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The Saltwater Argument

Posted on 05 July 2013

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By Ellen Frankman

There’s nothing quite like a pleasant afternoon swim through that refreshing combination of bromoform and trichloramine in your backyard swimming pool, right?

Concerns over the negative environmental and health effects of chlorine pools have pushed many to opt for safer alternatives. Saltwater pools, though not devoid of chlorine entirely, have skyrocketed in popularity within the last few years.

“We’ve converted probably 40 swimming pools to salt this season and it’s been steadily increasing the past few years,” said Ed Laureano, part owner of Pooltastic Pool Works, a pool company which services over 600 customers all across the East End of Long Island.

The conversion works by the installation of a salt generator system that produces a current of electricity to turn what is essentially table salt into a purer form of chlorine. It typically costs between $2,500 and $3,000 and requires about the same amount of maintenance as a traditional chlorine pool.

“I have had a salt system in my pool for seven years and I’ve basically used chlorine only two or three times,” said Laureano. Unlike traditional chlorine pools, saltwater pools very rarely need extreme dosages of chlorine in order to “shock” the pool back into balance.

For those concerned about corrosion, many pool companies find it is less of an issue than most believe. A saltwater pool’s salt content is only around 3,000 parts per million, a far cry from seawater which has an estimated salt content of 35,000 parts per million.

“You might find that your heater lasts 12 years instead of 13 because of mild corrosion,” said Mike Silvestri, co-owner of Casual Water Service. According to Silvestri, nearly a quarter of the company’s more than 450 customers now use the saltwater alternative, and eight conversions have been done this season.

But saltwater isn’t a perfect solution, and it may be more important to curb chlorine usage than many people realize. In water, chlorine reacts with sweat and urine to produce potentially harmful chemical byproducts. These disinfection byproducts most readily form in traditional chlorine pools, and exposure may lead to respiratory problems and even cancer.

A 2010 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives evaluated the substances in the blood, urine, and breaths of 50 healthy adults after they swam laps for 40 minutes. Researchers found that the individuals exhibited markers for higher risks of asthma and a rise in markers of DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Researchers also believe that chlorine and chlorine byproducts may be especially harmful to babies and young children.

Despite increasing research, pool owners on the East End typically don’t cite cancer and asthma as their top reasons for converting to saltwater. The population is focused primarily on the environmental impact of a chlorine pool, which can be particularly harmful to the surrounding landscape when waste water is drained for the season.

“Environmental issues seem to be high on the list of why people choose to switch over,” said Laurauno, who explained that customers also like the idea of reducing chemical costs along with chemical usage. Unlike conventional chlorine, which must be repeatedly added, a saltwater system recycles continuously.

And for many others, the “feel” alone is driving the uptick in conversions from chlorine to saltwater.

“For me, I grew up with an above ground chlorine pool where we constantly adding chemicals, and that’s what I was always used to,” said Stacey Reister, an avid swimmer. “Probably about five or six years ago my sister put in a saltwater pool and I absolutely loved it. My eyes didn’t burn, I didn’t smell, the bathing suits and towels didn’t fade as fast, and my lungs didn’t hurt.”

Reister converted her own pool to saltwater three years ago, and now feels that both she and her two children are safer swimming in a pool with fewer chemicals.

But not all pool companies are on board with the saltwater systems.

“The saltwater pool phenomenon is one of the most client driven products I have seen in my 35 years in the swimming pool industry,” said Ian Fyffe, owner of Sparkling Pools & Harbor Hot Tubs in Sag Harbor. Fyffe says his team will install a saltwater pool if customers absolutely insist, but he generally tries to dissuade them from doing so.

Fyffe feels that many of the negative aspects attributed to traditional chlorine pools should not be present if a pool is properly balanced. Furthermore, Fyffe believes that saltwater isn’t all that much better for the environment. The high content of salt in the waste water also poses a threat to local plants and animals, and even risks infiltrating the local water system.

As an alternative, Fyffe offers customers its Earth Stewardship Package, which includes an ionization product and decreased levels of chlorine for a lower price than what it costs to install salt or copper systems.

“We try to be as environmentally conscious as we can, and I think this setup does this, certainly better than salt,” said Fyffe.

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