Living Smart: Before you dive into a saltwater pool for your home

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

As saltwater pool systems become more prevalent ó industry experts say about half of all new pool installations feature saltwater systems ó homeowners are curious about their advantages, disadvantages and, most important, how much they cost.

Whether youíre building a new pool (which averages $50,000 for a concrete, shotcrete or gunite pool) or converting a standard chlorinated pool, it will cost between $1,500 and $2,500 for the saltwater chlorination system, depending on the size of the pool.

What many homeowners donít realize is a saltwater pool still contains chlorinated water.

"You pour salt into your pool; the salt goes through the generator, which produces chlorine," says Chuck Burris, owner of Classic Pools Lubbock in Lubbock, Tex. "The cell ó or generator ó emits a charge that frees the chlorine from the salt molecule. It then reverts back to salt to be used again in the process."

That process eliminates the chlorine smell associated with chemically chlorinated pools.

What are the benefits of a salt water pool?

In addition to getting rid of the chlorine smell, salt water is gentler on your skin.

"The biggest advantage is health and maintenance," says Damian Maroney, owner of Hydotech Pools in Naples, Fla.. "Chlorine tablets contain harmful impurities, which some people react negatively to. Salt can alleviate this, as the pool owner can eliminate the use of chlorine tablets. Thereís less of a need to shock the pool (which can cause dangerous chemical conditions) and less bleaching of bathing suits from super-high chlorine levels."

Michael Steininger, owner of Everything 4 Pools & Solar in Orange City, Fla., says with a saltwater pool, his clients can save between $300 and $400 a year on chlorine.

What maintenance is required for a saltwater pool?

Kash Marzetti, owner of Marzetti Pools in Columbus, Ohio, says a 20,000-gallon pool might need 11 to 12 bags of salt after the installation of a new saltwater system.

"It costs around $6 a bag, and you wonít have to put any more salt in for two years," he says, conceding that salt might need to be added more frequently when pools are used year-round. Look for a pool salt thatís at least 99.4 percent pure and doesnít have rust inhibitor or other additives.

And while saltwater pools may require less maintenance, thereís no such thing as a maintenance-free pool. "You do need to inspect the cell once a month to see if itís scaled up," Steininger says. "If it is, youíll have to clean it in order to preserve the integrity of the cell."

To clean the cell, turn off the power, remove it from its casing and soak it in white vinegar for a few hours. Steininger says cells typically need to be replaced every five to seven years, at a cost of $400 to $650.

"The efficacy of a saltwater system in fighting bacteria relies on proper parameters of pH and alkalinity," says Dave Cox, owner of Tamarack Pools in Carlsbad, Calif. "Weekly maintenance is important." Of course, highly rated pool service companies are available to help with the regular maintenance.

Saltwater pool owners can add a muriatic acid, if necessary, to maintain the proper pH balance between 7.4 and 7.6.

Also, keep in mind that salt is a corrosive substance. When building a saltwater pool, avoid using soft stones (like limestone) as coping or decking materials, as the salt will erode the stone.