Emergency Pool Care
I am writing this article during a time of crisis. As of right now the area that I live has declared a state of emergency, and the area that you live has likely done the same. A global pandemic is spreading like wildfire and most areas of USA and Canada are on lock down with citizens being ordered to shelter indoors and avoid any / all leaving the home except for mission critical reasons. It is not clear at this stage how deeply this event will cut into society, nor how long it might take for things to "get back to normal". Some people think this is all being overblown and tout how they continue to operate their lives as business as usual. Other people have taken refuge in their homes, isolated from anyone that they do not live with, with intention to ride out the storm for weeks or months if need be.
It would be impossible at this stage for any one person to make an informed guess as to how long things will continue like this, or how bad they might get. As more and more cities shut down everything but "essential services" there is real potential that you might be on your own with your swimming pool this year. To some this sounds like a dream, being told to stay home from work and hang out with your pool all summer. For others they would not have the first idea of where to start taking care of the pool because their entire level of involvement is normally swimming in it and paying the bills, period. So what would happen if you needed to take care of your own pool? Would you be able to keep it clean and clear? Depending on the situation that might not be possible (like a long term power outage) and then your job would switch from keeping it clean and clear, to keeping it from becoming a breeding ground for parasites and disease.
Filter, Clean and Balance
If the power stays on where you are located then operating your swimming pool is simply a matter of cleaning it (scooping, vacuuming and brushing the walls and floor), being sure to filter the water enough*, and balancing the chemistry. It sounds easy enough when you say it like that but of course the devil is in the details and this is especially true for the water chemistry. If you are stuck at home in self isolation or quarantine then there is no reason to let your pool get dirty to begin with. Every leaf, bug and stick that ends up in your pool will start depleting your sanitizer levels (chlorine) which will require that you intervene with more chlorine, which will then require that you adjust all the other chemicals more often as well. The best solution to this problem is simply to nip it in the bud and get that debris out of your pool as fast as it gets in there. Most of the stuff that you end up having to vacuum off the floor of your pool was floating for a least a little while before it became saturated and sank. The more you scoop the less of everything else you will need to do to your pool.
*Filter the water enough - How much should you filter your pool water? By the book you need to filter it all every day. In the real world this is already a complicated mathematical calculation. If you have a 10,000 gallon pool, does that mean you need to filter 10,000 gallons of water? Nope. Well, actually yes. You need to filter 10,000 unique gallons, and any gallon that you do twice doesn't count. This is why in order to know that you filtered at least 98% of your 10,000 gallons you would need to run your filtration system until 40,000 gallons had passed through it. If you only ran your pump until 10,000 gallons had gone through it, the math calculation shows that you likely got about 63% of the water at least once.
This conversation gets convoluted at this point because the recommendation is to filter all of your water every single day to remove organic debris and minimize the amount of chemical interaction you need to keep your pool water clear. However many pool owners will only run their pool filtration for a few hours per day, perhaps achieving one turnover (63% total volume of the pool filtered once) but the water never turns green. If the water stays clean and clear can't you argue that you are in fact filtering it "enough"? What this logic fails to account for is that there are multiple mechanisms at work that help to keep your water clean. The 37% of your pool water that did not go through the filter did end up getting treated by the sanitizing chemicals in your pool. Also, maybe tomorrow is the lucky day for that 37% of water that was not filtered today. Your pool does not turn green on a 24 hour clock like a game show running out of time. The recommendation is to filter all of your pool water every day, but if you don't get it all it doesn't turn green at midnight.
If you are under orders to remain at home for an extended period of time during a crisis, then I would certainly endeavor to filter my pool water as much as possible. It will be much easier to buy more electricity to operate your pump then it will be to find places to buy more chemicals from. In the event of an emergency situation I would immediately change my water filtration schedule to be higher than normal, assuming that chemicals for correcting the water will be harder to come by.
Maintaining your pool chemistry - Water chemistry in swimming pools is a deep subject, pun intended, and you can read an abbreviated and simplified version here if you are not really sure where to get started: pool chemistry crash course. There is no reason that you can not learn how to care for your water, but if you do not have access to supplies and chemicals for corrections then you are going to have a problem at some point. There are essentially three levels of chemical condition that you can have. The water is safe and balanced. The water is safe but not balanced, and the water is neither safe nor balanced.
