Homeowner once described his above-ground pool as a "great big water dish in the backyard," suitable for Clifford The Big Red Dog. It appeared to be little more than that — a simple vessel of clear liquid, adorned with just a tarp below the ladder for changing shoes.

Not that his kids (and a good number that weren't his) didn't enjoy the pool on a regular basis. It served its water playground purpose well, but its owner was too embarrassed about its humble appearance to use it for entertaining. And he couldn't afford an in-ground. He was stuck.

Actually, he just thought he was; the above-ground pool need not be so modest. And for an increasing number of homeowners, it isn't. As the retailers and builders in this story demonstrate, an above-ground pool can be just about anything an owner wants it to be.

Suitably enhanced, an above-ground can offer considerable ambience to customers pining for comfort and style — and provide a thick margin of profit for the retailer.

Like any makeover, it takes imagination and effort. For Midwestern retailers John Hoskins and Steve Bayer, that means formulating an enticing package of options at a discount, and just the right presentation. In part two of our story, California pool-seller Don Moir shows how far inspiration and sweat can take a plain aboveground. And finally, designer Greg Mash offers the absolute last word in above-ground pool construction — a steel-hulled, tile-encrusted jewel on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

It's Wise To Accessorize

A typical customer entering an above-ground dealer's store for the first time has done little thinking on the specifics of the purchase. He is just thinking "pool" as a means to his ultimate destination — cool and refreshing fun.

It is usually up to the salesperson to lead him there, says Bayer, owner of Caribbean Pools and Hot Tubs in Austintown, Ohio. "When a customer comes in the store looking for an above-ground pool, we start asking qualified questions to get a feel for what they're looking for, where they want their backyard to be. Sometimes people have no concept at all."

Bayer explains that to provide the contentment the customer is truly seeking, his job is to discern the right set of pool accessories.

This kind of pool accessorizing has been gathering momentum for a number of years, says Richard Holstein, president of SmartPool in Lakewood, N.J. "In certain areas of the country, in the Northeast and the Midwest, where there are mature markets, it's not uncommon to see four-, five- and six-thousand dollar pool packages complete with decking, upgraded pump and filter, lighting and heater. It's filled a mid-range price point between a basic $1,499 above-ground pool and an in-ground pool.

"Usually our dealers have a good-better-best deal. The good deal, a stripped-down package, is their advertiser. Then for the better deal you add options, a light and an alarm and so forth. Then for the top-of-the-line deal, you get those things plus a solar heater and a solar blanket and some other things."

That is indeed the way they approach it at Bayer's place. "The type of person that wants us to change the look of an above-ground pool," he says, "is looking for a package deal: fencing, decking and perhaps a walk-around option."

Not at Olympia Pools & Spas, Fort Wayne, Ind., according to John Hoskins, vice president. "Packages. Not really," he says. "We just have them pick and choose which options they want. We offer solar reels and automatic cleaners and lights; those are the three main things. The lights are the most popular additions followed by the automatic cleaner, and then the solar reels are probably third."

According to Hoskins, an item of growing popularity at Olympia is the solar heater, a good and relatively new way for customers on a limited budget to provide heat for their aboveground pools.

While several Internet sites ask more than $600 for their gas pool heaters, a solar heater usually runs less than half that price. And after the purchase, of course, a gas heater generates an ongoing fuel bill while an invoice for sunshine never arrives.

This makes the solar heater a more palatable option for customers that don't mind dedicating 100 square feet or so to the solar collector — a .at propylene bag which is spread out on the ground or a nearby roof. The heater works by directing pump water through the black collector, where it heats up like a man in black on a hot summer's day. Then the heated water is returned to the pool.

Another trend that has developed over the last few years, according to Holstein, is the above-ground safety package. "We are seeing a real up above-ground pools surge in our alarm business," he says. Decking helps this above-ground relate to the house. "A lot of dealers are building it into their pool packages because it eliminates the safety objection from the pool buyer up-front."

That idea is central to Bayer's approach. "Part of our pool presentation is safety," he says, "and we have an alarm on one of our display pools so we can actually show people how it works, and we show them fencing and lockup steps and things of that nature. That helps prevent not only the customer's fear, but also real tragedies. So when we present a pool package, safety becomes another option for the customer."

Of course it's not presenting the options, it's closing the option sale that counts. But Bayer has some smart strategies for that. Take automatic pool vacuums, for example. Even after a customer has turned it down, he knows that when they see it in action, they'll want it.

"Once we sell the pool and install it," he says, "we come out to the site and give a personal orientation. We bring an automatic vacuum and use it on the pool, and I say, 'This is how you vacuum your pool.'

