Saltwater pools are attractive for their low-maintenance style. While the cost of equipment is a more substantial upfront investment, the cost of maintenance over time makes them a lot more friendly on the wallet.
Traditional chlorine pools can be dangerous with a variety of chemicals required to maintain the pool. The smell of chlorine is also pretty strong and can irritate the skin and eyes of swimmers. By comparison, a saltwater pool is much more gentle.
What is a Chlorine Generator and How Does it Work?
A chlorine generator uses sodium chloride (salt) and electrolysis to make hydrochloric acid and sodium hypochlorite. These components chlorinate the water as a means to clean and sanitize the swimming pool and prevent bacteria and algae growth in your saltwater pool.
The chlorine generator will only produce chlorine when the pools circulating system is operating. The pool owner adds a large quantity of salt to the pool water, and as the pool circulates the water through the chlorine generator, the dissolved salt is turned into available chlorine.
Although a saltwater pool has a pretty high content of salt, between 3,000 – 5,000 ppm, it is not as high as the salt content of seawater, which contains 30,000 – 38,000 ppm. While maintaining an appropriate amount of salt in pool water is still important, it is not as difficult as balancing the pH of a traditionally chlorinated pool. If you need help getting to the right salinity levels, use our pool salt calculator.
Too much salt in the water will lead to premature corrosion on the hardware. Too little salt in the water will lead to insufficient chlorine levels, which in turn, results in less sanitary swimming conditions.
Parts of a Salt-Chlorine Generator
As saltwater travels through the swimming pool’s circulation system, it enters the salt chlorine generator and passes through a salt cell. The part of the system that converts salt into chlorine is called the cell. As the saltwater travels through the cell, a low-voltage direct current is applied to flat plates made from ruthenium and iridium inside the cell. This initiates a process called electrolysis. Electrolysis allows the salt to convert to chlorine. The chlorine sanitizes the swimming pool water and eventually reverts back into salt, and the process repeats.
The Control Board
Just as it sounds, a control board controls the generator. It provides electricity to the salt chlorine generator. This allows electrolysis, or the conversion process, to take place. By connecting the system to your phone or other devices, you are able to increase or decrease the amount of chlorine in the pool. This process gives you the ability to control the amount of electricity that is sent to the cell through your device.
Maintenance Tips for Salt Chlorine Generators
One of the greatest benefits of owning a saltwater pool is that they require less maintenance than a traditional chlorine swimming pool. But there are some pitfalls to watch out for that can become very costly if not addressed. Here are some of the biggest maintenance tasks to keep your salt chlorine generator running well:
- Maintain optimal salt levels between 2,700 ppm and 3,400 ppm (3,200 ppm is ideal)
- Clean the chlorine generator unit regularly
- Monitor calcium levels
- Turn the power off to the pool filtration system during electrical storms
- Use a salt-chlorine generator with reverse polarity
Why Salt Concentration is Important
High salt levels in the pool will corrode metals prematurely. If you are installing a new pool, consider using brass instead of steel for ladder fixtures. If brass is not available, steel elements should be coated with an anti-corrosive to slow the process down. Without protection, a steel pool ladder will erode within a few years.
Low salt levels are also a concern because this is how the pool system creates chlorine. Insufficient salt levels will result in low chlorine levels. As a result, swimming conditions will be less sanitary, and swimmers may experience irritation of the skin and eyes, bacterial infections, and diarrhea. Read my article on how to test salt levels to find out where your pool stands.
Routine Maintenance and Cleaning
At the beginning of the season, pool owners should thoroughly clean all components of the pool’s filtration system. This includes the salt chlorine generator. Try to avoid too frequent cleaning as this is one of the common causes of a shortened lifespan, but do remove build-up and clean the unit at least once per season.
Why Calcium Levels are Important to a Saltwater Pool
Calcium is added to pool water to prevent the water from leaching certain substances out of pool equipment. While calcium is important in your pool water, high levels will clog the filtration system and lead to a shortened lifespan for the salt chlorine generator.
