From Chlorine to Saltwater: How to Convert Your Pool
Saltwater pools have become extremely popular in recent years, and for good reason. After all, many people simply can’t stand the constant chemical maintenance and skin irritation that comes along with traditional chlorine pools. Once they get wind that there might be something better, it’s easy to see why they develop a fast interest. The #1 question? Is it actually possible to convert a chlorine pool into a saltwater pool? Unfortunately, answering this query is not as simple as you might think. At the same time, many people asking about saltwater conversions have some pretty big misconceptions about what a saltwater pool is and how they work. Just in case you're one of them, I want to start my answer with a little bit of background.
Saltwater Pools: The Basics
Yes, saltwater pools use salt rather than chemical chlorine to maintain and sanitize the water. However, there's a lot more to it than that. For instance, don't expect an "ocean effect." In fact, your saltwater pool will end up having very little in common with seawater in function, feel, and taste. Moreover, not using chemical chlorine does not mean you won't have any chlorine in your pool.
Confused? Let's look a bit deeper.
Saltwater pools utilize a special piece of technology called a salt cell. This converts the saltwater that passes through it into chlorine via an electrical reaction. And, as with chemical pools, this chlorine is then used to sanitize the pool's surface and prevent the growth of bacteria or algae. The difference is that the chlorine produced through this natural process is much higher quality than the chemical chlorine tablets and powders most pools use. For that reason, it is much less likely to have that "bleach smell" or irritate swimmers' eyes and skin. And, since you'll be making your own chlorine out of the salt already present in your pool, you won't need to purchase any tablets to keep up free chlorine levels.
Before You Make the Switch
I suggest you research the Pros and Cons associated with saltwater pools before investing the time and money in a conversion. If you do that and find you're still ready and willing to make the switch, the first thing you need to do is decide on a salt system. This means taking a number of factors into account. For instance:
The Size of Your Pool
Salt systems are designed to work with pools ranging between 10,000 gallons and 100,000 gallons. Of course, you want to make sure you get the right system for your pool size. Still, you can always use a larger unit when in doubt. In fact, if your pool is smaller than the unit you install is designed for, you can run it for less time and get more out of your salt cell before it needs replacing.
Most salt systems will range in price from $500 to around $2500. The cheaper models will boast fewer features, whereas the "Cadillac" versions will have all manner of cool bells and whistles. Common examples include self-cleaning and self-diagnostic features as well as remote / Bluetooth control and high-tech digital readouts.
Whereas chlorine pools are pretty user-friendly, saltwater models usually need the help of a specialized repairman if they end up on the fritz. This is yet another thing you have to factor into your conversion plan. And even if your salt system never has so much as a single hiccup, you'll still need to replace the salt cell every three to five years. When you do, expect to pony up anywhere from $200 to $700.
As we just mentioned, saltwater pool systems are a bit more complicated than their chlorine counterparts. This means you'll want to take some time deciding whether to approach the installation alone or to have a professional do the job. If you go the latter route, you'll be adding another $500 or so to the cost of your conversion. That said, you'll be guaranteed that the job will be done right. If you decide to go DIY, be sure to set aside three to six hours for the job and prepare yourself to handle some basic plumbing and electrical work. By "basic," I don't mean you need to be a certified electrician. However, you should also know how to change an outlet without giving yourself a nasty shock. When in doubt: call a pro!
Putting Salt into Your System
Once you have your saltwater system installed, it's time to actually add the salt to your pool. While this might seem self-explanatory to some degree, there is still some pretty complicated chemistry involved. For instance, you'll need to check your unit's manual to determine the amount of salt you need for your size pool. Generally, I'd expect to get between 400 and 1000 lbs. of the stuff. There are plenty of brands out there, many of which come from well-known brands like Chlorox and Morton's. They're usually pretty comparable in terms of cost and quality, but you should still expect to spend $80 to $300 on the salt itself. While you're shopping, be sure to pick up plenty of salt test strips so you can accurately measure your pool's salt content. Remember, you won't be starting at zero – all water is bound to have some salt in it! The goal is to get your pool’s salt content in the 3,000 to 3,500 ppm (parts per million) range. So, use your strips to figure out where your water is naturally, then add the appropriate amounts as you go. The good thing about getting the ppm right is that salt doesn't dissolve in water. So, unless you experience heavy rains or evaporation, your first batch of salt should last you a while. To add the salt, turn on your pool's pump, turn off the salt system, and then dump the bags all around the pool to ensure even distribution. Just be sure to add the salt only to the pool itself, not the skimmer or drains (as this can damage them). Next, keep your filter pump running for at least 24 hours to get the salt mixed into the water. Once you've done that, you can use a salt strip to ensure your water is in the 3,000 t0 3,500 range. If not, repeat the process until it is.
Turning on Your System
Your salt system thrives off of the quality of your pool water. This is especially true when you first turn the system on. As a reference, we recommend your pool water have a chemical makeup similar to the following: Salt: 3,000 to 3,500 ppm Free Chlorine: 1-3 ppm pH: 7.4 -7.8 Alkalinity: 80-120 ppm Calcium Hardness: 150-400 ppm I suggest starting off by shocking your pool with a standard granular pool shock. This will help you "reset" the pool and make for a smoother overall transition from chlorine to salt. After shocking your pool, wait for the chlorine levels to return to 1-3 ppm as indicated, and then turn on your salt system. Next, I would set the system to around 50% chlorine production and let it run straight for approximately 24 hours. After that, you can retest the water's free chlorine ppm. If it's too high or too low, simply adjust your salt system in 10% increments (up or down) until you get the right levels.
Maintaining Your Salt System
One of the best things about saltwater pools is that they generally don't require much attention once you have them correctly dialed in. Since the system is continually producing natural, high-quality chlorine, your pool should remain free of algae and bacteria without you having to check it every day. That said, most systems will have a “super chlorinate" setting to shock your pool naturally. This will be useful if you notice that your water is starting to become hazy or if you discover any buildup in the system. Simply chlorinate, reset, and wait.
Testing the Water
Where chlorinated pools need frequent testing to be sure the water is in tip-top shape, you can get away with only periodically testing your new saltwater pool. Generally, you're looking for balanced water chemistry (similar to what's listed above) and any indicators that something in the system isn't working properly.
Getting the Most from Your Salt Cell
Salt cells will typically last anywhere between three and seven years. But you can maximize this by taking a few basic preventative steps. For instance, calcium deposits will often build up on your salt cell. You should clean these at least once a season to clear off the residue. However, don't go overboard with the cleaning, as you don't want to strip the titanium coating off the cell. That's what makes it work!
Keeping Your pH in Check
Salt cells tend to affect the pH in your pool in odd ways. Specifically, they sometimes encourage your pH levels to rise out of the desired range. When this happens, calcium is more likely to build up on your salt cell and other pool components. I suggest adding muriatic acid to reduce elevated pH or adding an acid feed pump system to your pool. It might cost a little extra, but it is well worth the reduced hassle.
The Last Word
In the end, you’re not going to have a pool that requires zero maintenance and zero cost. Though there are significant benefits to switching to a saltwater system, there are downsides as well. Either way, getting the most out of your pool will require you to learn as much as you can about what makes the system (and the environment it creates) tick. You might be surprised how many headaches you can avoid with a little bit of chemistry.