Salt water pool trend brings ongoing profits

How To Column

Bob Harper, Staff Staff, May 1, 2009

Salt water pool

Salt water pools are gaining popularity.

In 2002, only 15% of new pool installations were salt water. Today, an estimated 70% of all new pools are being built with electrolytic chlorine generators and the nation has more than 1.3 million salt water pools.

It’s not surprising, really. Swimmers love the soft, silky feel of salt water, which is gentler on eyes and skin compared with traditionally sanitized pools. Yet the growth of these pools has put some strain on pool retailers, whose sales of higher-margin chemicals have been replaced by inexpensive, low-margin commodity salt.

To better understand the salt water pool market, a group of entrepreneurs conducted more than 300 interviews with pool retailers, builders and service companies to explore all of the technical and business challenges of salt water pools.

Salt crystal shapes
Salt crystal shapes indicate purity.

The group also commissioned independent research on the quality and purity of pool salt from all major North American producers. The group used this information to create Pristiva, an advanced product line using new technology designed specifically for the needs of salt water pools to give retailers a premium, higher-margin product to sell.

We’re also sharing our research to help retailers better understand salt water pools – and profit from them. By educating your customers about the best ways to care for their salt water pools, you’ll develop trust, help them achieve better results, bring them back into your store again and again, and generate favorable word-of-mouth advertising.

All salt isn’t the same

Salt varies widely in levels and types of contaminants, as well as dissolution rates. A 20,000 gallon pool requires 530 pounds of salt at startup (to obtain 3,200 ppm), so even salt that claims 99% purity could introduce up to 5.3 pounds of contaminants. These contaminants can also slow dissolution rates, so even small levels can make a big difference.

The low-margin commodity salts currently available for salt water pools may contain solar salt, rock salt or mechanically evaporated salt. Depending on their composition, commodity pool salts can contribute to significant problems in the pool, such as shortened generator cell life, staining, scale, damage to pool finishes, chlorine demand and cloudy water.

Here’s why: Solar salt, created from the natural evaporation of ponds by wind and sun, contains organic contaminants that cause chlorine demand and cloudy water. Since an ECG has a fixed rate of chlorine output, it can have difficulty overcoming this chlorine demand. If customers come into your store complaining about low chlorine levels and/or significant turbidity right after adding salt to their pool, chances are they have used solar salt. This salt can also contain inorganic contaminants, such as metals, that can cause staining and scale formation.

Rock salt, which is actually unrefined mined salt, can contain large amounts of inorganic contaminants such as manganese, iron, nitrates, silicates, sulfates, calcium and heavy metals. These can affect water clarity, dissolution rate, stain and scale potential and other important water balance factors. Rock salt also contains dirt and other insoluble matter. For both of these reasons, rock salt should never be used in swimming pools.

Mechanically evaporated salt, often called “food grade” by the industry, is created by the forced evaporation of saturated salt brines under controlled conditions. It contains many of the same inorganic contaminants as rock salt, but at lower levels. However, what’s fine to eat in small quantities can be harmful to salt water pools in large amounts. Your customers may still see staining, scale formation and damage to pool finishes.

Our research found that salt from one mine in Amherst, Nova Scotia, was far superior to all other sources. Its crystalline structure dissolves up to four times faster than many other salts, and it was the purest of all samples tested. This is the salt we used to create our Pristiva product line, as it yields the best results in salt water pools. More than likely, your customers have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a beautiful pool. Shouldn’t they protect their investment by using the highest quality salt?

Traditional treatments don’t apply

In addition to using commodity salt, your customers may also be using other treatment products designed for traditional pools rather than salt pools.

Many pool water chemicals designed to prevent staining, scaling and corrosion break down into compounds like orthophosphates, which are nutrients for algae and contribute to scale formation. Some also contain sulfates, which cause scaling inside the chlorine generator. As a result, these products end up contributing to the very problems they were expected to solve.

As a pool retailer, you can recommend products designed specifically for salt water pools, like Pristiva. Those should withstand the harsh conditions within the chlorine generator and help protect the pool and its equipment against stains, scale, corrosion and damage to pool finishes and equipment.

Customers return regularly for testing and balancing

Salt water pools require less maintenance than traditional pools, but that doesn’t mean pool owners can just “set it and forget it.” Unfortunately, that’s a misconception many customers may have.

You have the opportunity to educate your customers about the best ways to maintain their pools. In addition to using the highest quality salt and products designed specifically for salt water pools, they should test and balance their pool water regularly.

For residential pools, Pristiva recommends weekly testing for pH and chlorine and monthly testing during the season for total alkalinity, calcium hardness, stabilizer/cyanuric acid and metals (especially if they occur naturally in the water source). In salt water pools, testing and adjusting pH is important because the electrolytic process for making chlorine drives the pH up continuously. We also recommend monthly testing of salinity levels to ensure they are maintained at the proper level.

Routine testing and balancing has another benefit – it drives customers into your store on a regular basis. And by selling a premium product line which delivers superior results and helps your customers protect their pool investment – you can regain lost margins and profit from the salt water boom.

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