Safe and balanced water - The water is clean and clear, and completely safe for you to swim in. The water does not pose any threat to the components of your pool and pool system.
Safe but not balanced water - The water is chemically managed and there is a measurable free chlorine level above 1ppm. There is a very low chance that the water is dangerous to swimmers, because the chlorine kills almost everything you need to be worried about, however the pool and pool system may be at risk. Also bathers with sensitive skin may begin to experience problems such as rash, red eyes, itchy skin after getting out.
Neither safe nor balanced water - Without chlorine available in the water there is no way to determine the level of risk to the swimmer. There could be very little bacteria or the water could be teeming with life threatening bacteria. Adverse chemical levels such as pH or calcium could cause permanent damage to liners and other interior pool surfaces.
We keep pool water sanitized for our health and safety, and we keep pool water balanced for the well being of the pool itself (and also bather comfort). Once you have lost the ability to manage the water there is now a health risk in going in it (or even being near it in very bad cases). This is the reason why pool industry workers are petitioning government to classify pool workers as essential, as stagnant water can be very dangerous. If you are wondering how to tell for yourself whether the pool is safe to use, the system I personally use would work. Is the pool clean and clear, free of haze or turbidity? Can you measure at least 1ppm of free chlorine in the water (and less than 1ppm combined chlorine)? Is the pH between 7.0 and 8.0? If you can answer yes to all of these questions you are probably safe to swim. If you do not know the answers to these questions then you are taking a risk by swimming.
How To Maintain A Pool During A Power Outage
If you are under lock down and unable to leave your house, and the power has gone out...there is nothing you can do to save your swimming pool from turning green in the long term. There are definitely steps that you can take to extend the amount of time that you have before the pool turns green, but without the ability to filter the water you are just not going to be able to keep it clean and chemically managed forever. Also the amount of water that you need to filter, as the absolute bare minimum, is so much that you really need some sort of pump system to make it work. If you scooped up a 5 gallon bucket of water and walked it up a hill to gravity feed through your pool filter you would need to do this 2000 times, every day, just to achieve a single turnover of your 10,000 gallon pool. Even if you are a hero, or related to David Goggins and you made 100 trips every day with your bucket, that would still only be 0.05% of your pool volume every day and that is just not going to cut it.
When the power turns off and you lose your ability to filter your pool water you are now on a ticking clock before the water turns green. Your goal should be to extend the amount of time before your water turns on you as much as possible. If you can delay long enough then perhaps the power will come back on before your water is a swamp. If the power is not going to come back on then your goal is to prevent the pool water from becoming a breeding grounds for parasites and disease. The best that you can hope for is to slow down the rate of plant matter growth in the water, and attempt to keep the water as sanitized as possible.
Daily brushing - The very first strategy that you need to adopt if the power goes out is to thoroughly brush the pool down and do your best to circulate the water manually with your brush. You do not want dead pockets to start to grow bacteria and algae so brushing and movement of the water will help to avoid this. Even twice a day would be a good idea to do this.
Vigilant scooping - Without power you have probably lost the ability to vacuum the floor of your pool. For this reason it is even more important to stay on top of the scooping for any leaves and debris that finds its way into your pool. Anything that sinks at this point will likely stay on the floor and contribute to significant increases in chemical consumption.
Chlorine treatment - Without a filter, and without the ability to vacuum the debris that ends up on the floor of your pool, eventually the chemicals you add will be unable to tackle the growing amount of organic debris in the water. As time passes you will notice that a given amount of chlorine will have less and less of an effect, until that chlorine you add is used in full more or less as soon as you put it in. When the bacteria and organic growth outpaces the addition of free chlorine, this is when your water will turn green.
Backyard swimming pools are not like little lakes or oceans. They would be much more similar to a swamp. They are an isolated and stagnant body of water and unless you manually intervene with filtration and chemical management, they will surely end up looking just like a swamp. Natural pools and "swimming ponds" are a slowly growing niche market, but even these mostly require pumps and bio filters, and often supplemental cleaning systems like UV lights. Without power these natural pools do not work either. It is not possible to simply augment your current swimming pool to be a self contained ecosystem where plants and insect life work to keep the water clean for you. A pool like this would need to be purpose built, and would fail to meet any recreational water quality standards without an active pump and filtration system in place anyway.
