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    Credit: PHOTO BY GARY DA PONTE

The job of the “pool guy” is changing rapidly. These days, it takes more than a bucket of chlorine and a scrubbing brush to maintain a pool at the standards many customers expect.

From variable-speed pumps to centralized automation controllers, the technology in today’s pools offers precise control for the customer and the serviceperson — and a range of new responsibilities to match.

Even so, devices on the cutting edge of automation are designed to keep water sanitized and algae-free with a minimum of human intervention. Many of these technologies, however, are only beginning to see wide use in the industry, leading some service veterans to dismiss them as fads or gimmicks.

But that, say proponents of these new technologies, would be a mistake. By getting educated on these products, a service technician will become aware of opportunities to make pools more energy-efficient and less chemically irritating — and it opens up new avenues of profit. Here, we explain the basics of several of these new technologies and demonstrate just how helpful they can be.

Mineral purifiers

The least expensive and most basic new sanitation devices are mineral purifiers. These devices release algaecidal ions (electrically charged atoms) from a proprietary mixture of minerals — typically copper and/or silver — into the pool’s water passively by allowing the metals to dissolve through the bars of a containment basket. Thus, these devices require no external power source to perform their work.

“It’s plumbed in just like a traditional chlorinator would be,” says George Barnett, owner of Austin Pool Builders in Austin, Texas. And like an on-site chlorinator, a mineral purifier includes a dial that allows precise adjustment of the level of ions released into the pool. This simple form of automated release makes a purifier ideal for a pool whose owner prefers “hands-off” management, and who wants to reduce the pool’s chemical usage and environmental footprint.

In fact, an even more powerful selling point is that pools using mineral purifiers can stay sanitized with an extremely low chlorine residual — often as low as 0.5 to 1.0 ppm. Systems like this also eliminate the need for phosphates, which in turn eliminates the need for phosphate removers when levels get out of hand. In short, “Customers love that because they don’t have a big chemical bill,” says Troy Becker, owner of Ojai Pool Store in Ojai, Calif.

One benefit cited by many supporters of alternative sanitation systems — mineral purifiers included — is that a lower chlorine residual is required in pools sanitized with this technology than in a pool sanitized with traditional chlorine. Though a pool using a mineral purifier will require some kind of additional sanitation — typically in the form on chlorine — the automated device will provide a baseline of disinfection power as long as it’s properly maintained. This means fewer chemical adjustments,  and thus quicker service calls and lower chemical costs, for techs who learn how to install and service these devices.

It’s this automated convenience, along with the environmental friendliness of this technology, that have made mineral purifiers a top-selling item, even for cost-conscious consumers. “I install mineral purifiers on approximately 80 percent of the pools I service,” Becker says, and that number is growing all the time.

Ionizers

Copper’s algaecidal properties have been known at least since ancient Roman times, when it was common knowledge that fountains filled with copper coins tended to develop less algae than copper-free ones. Today, we know that copper and silver ions disrupt the metabolism of algae, preventing them from digesting food, and quickly killing them. This has led to the development of a variety of more efficient ion-based chemicals and technologies, the latest of which are electric ionizers.

Ionizers supply metal ions by releasing them from a “sacrificial bar” (a copper or silver bar contained in an electrolytic cell). As electricity passes through the cell, the metal bars are slowly eroded over time as they release their ions into the water. Because these systems can run much lower chlorine residuals than traditional pools, their required stabilizer residual is correspondingly low, often under 30 ppm.

Of course, copper and silver have been common ingredients in many traditional algaecides since the industry’s early days. But copper and silver ionizers offer several benefits unavailable to customers using a traditional sanitation regimen. For one thing, mineral purifiers can be linked to an automation controller and programmed to release ions at a specified rate and time, which keeps excess metals from building up in the water while extending the life of the copper or silver cell.

Like the electrolytic chlorine generators (ECGs) in salt pools, ionizers pass electrical current through minerals to release ions. That’s where the similarities stop, however. Instead of using electricity to catalyze a chemical reaction that produces chlorine, mineral purifiers keep water sanitized by releasing algaecidal copper or silver ions directly into the pool’s water. It’s this trait, some pool professionals say, that their customers prefer because it keeps the pool sanitized without the addition of salt.

Another benefit of metal ionizers is the decreased tendency of deposits to form on pool walls and floors. “You still have to adjust your pH, but you don’t tend to get waterline problems, scale problems and so on,” Becker says. All these problems, he explains, are rooted in the same basic cause: Putting solids into the pool, where they can stick to the tiles and the plaster. In other words, when ionization is performing most of the sanitation work, there simply aren’t as many solid chemicals in the pool — and that means there’s less chance for a deposit to form.

Selling and using

Though these systems are designed to provide sanitation with a minimum of user intervention, selling them and setting them up for maximum effectiveness may take a few new tricks.

The most significant of these is likely the price point: Mineral purifiers start at approximately $1,300, while high-end ionizers can run above $5,000. That means it’s crucial to explain the long-term savings and bathing benefits to any customer who shows interest in these devices. Perhaps the most effective way to make the point is through a simple side-by-side comparison of various devices.

For example, in terms of price, ionizers are roughly equivalent to electrolytic salt chlorinators, but they also bring a few unique selling points to the table. As mentioned above, they require a very low residual of sanitizer and stabilizer, which some retailers say creates a less irritating chemical environment than salt water.

However, proponents of salt chlorination systems point out that their customers find saltwater quite comfortable. “The saltwater we’re talking about is one-tenth the salinity of ocean water, so it’s extremely gentle on skin and eyes,” says Bob Harper, general manager of Pristiva Inc. in Overland Park, Kan. “In fact, many owners of salt-chlorinated pools don’t think their pools contain any chlorine at all.”

In addition, some service veterans say it’s easier and less expensive to swap out a copper bar than to clean or swap out the plates in an ECG cell.

Salt chlorination manufacturers take a different stance on this as well. “The life span of any cell depends on how many hours it’s run every day,” Harper says, adding that a well-maintained ECG cell probably will only need to be replaced once every five to seven years. In other words, cell-related savings are relative, and are best explained in the context of a pool’s typical bather load and frequency of use.

Though each type of automation technology provides its own unique advantages, these cutting-edge developments demonstrate that when it comes to pools, fresh ideas are as crucial as fresh water. For those willing to roll with the changes, the future of the industry is shaping up to be an exciting place.