"They say, 'I didn't buy that.' And then I say, 'That's OK, your regular vacuum hooks up much the same way.' Then I allow the automatic vacuum to work while we're talking and getting the other stuff set up and getting ready to put the regular vacuum in.

"More than 75 percent of the time, they end up saying, 'You know what, I like the way that works, that's pretty neat, why don't you just leave that where it is.'

"We used to call it the puppy-dog close, because you just let it sit there, and it sells itself."

True Believer

Option packages are certainly one way to bring an above-ground to life. But if you really want to see it get up and dance, you have to access your own innate creativity and passion. You have to get into it like Don Moir of Moir's Pools, Hot Tubs & Patio in Ukiah, Calif., who believed his own hype and built the Cajun Swamp pool that won AQUA's above-ground design award in January.

The aquatic creation stands as a monument to above-ground pool creativity. More importantly, it scoffs at the notion of the unattractive, one-dimensional above-ground pool.

Moir's above-ground enthusiasm is not limited to his own backyard, either. It's contagious at his dealership, too, and his customers catch it. Moir says he sells a lot of tricked-out above-grounds on pure zeal.

"If you're excited about it — if you yourself are having fun — tell them, 'Look, this is going to make your life easy, you'll have your own backyard vacation, isn't that what you want.' You can really get people fired-up for an above-ground pool."

At Or Above Grade Level

While Moir, Bayer and Hoskins are exploring the above-ground universe in terms of enhancements to the traditional, portable backyard pool, in Wilmington, N.C., Bradford Products makes and installs aboveground pools with a substantial degree of customization as well.

But as Greg Mash, art director and product designer points out, "It's not the typical construction you would see in an above-ground pool, with a vinyl liner and so forth." Bradford's above-ground pools are individually designed and fabricated out of 316-L stainless steel, and clad in ceramic tile.

Now, don't try this at home.

Bradford designs its pools using computer-aided design — each component blueprint is generated from a computer rendering of the pool. From these drawings, machining data is fed directly to CNC lasers in the shop, where .at sheets of steel are cut to precise specifications. Then the workers on the floor use a brake press to hand-form the sheet steel to the different angles and corners required for the pool shape.

That done, they fit the pool together at the factory, weld it up, and fill it with water to check for leaks. Then they put the assembled pool on a lowboy, truck it down the road to the customer's backyard and place it with a crane. Finally, the tile is applied using a proprietary, epoxy-based adhesive that binds the tiles to the stainless-steel walls of the pool.

All this exertion and expense for an above-ground pool leads inevitably to one simple question: why?

"Well, first of all," says Mash, "we make them out of steel because it's a very long-lasting, hard-wearing material.

"Eventually other pool surfaces need to be resurfaced due to chemical exposure. But stainless steel is nonporous so it won't stain, and it's very water-tight.

"With the addition of the ceramic tile, we can add color to the vessel, but you don't get color-fade over the years from chlorine and chemicals. What they see when the pool is done is what they will see in 10 or 20 or 30 years' time."

The second reason Bradford uses stainless steel for above-grounds is because it's much lighter than materials such as concrete or gunite. Many pools the company builds are sited on a sand foundation with a water table 3 feet below the grade.

If a builder tried to put an in-ground, concrete pool there, says Mash, "it just wouldn't work. There's no solid subsurface to get down to with your footings and foundation that would support it. And you'd hit water after 3 feet. Even with hydrostatic valves in place, it's just not a site conducive for that kind of pool." After a few years on such a foundation, Mash adds, the pool would start to travel.

And traditional above-grounds built on these low-lying islands off the North Carolina coast might travel even further, perhaps as far as Raleigh or even Chattanooga. The hurricanes, Mash explains, "bring a storm surge that comes right across the island, sweeping everything in its path."

Bradford discourages its pools from such peripatetic notions with its light, strong steel frame, and a concrete footer pinned to the spot by 12-by-12foot beams driven 10 feet deep into the sand.

"There's a lot of work that goes into them," says Mash, "but that's our niche market. We have a lot of highend customers that live on islands off the coast in North Carolina and face this same situation — loose, sandy soil — in which you just can't dig a traditional in-ground pool."

Bradford Products has found its niche among customers with very specific needs (and, obviously, a fair amount of money to spend). But the principle works in any market.

That is to say, an above-ground pool is limited only by the builder or retailer's imagination. Even off-the-rack above-ground pools can be tailored to fit any retailer's market with a good mix of options, ingenuity and expertise.

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.