Despite popular belief, saltwater pools aren't chlorine-free.
“That’s been the No. 1 ask for a number of years now," said Alison Felschow, vice president of Crystal Pools in Columbia.
In the last 10 years, Felschow and other designers have found that saltwater pools have gained increasing popularity. Most aspiring pool owners reach out to her thinking that the saltwater option will lack any trace of chlorine.
In reality, these are basically still chlorine pools. Not only that, but pool owners will likely spend about the same amount of money treating a saltwater pool as they would a traditional chlorine pool.
“It’s just kind of funny," she said.
Felschow explained that all saltwater pools require is a special saltwater generator and a bulk supply of salt.
In fact, older, traditionally built chlorine pools can easily be converted to a saltwater pool, said Michael Greer, a Charleston-based pool designer and constructor.
To treat a saltwater pool, salt is added directly to the pool water. Felschow said the dissolved salt is then filtered through the generator and is broken down to chlorine and essentially baking soda.
By comparison, a modern, nonsaltwater pool likely will include what's called a chlorinator, where measured amounts of chlorine must be placed. That measured chlorine is then fed directly to the pool.
Saltwater pools don't require as much chemical know-how, Greer said.
"It's producing chlorine in a natural way," he said.
But Greer explained that there are differences in the water, despite the presence of chlorine in both pool types. In a saltwater pool, he said the water tends to be very soft because of the added salt and is less irritating for swimmers' eyes.
“It’s very easy on your eyes," he said.
In terms of cost, both Greer and Felschow agreed that a customer is likely to spend more money upfront buying a saltwater generator. Felshow said the cost of a saltwater generator usually ranges from $1,000 to $2,000.
Traditional chlorinator can be purchased online for less than $100.
“Most consumers don’t care about (the cost difference)," Felschow said. “They’ve been sold on the salt when they call you.”
And Greer emphasized that the cost of buying chlorine in bulk is a little higher than the bulk pool salt. So long-term, it ends up evening out, Felschow and Greer explained.
The big attraction of saltwater pools is the maintenance, they said. Compared to other pool types, saltwater pool owners simply add salt.
This is also why both pool designers said they believe saltwater pools will only continue to grow in popularity.
“Salt took off because of the simplicity," Greer said.
There are other options when it comes to pool choice that don't include chlorine. Some pools use an ultraviolet light or an oxidizer called an "ozone" to clean the water, but they aren't able to keep a pool as clean as chlorine, Greer explained.
Non-chlorine pool owners have to make sure that bacteria is kept under control, and Greer explained that chlorine is the best-known material to do that.
That's why he doesn't see ozone pools taking off anytime soon.
Felschow said if cost isn't an issue, a pool should include a saltwater generator, a traditional chlorinator and something like the ozone system.
That way the owner has alternatives if one system isn't working.
When that hybrid system isn't possible, Felschow said saltwater will likely continue to be a popular choice because of the maintenance factor.
"People want the freedom of less daily responsibilities," she said.