Swimming Pool Chemistry 101: The Chemicals You Need and Why

There’s nothing better than heading outside on a hot day to take a dip in the pool. But, being a pool owner comes a lot of responsibility to understand how to maintain your pool to keep it safe for swimming.

That’s where knowledge of pool chemistry comes into play. From the chemicals that go into the pool to keep the water clean and prevent algae buildup to understanding how to keep your pool at the proper pH, there’s a lot that goes into water chemistry.

This guide explains the critical information you need to know to maintain your pool’s chemistry throughout the swimming season.

pH

Pool sanitizers simply won’t work correctly if your pool’s pH level is out of whack. Chlorine and other sanitizers only remain effective within a specific pH range. Too high, and they won’t be able to kill germs like they’re supposed to. Too low, and they could cause harmful reactions that damage your pool.

pH is also vital for health reasons. Eye and skin irritation are common side effects of a pool’s pH level being too high or low. Ideally, pH should stay between 7.2 and 7.8, or the close-to-neutral range.

How do you maintain the proper pH level for your pool? The best thing you can do for your pool is to get into the habit of testing its chemical and pH levels routinely (every day and before and after each use of the pool is best).

If pH levels are too high, you need to add an acid, like hydrochloric acid, to bring the number down. Low pH levels need an alkaline boost with a substance like sodium carbonate to get the water within the ideal range. You can use test strips to get a quick reading.

Alkalinity

The higher the pH level of your pool’s water, the more alkaline it is. The ideal pH range leans slightly toward being more alkaline than acidic, which keeps it comfortable on swimmers’ skin and eyes. However, too much alkalinity can cause excess calcium deposits, or scale, to form in the pool, which leads to murky, unsightly, and unsafe water. Shoot for 80 ppm to 120 ppm. If your alkalinity is below 80 ppm, consider shocking your pool (more on that below) or adding sodium bicarbonate (use our alkalinity calculator to help).

That’s why it’s crucial to not just check the pH of your water but also its total alkalinity. There are testing strips available that test only the alkalinity of the water rather than the overall pH. It’s best to use them in addition to pH testing strips.

Your pool chemicals, when properly maintained, can help control the pH level of the water. Sometimes, you’ll need the help of another substance to lower or raise the pH to the proper range. Hydrochloric acid, also known as muriatic acid, helps reduce extremely high pH levels.

Calcium Hardness

Although many people prefer to swim in what they’d describe as “soft” pool water, water that’s too soft may not have enough calcium in it. Calcium hardness is essential to maintain water cleanliness and optimal pool plumbing and component operation.

Ideally, you want your pool’s calcium hardness to stay in the range of 200 to 400 ppm. High calcium hardness can cloud your water with calcium deposits, clog your filter, and leave buildup on piping. Low calcium hardness leads to the breakdown of pool concrete, grout, plaster, and other materials used to keep your pool working and looking great for years to come.

Your pool’s pH level can affect calcium hardness, but so can the water you use to fill it. Some areas have an exceptionally high calcium content in tap or well water. No matter what water you use, it’s necessary to test calcium hardness along with pH and adjust if necessary. Calcium chloride is used to get your calcium hardness levels in your pool within range.

Pool Sanitizers

To keep your pool clean, contaminant-free, and healthy to swim in, you need to use sanitizing chemicals. Although most people have heard of using chlorine for sanitization, there are a few others that can also do the trick.

Chlorine

First, let’s talk about chlorine, the most popular type of pool sanitizer to use. Chlorine comes in tablet or granule form. Tablets tend to allow for the best distribution of chlorine in your pool, while granules are beneficial for shock treatments when you need a quick method to disperse chlorine.

Stabilized vs. Unstabilized Chlorine

There are two types of chlorine to choose from: stabilized and unstabilized. Unstabilized chlorine has no cyanuric acid (also known as chlorine stabilizer) in it to keep it from burning off in the sun. This makes it an excellent choice for indoor pools or shock treatments when you don’t need the chlorine to hang around the pool for a while.

Stabilized chlorine, on the other hand, includes cyanuric acid, which allows it to resist the rays of the sun and stay in the pool longer. The problem with cyanuric acid is that it can affect how chlorine works, making it take longer to kill bacteria and potentially causing it to be ineffective.

Chloramines

Chloramines are byproducts of chlorine mixed with bodily fluids that linger in your pool as chlorine dissipates. They don’t necessarily help clean your pool; instead, they can be harmful and irritating to you and anyone else who swims in your pool. Chloramines can cause red, painful eyes, dry, itchy skin, and even digestive problems.

In a properly managed pool, you won’t be able to smell the tell-tale pool smell from chloramines that most people think is chlorine. When you treat your pool with enough chlorine and keep it properly maintained and sanitized, you shouldn’t smell the strong odor of chloramines. Calcium hypochlorite can also help eliminate these.

Bromine

Bromine is one alternative to chlorine that’s popular for its ability to disinfect water while remaining stable at high temperatures. If you prefer warmer pool water than most, bromine can be an excellent option. It also works well in hot tubs for this reason.

Like chlorine, bromine produces byproducts called bromamines when it combines with ammonia. Bromamines will reduce the effectiveness of bromine as they multiply, so again, proper treatment is key.

