Teaching pool chemistry to customers can be as complicated and delicate as the subject itself. The information is multilayered and interrelated in ways that can make your head spin.

In this article, professionals will share seven tips for presenting water chemistry lessons to pool owners. Your customers probably won’t become experts, but they’ll be able to figure out when something goes wrong, promptly communicate the problem to you and follow your troubleshooting directions.

1 Introduce the subject early.

Most industry professionals agree it’s inappropriate to discuss the intricacies of pool and spa chemistry during the sales process. Customers have enough on their minds deciding which models, features and materials they want to purchase.

However, you can help them establish the right attitude and expectations by broadly introducing the subject early on.

The underlying message to customers should be, “If you buy this pool or spa, you’ll have to make a commitment.” Thus, the goal is to convey the urgency of chemical balance without scaring them.

One way to put people at ease is to make sure they know that you or a partner company will be available for testing and troubleshooting.

“We explain that we have a great system for water testing and a knowledgeable staff that’s trained every year,” says Mary Greise, operations manager at Roberts Pool & Spa in Omaha, Neb.

Next, tell the customer the amount of time he or she needs to spend on water chemistry issues. There’s no need to get into too many details; just explain that it’s all a part of pool and spa ownership.

“If you give them everything up front, they won’t even want the hot tub or pool,” Greise says. “They’re going to say, ‘Forget it. I’m going to buy a boat.’”

2 Start with the basics.

You may not want to discuss it during the sales process, but you should explain the urgency of chemical balance at the time of hot tub delivery or pool start-up.

At the first lesson, focus mostly on the readings that need constant attention: sanitizer and pH. If customers manage these concepts well for the first few weeks of pool or spa ownership, everything else should stay in the right ranges.

“I want to keep the water safe and [the routines] simple to begin with,” says Steve White president of Underwater Pool Masters Inc. in West Boylston, Mass. “As customers run into challenges later, we can go further. I don’t go into panic mode about calcium hardness or total dissolved solids early on in a pool discussion.”

Explain the difference between free and total chlorine if the vessel is sanitized with the agent, White adds. He also suggests that pool professionals provide a test that differentiates the two. If a customer doesn’t know better, he or she may not add enough sanitizer, thinking the water has more free chlorine.

After a few weeks of maintaining the right sanitizer and pH levels, customers can move on to issues such as calcium hardness and total dissolved solids.

3 Convey the importance of chemistry.

“It’s taken for granted with a car that you have to put in oil, gas, air and water,” says John Schaedler, vice president of operations and facilities at retailer/builder Aqua Quip in Renton, Wash. “We liken that to a pool or spa in that there’s going to be some upkeep, but the maintenance is pretty light if you stay with it.”

In addition, tell customers exactly what they need to know to combat common pool chemistry problems. “The main thing in an outdoor pool is that nature wants to make this pool a pond,” White says. “Nature’s duty is to turn this water green, have plant life multiply in it, and become unsightly and unsafe for human beings.

“So the chemistry is essential to making an environment that is conducive to people, but caustic to the plants and bacteria that we don’t want,” White adds.

Explain how much it costs to fix neglected water. Left unbalanced, mineral-hungry water will leach calcium and copper from the surface or equipment. “I’ve noticed it costs about $100 for every 10,000 gallons of pool water just to treat a bout of algae,” says John Gold, CPO, pool care pro for the Nevada operations of Paddock Pools, Patios and Spas, aPool & Spa News Top Builder in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“If a customer buys a 50,000-gallon pool and he or she gets algae, you’re talking $500 or $600 to rectify the problem,” he adds.

Besides obvious problems such as algae, tell customers about the things that they won’t be able to see. “They don’t always understand how proper chemical balance protects their equipment from scale and staining,” Greise says. “I let them know, ‘If you don’t put this in, you could be replacing a $600 or $700 pump down the line. But it’s not going to happen overnight, and you can’t test it.’”