Pool Filtration Systems and Electrical Storms
Another leading cause of premature failure of pool equipment is an electrical shock from a lightning storm. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, so swimming pools are naturally prone to attracting lightning strikes. The best practice is to unplug the filtration system during inclement weather.
Salt Chlorine Generators and Polarity
Most salt chlorine generators come with an option to reverse the polarity. This is also sometimes called a “self-cleaning mode.” What this does is removes the build-up of extra calcium that can prematurely erode the electrodes on the unit.
How Long Do Salt Chlorine Generators Last?
Salt chlorine generators typically last 3-10 years. There is a lot of variation because there are a number of factors that will affect the useful life of one unit. Everything from the environment, amount of use, quality of pool water, and other conditions directly impact the lifespan. Even in favorable conditions, some units will fail.
Should You Convert to a Saltwater Pool?
Along with the lower maintenance costs, saltwater pools are typically easier on the skin and eyes than traditional chlorine pools. You also lose a lot of the strong chlorine smell and have a smaller checklist of maintenance tasks. The initial conversion does have a high upfront cost though. If you’re thinking about converting, read our saltwater pool conversion guide.
Common Problems with Salt Chlorinators
All of the benefits of saltwater pools aside, salt chlorine generators do have some problems that pool owners should be aware of. This is not to say that they are not worth the investment. Overall, the number of the typical issues are minor in comparison to the benefits of the saltwater system.
Here’s an overview of some of the most common problems. For an in-depth look at each one, read my full article on salt chlorine generator problems.
Metal anchors are prone to premature corrosion in saltwater. Coating these fixtures in an anti-corrosive material or using brass instead of steel can prolong the life of your pool equipment.
There are many different types of metals found in a pool, from steel anchors on ladders to brass and aluminum fittings on filtration components. All metals, even brass, are susceptible to saltwater corrosion. However, brass may be more durable than more common metals.
If you need to drain your pool, you might find yourself in a tight spot. Many cities or urban areas either prohibit saltwater pool drainage or have bylaws requiring pool owners to pay to have the water hauled off-site. While your locality may not prohibit saltwater pool drainage now, they may pass new legislation once your pool is in place. Be aware that your local governing body may not allow your pool water into their drainage system.
High Chlorine Levels
One of the less obvious problems is that a salt-chlorine generator can contribute to high chlorine levels, which may not be obvious to pool owners. It is necessary to test chlorine levels regularly to make sure that you are maintaining safe levels.
Hard on Vinyl Liners
Not all swimming pools have vinyl liners, but if yours does, it is important to note that a saltwater system is significantly harder on vinyl liners than a traditional chlorinated pool.
How Much Does a Salt Chlorine Generator Cost?
A salt chlorine generator costs between $500 – $1200 depending on the brand, model, and market that you are purchasing. Maintaining the pool is relatively inexpensive. The upfront cost of the salt chlorine generator and other components may be higher than a traditional chlorine pool. Still, the cost of salt as a commodity is low, so ongoing maintenance is a lower cost.
Best Salt Chlorine Generator?
There are a lot of options out there. Some of the most popular salt chlorine generator brands include Pentair, Hayward, and Solaxx, Personally, this Pentair iChlor salt chlorine generator below has done well for me.
- Easy-to-view displays enable fast checking of salt levels, cell cleanliness, sanitizer output and water flow
- Adjustment is as easy as pressing two buttons
- All performance data—production settings, hours of operation, chlorine output, cell cleaning cycles, salt
- Cell use tracking feature communicates remaining hours of cell life in real-time
- Requires 520556 Intellichlor Power Center (sold seperately)
The Bottom Line on Saltwater Chlorine Generators
A saltwater pool system has many benefits over the traditional chlorinated swimming pool. Pool owners who want to limit the use of chemicals or who need a more maintenance-free swimming pool tend to prefer a saltwater system. While they are not without their problems, like premature corrosion and expensive replacement parts, many feel that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
The cost of installing or converting a saltwater pool is pretty high upfront. The salt chlorine generator alone is $500 – $1200. Once you set the pool up, the component should have a decent lifespan and the cost of salt is comparatively low, so a saltwater pool does tend to be more cost-effective over time.
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