With a Grain of Salt. Chlorine Pools vs Saltwater

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I want to start off by saying that I have been an advocate of saltwater pools my whole life. And the product has been a profitable one for my business. But I’m starting to wonder where the fizz went as I run into more and more skeptical customers.

Ever since I was a kid hanging out at the Jersey Shore, I became aware of what happens to the human body and metals when they come in contact with saltwater. My back would dry out and tingle for hours, my sneaker eyelets would start to rust; I didn’t need a book or a chemistry lesson to tell me the benefits and disadvantages of salt, I could see them and feel them. But since moving to the West Coast last year, I’m noticing a shift in perception. What was once the new and innovative way to save your clients money and cut back on production of chemicals now seems to have lost its luster, pushed aside by newer and more innovative sanitation and oxidation methods that are less abrasive and easier to use. What once seemed poised to become the standard of the industry now seems to have acquired some negative connotations. It seems like every time I bring it up to clients in SoCal, it’s like I’ve said a dirty word. “Oh, no. My son told me about salt and how by next year I’m going to need all new parts for the heater. It isn’t worth it.” When did salt become a bad word?

Return on Investment

Like most products, the salt discussion has always been about return on investment. You’re paying for the cell and the salt upfront, and you want the thing to end up making you a little bit of money on your chlorine bill. Which depends to some extent on geography. Years ago, when salt chlorine generators were more expensive, I figured they only made sense in the extended pool seasons of the South. When you are using chemicals for 12 months out of the year as opposed to only four or five months, the saltwater pool makes sense.

In Florida, that initial investment your client makes will only take a few short years to pay for itself. But in the fleeting summers of the Northlands, that same ROI may take up to 10 years. Why even bother? As time went on, more manufacturers got into the game. The costs for salt systems dropped and salt began to make more sense at higher latitudes, finally reaching mine in New Jersey. I brushed up on my chlorine generation pitch and pushed, pushed, pushed those sales. It was an easy transaction, as all of my clients had heard of saltwater pools. I only had to explain to them that just because we were now adding salt, that didn’t mean we were “chlorine free.” My clients didn’t care; they lined up the moment we started selling. Little did I know I was causing myself a fair amount of grief. It quickly became apparent that the industry had not been manufacturing their heaters, pumps and filters with the salt chlorine pools in mind. The salt corrosion problem wasn’t quite so noticeable in my area due to New Jersey’s harsh winters, which cut short the lifespans of pool equipment anyway. Most of my customers were used to the concept of equipment replacement. Later, when I moved to California, I began to see another angle — how salt systems figure in the service business model on opposite coasts.

If you’re contemplating a new pool installation or an upgrade, the saltwater pool option might be on your radar. While saltwater pools offer benefits like reduced chlorine odors, more affordable and simpler upkeep, and a gentler touch on the skin, they also come with their own set of challenges. They can be costly to install, demand more specialized knowledge, and their salty nature can lead to corrosion, particularly affecting metal components.

Each person has unique preferences when it comes to swimming. By considering all available options, you can select the pool that suits you best.

What is a Saltwater Pool? Most are familiar with traditional chlorine pools, but the saltwater pool is gaining traction. It’s similar to a regular pool but with a key distinction.

Karen Larson, co-founder at Soake Pools, explains, “A saltwater pool uses a modest amount of salt to produce chlorine through a salt chlorine generator. This eliminates the need for chlorine tabs as the chlorine is generated from the salt.”

Salt is added to the water, enhancing its silkiness and making it only about a tenth as salty as the ocean.

Pros of Saltwater Pools

  1. Reduced Chloramines: Saltwater pools create fewer chloramines, which are known for causing eye irritation and strong odors in traditional pools. This results from the minimal chlorine generation, which lessens its binding with bodily fluids.
  2. Increased Home Value: According to Scott Keller, a pool industry expert, homes with saltwater pools can see a 7%-8% increase in value. However, the actual impact depends on various factors, including the pool’s condition and buyer preferences.
  3. Less Manual Maintenance: Saltwater pools automate chlorine generation, reducing the need for manual chlorine addition and level monitoring. Some models even allow app control.
  4. Flexibility in Pool Size: Larson notes that saltwater systems are suitable for any pool size, though larger pools might need more frequent chemical balancing.

Cons of Saltwater Pools

  1. Corrosion and Scaling Issues: Regular descaling of equipment is necessary due to salt-induced corrosion and scaling, as highlighted by John Sullivan, a realtor and saltwater pool enthusiast.
  2. Electricity Dependency for Chlorine Generation: Unlike traditional pools, saltwater pools rely on electricity for chlorination, which could be an issue during power outages.
  3. Slower Microbe Elimination: Keller points out that while saltwater pools are less conducive to algae, they are slower than chlorine pools in killing bacteria and viruses.
  4. Higher Initial Costs: Upgrading to a saltwater system involves significant upfront costs, including corrosion-resistant equipment.

Considering a Saltwater Pool? Prospective saltwater pool owners should weigh the higher installation costs and potential for increased wear and tear due to salt’s corrosive nature, advises Keller. He also suggests inspecting existing saltwater pools before purchase to assess maintenance needs.

Ongoing electricity costs are another consideration, as the salt chlorine generator needs regular operation to maintain proper chlorination levels.

Despite these considerations, many find the saltwater pool experience, with its comfortable swimming conditions and minimal daily upkeep, to be worth the investment. Sullivan shares, “After setting it up, it requires little effort. The system prompts for salt addition every six months, and the water quality often receives positive feedback from guests, noting the absence of eye irritation and chlorine smell.”

This makes the saltwater pool a worthy choice for many.