled above ground and a soft-side. And it’s pretty big.
A typical soft-sided Intex or Coleman above-ground pool costs in the range of $300 – $600. This for everything including the pump and filter and the ladder.
A typical decent quality metal-walled above ground is between $2500 – $4000. This too, is the price for a complete package including the equipment(pump/filter) and ladder/steps.
Many who buy a soft-sided pool can only afford to spend a few hundred bucks. Most who can afford either will usually opt for the more expensive metal walled pool, but not always.
If you can only afford to spend less than a thousand dollars on a swimming pool, then your choice is easy. If you can afford either, read on.
Just like with their price, there’s a huge difference with how long these two pool types will last.
The average lifespan of a soft-sided Coleman/Intex type pool is only one or two seasons. The reason for this is usually related to a poor installation, lack of ability to keep the water clear and healthy, and/or from the pool itself rusting badly or leaking badly.
The average lifespan of a decent quality metal-walled above-ground pool is between ten and twenty years. During this lifespan, the liner will have to be replaced two or three times and the pump/pump motor will need replacing a few times.
The lifespan is most likely the second biggest consideration with choosing each type for most. I have installed metal-walled pools for more than a few people who got tired of having to buy a new soft-sided pool every couple of years.
Knowitall’s opinion disclaimer – There are some who are able to make one of these soft-sided pools last for many years. In your research, you will come across a few stories of Intex or Coleman pools lasting five years or longer. These outliers don’t change the fact that the vast majority of these pools only last a year or two.
If you are the kind of person who can happily limp along something designed to only last a little while for years, then be you and factor this in with your decision.
Equipment (pump and filter)
Easily, the third biggest difference between these two pool types is with the pump and filter. The pump and filter (also known as the equipment) is a huge part of any swimming pool as that is what maintains the water quality.
Soft-sided pools come complete with everything in one big box. This means that everything is made by one manufacturer. And the most common one is Intex.
Intex and those like it make equipment specifically for their pool. And they are usually severely undersized and very cheaply made.
Manufacturers that make metal-walled above-ground pools usually don’t make equipment for their product. As a result, the pump and filter pack that comes with them are made by a different manufacturer and can attach to any metal-walled pool.
It’s not always the case, but if you buy a good metal-walled above-ground pool package from a good retailer, then it will come with a good quality, properly or oversized pump and filter. And a good pump and filter is a game-changer when it comes to maintaining good water quality in the pool.
Now, you get what you pay for with pool equipment, so in defense of Intex equipment, the pump and filter come with the pool and a ladder and are included in the few hundred dollar price.
A good quality pump/filter pack for a metal-walled above-ground can cost more than the whole Intex pool, so yeah, Intex/Coleman equipment is not very good, but they don’t cost much either.
Note: Many with soft-sided pools will upgrade the cheap equipment that came with it with good standard equipment. They have to retro-fit it to the Intex type, but for many, this is a good option to having a pool that doesn’t cost much but can be easily maintained.
Generally, metal-walled above-ground pools look better than soft-sided ones.
This isn’t just because one pool is much cheaper than the other. There are some soft-sided pools that are just as expensive as metal-walled pools and they don’t look as good either.
This may not matter if you are planning on building a high deck next to the pool as the deck will hide the pool some.
Even if you know nothing about above-ground pools, just the names of these pools alone suggest that one is sturdier than the other.
The wall of soft-sided pools will move a lot more when swimmers are playing in it. The wall of a metal pool will move too, but not nearly as much. This makes sense as a wall made of a synthetic material is obviously more flexible than metal is.
The wall material isn’t the whole story here though. Metal-walled above grounds (especially the mid to high-grade ones) have sturdier frames. And the frame of a pool will keep the wall from moving around with a lot of swimmers or kids playing roughly in the pool.
Soft-sided pools have very cheap frames. This may not matter much in most cases, but it is a consideration and contributes to them not being very sturdy.
Ability to Install Properly
This may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is. With the way soft-sided above-ground pools are designed, it’s much more difficult to get them perfectly leveled and shaped.
Soft-sided pools are much easier to assemble. This is a good thing as they don’t cost a lot, so many don’t have to add to the cost by having to pay someone to install it.
The problem here is that soft-sides are easy to assemble but almost impossible to make level on the earth. This results in many DIYers assembling them on unlevel ground, which is not good. Ultimately, an off-level pool will have to come back down, the ground leveled better, then re-installed. This is a very common occurrence.
Metal-walled pools, although much harder to assemble, are designed to be able to get very level and correctly shaped. This is mainly because they have a bottom track that can be leveled and shaped before the wall goes up.