Dirty water needs to be respected, and is in fact the single greatest cause of human death every year, so if you find yourself in a time of disaster then you should do everything you can to limit the potential for disaster in your own backyard. Filter your water as much as you can, and try to manage the water chemistry to the best of your ability (especially the sanitizer levels). If you find that you are having questions about taking care of your own pool and are having trouble finding help with answers, you can also check out my Ask Steve service.
Emergency Pool Care Questions
I will make an attempt to put together a set of commonly asked questions relating to suddenly needing to care for your own pool during an emergency. Hardly a comprehensive list, but more a starting point to where you can find quick answers to common questions. If you have questions relating to this concept of suddenly being responsible for maintaining a swimming pool, something that you have not done before, then please feel free to reach out to me with questions that you do not see listed here: email Steve your questions. I get a lot of random emails from pool owners and it has been a few years since I have had the ability to reply to everyone given the size and scope that this website has grown into so I apologize if you do not receive a timely reply from myself, but do check back to this page to see if your question was answered and added to this list.
Q - I have a salt water pool. The power is out. Can I just add chlorine to it?
A - A salt water pool is a chlorine pool. No matter how many lies your sales person told you, if you have a salt water pool this is not an alternative to chlorine. This is an alternative to buying chlorine. Very important wording. Your pool is still every bit as much as a chlorine pool as it used to be, but instead of buying chlorine that someone made, you bought salt and an electrolysis cell and generate your own chlorine as needed. Like a chlorine on demand system for your pool. What this means is that, yes, you can add chlorine to your salt water pool without any ill effects whatsoever. In fact, even if it were not an emergency situation it is still fine and totally normal to add chlorine to a salt water pool. Salt systems make chlorine slowly over time, and sometimes you need some chlorine, like right now, and so adding (any form of) chlorine to your pool is just what it needs.
Q - How can I filter my water when the power is out?
A - You can't. Unless you have some serious DIY and mechanical ingenuity that would allow you to manually pump thousands of gallons of water per day, I don't see how you can manually take over the filtration function for your pool once the power goes out. You can try to make up for a lack of filtration by increasing your efforts at scooping, brushing, and manually circulating the water, as well as increasing the normal amount of free chlorine that you maintain in your water by two-fold. The increase in sanitizer (and oxidizer because chlorine is also an oxidizer) in the water, combined with your efforts to scoop, scrub and swirl the water will definitely buy you more time before the water turns on you. However, without a filtration system an isolated body of stagnant water is sure to turn green eventually.
Q - Can you drink pool water in an emergency?
A - The real question is can you drink pool water and be in a better state than before you drank it. This is an important qualifying statement...if you have dragged yourself for 200 miles through the desert and are on the brink of death from dehydration, then yeah...have at it buddy! Drink as much pool water as you want because you are going to be dead by tonight if you don't. The real question is, long term, is the pool an option for potable water during your survival. The answer to that is not really. If the pool is operating normally there will be more chemicals in the water than would normally be acceptable for you to drink. It might not kill you outright after a glass or two, but exposure to too many chemicals will eventually build up within your body unless you do something like distill the water from your pool to remove salts and other chemical impurities. If the pool has been sitting stagnant then the water should be considered as clean and safe as any other swamp water you might come across...which is to say not very safe at all. Water borne illness is serious business, and drinking parasites, animal feces, unknown bacteria and who know what else during an emergency sounds like a bad idea. At best your pool should be a source for non-potable water for cleaning and washing with in an emergency. Now, if you had access to some supplies like a UV light or reverse osmosis system as well as power to run that stuff then you might be in business. If I had to drink unknown quality pool water, and I had essentially no access to technology, then I would filter the water manually with cloth, or ideally some charcoal and multiple layers of cloth, and then fill a clear plastic bottle with pool water and sit it somewhere in the sun to cook for a few hours before I drank it.
More questions to come...
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How much electricity does a pool pump use
How does a variable speed pump save you money
Variable speed pump schedules
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