Saltwater Pools: What’s All the Fuss?

The debate between which is healthier, saltwater or chlorine pools, has been going on since the 80s. There are distinct disadvantages to early saltwater pools, due to the size and loudness of the filtration system. Nowadays, the pros and cons are much more balanced on each side.

The best type of pool for you will depend on which factors are most important to you, i.e. cost, sensitivities, and maintenance. For more information on these two types of pools, we have compared and contrasted each. Learn more about how each works and how it may affect you.

Not “Chemical-free”

Before we jump into the pros and cons of each type of pool, we have to clear up some marketing deception. Saltwater pool systems are often advertised as “chemical-free” experiences. This is patently false. Salt-water pools use chlorine, but how it is used makes it different from that of chlorine-based pools.

In your standard pool, when chlorine levels fall below a certain point, you get a rise in what are called chloramines. These chloramines are responsible for the irritated eyes, skin, and lungs. This is what causes the distinct smell of chlorine.

Salt-water pools use a salt-based water filtration system that constantly regulates the level of chlorine. This prevents the dips and rises associated with typical chlorine maintenance.

Let’s take a closer look at how all this works.

Salt Water Pools

The key difference in saltwater pool maintenance and chlorine pool maintenance is the catalyst ingredient: salt. Saltwater pools use salt tablets, rather than chlorine tablets. The chlorination process uses salt as the catalyst to produce chlorination.

This process is very tightly controlled and must be done under strict parameters. The pH levels must be constant, as does the salt and water ratios. Salt must be added periodically or after an influx of rain or loss of water due to splashing/runoff.

Salt won’t disappear on its own, so the frequency of maintenance will vary based on activity. This is why it is hard to definitively factor the cost of saltwater pool maintenance to standard chlorine. The chlorine tablets cost more, but you have to keep adding them, no matter what the circumstances are. Only rain or water loss can dilute the chlorination levels in a saltwater system.

Chlorine Pools

Your standard chlorine pool hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. They’re pretty straight-forward to clean, operate, and maintain. The cost of keeping it clean is very minimal: readily available chlorine tablets and skimming.

The chlorine tablets go into the water pump or in a little caddy nearby that allows a timed release of chlorine. The water must be tested regularly to find out when pH levels are low and if it’s time to add a new tablet. Chlorine pools must be under a close watch or mildew will quickly take a foothold and bacteria levels will rise.

Just like salt water pools, though, chlorine pools are affected by rainwater and spillage. Even just a little rain can drop pH levels enough to encourage bacterial growth. You can notice this visually when the water loses clarity after a day of rain. This is a balancing act, though, as too much chlorine introduced after a slight drop in pH can make the pool unbearable.

Those with chlorine sensitivities will notice even the slightest increase in concentrations.

Pros and Cons

Now that we know a bit more about how these two systems operate, let’s dive into the practical differences. When it comes to overall cost and labor, saltwater pools have a convincing argument. The initial upfront cost of a saltwater pool system is often a deterrent, though.

It is significantly cheaper to purchase a chlorine-based pool. It is also cheaper to purchase chlorine pool filters and tablets than salt systems. That is individual purchases, not overall. That’s because you’ll be using fewer saltwater tablets to maintain your pool’s pH levels.

Draws to Saltwater Pools

Remember, saltwater pools still produce chlorine as the byproduct, it just has a much lower concentration. This means that people with sensitive skin, eyes, and lungs can stay in the pool longer. It also results in fewer problems with hair being stripped of its natural oils.

Saltwater systems are safer for dogs, it will not hurt their eyes, nose, or stomachs if ingested. The lower concentration of chlorine also increases the lifespan of swimsuits.

What saltwater will not do, however, is give you an experience akin to swimming in the ocean. There is not even a salty taste to it. The salt concentrations are much too low to experience the same level of buoyancy as the sea.

Why Chlorine Might be Better

Because the levels of chlorine are higher in standard pools, the risk of bacteria floating around is lower. It’s also faster to clean a pool that is chlorine-based, as opposed to a salt water pool. The chlorine tablets disburse chlorine much quickly, while saltwater must undergo a slower electrolysis process.

This translates to a comparison of about 1-2 days for a chlorine pool to be sanitized, compared to 3-5 days for a saltwater system. The overall cost of equipment is cheaper to replace, too, for a chlorinated pool. This is partly due to saltwater pools still being more of a niche and required specialized parts.

Investment and Maintenance Costs

If you were to build two identical pools, one saltwater, and one standard, the saltwater will cost an additional $2,000+ for setting it up. This figure scales up as the cubic feet of pool increases. A saltwater system has to work harder to maintain a proper saltwater ratio.

Chlorine pumps just need to circulate the water, not undergo electrolysis. Now, once the salt water system is up to speed, the pH levels are fairly simple to maintain. In ideal conditions, with a pool cover, no kids splashing water out, you won’t need to be constantly replenishing the salt.

On the flipside, chlorine tablets must be purchased every month, no matter how much you use the pool. This can cost you $50 a month, even with a good supplier. This can be frustrating, too, if you’re not replenishing the tablets on-schedule, as you can’t just go for a swim when you feel like it.

Accounting for Health Concerns

When comparing chlorine-based and salt-based pools, it’s important to take into account where it’s located. Is it an indoor or an outdoor pool? Indoor pools may sound ideal for all swimming pools, but that isn’t the case.

An enclosed chlorine pool can often exasperate allergic conditions for those with sensitive lungs, eyes, and skin. The indoor enclosure traps more of the chlorine smell and ammonia by-products. Those with asthma simply can’t handle indoor pools for this reason.

If you don’t already have sensitive lungs to chlorine, you can develop it over time from prolonged exposure in indoor pools. This is very important and worth considering if you have small children. Choosing a saltwater pool can make a big difference in their overall health if you want an indoor pool.

Hidden Saltwater Issues

Salt isn’t the only ingredient required to sanitize a pool, far from it. The electrolysis process that helps produce the chlorine needed to swim safely is only part of the sanitation. Saltwater pools still require “stabilizers” to maintain proper chlorine and pH levels.

This includes cyanuric acid, a stabilizer that prevents chlorine from breaking down too fast. A base level of 80ppm of cyanuric acid is recommended for saltwater pools. Muriatic acid is used to lower pH or it can be raised with soda ash.

Cleaning saltwater filters and equipment can also be a challenge, as deposits of calcium and salt build up over time. Salt water pools must be pumped through weekly to prevent algae from taking a foothold. This results in more electricity needing to run a saltwater pool, in contrast to a standard pool.

Chlorine pools need to be pumped as well, but it’s a little easier to prepare for inactivity. Just a simple increase in chlorine levels will hold until returning normal operation.

During winter freezes, saltwater cells must be removed and the pool must still be covered. There is not enough salt in the pool to affect the temperature levels required to freeze the average pool.

Final Thoughts

Salt water pools provide softer water, less overall maintenance, and reduced health risks. Not everyone is sensitive to chlorine, though, and the jump in upfront cost can be tough to consider. Finding help with equipment and services related to saltwater pools is also more difficult.

With a saltwater pool system, you have to commit to a higher standard of care. The overall cost of maintaining proper pH and chlorine levels may be lower, but the system itself needs to always be cleaned to prevent scaling and deposits.

If you’re interested in learning more about water filtration, health impacts, and finding ways to save on equipment, click here. Our blog has tons of free tips, tricks, and guides on all things water filtration.

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