To drive this point home, I’d like to point out that as a professional above-ground pool installer of 35 years, I don’t install soft-sided pools. The Reason – Because I cannot get them perfectly level easily. And even though it’s probably easy money to make assembling them, I don’t.
Knowitall observation: An above-ground swimming pool that is perfectly level and in its proper shape will tend to last much longer than one that is off-level and misshaped.
Both types of these pools can be successfully partially buried in the ground, but the metal-walled type will fair much better than the soft-sided one will.
The biggest reason metal-walled pools have an advantage over soft-sided in this regard is with how long they last.
Soft-sided pools don’t last very long. This means that if you bury one halfway in the ground, you’ll be soon removing it and replacing it. Replacing one on top of the ground is not a big deal, but when in the ground, replacement is much harder.
When installing an above-ground pool in the ground some, you need extra room, so the hole has to be bigger than the pool. The pool is installed in the hole and then after filling with water, the bigger hole can now be filled back in around the outside of the pool.
When replacing a buried above-ground pool, you still need a bigger hole. You can’t just remove the old pool and then drop the replacement down into the existing hole. The hole has to again be made bigger than the pool.
Having to dig the hole out bigger again to replace a pool in the ground makes the job much bigger.
A metal-walled above-ground pool will last between ten and twenty years on average. This means you won’t have to worry about replacing it for a long while if installing in the ground.
Soft-sided above grounds may have to be replaced every couple of years or sooner. This makes installing it in the ground a major pain.
Note: If you build a permanent retaining wall around the hole that the pool is buried in, then pool replacement is much easier. If burying a soft-sided pool, I recommend a retaining wall for this reason.
Having a deeper center or end in an above-ground pool is a nice option. As an installer, I don’t like doing them but have to admit that they are nice when done right.
Soft-sided pools cannot have deep ends or deep centers. This is because they don’t have a separate wall and liner. Their wall is the liner all in one.
Metal-walled pools have separate liners and you can opt for a custom or expandable liner for it to accommodate a deeper bottom. https://abovegroundpoolsknowitall.com/what-is-an-expandable-liner-for-an-above-ground-pool/
More Models for Metal-Walled Pools
When I started building above-ground pools, there were basically two model options – Blue wall or Brown wall. There were some different-sized frames too, but that was about it.
Today’s metal-walled pool comes in many different colors and frame sizes and designs. And depending on how much you are willing to spend, some are really nice looking.
There just isn’t much to choose from in terms of models with soft-sided pools.
More liner options for metal-walled pools
For soft-sided above-ground pools, there are only two or three different liner patterns to choose from.
Since metal-walled above grounds have a separate wall and liner, you have a lot of choices with liner patterns that can go into the pool.
For most, this isn’t a big deal or anything, but worth mentioning here as some will like to change the look of the inside of their pool when changing the liner years later.
The average soft-sided above-ground pool is 48” (four feet) tall. Some are even shorter, but they are an even cheaper version and not really what I am comparing in this article.
Metal-walled pools come in three wall heights. And they are 48”, 52”, and 54”. This may not seem like a big height difference, but to some, this is a big consideration.
All metal-walled pools used to be 48” tall. I am seeing less and less of these “old school 48s” as most are not 52” and 54”. Most of the upgraded metal-walled pools are the higher 54”. Some years back, I saw a few 56” high pools, but that fizzled out after only a couple of years.
Note: With metal-walled pools, you can dish out the bottom a few inches to make the pool deeper some. A standard liner will easily stretch to accommodate this. Soft-sided pools cannot do this.
Soft-Sided Pools Can be Drained
This is a potential advantage for those living in the north. Some in the north will drain and completely disassemble their soft-sided pool for winter storage.
This can be a big advantage in areas that have harsh winters and frost heaving. Frost heaving can be a big problem for above-ground pools installed partially in the ground, but not correctly based below the frost line.
Let’s be honest here. Status is openly important to some and secretly important to most.
In this world of swimming pools (that I have been a part of now for 35 years) status is always at least an underlying consideration. When it comes to above-ground swimming pools, metal-walled above-grounds carry a higher status than soft-sided ones.
I live and work in Central Florida, which is the second biggest concrete swimming pool market in the US. I bring this up because in the overall world of swimming pools, the concrete pool is at the top of the status heap. And with that, some put all types of above-ground pools in the same category.
I also have a very large Facebook group called “Above ground swimming pools group”. In that group, there are both soft-sided and metal-walled pool owners represented. Occasionally, there will be some status-related banter of soft-sided pools versus metal-walled pools.
