Sand vs. DE vs. Cartridge Filters: What’s the Difference?

Your pool filter is one of the most important tools you have for cleaning and maintaining the water. Your pool filter circulates the water in the pool and catches unwanted debris and particles.

There are a couple of different options to choose from when you are deciding which type of filter to invest in. These options are sand filters, DE (diatomaceous earth) filters, and cartridge filters. Each of these options is different and has different benefits. So in this article, I have outlined information about each filter type and its pros and cons. For specific filter recommendations, head over to my guide on the best pool filters.

Sand Filter

Diagram: A) Pressure gauge, B) Air relief valve, C) Air relief tube, D) Diffuser, E) Lateral assembly

Sand filters use rough sand generally made of silica or fiberglass to filter out debris in the poolwater. The sand used in pool filters is specifically designed to be sharper and more rigid, which helps to catch more particles. Water is pumped from the pool into the filter, and over time the sand will collect lots of debris, algae, and other contaminants.

The sand only needs to be replaced every 5 to 7 years (you can read my guide on how to change your pool filter sand), but you will need to clean out the filter every 1 to 4 weeks. Sand filters are the most common filter used in residential swimming pools. This is due to their easy maintenance and inexpensive setup.

Pros of Using a Sand Filter

  • Inexpensive to initially purchase and set up (around $300 to $1,200). Sand filters are probably the cheapest pool filter option.
  • The sand does not need to be replaced often. You can keep the same sand for 5 to 7 years.
  • Very low maintenance and super easy to clean. A sand filter requires very little upkeep. You will need to clean it every week or so, but the backwashing process is simple to carry out.

Cons of Using a Sand Filter

  • You will have to clean and backwash the filter every 1 to 4 weeks which uses a lot of water and can be expensive and wasteful. If you are looking for an option that requires less manual cleaning, look at cartridge filters.
  • Sand filters can only filter particles that are 20 to 40 microns. Diatomaceous earth and cartridge filters can filter much smaller particles. Because of this, sand filters are considered the least efficient filtration option.
  • The filter builds up pressure over time which decreases its effectiveness.

DE Filter

Diagram: A) Upper manifold, B) Standpipe, C) Bulkheads, D) Pressure gauge, E) Air relief valve, F) Air relief tube, G) Grids

A DE filter is a powder-like substance, which is much smaller than sand. DE or diatomaceous earth is made up of tiny fossils crushed into a fine powder. These particles can be poured directly into your skimmer, and then they will collect on the filter grid. DE (diatomaceous earth) is such a fine substance that it can stop even tiny substances from reentering the pool.

While sand will filter out 20 to 40 micron particles, DE can filter out 5 to 10 micron sized particles. This means much cleaner water and less debris floating around. However, DE filters are pretty expensive, and they require a backwash and cleaning every 1 to 2 months.

Pros of Using a DE Filter

  • This is the most efficient filter option as it can filter out particles as small as 5 microns. For reference, that is smaller than a red blood cell!
  • It is very easy to add more DE powder because it can be added directly through the pool skimmer.
  • Great for larger pools and commercial pools, but it can be used in any sized pool.
  • You do not need to use heavy-duty chemicals when cleaning out the filter.

Cons of Using a DE Filter

  • This is the most expensive pool filter option to initially set up, and it is also the most costly to maintain.
  • You must clean and replace the DE every 1 to 2 months, which can be tiring work.
  • The fine powder can harm your lungs if inhaled. So always make sure to wear a safety respirator when replacing the DE.
  • The filter grids require replacing every 2 to 3 years because they will deteriorate.

Cartridge Filters

Diagram: A) Pressure gauge, B) Dirt and debris gets trapped here as water passes through, C) Bulkheads, D) Air relief valve, E) Air relief tube, F) Cartridges, G) Lower manifold

Cartridge filters are an excellent option for better filtration than sand but are more affordable than DE. Cartridge filters use synthetic polyester screens as a filter medium. Pool water is pumped through and particles get stuck to the filter medium. They do not require backwashing to be cleaned. You will need to remove the cartridge and spray off the algae and debris with a garden hose. I also have entire guides on how to clean a pool filter cartridge and replacing your cartridge filter if you’re interested.

Pros of Using a Cartridge Filter

  • A great low-cost option for small to medium-sized pools. Many pool owners use these for hot tubs and spas.
  • Cartridge filters will clear out smaller particles than sand filters at about 10 to 15 microns.
  • Does not have much of an effect on the chemical levels.
  • This is the only filter option that does not require backwashing, so you will save money on water.
  • It is a reasonably cheap option considering the efficiency.

Cons of Using a Cartridge Filter

  • Cartridges need to be changed every 2 to 3 years which can be expensive.
  • The filter needs to be taken apart and deep cleaned a couple of times a year. This involves spraying it with water and possibly using muriatic acid to kill microbes living in the filter.
  • Cartridges are also not reasonable for larger commercial pools.
  • Fairly high initial cost set up.

Sand vs. DE vs. Cartridge Filter Comparison Chart

Sand filter DE filter Cartridge filter
Filter media Sand, fiberglass, or silica Diatomaceous earth Synthetic polyester screens
Filter efficiency 20-40 microns, lowest efficiency 5-10 microns, highest efficiency 10-15 microns, medium efficiency
Filter media lifespan Sand needs replacing every 5-7 years DE needs to be replaced after every backwash, so every 1-2 months The cartridge needs to be replaced every 2-3 years
Initial cost $250-$1000 plus labor cost if needed $550-$1800 plus labor cost if needed $250-$1600 plus labor if needed
Ongoing cost New bag of filter sand costs $25-$100 New bag of diatomaceous earth costs

$170 for a 50 lbs bag.

Replacement cost N/A New filter grids cost about $100 New filter cartridges cost about $200 for a 4 pack
Water usage Up to 7000L per year if you backwash every week for the entire season Up to 4000L per year Does not require backwashing, so there is minimal water usage
Durability Will generally last 15-25 years if maintained well. Filter grids will last around 7-10 years.

The entire piece of equipment will last 10-20 years

Can last up to 25 years.
Time spent cleaning Requires about 30 min-1 hour of cleaning every 1-4 weeks. About 45min-1hour every 1-2 months Requires about 1 hour  of cleaning 2-3 times per year

Ultimately, How Do You Choose?

With so many pros and cons, it can be overwhelming to decide the type of pool filter that works best for you. In the end, it comes down to taking a look at your pool and considering a few factors.

  • The amount of money you are willing to invest
  • The size and deepness of your pool
  • How much time you can spend cleaning and maintaining the filter.

On that last point, I wrote some individual articles for each pool filter type on troubleshooting and maintenance which you can read here:

Weigh these details and talk to a pool expert if necessary. It is an important decision that can save you time and money. At the end of the day, all 3 options can keep your pool clear and sparkling throughout the summer season.

Let me know if you have any further questions, as I am happy to help!

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