Greater ease, affordability push more pool owners to saltwater systems


Customer Joanne Neal places some accent pieces of glass tile to get an idea what design she might like as pool contractor Mike Folsom and his employee Barry Jordan work on back-filling the 14-foot by 34-foot pool on North Magnolia in Anthony on Tuesday.

Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.

Brenda Chila got in on the saltwater swimming pool trend early.

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Customer Joanne Neal places some accent pieces of glass tile to get an idea what design she might like as pool contractor Mike Folsom and his employee Barry Jordan work on back-filling the 14-foot by 34-foot pool on North Magnolia in Anthony on Tuesday.

Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner

"I personally went on salt over 30 years ago. I had one of the original systems because I'm a state-certified pool contractor," Chila said.

Today, the assistant manager at Family Pool, Spa and Billiard in Gainesville says all her customers with in-ground pools have gone to salt. So have a lot of customers who have above-ground pools, depending on whether they have steel walls and rails that would be corroded by salt.

More pool owners are giving up the chlorine jugs, bags and tablets in favor of salt.

The reason for the change, most pool industry experts say, is the relative ease and affordability of maintaining saltwater pools.

"You're basically getting the same sanitation performance as a manual chlorine without the drawbacks," said Mike Canto, owner of Fun State Pools.

Saltwater pool owners don't run the risk of spilling corrosive chlorine in their cars or onto pool decks and swim in what feels like softened water, he said.

"It's good on your hair. It's good on your skin, and it's great on your bathing suits and helps make your maintenance a little bit easier," Canto said.

Fun State builds custom in-ground concrete pools. Canto said the company started installing saltwater systems eight years ago and stopped doing chlorine systems altogether within a year. He said the company also "converted a boatload" from chlorine to saltwater.

Canto estimates that more than 80 percent of new pools use saltwater.

Ron Kessel, owner of Crystal Kool Pool Inc., said the demise of traditional chlorine pools is well underway. No one is interested in the chemistry, he said; rather, they are attracted by the workload: Owners must add only a bag of salt, and the chemical cost is only a fraction of what its costs for a traditional pool, he said.

The typical cost for pool chemicals in a traditional pool ranges between $25 and $40 per month, most industry experts agree.

With saltwater pools, "every six weeks, dump a bag of salt in the machine," Kessel said.

The cost: less than $10 per month.

The cost to build a saltwater pool is also almost identical, he said.

A traditional swimming pool that is 14 feet by 28 feet costs about $20,000. A saltwater pool costs about $1,000 more for the additional equipment that's needed for the salt conversion.

That extra $1,000 discourages some people who already have chlorine systems from converting to saltwater, said Olaf Jordan, owner of Pool Solutions of North Florida, but for those who do, the monthly expenses are less.

Pool Solutions has converted systems for monthly maintenance customers and remodel customers, he said.

"I've never had anybody come back and take it out," he said of the saltwater conversions.

"People enjoy the water because it's soft and pleasant to be in."

Saltwater pools first were developed in Australia during the 1960s and currently account for about 80 percent of all pools there, according to the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va.

They were first introduced in the United States during the 1980s and by the mid-1990s, as the technology improved, they started to become more popular.

In 2007, saltwater pools accounted for about 75 percent of new pool installations in the United States, up from about 15 percent in 2002, according to the institute.

Now for some basic chemistry.

Although they are called saltwater pools, they work on the principle of converting salt to hypochlorous acid, which is the stuff that actually kills harmful bacteria.

Saltwater pools convert salt and water, using an electric current, into chlorine and hydrogen gas and sodium hydroxide. The sodium hydroxide and chlorine then interact to form sodium chloride and hypochlorous acid, which is the stuff that keeps pools free of bacteria. Saltwater pools may have large enough concentrations of salt for swimmers to taste it in the water.

Depending on how the salt is added to the pool, the process reaches a salt saturation point of about 3,200 parts per million (ppm), roughly the amount of salt found in a teardrop. In contrast, ocean water has a salt concentration of 35,000 ppm.

Traditional chlorine pools require chlorine tablets, which already include chlorinating agents that react with water to form hyperchlorous acid. In those cases, no salt is added by the pool owner.

There are more than 1 million private swimming pools in Florida, according to the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, a trade organization. That's one pool for almost every 19 people in the state.

About 10,400 swimming pools were built in the state last year, according to the same organization.

For Alvara Mendoza, president of the United Pool & Spa Association, a trade group in Florida, the decision about whether to select a saltwater pool comes down to simplicity.

Saltwater pools add a steadier supply of chemicals into the water than do traditional chlorine pools, he said.

Traditional pools have a higher chlorine level when new chlorine tabs are added, and after the tablets shrink, the chlorine levels fall, Mendoza said.

Salt is also fairly pH neutral, assuring that the chlorine is effective in pool water, he said.

But saltwater pools have their shortcomings, he said. For example, it takes more time for chlorine levels to build up to fight off algae, he said. In contrast, traditional chlorine pools allow the user to add chlorine directly into the pool and more quickly increase those levels.

"But the problem with saltwater systems is really that they're oversold," Mendoza said.

People are told they only have to throw a bag of salt in the pool and be done with it, he said. In fact, owners still have to check acidity levels, ensure there's enough salt in the system and check other chemical factors of the water.

"It's a lot more bullet-proof (than traditional pools) … but many saltwater pool owners never check … any of the levels," Mendoza said.

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