How Do Salt Pools Compare to Traditionally Chlorinated Pools?

  “But I don’t have a chlorine pool!  I have a saltwater pool!”.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this over my years in the swimming pool industry. Did you know that a salt pool is still  a chlorine pool? Let’s talk about the differences between a salt pool and a pool that is treated by a traditionally chlorinated method.  

How do Salt Systems Work?

One cannot just dump a bunch of salt into a pool and expect it to sanitize.  First, you will need a professional to install a salt system.  A salt system consists of plumbing additional equipment into your return line.  A return line is where the water goes after it is pumped out of the pool.  It makes several “stops” along the way before going back into your vessel.  It goes through a filter for sure and possibly a heater.  When you convert to a salt pool, it also goes through your salt system.  A salt system contains 2 components: A board (the brain) and a salt cell (where the magic happens).  Salt systems come in many brands.  

Depending on the brand, you will need to establish the proper parts per million (ppm) of salt in the water.  This is done by adding bags of pool salt.  An average 40 pound bag of pool salt will raise every 10,000 gallons of water by approximately  480 ppm.  Typical salt systems require somewhere in the mid 3,000ppm. (Consult your owner’s manual for exact desired range)

As the water passes through the salt cell, the salt is converted by a process known as electrolysis to separate the salt (sodium chloride)(NaCl) in the water.  This produces…wait for it…CHLORINE!  It is in the form of sodium hypochlorite and hypochlorous acid.  These agents not only sanitize and disinfect, but oxidize. So in a nutshell, a salt pool is still a chlorine pool, you are just “making” your own instead of manually adding it.

The Benefits of a Salt Water Pool

Because a salt generator oxidizes ( breaks down contaminants and organic load) a salt water pool has less of a tendency to have chloramines aka combined chlorine. Ever smelled that “public pool” smell at home?  Those are the chloramines you are smelling. Chlorine in this state is irritating and does not disinfect or prevent algae.   Many people state that salt water pools “feel better” or “smoother” on their skin.  This is in part due to the lack of chloramines.

You don’t have to buy traditional chlorine most of the year.  I say “most of the year” because many salt systems will not work when the water drops below a certain temperature. (Apx 58 degrees fahrenheit).  If you winterize your pool, this doesn’t affect you.  If you live in a sunbelt state, like California, you will have to manually chlorinate until the water gets warmer.  This is something a lot of people considering salt pools may not realize.

Maintaining a Saltwater Pool

A common misconception among pool owners is that salt pools are less expensive and/or less maintenance.  This is false.  Salt pools require the same amount of work and about the same amount of money when you average it out.  Depending on your region, the salt systems themselves are a couple grand or so.  Most salt cell warranties are good for 2-4 years.  When a cell needs to be replaced, it can be over $700.  If the board goes bad? Yup.  More money to spend.  And what about your heater?  If you do not have a heater with a cupro nickel heat exchanger, you run the risk of prematurely damaging the heat exchanger due to the corrosiveness of the salt. So, if considering adding a salt system to an existing pool it may be wise to upgrade your heater as well.

The chlorine that your salt system produces has a high PH.  This means you need to add either dry or liquid acid to lower the PH and alkalinity weekly to bi-weekly.  When PH/Alkalinity get too high, the water becomes what is known as “scale forming”.  This means calcium build up around the edges and spillways of your pool, in your plumbing and, you guessed it…in your salt cell.  So it is super important to keep both the calcium level and the PH within the desired range.  Excess calcium buildup can actually damage a cell.  Most salt cell manufacturers recommend cleaning your cell every 3 months.  We don’t want to over clean a cell because it damages the plates.  Salt cell cleanings can be done by a pool professional or at home with a 4 to 1 muriatic acid mixture.  They even make special salt cleaning stands, depending on the brand.

As with a traditional chlorine pool, we want to test our water often and make the necessary chemical adjustments.  We still want to brush the pool weekly.  We want to remove leaves and other debris.  Pretty much everything stays the same except the source of where the chlorine comes from.

To Salt, or Not To, Salt

Whether you are building a new pool or just thinking of adding a salt system to your existing pool we have covered some food for thought.  If adding a salt system to an existing pool and the water is older than 5 years or the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is in excess of 2,500 ppm then you would first need to drain and refill your pool.  This is because once we add the salt, it shoots that number up to an unsafe zone.  So there you have it,  Salt pools are a more natural way to sanitize your pool.  Feel better.  And are becoming more and more popular as the years go by.  If you are looking for these features and benefits then a salt pool just might be for you.  If you were considering it to save time or money, you can see how those would not be achieved.  Either way, keep your pools safe by testing, testing, testing!  See you poolside!