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Treat Your Water Right
Explore your options in pool and spa maintenance systems and how they keep your water crystal clear.
By Rachel Harper
Pool and spa water must be balanced and tested to stay clean and healthy. While it may not be the most delightful part of ownership, maintenance is incredibly important to keeping the time spent in your pool or hot tub enjoyable. Many different methods exist—from manual measuring and testing to high-tech automated systems. Review the options in this article to understand more about water care and which system fits your schedule and budget.
Chlorine is the most widely used and economical sanitizer. It effectively controls bacteria and viruses, which is an important part of preventative water care. Used on a regular basis, chlorine is both a sanitizer that kills algae and bacteria, and an oxidizer that removes unwanted organic matter, such as oil and sweat. Chlorine levels should be kept at 1 – 4 ppm in pools. (Though not commonly used in spas, the ideal chlorine level is 3 – 5 ppm in spas.) Chlorine also functions as a shock when used in large doses of 10 ppm; shocking or superchlorinating is necessary if there is a major drop in stabilizer levels or if you see algae growth.
To prevent chlorine from burning off in sunlight, cyanuric acid (a stabilizer) must be added to the water. Stabilized chlorine already contains cyanuric acid. It comes in granular forms (dichlor), as well as sticks or tablets (trichlor) used for floating chemical feeders or filter baskets. When using unstabilized chlorine (typically a granular form called cal-hypo), cyanuric acid must be added separately, and should be kept at 25 – 50 ppm in pools.
Contrary to popular belief, saltwater pools are not chlorine-free; they, too, use chlorine, but in a different form: Instead of adding chlorine tablets or granules, saltwater pool owners add several 50-pound bags of salt a few times a year. The water is sanitized via a chlorine generator (saltwater chlorinator) with an electrolytic cell, which produces chlorine as the salt passes over the cell. The eco-friendliness associated with saltwater pools comes from the fact that you do not have to handle or store chlorine, because it is produced automatically by the generator. Since salt is a natural conditioner, saltwater pools leave your skin feeling smoother and do not irritate swimmers’ eyes.
Because the chlorine produced in saltwater pools is unstabilized, you must add cyanuric acid to maintain a chlorine residual, unless the pool is indoors. And while you still need to check sanitizer, total alkalinity, and pH levels about once a week, the ideal chlorine level of 1 – 4 ppm is easier to maintain in saltwater pools. There is less fluctuation because chlorine is constantly being produced when the pump is on. Saltwater chlorinators also include a digital control panel so you can monitor the salt level, which should be 3,000 – 4,000 ppm.
Prices vary from $600 for a chlorinator suited for smaller pools to about $1,600 for larger pools. High-end systems with a great deal of automation can retail as high as $2,000.
If you’re looking to be chlorine-free, a number of options are available. Like chlorine, bromine and biguanide are considered primary sanitizers because they effectively sanitize pool and spa water on their own. Other options, including mineral systems and ozonators, must be used in combination with a primary sanitizer.
Bromine is the most common sanitizer for spas because it is suitable for warm, turbulent water. Though it dissipates in sunlight, spas are covered on a regular basis, meaning bromine is kept in spa water quite easily. Bromine does not create the odors often associated with traditional sanitizers, and it works over a wider pH range. Additionally, bromine does not irritate the skin and eyes, which makes it a great option for some pool owners.
A second chlorine alternative is biguanide. Biguanide-based systems are usually sold as a set (a sanitizer, shock, and clarifier) that must be used together. This is because biguanide cannot be combined with chlorine, bromine, and certain other products. When used properly, biguanide provides a soft, silky feeling to the water. It also prevents the fading of swimsuits.
Systems that release natural minerals into the water, reducing (but not eliminating) the need for a chemical sanitizer, may also be considered. Typically, mineral systems are sticks or cartridges that slide into the core of a pool’s or spa’s cartridge filter. As the water passes through, it picks up the minerals. Mineral systems can leave skin feeling softer than water containing chlorine alone.
Ozone can also reduce the need for other chemicals. Simple ozone generators have become standard equipment for hot tubs, and come built-in on many models. Though they are far less common in pools, systems are available from a few different companies, and the demand for these systems in pools may increase in the future.
Your filter system is another integral part in keeping your pool as clean and dirt-free as possible. Three types are available: sand, D.E. (diatomaceous earth), and cartridge. Both sand and D.E. filters require backwashing to keep them clean; this means that whenever the pressure gauge reads 10 psi higher than the starting pressure, you’ll have to run the water in reverse so it passes through the filter and is flushed out of the pool.
Filter cartridges offer a more eco-friendly and low-maintenance filtering system because they require no backwashing. The only maintenance they need is a periodic spray with the hose. Experts recommend rotating between two cartridges, inserting a clean one while the other is being rinsed and left to dry completely. Cartridge systems are used in most hot tubs and in many swim spas and pools. (To learn more about filters, read “Q&A with John Antretter” on page 10.)
Photo courtesy of Great American Merchandise and Events
To simplify water chemistry, and satisfy tech junkies and people on the go, digital and online systems continue to emerge.
Digital test kits.
If you’re looking to avoid color comparisons, you can use a digital test strip reader. Simply dip the strip into the water and insert it into the reader to see the levels of chlorine (or bromine). Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Electronic floating sensors.
Similar in appearance to floating chlorinators, floating pool sensors analyze the chemistry of your water and show the results (pH, chlorine levels, etc.) on an indoor display unit. When levels are out of balance, the unit advises proper amounts of chemicals to add. An additional bonus: The unit also displays the water temperature.
One app allows users to obtain chemistry results from their iPhone. Here’s how it works: After dipping the test strip in the water, take a picture of it with your iPhone; the app will then display results and recommendations right on the screen, plus keep a history of water care testing.
Water analysis aids can also be found online. Several websites allow you to input level results from your test strip—plus other info about your pool and any water care issues—to gain a detailed analysis and suggested treatment.
Photo courtesy of Hach Company/ETS Business Unit AquaChek
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