Saltwater pools exist as an alternative to a traditional chlorinated pool. Often they are sold with the promise of minimal maintenance and significant cost savings on chlorine. Some people assume that saltwater pools will be easier on the skin, eyes, and clothes because there is no chlorine. Neither of those promises is entirely accurate. In fact, there is so much misinformation about saltwater pools that we find almost no pool owner really understands all the pros and cons of a saltwater pool. There’s a lot to know, and it’s not all pretty. That being said, there are plenty of saltwater pool owners who love their pools and would never go back to a regular chlorinated pool. In the end, the choice is yours. But we’re here to provide some much-needed insight into the pros and cons of a saltwater pool.
How a Saltwater Pool Works
When most people think of saltwater, they think of the ocean. The ocean has about 35,000 ppm (parts per million) salinity. A saltwater pool, on the other hand, has more than ten times less salinity, averaging about 3,000 ppm. So diving into a saltwater pool is pretty much nothing like taking a dip in the ocean. That’s the first thing to know about saltwater pools.
The second, very important fact to know about saltwater pools is that they have chlorine! The idea that saltwater pools are chlorine-free is probably the biggest misconception about saltwater pools. In fact, the only effective way to keep a pool clean is with chlorine. A swimming pool full of ocean water would quickly turn green with algae.
So what exactly makes a saltwater pool different? The difference is how the chlorine gets into the pool water. In a traditional chlorinated pool, chlorine is added to the pool. It may come from a chlorinator, or it may be added directly. Chlorine comes in liquid, powder, and tablet forms. What makes a saltwater pool different is that a saltwater pool generates its own chlorine.
The chlorine generator in a saltwater pool uses electrolysis to turn salt (sodium chloride – NaCl) into chlorine (hypochlorous acid – HOCl). The saltwater passes through a salt cell that contains parallel metal plates that are given an electrical charge, which starts the process of electrolysis. As the saltwater passes through, the salt molecule is broken apart and combined with oxygen and hydrogen from the water to create hypochlorous acid. One byproduct of this reaction is hydroxyl ions, which make the pool alkaline, give it a high pH. To keep the pH close to the ideal 7.2, hydrochloric acid needs to be added regularly, and the pH monitored at least weekly.
Is a saltwater pool really maintenance free?
This is one of the big selling points of saltwater pools. Those who market saltwater pools would have pool owners believe that a saltwater pool requires almost no maintenance. We’re sorry to report that that’s just not true. As we already mentioned, saltwater pools have a naturally high pH that needs to be monitored and corrected at least weekly. It also means that while you won’t be dealing with chlorine as much, you will be dealing with hydrochloric acid or pH decreaser, another nasty chemical.
In addition to regularly testing and correcting the pH of your pool, you will still have all the regular cleaning duties that come with any pool. Just like a chlorinated pool, you will need to skim for floating debris, vacuum for sunken debris, and brush the pool sides and bottom on a regular basis.
Saltwater Cell Maintenance
When it comes to maintaining your salt cell, there are a few critical items to take care of. If you keep your pool healthy and follow these steps, your salt cell and saltwater chlorine generator can last a long time. But if you let any of these critical items go for too long, you’ll have a broken saltwater chlorine generator on your hands.
First, as we’ve already mentioned, keeping a proper pH is vital to the health of your salt cell. You also need to monitor total alkalinity and calcium hardness. Calcium will naturally build up on your salt cell, but if the levels get too high, it can also start building up on other parts of your pool and causing nasty scaling.
Since the chlorine generated by your chlorine generator does not have a stabilizer, you need to maintain adequate levels of cyanuric acid (a.k.a. stabilizer) to reduce the demand on your salt cell.
Your salt cell is adjustable, so you should be keeping chlorine levels low, about 1.0 to 2.0 ppm. It also has a “boost” mode to super-chlorinate the pool, equivalent to shocking a traditional pool. Only use the boost when really necessary and don’t overdo it.
Finally, the salt in a saltwater pool isn’t used up in the chlorine generation process. But it can be lost to splashout, leaks, or just the water that leaves the pool in wet bathing suits and hair. Maintaining adequate salt levels is the only way to ensure you are getting enough chlorine. However, don’t overdo it. Too much salt can corrode metal pool equipment, like ladders and step rails. Salty water that splashes onto your deck can also cause stains or salt deposits.
Cleaning the Saltwater Cell
To keep your salt cell functional for as long as possible, you need to regularly check for calcium buildup and clean it as necessary. You can use a flashlight to take a look at the metal plates. If they are anything less than shiny, they could use a cleaning. Letting too much calcium build up onto the plates can destroy them.
If the saltwater cell plates need to be cleaned, you can do so by soaking them in a 5:1 dilution of water and muriatic acid. The muriatic acid will dissolve the calcium. Never use a screwdriver or other tool to try to chip off the calcium. That’s a surefire way to destroy your salt cell. After soaking, rinse the salt cell thoroughly. If you like, you can dip the whole thing in your pool and swish it around for 30 seconds. That should get all the muriatic acid off the plates.
Whether or not you see calcium buildup on the plates, it’s a good idea to clean them at least once every three months. However, many modern saltwater cells are self-cleaning.
The Benefits of a Saltwater Pool
We’ve talked a lot about the hard work of maintaining a saltwater pool. By now you may be getting the idea that a saltwater pool just isn’t worth it, especially since in the end it’s just a different way of adding chlorine. But there are some definite benefits, and some people really do swear by their saltwater pools. Here are a few of the reasons people like saltwater pools.
First, the chlorine produced by the chlorine generator is diluted, which some people perceive to be less harsh. The typical problems you get from chlorine, like green hair, red eyes, and bleached bathing suits are much less common.
Second, many people perceive less chlorine smell from a saltwater pool. If you hate the smell of chlorine, or you have an indoor pool (which tends to build up the smell), a saltwater generator might be for you.
Third, you don’t have to handle chlorine. The chlorine generator only generates chlorine so you will need to maintain the pH and other levels manually. But the maintenance required may be less frequent than with a traditional pool. Less added chlorine is also better for the environment.
As you can see, there are both pros and cons of a saltwater pool. Saltwater pools tend to be a little overhyped, so it’s important that you recognize what it really is and isn’t. However, some people really like them. If you’re thinking about a saltwater pool, we’ll be happy to discuss all of the options with you. Contact us, and we’ll answer all of your questions, as well as talk about what a saltwater pool maintenance plan form The Pool Butler would look like.