Get Informed About Salt Water Pools
There is a problem in the pool and spa industry. The problem is the veritable tornado of misinformation that is being passed down to consumers when they start asking questions about adding salt water to their pool. You can not blame the customer for hearing rumors about how fantastic salt water pools are, and how easy they are, and how much better than chlorine they are. Well, as a pool and spa expert, and someone who has extensively studied both real world and theoretical applications of salt water in swimming pools, hearing customers say things like this makes me want to remove my skin with a potato peeler.
To be clear - with adequate customer education, and when installed properly, salt water chlorine is a completely acceptable option for delivering sanitizer to your pool. I am not saying that salt water chlorine is bad, what I am saying is that the way the pool and spa industry, and pool and spa professionals present salt water chlorine is bad.
Getting Real About Salt Water
The concerns about adding hundreds of pounds of pure salt to your pool is something that I have written about extensively, and before you can even come close to saying that you are making an informed decision about adding salt to your pool there is some requisite reading that you will need to do. These articles cover some incredibly important information about salt water that, as a pool or spa owner, you need to be aware of.
Is salt water bad for your pool? - This article dives in deep into the concerns about damage to your pool as a direct result from increasing the salt content, and electrical conductivity, of your pool.
How to install a salt water system - This article discusses the importance of installing your salt system correctly to prevent from damaging other components of your pool. Improper salt system installation accounts for the vast majority of early pool equipment failures, second only to poorly maintained water chemistry.
Salt water chlorinator reviews - Applying the information that you learned in the two above articles you can now evenly compare salt water systems to see what sodium levels each system uses. This article also compares the maximum daily chlorine output from each system on the market to help you see for yourself the differences from one brand to the next.
With this required reading out of the way we can start to get real about salt water in swimming pools. If you choose to add a salt water chlorinator to your pool you MUST be willing to agree that the following statements are true. If you do not agree, or do not understand how all of these statements are true, then you are not ready to buy salt water and if you buy salt water anyway then you are either a fool, or being taken advantage of, or both.
Woah pool dude...why are you harshing my mellow?
Salt water chlorine technology is over 40 years old. It is absolutely unacceptable that to this day the vast majority of active people in the swimming pool industry can not answer basic questions about how this technology works, how to install it correctly, and to what extent it will impact the functional longevity of the pool. Unacceptable.
The Truth About Salt Water Pools
The perceived value to pool owners of salt water might be the single greatest marketing achievement that I have ever witnessed. Almost every day in the pool industry I will speak with a customer who relates to me that they want salt water, which is fine, but the way that they relate this information tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not educated enough on the subject to make an informed purchase decision. Part of the problem is the technical nature of the product. Most pool owners do not really understand pool chemistry, and certainly not to any deeper understanding level, so salt water takes on somewhat of a mythical perceived value. To help pool owners understand technical issues like this I tend to try to find ways to relate them to other technical things that they might have more familiarity with...such as cars, or houses.
1) Salt water pools ARE chlorine pools. They are not better, worse or in any way different. There are lots of ways that you can have chlorine and the only real difference to the pool owner in terms of chemistry, is the pH that the chlorine is. Chlorine can have a low pH, a neutral pH or a high pH. It just so happens that chlorine derived from salt water has a very high pH...about as high as you can get. This is not ideal since it causes the pH to drift upwards in salt water pools. Salt water pool owners will need to become diligent about monitoring and lowering the pH levels in the water. While chlorine with a high pH is not ideal, versus a chlorine that would have minimal impact on the pH of the water, salt water chlorine having a high pH is not bad...just something important that pool owners need to know before they can consider themselves informed on the subject of salt water.
