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Saltwater Pools vs Chlorine: Which is Better?

Saltwater swimming pools have entered the conversation in a big way over the last decade. With a new emphasis on “natural” methods in outdoor features, saltwater pools bring to mind thoughts of the ocean, and a natural, chemical free place for you and your kids to swim. The reality of the situation may surprise you. You may be wondering, “Which is better? Chlorine or saltwater?”The answer will vary depending on your preferences, and it lies in understanding the true difference between the two.

The Difference Between Saltwater and Chlorine Swimming Pools

When talking about saltwater pools, it’s important not to misunderstand what a saltwater swimming pool really is. Many people enter the conversation imagining a briny, sea-like environment, completely free of “harsh chlorine”. But the truth is, saltwater pools aren’t chlorine-free in the least. And they’re not meant to be!

The difference between these saltwater and chlorine pools actually lies within how the present chlorine is produced.

In a traditional chlorine pool, the chemical is added via liquid or tablet based chlorine. It is a store bought formula that is manually added to the water by the homeowner. Once treated, the pool can easily be tested for chemical levels of chlorine. This process makes it easy to be confident that your pool contains enough chlorine to do its job, without harming swimmers.

In a saltwater pool, there is no need to manually add concentrated chlorine. This is because saltwater pools produce their own chlorine. This is done through a natural process called electrolysis.

What is electrolysis?

Electrolysis is a saltwater pool’s way of converting the salt in your water into chlorine via electricity. Homeowners add a measured amount of pool grade salt to their saltwater pool’s chlorine generator. This generator pushes the water past two electronically charged plates and converts it to chlorine.

The result is a naturally chlorinated pool with a saltiness that is nowhere near that of the ocean. In fact, saltwater pools for the backyard are about as salty as your own tears. Still, both chlorine and saltwater pools contain protective chlorine, they simply vary in chlorination methods.

Are saltwater pools better than chlorine pools?

So, if both pools really do contain chlorine, what is all the fuss about? Although both pools do contain chlorine, the difference in production leads to a notable list of pros and cons between the two. From cost to experience, the best option for you may vary based on what matters most to your family.

Saltwater Swimming Pools

Pros

  1. Cheap to Treat. One of the most notable benefits of saltwater swimming pools is that they are relatively cheap to treat. A bag of pool salt will last you most of a summer, depending on the size of your pool, and costs well under $50 in most cases. Compare this with the price of a summer’s worth of chlorine tablets or drops, and the difference becomes notable.

  2. Gentle on the body. Because the level of chlorine produced by saltwater pools is typically much lower than that of chlorine treated pools, the water itself will likely feel less harsh and less drying. Swimmers may be able to comfortably open their eyes underwater without feelings of stinging or discomfort. Some even describe the water as feeling “softer” on their skin because of the absence of chemically generated chlorine.

  3. No “chlorine smell”. If walking into a community pool gets you shuddering at the smell, saltwater pools are a great alternative. The naturally produced levels of chlorine in saltwater do not produce the same chemical-heavy smell of treated pools.

  4. Won’t fade pool toys or bathing suits. Not only is saltwater easier on the body and skin, but it is kinder to clothing and pool toys as well. High concentrations can gradually fade vibrant colors from swimsuits and floaties as time goes on. Spending time in saltwater pools does not produce the same effect.

Cons

  1. Erosion & Damage. One of the most common issues with saltwater pools is the effect that saltwater can have on the other surfaces of your pool. While it may be gentle on skin, eyes, and swim suits, it can quickly eat holes in the surface of concrete and metal. This is another reason why converting a chlorine pool to a saltwater pool can become complicated, and more expensive.

  2. Expensive installation. While salt itself may be cheap, salt alone will not create the chlorine levels needed to maintain safe swimming conditions. For that, you need a generator. And electrolysis generators do not come cheap! A specialized generator for a saltwater pool will cost thousands of dollars, and repair can be complex.

  3. Harsh on plants. Just as concrete and salt water don’t mix, families with landscaping around their pool should use caution. Water splashing from the pool onto surrounding plant life can cause damage to foliage. At high levels, it may kill the plant.

  4. Complicated repair. As mentioned, saltwater can be damaging to pool surfaces. Eroded concrete and metal will need repairing. Repairs become increasingly complicated and more costly as time goes on. Additionally, generators for saltwater pools tend to be more complicated than you may think. A broken generator will require expert help to fix. If broken, replacing the fixture could cost you thousands.

  5. Best for warm climates. Saltwater pools can only produce enough chlorine to maintain safe swimming conditions in certain weather. When the temperature dips below 60 degrees fahrenheit, a saltwater pool will no longer be able to maintain chlorine levels. This means pools in less temperate climates may be unusable during some months without the addition of a heater.

Chlorine Swimming Pools

Pros

  1. Cheaper Installation Investment. When compared to saltwater pools, sticking with the traditional treated chlorine route will save you a considerable amount of money. Even with the affordability of salt, a yearly purchase of traditional pool chemicals is unlikely to outpace the price of a saltwater generator. Additionally, most pools are already outfitted to handle traditional chlorine. If you’re renovating an existing pool, this means you’ll spend less money on salt-resistant hardscaping, and components.

  2. Won’t damage pool surfaces. Most hardscaping used in and around the pool is built with chlorine treated water in mind. Unlike salt, which can eat away at concrete, chlorine treatments are less corrosive. While fading can occur, erosion is unlikely.

  3. Effective in any weather. Chlorine treated water protects against bacteria and water borne illness 365 days a year, regardless of the weather. This means pools may be usable for more months of the year in less temperate areas of the country.

  4. Simpler to repair. Chlorine systems have been around for decades. Inevitably, they have become more and more user friendly. Some homeowners may even feel comfortable performing maintenance and repairs by themselves without the input of a pool professional. This creates less hassle, and a cheaper cost of maintenance than saltwater swimming pools.

Cons

  1. Harsh on eyes, skin, and clothing. Ever gotten out of a pool and felt like your skin was a thousand times drier than when you jumped in? Chlorine can be harsh on eyes and skin, and even hair. Frequent exposure to chemically treated pools can leave your body feeling chapped, especially when mixed with sun exposure. This same effect can impact clothing, fading your favorite swimsuit over a summer season, and leaving brightly colored pool toys or rafts looking bleached or worn.

  2. Chemical Smell. Love it or hate it, the scent of chlorine is up there with sunscreen for one of the most recognizable smells of summer. Chlorine produces something called “chloramines” which emit gas into the air. This gas contains the familiar chlorine smell. In strong concentrations, it can be irritating to the respiratory systems or mucous membranes.

  3. More expensive, more frequent treatments. While installation and other costs will almost always make saltwater pools more expensive overall, it is worth noting that yearly purchasing of chemicals needed to treat chlorine pool water is more expensive than bags of pool salt. Additionally, while saltwater pools may feel akin to a “set it and forget it” mentality, chlorine pools require comparatively frequent check ups. Regulating chemical levels in your water is necessary to prevent levels of chlorine and other chemicals from getting too high or too low.

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