Biguanide

Some pool owners choose biguanide to sanitize their pools. This substance is chlorine and bromine-free, so many consider it a safer alternative to chemicals. Biguanide attaches itself to the cell membranes of intruding pool cells and eventually kills them, causing them to get picked up by the pool filter.

It’s especially important to be diligent about cleaning your pool filter when using biguanide, as it’s notorious for creating filter clogs.

Minerals

Mineral sanitizers use naturally-occurring metals to keep pools clean. Most mineral sanitizers use silver, copper, zinc, or a mixture of the three.

While mineral sanitizers have cleanliness and comfort benefits – they’re known for making pool water feel soft – they don’t have the same power as chlorine or bromine. Therefore, a low level of supplementation may be necessary to keep your pool sanitized and buildup-free.

The Why and How Behind Shocking Your Pool

Your regular pool maintenance routine can balance its chemicals and pH, but your pool water still might need a little boost once in a while, especially after long periods of swimming. Every time you, another person, or a pet enters the pool, dead skin, hair, sweat, and other particles end up in the water.

To keep pool water as fresh as possible despite these unwanted additives, you need to “shock” it regularly. Shocking is, in its simplest form, the act of adding extra chlorine or other sanitizers to the pool to assist the sanitization process.

How do you know when your pool needs a shock? You test the chlorine levels! Find a chlorine test kit that shows you the reading for both free chlorine and total chlorine.

Total chlorine is the full amount of chlorine you have in the pool, while free chlorine is the actual amount that’s available to neutralize those other contaminants. Other chlorine molecules are already working on other pollutants. If your free chlorine is less than the total chlorine, then your water could benefit from a shock treatment to boost the chlorine’s ability to do its job.

You can also use your nose to detect when shocking might be necessary. Remember how we said that smelling chlorine is usually a sign that you don’t have enough in your pool? That applies here. If you smell a strong chlorine smell, you’re smelling chloramines, which means you need to add chlorine as a shock treatment to get rid of contaminants in the water.

Other Chemicals You Need for a Clean, Safe Pool

There are a few other chemicals besides your traditional pool sanitizers that you should consider keeping stocked to use when you need them:

Clarifier and Flocculant

When you have a cloudy pool on your hands, flocculant and clarifier can take care of the problem by acting as coagulants to bind the clumps of yuck together. Clarifier tends to take more time than flocculant to do it’s thing before you’ll see results.

Adding flocculant to your pool will generally clear up the problem within a few hours. Unfortunately, it’ll also leave the clumps at the bottom of the pool that you’ll need to vacuum before swimming, unlike clarifier, which creates clusters that the pool filter can take care of.

Algaecide

If you notice algae growing on the sides of your pool, then there’s something causing it to be there. In some cases, algaecide can help the problem, but not necessarily get rid of it. Pool algae can be different colors – green, black, or yellow – and each requires a different treatment in addition to the use of algaecide.

The best way to get rid of algae in your pool, along with cleaning it off manually, is to make sure your chlorine or other sanitizer tests at the proper level. However, adjustments take time, so you can opt for an algaecide to prevent or slow down algae growth in the meantime.

Related: How to clear a green pool

Metal Sequestrant

Some water used to fill pools may contain high levels of metals. It’s not usually a problem until it starts staining your pool, giving it an unsightly rust-colored hue. A metal sequestrant does precisely what its name suggests: sequesters, or separates, the metals from the water by attaching itself to them so they won’t stain your pool surfaces.

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Safety Tips for Handling Chemicals

Pool chemicals can be incredibly damaging to your eyes and skin if you don’t handle them properly. Some can even cause digestive or respiratory problems. The following tips can help you stay safe while treating your pool:

  • Read the instructions on chemical packaging before using it. Every package has detailed safety information about handling the product safely and what to do in case of accidental touch or ingestion. Only use chemicals that are in their original containers with readable labels.
  • Keep all pool chemicals stored safely away and out of reach from children or pets.
  • Never smoke near, or when applying, pool chemicals. Keep all chemicals away from any open flame.
  • Always wear elbow-length gloves and safety goggles when handling any pool chemical. After using chemicals, be sure to wash your hands and arms thoroughly.
  • Use appropriate tools when applicable for applying chemicals to the pool.
  • Add chemicals to water rather than adding water to the chemicals. Never mix chemicals (this includes new and old parts of the same product).
  • Never add chemicals through your pool skimmer.
  • Be diligent about cleaning up chemical spills if they happen, as they can destroy other materials and cause a safety hazard to animals and people if they’re accidentally touched or consumed.
  • Contact your local waste department to find out how to dispose of pool chemicals you no longer need. They should never get poured down a drain or end up in your trash bin.

We know that’s a lot of information to digest, but understanding how pool chemistry works can save you a lot of headaches. Keeping your pool in proper chemical ranges will lead to safer swimming water and a better lifespan for your pool and its many elements.

After reading this guide, you should have more awareness of how to maintain your pool year after year. With a pool testing kit in hand and a stock of all the chemicals and balancers you’ll need to have a safe, clean pool, you can handle the task like a pro.

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