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Easy Water Care for Pools & Spas

By Debra Wood

Easy water care for pools and spas
Caring for a pool or hot tub can be intimidating. But keeping its water clean, shimmering and inviting can be a cinch.

The key is regular testing to ensure water is properly sanitized and balanced. Sanitizers such as chlorine, bromine and other chemicals keep water clean, clear and safe; balance refers to pH, alkalinity, and hardness (and properly balanced water keeps the sanitizer working effectively). When in the proper ranges, water is least likely to become cloudy, form scale or lead to surface staining and equipment problems.

You'll get some help from the pump and filter, which circulate water for clarity and to trap oils, dirt and other particles that make your pool or hot tub dirty. Cleaning your filter periodically, according to manufacturer specifications, is your first line of defense. You'll also need to brush the pool sides and bottom weekly to prevent algae growth and remove debris such as dirt and leaves; expect to spend about 15 minutes brushing, depending on the pool size and its automatic cleaning features.

But water care products are also needed. Here's what you should know:



Even if the water looks great, it may not contain enough sanitizer or be properly balanced. It needs to be tested at least once a week -- and more often after a swim party or inclement weather.

Tests should be done to measure pH, which is the balance of water acid and alkaline; chlorine or other sanitizer residual; total alkalinity; and calcium hardness. Cyanuric acid levels, mineral content, total dissolved solids and acid or base demand tests are also performed as needed.

Various testing kits are available. There are manual or electric devices, but test strips are becoming more common; simply dip the strips into water and within seconds, you can get accurate readings.

When collecting test water in a container, submerge it upside-down about a foot deep, then turn right side-up to fill it. Obtain the sample away from a return jet; you may want to test in multiple locations to discover any differing levels within the pool or hot tub. For instance, test in both the deep and shallow ends of a pool. Since maintaining enough active chlorine can be more difficult in the shallow end, this is a good area to test. For extra reassurance, take a water sample to your pool professional at the start of the season to test all these levels and give you recommendations on how to adjust your water.



Several sanitizing systems can rid your pool of bacteria and algae. Chlorine remains the most popular, but some people rely on other products because they feel smoother on skin and are less damaging to swimsuits.

Always choose an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered sanitizer and stick with the same family of products. Registered products will have an "EPA Reg. No." and an "EPA Establishment No." printed on the label -- usually on the back. Seek the advice of your pool professional or hot tub manufacturer when selecting any water chemicals. Sanitizing options include:

• Chlorine (in liquid, granular or tablet form) sanitizes, killing bacteria and algae, and oxidizes, removing unwanted organic elements, such as oils, urine, sweat and dead bacteria, from the water. Stabilizer, in solid trichlor formulations, helps prevent the sun from breaking down chlorine too quickly. Keep free available chlorine between 1-4 ppm in pools and 2-10 ppm in spas. A chlorine odor or irritated eyes indicates the water lacks enough free available chlorine. To remedy this, you'll need more chlorine, not less, in the form of shock.

• Bromine is primarily reserved for indoor pools and spas, due to its instability in sunlight. It also produces less of an odor and is more effective at high pH levels, common in spas. Maintain bromine levels between 2-10 ppm for both pools and spas.

• Biguanide, an all-liquid system, remains stable in sunlight and at higher temperatures. A hydrogen peroxide solution oxidizes water and removes organic materials.

• Mineral systems release ions into the pool to inhibit bacteria growth. Water flows through a mineral cartridge placed in the filter or inline, releasing silver and copper ions into the water. Use these products combined with a reduced level of chorine.

Costs for the different systems vary, depending on pool size and environment. A larger pool in a stormy climate, and/or with a high bather load, requires more chemicals (and therefore costs more) than a smaller pool sheltered from the elements and used only occasionally.

In addition to sanitizers, many pool professionals recommend using an algicide to kill algae if the sanitizer level drops.


Water Balance

For your sanitizing system to work properly, the water must stay balanced. Some tips:

• pH should stay between 7.2 and 7.8, with an ideal range 7.4-7.6. A low pH level indicates acidic pool water, which can begin to dissolve some pool surfaces, creating roughness and promoting algae growth. Low pH can also corrode metal parts of pool equipment, pipe fittings and pump connections, releasing sulfates that can produce brown and black stains on the pool's walls and floor. Acidic water can also eat away of some plastic parts; lower the sanitizing effectiveness of chlorine; and cause dry or itchy skin, burning eyes, and fade swimsuits.

High pH causes calcium in water to combine with carbonates in the pool, forming scaly calcifications that trap dust and dirt, and turn black over time. This causes pool water to turn cloudy or murky, as the filter loses its ability to trap dirt. And like low pH, swimmers can experience burning eyes and skin irritations, and chlorine loses its power to act on foreign particles.

• Total alkalinity level should be between 60-180 ppm to keep pH levels stable. Sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate can raise total alkalinity; muriatic acid or sodium bisulfate can lower it. Do not use muriatic acid in a hot tub, as it could damage the shell.

• Calcium levels should be between 200-400 ppm for pools and 150-250 ppm for spas. Improper levels can lead to scale or corrosion. Add fresh water to lower the calcium hardness, and calcium chloride to raise it.

• Total dissolved solids (TDS) should never exceed 1,500 ppm. TDS refers to the concentration of chemicals, bather waste and other solids that can accumulate in the water. If too high, it can interfere with the sanitizer's ability to control bacteria; diluting water will reduce this level.


Is Your Water Balanced?

Because a hot tub holds a smaller volume of water, there can be a higher concentration of contaminants, making the balancing act trickier. So when doing hot tub and spa water maintenance, add small amounts of chemicals at a time, let them circulate and then recheck the water. Hot tub pH rises above the ideal level more easily, causing decreased sanitizer effectiveness. High levels of total dissolved solids may also develop.

If the chemicals fall out of balance, you can always drain the water and start anew.

7.4 - 7.6
7.4 - 7.6
Free Available Chlorine
1 - 4 ppm
2 - 10 ppm
Total Alkalinity (when using unstabilized chlorine)
80 - 100 ppm
80 - 120 ppm
Total Alkalinity (when using stabilized chlorine, chlorine gas or bromine as your sanitizer)
100 - 120 ppm
80 - 120 ppm
Calcium Hardness
200 - 400 ppm
150 - 250 ppm
Total Dissolved Solids
Should never exceed 1,500 ppm
Should never exceed 1,500 ppm
2 - 10 ppm
2 - 10 ppm
Cyanuric Acid
25 - 50 ppm

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