Saltwater pools are all the rage now, with everyone from NBC-TV to The Wall Street Journal reporting on the phenomenon. But such pools actually have been around a while.

First appearing in Australia in the 1960s, they enjoyed a steady climb in popularity — so much so that approximately 80 percent of all pools built down under now are saline. The concept didn’t hit our shores until the 1980s, but once here, the acceptance rate was high, spurred on by technological advances in the ’90s.

How does a saltwater pool work? Here is the Salt Institute’s take on it: Both saltwater pools and traditional chlorine pools use chlorine to sanitize the water. The difference is that saltwater pools use a chlorine generator to produce natural chlorine from salt by separating salt molecules into their component parts: chloride and sodium. After salt is converted to chlorine to sanitize and oxidize the water within the generator, chlorine converts back to salt when it re-enters the pool, and the process continues over and over again, conserving the salt and keeping sanitizer levels balanced.

Besides salt, pool owners also need to add stabilizer (cyanuric acid) to the water, to act as a barrier against the sun’s UV rays and thus keep chlorine in the pool longer. Because the generator doesn’t have to work harder to maintain the chlorine level, its cell life is extended.

The amount of salt in pool water is about 1/10th the level in the ocean — the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water — and most people cannot taste it. Typical salt levels for these pools range from 2,700 to 3,400 parts per million.

For owners seeking alternatives to a traditional chlorine pool, this sanitization system is a viable option. By 2007, nearly 75 percent of new pool installations in the United States were equipped with saltwater systems, according to P.K. Data Inc., a market research firm in Johns Creek, Ga. Today there are reportedly 1.35 million saltwater pools in the nation.

Some pool builders say that as many as 50 percent of their customers choose saltwater pools. If they also choose automatic covers — and many do — are the two compatible? The answer is yes, if pool owners follow some simple procedures.

A consideration

Saltwater pools are very popular in the Long Island area, says Beth Pranzo, who is in marketing at Swim King Pools, based in Rocky Point, N.Y. The company installs approximately 150 vinyl-liner pools annually, half of which are saltwater.

“People choose salt systems for the comfort factor and for ease of pool care,” Pranzo says. She explains that swimmers do not experience red eyes or skin irritation, and the water has a silky feel. Maintenance is simpler and less expensive because saltwater pools generate their own chlorine, meaning owners don’t need to buy, transport, handle and store it.

As for automatic pool covers, Pranzo says saltwater really isn’t a problem. None of the salt system customers served by Swim King Pools’ three Long Island locations report any problems. But then, the company is careful to advise pool owners on the steps they should take to avoid difficulties with saltwater pools and automatic covers.

When talk turns to saltwater pools and covers, the primary concern is corrosion. As a cover is drawn back, water typically drains off it onto components in the cover recess. When the water evaporates, a salt residue is left behind, and it may corrode the cover mechanism. Of course, manufacturers develop cover components to function in aquatic environments, but the possibility of corrosion cannot be ruled out.

Jason Hughes is well aware of the corrosion factor. The co-owner of River Pools & Spas in Warsaw, Va., says his firm has built pools with salt systems for eight years — that’s approximately 600 pools. “We are huge proponents of saltwater chlorine generators and recommend them to most customers,” he says. “However, there is no such thing as a perfect system.”

He acknowledges that there have been some issues with covers. “Primarily, it’s the track system, some hardware and pulleys, and the tube the cover rolls up on that may deteriorate,” Hughes says.

One way to head off corrosion is to rinse the cover components periodically with fresh water, using a garden hose. Interestingly, there are differing opinions on how often that should be done. Some pool professionals suggest a monthly rinse, but Hughes would do it even more often: “I say you couldn’t do it too frequently. I’d [recommend] every two weeks.” And Pranzo of Swim King Pools says rinsing the cover mechanism weekly is a good idea.

Simple steps

For some industry professionals, it’s hard to get past the corrosion factor and embrace saline pools. “Salt is extremely corrosive,” Don Schlandt says. “It’s always in contact with the pool cover [and] it affects the tracks.” In fact, the president of Advanced Pools & Spas, a Cleveland, Ga.-based builder, believes there will be corrosion on nearly any surface that comes in contact with salt.

Nevertheless, Schlandt says, “There wouldn’t be any problems if people put the right amount of salt into the pool. But if the pool is giving them problems, they tend to add more salt. [Some] people just can’t seem to regulate the correct amount of salt. …”

There are other considerations, too, notes Jeremy Edwards, partner at Edwards Pools, which specializes in vinyl-liner, fiberglass and aboveground pool installations in Logan, Ohio. “If you have an automatic cover with a salt system, you need to be aware that you must let your pool ‘gas off’ periodically,” he advises. Indeed, he says, it should be done with any pool, not just saltwater vessels.

With a salt system running continuously, it is easy for the chlorine level to get very high very fast with the cover closed, Edwards says. So check chlorine levels regularly and open the cover to let the pool dissipate the chemical gases that can build up. He’s found that owners with automatic covers tend to keep their salt systems on a very low output.

Finally — and this is a big one — owners need to stay on top of their pools’ water chemistry. “Salt systems are automatic in the sense that they will continuously add chlorine to the pool,” Edwards says. “But the system will not monitor the chemical levels, unless you have chemistry automation. You have to check your chlorine levels regularly to keep them in the correct parameters.”

Speaking to a fallacy among pool owners, he adds: “Salt systems are not a ‘set it and forget it’ piece of equipment. You must check your chlorine levels and salt levels on a regular basis.”

Pranzo of Swim King Pools agrees. “We can’t stress this enough: The chemistry in your pool is critical. We say to customers, ‘Bring water samples in regularly — every day, even — and we’ll test for free.’ ”