Despite being on the market for decades, saltwater pools still seem to confound some consumers. The assumption that they are a hands-off alternative to conventional pools prevails.

It’s a misconception that rankles some retailers and service technicians who consult with customers who are confused, and sometimes, downright frustrated.

“What do you mean we have to buy pool chemicals?” they ask irately. “I thought we bought a chemical-free pool!”

“Initially, I think it was a bit of a black mark for the whole industry,” says Mark Ridpath, vice president of marketing at Capo Industries in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

But we’re turning a corner. That’s due in part to chemical manufacturers and dealers who are catering to this growing category with specialized products and designated sections in stores and catalogs.

It’s a curious development, given that the saltwater pool really isn’t that different from its traditionally treated chlorine sibling. For all intents and purposes, a saltwater pool is a chlorine pool. But those who own them are a special breed.

While it’s unknown how many residential pools are sanitized with electrolytic chlorine generators, some manufacturers’ market research suggests it’s a builder-driven trend.

“It’s a smaller percentage of the market, but … it’s still significant enough that they needed to be addressed and marketed to,” says Karen Rigsby, business support manager at BioLab, maker of BioGuard pool chemicals.

Whether fairly, or unfairly, some in the industry blame pool builders for not adequately explaining what owning a salt system entails.

“It mostly comes down to education,” says Ed Wexler. “Unfortunately, a lot of that isn’t being done until after they have a problem.”

Wexler is the vice president of sales at Pennsylvania-based N. Jonas, one of the many chemical manufacturers now developing products to combat common saltwater problems.

Some of these products claim to be a cure-all, while others are designed to prevent scaling, staining and corrosion.

Let’s take a look at some of frustrations saltwater pool owners face and how chemists are providing solutions.

Keeping it level

The first thing many service technicians will tell you about maintaining a saltwater pool is the need to keep high pH levels at bay. Chlorine derived from salt produces sodium hydroxide, also known as lye or caustic soda, which raises the level of pH considerably. Instead of operating at the sweet spot of 7.4- to 7.6 pH, you’ll commonly contend with pH levels of 7.8 or higher. That’s eye-burning territory.

Others contend with scale. “The biggest challenge we found was scale on cell plates,” Rigsby says. “It’s a high pH environment. It’s high chlorine. So you have to be sure that you’re developing products that can stand up to that.”

In response, BioGuard launched a line of salt-specific products called SaltScapes earlier this year. Among them is a scale defender that targets calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate.

“It’s very chlorine tolerant. That’s really the important thing to keep in mind with scale control products in this particular environment,” she says.

The build-up of calcium carbonate within the chlorine generator could jeopardize the appliance’s performance. That’s why it’s recommended that the cell be cleaned once a year, maybe more in hard-water regions. You could either use a generic muriatic acid solution, or something specially formulated for a saltwater pool.

There also are products that claim to extend the lifespan of a cell by removing phosphates and organic compounds and preventing the formation of scale that inhibits chlorine production.

In addition, you’ll find chlorine-free shock oxidizers on the market. Though the purpose of an electrolytic chlorine generator is to maintain a steady level of sanitizer, an occasional shock is still in order, especially after a weather event.

So, are these products really so different from other chemicals used to treat conventional pools?

Yes and no. Some are designed to tackle the rigors of a saltwater environment, while others are packaged to be sold as complementary product, just for sheer convenience.

Stabilizers, for example, will work the same whether a pool is chlorinated by hand or machine.

Just don’t tell that to saltwater pool owners. This is a breed of customer convinced they have a homeopathic watering hole.

“They don’t want to hear that it’s still just a chlorine pool,” Rigsby says. “In their minds, I think, they feel a traditional chlorine pool is much harsher and the products that you use are much harsher. They want something for their own pool.”

That’s why you’ll find some products that would work just fine in either pool, but labeled to appeal to the saltwater swimmer.

Salt section

Having language on the bottle that directly speaks to salt pool aficionados gives them confidence that they have the right product.