2) You need to pay extra if you want salt water. Despite how people selling you a salt system might tell you that a salt system will save you money, the reality is that it will cost you more than other chlorine delivery systems. If you are not prepared to pay extra to have a salt water pool then you are not yet informed enough to make a purchasing decision. While most sales people will look directly at chlorine costs, the truth is that the cost of the chlorine itself is only one component of adding salt to your pool...properly. You need to have all of your equipment bonded on the pool pad and you will need to add a corrosion resistant check valve in front of the salt cell to prevent chlorine from tracing backwards through your plumbing system and damaging your other equipment. You need to have a sacrificial anode installed in your plumbing system as well as buying zinc discs for your ladders, lights and skimmer baskets, all of which will need to be replaced every one to three years. You will also need to add salt to your pool to the tune of hundreds of pounds. You will also need to continually add salt to accommodate for pump out, splash out and winterizing of your pool. Salt water cells also only last three to five years at best (on average) and replacement costs for the cells is certainly significant. None of the costs are debilitating, or a reason to not buy salt water if you want it, but they are relevant to the calculation of how much salt "costs you". Add to this many areas now banning the draining of salt water pools onto city property and sewers, and you could find yourself with substantially increased operating costs for regular maintenance items like backwashing your filter or draining your pool for service.
3) Pool equipment will not last as long on salt water pools. The damaging effects of galvanic corrosion can be largely mitigated with the preventative devices you install when you install a salt water system properly. Still, on a national level, pool equipment on salt water pools tends to fail noticeably earlier than with traditional chlorine based pools. While many of these cases can be accounted for with incorrect or inadequate installation practices, which are rampant in the pool and spa industry, the numbers support that salt water pools simply experience more failures, and earlier failures, than other types of pools. When you consider that pool equipment on salt water pools, most specifically heaters and pumps, have a much higher rate of early failure than traditional chlorine based pools, it becomes clear that the upfront cost of your salt system is only one of the ways that salt water will end up costing you money. None of these are reasons to not get salt water, but definitely all things that you should be aware of and comfortable with if you choose to go with salt water anyway.
4) You will need to buy expensive chemicals that you otherwise might not need. Salt water pools can require additional chemical treatments that traditional chlorine pools usually do not need. One example of this is scale inhibiting product. Stain and scale products are one of the more individually expensive pool and spa chemicals however the propensity for salt water pools to have scaling issues, especially on heaters, heat pumps and electrolytic cells, requires regular scale prevention treatment. Scale build up is very damaging and will certainly shorten the service life of any metal component that collects it. Since heat is a main contributor to scale development, the main areas of concern are also the most expensive components on your pool equipment pad. Scale prevention chemicals will certainly cost less than replacing your heater or salt cell earlier than you needed to. You will also likely need to adjust the pH of your water which will require more acid than with other, more pH neutral, forms of chlorine. Phosphate remover is also used often on salt water pools since the presence of phosphates, even at levels of only 500 parts per billion, can reduce the effectiveness of your chlorine generator since it will have trouble keeping up with the rate of organic matter growth in the pool. These problems are not all unique to salt water pools, nor are they a reason to avoid salt water, but again something that you must be aware of if you are to make an informed decision.
5) You will need to relearn how to balance your pool chemicals. Salt water pools are not maintenance free, or anything even approaching maintenance free, as they are sometimes presented to be. Salt water pools require maintenance in every way that a traditional chlorine pool does. Additionally the way that you care for a salt water pool is slightly different than other forms of chlorine delivery. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you have already been maintaining your pool for years then you need to realize that much of your established schedule will change. Again, this is not a problem, unless you really hate balancing your water already or have a system that you are happy with. A salt water pool is different than traditional chlorine pools. The alkalinity levels and calcium hardness levels are different in salt water pools, and the upwards pH drift requires regular adjustment. When you buy a salt water system for your pool you are committing to relearning how to balance and care for your pool. If you are buying a salt water pool so that you can be more hands off...well, then your salt system might end up costing you far more than you bargained for. If you understand that salt pools are a little different when it comes to chemical and water maintenance, and you are willing to put in some time to make sure that you get the hang of how your pool operates once you switch to salt water, then you can say you are ready to consider switching to salt water.