In addition, pool owners need to understand that clear water doesn’t always indicate proper chemistry balance. “You could have perfectly clear water, but it’s like battery acid,” White says.

4 Encourage simple routines.

For new pool and spa owners, outline a straightforward chemical and testing routine. Greise provides a customized printout for each customer. It shows what chemicals to add, the amounts and in which order.

The printout also outlines how to start up the pool. The instructions are based on the vessel’s gallonage and a water sample taken from the homeowner’s tap.

Greise advises her customers to pick one day each week to perform these tasks. “I want them to make it a habit,” she says.

To reinforce the ritual of a routine, Gold tells new pool and spa owners to test their vessels every day. It becomes part of the educational process, he says. It also helps them stay on top of water issues in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas, where the hot sun can quickly deplete the chemistry.

As an additional part of the learning curve, Schaedler encourages new customers to create a log of their test results. He wants them to record what they add to their pool water for the first few months. “People can see trends, peaks and valleys, and whether you can tie them in with anything,” he says.

“If 14 neighbors come over every Friday night, they’ll see a big change in the chemistry,” adds Schaedler, whose firm is aPool & Spa News Top Builder.

5 Use analogies as tools.

Most chemical terms intimidate or bore people. Thus, some pool professionals like to use analogies as tools to help customers better understand complex concepts.

For instance, the relationship between pH and alkalinity is one of the most difficult parts of water balance for many people to grasp. However, when the elements are compared with family members, it’s easier to understand. “I always describe total alkalinity as the big brother looking after the little sister pH,” says Connie Sue Centrella, director of the Aquatic Engineering Degree program at Keiser College and director of education for Team Horner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“They can understand pH — it’s acid or an alkaline,” she adds. “But for some reason, it’s more difficult for them to understand that total alkalinity must be adjusted because it serves as the buffer, or the watchdog, for the pH.”

The big brother-little sister analogy helps customers see that the alkalinity creates an environment for the pH to resist change.

6 Use visual aids.

People can more easily understand things they can envision. That’s why you should support the information with plenty of photos, handouts, schedules and checklists.

Start with photos showing what can happen to pools that have been neglected. These images help customers learn the difference between water that is green from algae (cloudy) vs. what has become tinted from copper leaching (clear green).

Of course, your customers should be equipped with manufacturer-supplied handouts, so they can read more about the chemistry on their own. Some companies even provide “encyclopedias” that help homeowners diagnose problems.

Hands-on demonstrations work well, too. At the CPO courses taught by Centrella, a large part of the chemistry presentation is structured around a professional test kit. The same technique can be used to help residential customers comprehend the relationship between chemicals.

“I have water samples and go through each test, from free chlorine all the way to cyanuric acid,” Centrella says. “As we test the water, I explain what [the procedure] will do and its effect on the water itself.

“By using the hands-on [approach], they’re able to physically see reactions,” she adds. “But they also see the relationship of that chemical with the other ones in the test kit.”

Centrella uses another effective demonstration to show how combined chlorine is created. With two samples of chlorinated water, she tests the first one to show the free chlorine reading. Then she sticks her hand in the second sample. When it’s tested, the reading shows no free chlorine, which was used up fighting the bacteria left by her finger.

“The chlorine in the water killed the bacteria on your hands, and now it’s all combined,” Centrella says.

7 Start a pool school.

Many pool professionals hold classes for customers. “Pool schools” give them an opportunity to learn more about water chemistry issues and resolve problems.

“Most of the people who come [to the class] have had a pool or spa for a month or more,” Greise says. “If they’ve been using the chemicals, they understand more.”

Classes also help customers realize they’re not alone in their confusion. “They start networking and begin to educate each other,” Greise says.

Some pool professionals teach the schools themselves, while others ask a representative from their chemical supplier to do it. Either way, you’ll probably see repeat students who are hoping to learn more — and buy more products.