Not down with the hype? You might have a few reasons you’re hesitating to buy chlorine tablets and administer them into your skimmer. Maybe you know that the smell we think is chlorine is actually chloramines, and you feel how irritating they are to your skin, hair, and lungs. Maybe you’re blond and have experienced your hair turning green one time too many. Or maybe you have a chlorine allergy, and you’re looking to make a switch for your health.
All credible options are fair when it comes to DIY pool maintenance. Part of the joy of having your own pool is creating it to your own preferences. If you want to avoid chlorine, know that there are a few different alternatives—but only one truly non-chlorine option. I’ll explain what chlorine does, what happens if you don't use sanitizer, and which sanitizers mimic or use chlorine but work around chlorine’s issues. I’ll also explain the only truly non-chlorine sanitizer and how to administer it to your pool.
You’re here because you’re looking for a better way—so let’s get to it.
What Does Chlorine Do, Anyway?
Chlorine is often assumed to be synonymous with sanitizer—and that’s a testament to how popular this nifty chemical is. Chlorine is the win-win chemical that is both effective and inexpensive, so it’s no surprise it’s become a household name. Plus, it’s safe in the right doses, which is why you might find that your local drinking water is both deemed safe and is treated with chlorine.
Chlorine is actually a catch-all term for five different types: dichlor, trichlor, sodium hypochlorite, lithium hypochlorite, and calcium hypochlorite. While they all have different forms and different price points, when they’re used correctly they all work the same way: chlorine deactivates the bacteria in your water. This can include pathogenic microorganisms that can make you sick, as well as organic material such as the oil that swimmers introduce into the water. But just because chlorine neutralizes bacteria doesn’t mean that bacteria is officially removed.
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The Big Chlorine Con
If chlorine doesn’t actually remove bacteria, where does that neutralized gunk go? Well, each time it attacks a contaminant in your pool, it creates what is called a chloramine.
Here’s a lesser-known fact about chloramines: we all know that nasty chlorine smell, especially when visiting a public pool. But that’s actually not chlorine at all. It’s the smell of chloramines. And if you smell that in a pool, it’s not that it contains too much sanitizer—it’s actually an indication that the pool isn’t sanitized enough, and might not be safe for swimming.
So why does the smell of chloramines suggest that the chlorine in the pool isn’t working at optimal levels? That’s because too many chloramines in a pool prevent chlorine from doing its job. It just doesn’t have the space to work, or what is called free chlorine.
Chloramines can be maintained with a weekly dose of pool shock. But waters with almost any level of chloramines will be more irritating to the lungs, skin, and eyes than unchlorinated water. There’s no way around it: chloramines are the biggest downside of using chlorine to sanitize your pool.
Well, What Happens if You Don’t Use a Sanitizer?
Chlorine might be considered synonymous with sanitizer, but it’s not the only one you can use. If you don’t use chlorine but use another sanitizer, your pool is in the clear. If you don’t use chlorine and don’t use any other substitute sanitizer, get ready for disaster.
No chlorine, and no sanitizer? You can expect after just a few weeks that your pool has become green, cloudy, and toxic. That means a fair amount of algae, a build-up of organic material such as sunscreen and oils from swimmers, and debris running amok. But even worse is the possibility that pathogenic bacteria—the means the kind that makes you sick—is also able to thrive in your gooey waters.
Not using a sanitizer can be permanently damaging to your equipment and your swimmers. If the inevitable algae of a non-chlorinated, unsanitized pool travels through its circulation system, it will clog your plumbing and equipment. Plus, it’s too large to sit green safely—there are a myriad of critters that can fall in and contribute to the general nastiness of that, ahem, “pool.”
The hassle of adding sanitizer to your pool every week or so will never outweigh the disgusting, expensive, time-intensive, and corrosive nature of an untreated pool. So if you’re not a fan of chlorine, it’s time to talk options.
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Non-Chlorine Sanitizers… Kind Of
Chlorine is just the most popular form of sanitizer—it’s not the only one. And yet, most alternative systems use a chemical super similar to chlorine, or administer chlorine differently, or require lower doses of supplemental chlorine. But unless you have a severe chlorine allergy, these alternatives are worth taking a look at. That’s because they tend to reduce the amount of chloramines in your pool and create gentler waters, all without the hassle of the more expensive and unconventional non-chlorine option.
Basically Chlorine: Bromine
There’s a reason why bromine and chlorine sound so similar in name—that’s because they’re basically the same chemical makeup, with minor differences. First of all, bromine is nearly odorless, thanks to the less-noxious nature of its byproduct, bromamines. This characteristic makes it popular for indoor swimming pools. Another detail bromine has going for it? Unlike chloramines, bromamines actually are effective at continuing to sanitize the pool. Plus, bromamine is the go-to hot tub sanitizer, because it remains super stable in warm temperatures.