I don’t like it when someone states the status of a particular type of above-ground pool in my group, but I do acknowledge that it does exist. And it stands to reason that a metal-walled pool that costs thousands of dollars and can last a decade or two carries a higher status than a soft-sided pool costing hundreds of dollars and only lasting a season or two.
NOT SURE IF YOU WANT A POOL? START OUT WITH A SOFT-SIDED ABOVE GROUND
It is very common for people to start out with the much less expensive soft-sided pool just to see if they like having a swimming pool.
Most of them will then upgrade to a metal-walled pool a year or two later. I have installed quite a few metal-walled pools in the same spot as a soft-sided one was.
The pool owner is always much happier with a metal-walled pool after having a soft-sided one. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest is usually how much easier it is to maintain.
THREE REASONS TO GET A SOFT-SIDED ABOVE GROUND POOL
My opinion is to only get the much less expensive soft-sided pool if you are in one of these three situations.
You can truly only afford to spend less than $1000 total
Many people don’t have much money. For this, I absolutely love that there’s an option out there for people to have a swimming pool for a few hundred bucks.
Some are struggling financially. Swimming pools bring joy to many people and kids. I love it when I see the excitement from people about to get a pool. Especially when they don’t have much.
If You are Not Sure About Wanting a Pool
It’s very common for people to be on the fence about whether to get a pool or not. It may sound crazy to some who dream of having one, but some consider the maintenance, cost, and liability of having one and aren’t sure.
Investing less than a thousand bucks to see if you really will like having a body of swimmable water in your backyard makes some sense to me.
The vast majority of people who get pools will love them more than they even expected, but not all. I have talked to some who regret getting a pool for one reason or another.
Having to replace a soft-sided pool a year later with a metal-walled one may seem like a waste of money, but at least some will know for sure that they want a pool.
If You Live in the Extreme North
I’m not saying that everyone living in the cold should opt for a soft-sided over a metal-walled pool. But for some, it may be a better choice.
Where I live in Orlando, Florida, it’s easy to justify the cost and maintenance of having a pool as it’s warm enough to use for about eight months a year. In areas where the swim season is only eight weeks or so, it doesn’t make as much financial sense.
During my years of selling pools online, I had a wholesale customer from Norway that I sold and shipped a few dozen metal-walled above-ground pools too.
While talking to Nils (his name), he told me that the swim season in Norway was about six weeks per year. This meant that those he sold pools to were somewhat wealthy. No one else could justify the expense for a luxury lasting only a month and a half a year.
Soft-sided pools are really inexpensive and can be drained and taken down for the winter. This is a huge plus over metal-walled pools that cost thousands and cannot be taken down.
Also, the colder the water, the fewer things will grow and multiply. This means it’s easier to maintain water quality in colder regions. I bring this up because the severely undersized and poor quality pump and filter that soft-sides come with isn’t as much of a detriment in colder climates.
MY OVERALL OPINION ON SOFT-SIDED ABOVE GROUND POOLS VERSUS METAL-WALLED ONES
Speaking as a guy who has been in the swimming pool business for 37 years, my opinion has been educated by building all types of inground pools, thousands of metal-walled above-grounds, a couple of hundred soft-sided ones, and having a pool maintenance business for sixteen years.
For me, the clear choice is to get a metal-walled above-ground pool. This is because they are a much better value in that they last much longer, are much easier to keep clean and clear, and are far more durable than soft-sided pools.
3 thoughts on “Soft-Sided vs Metal-Walled Above-Ground Pools”
Thanks for the info. I have a above ground metal pool 18×18 round for at least 24 years.
The skimmer is starting to fall apart have little rust. I have a drain in middle. This year I think is the last for it. The water has never been clear green. I have tried every. I have no more money. If it’s stil holding up can I get it repaired or look for new one? Thanks
Just wanted to say thanks for all your great info as we decide on a pool approach. I like the temporary nature of an above-ground pool versus a permanent money pit in-ground pool.
I’m thinking a round concrete pad with soft Intex (converted to saltwater) to see if we can live with the maintenance, then replace with a “real” above ground pool of similar size in future.
And if we decide a pool is not for us, we won’t mind having the extra patio space. Less grass to mow! Does this sound like reasonable approach to you?
Very reasonable and fairly common. The big thing with your approach is the cost of getting the concrete patio/pad. This is a big expense, so my opinion is to make it where it can be utilized well in the chance that you won’t like having a pool. I wrote an article on concrete for above grounds here: https://abovegroundpoolsknowitall.com/installing-an-above-ground-pool-on-a-concrete-slab/