Bill Peck has been adding
cyanuric acid to pools for decades; but in the past few years
he’s noticed a change.
“It’s just not as potent,” says the owner of
Peck Pool Services in San Diego. “[Sometimes] I’m only
getting 50 to 65 percent of the increase I expected.”
Peck is far from alone. Among service technicians, stories of
cut-strength cyanuric acid have gradually been spreading at trade
shows and other industry meetings. The reports seem to have started
about two years ago, when American companies began outsourcing the
manufacture of cyanuric acid to Asian countries — China in
particular. And that nation’s manufacturing methods is where
many techs and retailers place the blame.
Meanwhile, chemists in the industry have found that first-hand
experiences with these cheap conditioners are hard to come by, and
actual samples are even rarer. In fact, the cut-strength
acid’s existence has yet to be proven scientifically. But as
more techs share their experiences with suspicious cyanuric acid,
such testing may soon become a reality.
Here, we consider the facts of several reports regarding
underperforming cyanuric acid, and trace the issue’s roots
back as far as possible.
Living with the problem
As a technician who’s spent years servicing commercial pools
with chlorine generators, Peck was confident in his grasp of
cyanuric acid chemistry. He’d been using the same
calculations since he started in the business, and was accustomed
to his test results lining up with those numbers. All that changed,
however, when he began buying products from overseas
“The labels say anywhere from 96 to 100 percent, depending
on the brand,” Peck says, “but it’s definitely
not that strong. I’m doing the testing, I’m using the
same test kit, I test the same way consistently, and there seems to
be a substantially reduced potency. ”
As with most tests for cyanuric acid, Peck uses a turbidity test
kit, which requires a tech to judge when the cloudiness of a
titrated water sample obscures a black dot on the test container.
“It’s very subjective,” he says, “but if
you’re consistent in how you do it, you get consistent
results. And I’ve trained other people to [use that test
kit], and we get the same results. But this [imported] stuff is
just not as potent; it’s not at the level we’re
Until the last few years, cyanuric acid that was used
domestically was also manufactured in the United States. “We
never had this problem when it was domestic conditioner,”
says John Taylor, president of Tru Blu Pool Care and Supply in
Poway, Calif. “So I didn’t mind paying extra for it.
But it isn’t being manufactured here in the States anymore;
the primary manufacturer is China.”
When Taylor found out his suppliers were partnering with
overseas manufacturers, he scrambled to buy up as many 100-pound
drums of domestic cyanuric acid as he could. But as those supplies
ran low, he was forced to turn to imported acid, and that was when
he began to notice problems.
“Every year it shows up a little bit differently,”
he explains. “This year, for example, my conditioner’s
level will spike in two weeks. Go four weeks, and it’s down
to zero again.”
Taylor says he always starts with fresh water on any new
installation or remodel, and monitors the pool’s chemistry
for a month afterward. “But 30 days later,” he says,
“I’m not getting the same [cyanuric] levels I got in
the first two weeks. In some cases, I actually had zero. How could
I use all the conditioner that I registered two weeks
For some service professionals, the only strategy left is to run
through every brand of conditioner available — and
that’s just what Bob Fowler did. The owner of Fowler’s
Pool Service in Lemon Grove, Calif., turned his frustration into a
testing ground. Fowler now monitors the water chemistry of each
pool he treats with cyanuric acid, and compares brands himself.
The team at Fowler’s has tested the gamut of imported
products, from the cheapest bulk powder to the higher-end names.
“We’re starting to see one that seems to be doing the
job,” he says, “so we’re doing more experiments
with that. But at this point, we haven’t found anyone
who’s consistently 100 percent.”
Still, Fowler points out, the difficulty of tracing these
products back to their manufacturers means it may take time to
settle on a dependable brand. “We buy from American
repackagers,” he says, “but we don’t know what
their sources are. We have no idea where this stuff comes
Some chemical manufacturers hold a different view of the problem.
Jack Beane, owner of Jack’s Magic Products in Largo, Fla.,
finds it hard to believe that American importers would have any
resell a cut-strength conditioner.
“It’s a low-end commodity,” he says.
“It’s not a high-end specialty product, where it would
serve any purpose for anybody to cut it. [Importers] are probably
getting a certificate of analysis with it, and those are done by
chemists, who put their reputation on the line when they sign off
And, Beane notes, another source of confusion may lie even
closer to home.
“When you’re doing a turbidity test for cyanuric
acid,” he says, “water temperature vastly changes the
answer, because it will make the water appear more turbid more
rapidly. Also, a lot of people don’t wait the prescribed two
minutes before they read the test; you need to allow the melamine
to react for a full two minutes. And if they’re near 100 ppm
on their reading, they’ve got to do a dilution with distilled
water and re-run the test.”
In addition, Beane explains, high levels of cyanuric acid in a
sample often mask the correct chlorine reading, because some of the
conditioner has had time to combine with the water’s free
chlorine. “If you think of it in terms of free and total
cyanuric acid,” he says, “to get the total,
you’ve got to eliminate the species that’s combined
While Beane acknowledges that contaminated cyanuric acid has
made its way into the country in previous years, he emphasizes that
importers have always tracked down the source of the problem, and
issued refunds or replacements. Thus, he highly doubts that any
major importer would deliberately cut their products, or even allow
contaminated conditioners to pass through their doors at all.
Touraj Rowhani, a senior research chemist at Arch Chemicals in
New Castle, Del., agrees with Beane’s assessment.
“Cyanuric acid doesn’t go anywhere,” Rowhani
says, “because once you add it, the level either increases or
stays the same; it’s very stable in water. It may go down 10
ppm on the test, but it doesn’t sink to zero. The only way to
get rid of it is to drain the pool or precipitate it out with the
As far as the problem’s source, Rowhani’s assessment
is candid: “This sounds like a testing issue they’re
having,” he says.
As the cyanuric acid question continues to draw attention,
it’s becoming clear that any resolution will depend on
documentation and communication.
Documentation may be the easier piece to fit in, because U.S.
law already requires extensive analysis and safety paperwork for
hundreds of chemicals. Thus, Beane says, rather than point fingers
at manufacturers and importers, techs should insist on proper
credentials, including a certificate of analysis, for every barrel
of cyanuric acid they buy. If a repackager can’t — or
won’t — provide the document, they may be worthy of
Another possibility is for techs and retailers to collaborate
with chemical labs by sending their samples in for independent
testing. But that collaboration will depend on both sides taking
some initiative. Peck, for one, has tried for several years to
convince distributors to commit to testing his samples, but has
received little positive response. Still, if service professionals
like him and Taylor are able to network with scientists, the
industry may soon learn the truth about the source and nature of
suspicious cyanuric acid.
Until that truth becomes clearer, Fowler says, techs have no
choice but to keep experimenting with the products available.
“You may just have to keep switching until you find one you
like,” he says. “The key is to test regularly, and keep
changing products until you find one that you have some confidence