Get a group of pool servicepeople together in a room, and the subject of salt chlorination will come up sooner or later.
Some might tell tales of turning a profit by upselling a client on a new electrolytic chlorine generator (ECG), or share tips for keeping the chemistry of salt-chlorinated pools in balance.
Underlying all these stories is a central question: Is salt chlorination just another industry fad, or is it here for the long haul?
Through a Q&A session with salt equipment insiders, we explore the reasons why this technology looks likely to stick around — and where it seems to be headed.
Q. What are the most common misconceptions about salt chlorinatio
General Manager, Pristiva Inc.
Overland Park, Kan.
Probably the biggest one, especially with consumers, is that you can just “set it and forget it,” that you can just turn on this equipment, and not pay any further attention to it. You still have to monitor your pool, and you have to adjust water chemistry in accordance with the situation.
Another one is that you can choose an ECG based on the gallonage of the pool, and this is largely because a lot of U.S. manufacturers size them based on gallonage. But the latest information says you should size ECGs based on bather load, pool usage and environmental contributions, not gallonage, because the units are fixed output — they can only put out so much chlorine in the course of a season.
And one of the most unfortunate misconceptions among service technicians is that you can’t make money off salt-chlorinated pools. You have to understand the opportunities that exist if a customer wants to switch to salt chlorination, things like cell cleaning, deck sealing [and] even the opportunity to retrofit a non-saltwater pool into a salt pool when you’re doing some renovation.
Worldwide Product Manager, Sanitization and Chemical Automation
North Kingstown, R.I.
There are two primary misconceptions I encounter. The first is that the pool water must be drained or that something special needs to be done to it in order to use a salt system. As you know, if a consumer had been using traditional chlorine, all they need to do is add salt to the proper level and off they go. Water balance issues are the same. This misconception provides an unnecessary barrier in the mind of the consumer.
The second misconception is that salt itself is the sanitizer. This idea is perhaps the most dangerous to our industry for a number of reasons: (1) It removes a focus on the need to maintain a specified chlorine level to keep the pool water safe. (2) It gets consumers believing that salt systems are a panacea for pool sanitization, and leads to frustration and discontent when they ultimately learn they are not. (3) It conditions consumers to try, and believe in, unproven, untested and unreliable “homeopathic” pool chemistry methods, e.g., ionizers or ozone with no chlorine supplement.
Paul Parsons, Consultant
Backyard Brands Inc.
Markham, Ontario, Canada
A common complaint is that salt pool owners are often sold their systems under false pretenses. The most common misleading information is, “You don’t have to use any other chemicals.” Misinformation like this makes it a more difficult challenge for the service tech to ensure the pool is treated properly.
Other common misconceptions are that you don’t require any other chemical products with a salt chlorination system, that salt (i.e., not chlorine) is the disinfection medium, and that all traditional pool chemicals perform the same way in saltwater pools.
Q. Among service techs, what are the prevailing attitudes about salt chlorination?
One of the questions I get the most is, “Do you think salt chlorination is here to stay?” There are a couple factors that prompt that question. For one thing, if you’ve been in the industry for any length of time, you’ve seen other technologies come and go in popularity. Liquid chlorine isn’t as popular as it used to be, and we’ve seen the same thing with calcium hypochlorite. You’re always going to have a niche for those products, but people see those technologies come, hit a crescendo and hit a downward slide, and I think they’re wondering if that same thing is going to happen to saltwater pools. They also wonder if some new up-and-coming technology is going to replace salt chlorination.
But in this industry, chlorine’s king. Every time we try to find something better than chlorine, we always come back and remember how useful chlorine is. And ECGs produce chlorine right at poolside, so you avoid a lot of the hassles associated with chlorine — buying it, handling it, storing it and so on.
The salt chlorination trend really started with builders, but I’m noticing that service techs are becoming more familiar with salt systems and more comfortable addressing their needs. Years ago, the predominant sales channel for salt systems was the pool builder, but as time went by and more systems were sold, it eventually became a business necessity for the service trade to learn how to repair and maintain pools equipped with salt-generating systems.
As consumer demand for salt systems grows, creating a natural revenue source from the unit and from replacement cells, we’re seeing more service techs becoming interested in understanding how these systems work and in developing new kinds of profit opportunities around them. For instance, some techs are offering salt systems to their customers for free in exchange for extended service contracts.
Most service techs we talk to feel that salt systems are here to stay because pool owners like them, and they have to find successful ways to manage them. There are a few service companies I have found, though, that have a negative attitude toward them — and many service companies have expressed at least some degree of frustration toward them. But this is because they either don’t fully understand salt technology or they do, but still have some difficulty in treating issues with these systems successfully, and feel that they are the ones in the “hot seat” with pool owners. This usually comes up when they’ve encountered issues like scaling, staining and corrosion that they have to reverse or prevent, without feeling that they have viable tools to do this.
Q. What are some new ways in which salt chlorination technology is being used today?
Though UV and ozone aren’t stand-alone primary sanitation technologies — at least not in commercial pools — we are seeing a growing number of pools that integrate salt chlorination with ozone and UV. Those technologies do some things that complement salt technology: Ozone is constantly oxidizing, which salt chlorination is doing inside the ECG. But ozone and UV also destroy some organisms more powerfully than chlorine does — for instance, cryptosporidium and other parasites that tend to appear in commercial pools.
Also, automation [is becoming] more reliable and affordable for the average pool owner. There were so many failures early on with automation, it didn’t really catch on at first. But now the technology is so much more reliable and simplistic; it’s all menu-driven [and] you can even operate it from a smartphone. The fact that salt systems are plug-and-play just reinforces automation technology.
A lot of the innovations we’re seeing are more logistical than technological. For example, service techs have come to realize that the regular and predictable delivery of chlorine provided by an ECG helps prevent algae blooms from taking hold between service calls, saving techs time and money and helping them manage more pools with the same resources — or simply helping them have an easier time managing the current pools on their routes.
Q. What do the next few years hold for salt chlorination
When I went to the European Pool Show, I noticed that they’re very progressive technology-wise, very open to change and new ideas. There were virtually no stand-alone systems being promoted there — everybody was promoting various combinations of technology, usually salt-generated chlorine and some other sanitation system. And we’re seeing that same trend start to pick up here in the U.S. as well.
Approximately 25 percent of inground pools currently have salt chlorination systems, which means the majority of inground pool owners at least know someone who has an ECG. As consumers continue to spread word-of-mouth advertising about salt chlorination, we expect to see this trend continue to grow. We predict that, as in Australia, salt chlorination will ultimately become the dominant method for pool sanitization here in the U.S. We continue to see salt chlorination growth in all regions of the country.
We see no new technologies that will eclipse salt chlorination. However, we do see a trend to combining salt with other systems to make for a more complete and automated package. For example, the trends of coupling ECGs with systems such as ozone, UV and chemical automation are all growing. In fact, the growth rate seems only to be limited by the economy.
Not only has competition naturally driven down the price of these systems, but a precipitous drop in the cost of ruthenium (a major cost component of the electrodes used in salt systems) looks likely to drive prices down even further in coming years.
At present, we expect to see more of the same: a continued growth in salt chlorination as it gains [more] momentum and popularity, especially with pool builders. We do not see any emerging technologies that will displace salt chlorination or slow its growth. Ultraviolet, ozone and ionizers have been around a long time and have not had a significant impact, short of regional success due to the dedicated efforts of a specific pool builder.
We do, however, see an increase in product development as manufacturers [turn out] products that work specifically within the harsh environments of salt chlorinators. Only government and regulatory bodies could significantly impact its growth through bans or stringent requirements that would be difficult for most to meet.