“There’s an education piece on our label explaining that the chlorine you’re generating is unstable and this why you need to buy this,” Rigsby says. That message might be difficult to convey on a generic bottle of stabilizer.

It’s a marketing tactic, for sure, but one that cuts through confusion. Consumers don’t want to examine the labels of countless containers to determine if the product is right for their pool.

“I have strong opinions about how some pool stores, even some of the well-known ones, present their products. It can actually be pretty difficult to shop,” says John Nunziato, a branding and packaging expert. A salt pool owner himself, Nunziato knows this frustration all too well. “When people walk into a pool store, they kind of walk around in circles, mostly because everything looks the same.”

That’s why some retailers are now devoting entire aisles to these customers, a trend that’s also reflected in catalogs which include pages showcasing salt care additives.

“Having a section specifically for salt­water pools is really a smart marketing idea,” says Nunziato, creative director/owner of Little Big Brands in White Plains, N.Y.

When Lonza introduced its Ultima line of pool care products, it came with some brand guidelines to help retailers position the product accordingly. Its saltwater products, for example, have a purple banner to differentiate them from conventional chemicals. With that, some retailers are implementing a color-coded system to help customers quickly identify compatible products.

“They know they need to shock their pool, so they go to the purple bag of shock, versus the red, white or blue,” says Kelli McBride, manager of Pettis Pools. The Hilton, N.Y., retailer will have a special saltwater section this summer. “We’re a seasonal business. In June, it’s like the Christmas shopping season, so it’s nice to have a system where they can easily find what they need instead of having to wait for help.”

With so many solutions shouting salt on their labels, one manufacturer took a different approach. API Water launched Pepper earlier this year. It’s an all-in-one powder that includes an oxygen-based shock, a pH balancer, buffer, cell cleaner, clarifier and phosphate remover. API supplies retailers with bright yellow stickers that they can slap on bags of salt. The stickers have a message reminding customers not to forget that other essential ingredient.

“Everyone knows that when you buy salt, you must buy pepper,” says David Stuart, owner of API Water in Jupiter, Fla.

Indeed, retailers are making it easier for customers to identify saltwater treatments. Conversely, shopkeepers are able to easily identify salt pool owners. Some chemical makers are equipping dealers with water analysis software which stores test results, as well as customer information, such as what sort of pool they own. That allows them to mail offers for saltwater chemicals to a relevant audience.

Just as chemists are optimizing products for salt pools, others are ensuring that what they already have on the market will be compatible. When Ken Breau, president of Canadian firm Eclipse 3, saw the growing popularity of chlorine generators, he immediately began testing to see how the Burlington, Ontario, manufacturer’s products would perform.

“We find a lot of times chlorinators are undersized and they cannot handle drastic swings in temperature,” Breau says. That could lead to algae bloom, which is why he’s marketing Eclipse 3’s granular algaecide as a complementary saltwater additive.

So, how is this segmentation of swimmers playing out? By all accounts, today’s salt pool owner is a little wiser.

“People like their salt pools, but there is an education process they need to go through,” Rigsby says, “and I don’t think they’re unwilling to learn about that, like maybe they were in the beginning.”

Salt pools attract brand heavyweight

It’s always interesting when a major household name enters the pool market. Just look at the publicity Clorox garnered when it announced last year that it was going to launch a line of pool chemicals.

Turns out, the bleach giant isn’t the only big brand playing in the water. Morton Salt entered the market early in the salt pool’s emergence.

One of the most enduring brand figures — the Morton Salt girl — is prominently featured on Morton Pool Salt bags. The product was initially distributed through a pro dealer network, but now is available direct to consumers.

Morton Salt cites a 2007 study by Johns Creek, Ga.-based market research firm P.K. Data, which estimates that saltwater pools account for nearly 75 percent of new installations, as a motivator for getting into this market.

The iconic Morton Salt girl turns 100 this year.