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 manufacturers.

“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 expecting.”

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 ago?”

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 from.”

The chemists

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 motivation to

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 on it.”

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 with chlorine.”

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 reagent melamine.”

As far as the problem’s source, Rowhani’s assessment is candid: “This sounds like a testing issue they’re having,” he says.

Seeking solutions

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 suspicion.

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 in.”