Salt Water v. Chlorine

     When you land at LAX you see a dull beige urban sprawl heavily punctuated by aqua-blue swimming pools.  Having grown up in Chicago, the sheer volume of these blue squares still amazes me.  It was only when I saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High that I realized out in L.A., middle-class homes could have a swimming pool, and you didn’t have to be rich to be Phoebe Cates in that red bikini.

     “We definitely want a pool,” is something you hear a buyer say, and of course moving in stride with the realization that we really don’t need,1-methylcclopropene, sodium benzoate, parabens, msg, or polysorbate 80 in our food, we’ve discovered salt water pools, in lieu of the chemical chlorine cocktail that’s put into our usual swim.  A salt water pool sounds not only smart, but pretty damn soothing, doesn’t it?  I mean, who wouldn’t want to come home and swim meditative laps in salt water?

      But what’s the difference, really?  Because I’d rather be certain the issue of human exocrine disposal in my pool water is resolved, anything less kills the joy.

    What kind of salt is put into a Salt Water Pool?  There are three options: Solar Salt, Mechanically Evaporated Salt, and Mined Salt.  The purer the salt the better.  What’s the difference?

      Solar Salt is made by holding sea water and allowing the sun to evaporate the water, so what you’re left with are the salt crystals.  However this is a process that leaves bacteria and brine (shrimp) and while they are killed off, their matter is in the salt, and then your generator has to work hard to solve that issue by making a lot of chlorine, which then creates high-ish levels of chlorine for the effort.

 Mechanically Evaporated Salt:

      Same process as above but it’s done with heat, which kills off more of the organic matter but the result is mineral additions; silicates, nitrates, phosphates, iron, copper, magnesium, calcium.  The pool doesn’t love this and while it’s not a contaminate the minerals do affect both the Ph Balance of the water, and the pool material.  You then get into adding chemicals (cleaners) to remove the minerals and metallics from the pool.

Mined Salt:

     This is the purest of the salts, as it comes with separating agents that remove the things you don’t want or need.  Pure salt dissolves quickly and especially if you balance your pool before adding it in.  These seems to be the best option and while it might cost a bit more, it’s available from any pool company.


      Salt water pools are more expensive up front, because you need to have a salt water generator, which produces a balanced flow of chlorine, which then stops algae buildup and prolongs the life of the pool.  The pool operates by running saltwater through an electrical system that makes chlorine naturally.  There is chlorine in a salt water pool, it’s just not artificially added.  Salt water pools are a more biodynamic approach, and allow the life of salt water and it’s natural dissipation and addition to be the element that calibrates and creates chlorine.  Kind of a lady bugs eat aphids idea, but this is the pool not the garden.  The pool owner still has to maintaint he pH levels of the water, and be sure to produce a consistent salt-to-water ratio.  The ratio is based on elements such as rain, the backwashing done to the pool and the amount of water lost due to splashing or draining of some sort.  When the salt gets diluted you have to bring it back up to the cleansing level, of chlorine producing salt amounts.

      Now, to have the generator work you need to keep it on 24/7 (some argue this point) and that does effect your electric bill.  However, the cost of the generator comes down to being less than the cost of chlorine pool chemicals as time goes on, because you don’t have to continually buy and add the chemicals.

      The cost of saltwater set up (not including the actual construction) is between 1,000 and 5,000 depending on the size.  Once your base of salt water is established you add additional salt, which can range from 20.00 – 30.00 for the whole summer.   Saltwater pools are less time consuming, because they don’t require the same amount of maintenance.

     How do you clean a salt water pool then?  You do the usual task of skimming bugs and leaves on a regular basis, and check to be sure the generator is on and working properly.  Once a year you have to drain and scrub the surface, change the filters, and check the chlorine generator, like a Smog Check for your pool, no certificate required.  Dark surfaces and lights in the pool will be slightly corroded by the salt, but your “Pool Guy” (now a paradigm in the catalogue of life’s characters, so I’ve given him quotations) can help you with the best lights and liner.


     Chlorine Pools are less expensive at the beginning, but they are harder to take care of, so let’s move back to the how and why “Pool Guy” was inducted into the hall of fame.  He’s actually kind of a chemistry major now that I’ve looked into his role.  Here’s why, and here’s what the “Pool Guy” really does.

      The PH Balance in a pool is not steady and needs a vigilant system to maintain it, and the “Pool Guy” brings a supply of necessary chemicals to keep the water safe and clean.  Each week he shows up and measures a water sample, and doctors it back to a balance.  The PH should be between 7.2 and 7.6, the alkalinity should be between 100 and 150 parts per million, and calcium should be at 200-300 parts per million.  To me “Pool Guy” always looked like a sweet ’n’ easy job, just some dude lilting through the day in a pickup truck with a sign on the side, and equipement tossed carelessly into the back.  But the “Pool Guy” is looking more complicated now.

      Every three or four weeks a chlorine pool needs to be shocked to kill excess bacteria, and you need to know precisely how much chlorine is in it to know how much shock to add.  Once added, the saliva, sweat and human output turns into chloramines.  The smell of chlorine, which can be a Proustian experience (set along side the sense-memory stinging eyes, and if you throw in a sunburn that’s childhood) and that swimming pool smell is created by chloramines.  In order to get rid of the chloramines, additional chlorine must be added, which is then diminished and added and diminished… It’s a bit of a losing battle, an addictive more, and not necessarily a money pit, but a compost of endless chemical additions.  I don’t mean to be showing my opinion here, but then again this isn’t journalism, it’s a blog, and frankly my so called “hippy” side is winning.

       All that aside here’s the WRAP-UP: Chrlorine pools are less expensive at first, but do require the long term cost of additional chemistry and the watchful eye of someone to maintain it on a much more regular basis.  Salt water pools kill chloramines faster than chlorine pools, and they are also less expensive, but the upfront and initial install is more expensive.

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