Where Pool Owners Go Wrong With Salt Water
The place where pool owners go wrong with salt water pools is by placing far, far, FAR too much value on a simple bolt-on option. This article was motivated by a conversation that I had recently with someone who is purchasing a new swimming pool this year. This is exactly how the conversation went:
Excited Customer - I am having a pool installed this year. I am very excited.
Me - That is fantastic. What kind of pool are you having installed?
Excited Customer - A salt water pool. My son said I have to get a salt water pool. We just love swimming!
Me - Ugh...
This is a story that I have heard far more times than I can count. The perceived value in a salt water pool is so high that it literally is the only concern new pool owners have. I remember the first large construction project that I landed for a new property development in Whistler BC all boiled down to one key component...salt water. I presented a detailed bid for a concrete swimming pool and spa with an adjacent reflecting pond and water feature. It was a high end project with a lot of upgrades such as USA made mosaic glass tiles and a pair of titanium heat exchangers that I had arranged to have imported from Sweden just for this project. The heat exchangers alone were almost $17,000. When we got right down to signing the deal, a total project of $150,000, I was informed that they would only sign if I would change the design to include salt water. I was so taken aback that I actually laughed before I realized that they were dead serious. This was their big power-play move to get a good deal on what they really wanted...salt water. To them this world class swimming pool installation was only valuable if it was salt water, and they placed so much value on this one component that it was the only point of contention and negotiation. I changed the quote to $152,000 and they signed on the spot.
Since the hilarity in this situation may be lost on many people, consider the following person discussing a new car purchase:
Excited customer - I want to buy a brand new car. I am very excited.
Car dealer - That is fantastic. What kind of car do you want to buy?
Excited customer - I want an air conditioned car. My son said to get a car with air conditioning. We just love driving.
Car dealer - Right this way please...
The truth of the matter is that it is even worse than this. You want a new swimming pool, but the only thing you care about is the method of chlorine delivery? Do you understand how crazy this is? You don't care whether it is a concrete pool, or a vinyl pool, or a fiberglass pool, or whether you will have automation, or water features, or fire features, an in-floor cleaning system, or ozone, or UV or laminar deck jets, or insane lighting systems or negative edge / knife edge designs...all you care about for your $100,000 purchase is that your "new car" comes with "air conditioning".
Salt water chlorinators are a small, insignificant, bolt-on device that can be installed by basically anyone, on almost any pool, with little or no experience, for under $2000. Also, you can add it when the pool is new, or you can add it any day in the future that you choose. Hell, you don't even need to buy a salt water system. You could just dump 800 pounds of bromine salts into your pool (don't do this) and add tiny bits of oxidizer whenever you need your salt to "make" you more sanitizer (seriously, don't do this it can be chemically dangerous, just used as an example!). You don't even need an electrolytic cell! To base your entire swimming pool purchase predicated on the addition of a salt water system, quite honestly, is embarrassing for you. Just that you don't understand that your request is ridiculous so what ends up happening is someone will gladly take your money from you. You left yourself wide open to be taken advantage of by placing far too much perceived value on having salt in your pool, such that other people can tell that you are underinformed. Salt water is fine, and it is totally normal to want to have it...just like air conditioning is fine, and it is totally normal to want to have it when you buy a new car. What is NOT normal, is to have $100,000 to spend on a new car but you don't care at all about what kind of car you buy, Honda, Mercedes, Ford...just as long as it has air conditioning. There are, at minimum, dozens of decisions relating to buying a new pool that warrant far more consideration than salt water. Sure, get salt water if you have read all of the resources provided on this page and still want it, but realizing that you are perceiving the value to salt water chlorine to be much higher than it actually will be integral to you getting the right pool for the right price, and being happy with your decisions in the long term.
If you work in the swimming pool industry, or if you know someone who needs to learn more about salt water then send this article to them. Together we can change, and improve, the state of the pool and spa industry and create informed employees, technicians and pool & spa owners.
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