Bromine Pros: Not only does bromine have less of a smell and works better in hotter temperatures, but you actually need less of it to sanitize your pool. That’s because unlike chlorine, which inactivates itself after neutralizing bacteria and other contaminants, the bromamines from bromine can keep working for a longer period of time.
Bromine Cons: You need less bromine to sanitize your pool, but that doesn’t mean it’s even close to the same price as chlorine. If you use bromine, you’ll be spending far more on sanitizer, and that’s just the reality of it. Another downside is getting bromine off of your body—it’s harder to wash off after a swim or soak.
Chlorine On-Site: A Saltwater Cell
While saltwater pools do use chlorine, the difference is that this pool type produces chlorine on-site, and only as much as is needed. Basically, a saltwater pool uses a salt cell—which is added to your greater circulation system—to make chlorine. Not only does this mean you’ll never have to remember how to chlorinate your pool again, but it also means that your pool will have super stable, super low chlorine levels.
Saltwater Pool Pros: Saltwater pools use the same type of chlorine that you’d find in any chlorine pool, but there’s less of it, it’s super stable, and it’s complemented by salt. As a result, saltwater is similar to the salinity of the human tear duct for gentler, more comfortable swimming. Plus, the amount of chemicals you need to maintain are reduced, and can be checked slightly less frequently. And the salt that you’ll need to add to your system is wildly inexpensive—if your pool is properly maintained, it’ll cost less than $100 a year in salt and chemicals, whereas a chlorine pool typically costs between $300 and $800.
Saltwater Pool Cons: Here’s the up-front cost to get your saltwater pool converted: a saltwater generator costs between $400 and $1,800 and the installation can be $300 to $500, unless you can do it yourself. Plus, you’ll want to install a sacrificial anode on the equipment, which only an electrician should do for safety purposes. And that won’t be the only time you have to call in a professional—because the greater circulation system can be a little more complicated with the addition of the salt cell, it might be harder to fix any problem that arises without calling in an expert. A saltwater pool also costs slightly more to run in comparison to what it costs to run a chlorine pool—about $35-$50 more per year.
Less Chlorine: Mineral Systems
A mineral system sounds as natural as can be—but it actually does require a small amount of chlorine to work. But most of a pool mineral system involves silver and copper to prevent bacteria and algae from setting up shop in your pool. Silver has antibacterial properties and copper is often used as an algaecide—but get ready for some pesky metal stains.
Mineral System Pros: In addition to silver and copper, mineral systems can also include zinc for its antibacterial properties, and limestone to absorb chloric acid and maintain your water’s pH. Plus, they keep your water softer, keep chloramines or bromamines low, and reduce wear on your greater circulation system.
Mineral System Cons: A mineral system needs to be supplemented with chlorine or bromine, though you will need less. And buying two chemicals (minerals and chlorine, or minerals and bromine) will cost. Plus, you might have to deal with some serious oxidized metal stains, which aren’t always easy to remove.
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Biguanide: The Only Actual Non-Chlorine Sanitizer
So you really don’t want chlorine in your pool, huh? Then you have one option: biguanide, technically called polyhexamethylene biguanide, which was initially developed as a pre-surgery, anti-microbial scrub. Now, it has the only EPA approval as the non-chlorine, peroxide-based sanitizer for pools and spas. Fair warning: this one will take some time and money to keep maintained.
Biguanide doesn’t create chloramines, so it’s typically odorless, less irritating, and even more stable in sunlight than other chlorine-based sanitizers. As I mentioned, biguanide is the only sanitizer that can be used without the help of chlorine or bromine. If you have a serious chlorine allergy, biguanide is the way to go. Plus, biguanides are often combined with algaecides, which can be especially helpful if you have a recurring algae problem. Two problems, one chemical.
Biguanide has quite a few cons. First, its sanitizing effects might diminish over time. It also is likely to cloud up your water, which is always an indication that your sanitizer isn’t working properly. Plus, biguanide alone won’t do anything to get rid of organic contaminants, such as swimmer sweat and sunscreen residue. In addition to using biguanide, you’ll also need to use an oxidizer specifically made for biguanide pools, which is yet another expense.
The Fine Print for Biguanide Pools
If you use biguanide, you’ll also have to make sure you have the right pool filter. Diatomaceous earth (DE) or cartridge filters aren’t typically recommended by biguanide manufacturers, so you’ll want to opt in for the classic sand filter, though it’s recommended you replace your sand media every two years. Plus, test strips for biguanide aren’t considered accurate, so it might be tough to figure out your water’s chemical levels.
Biguanide sanitizers are also incompatible with ozone, detergents, ionizers, and other common chemicals. Here’s one last fun one: adding chlorine to a biguanide pool will turn your water bright orange.
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Cut Out the Chlorine!
So there you have it: the stone cold truth. Cutting out chlorine entirely is a little more difficult than you might have expected, but there are many alternatives to minimizing chlorine (and by extension, those vicious little chloramines) in your pool. Whatever decision you make is completely yours—and so if your pool. Enjoy.