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Salt Water Pool Woes

September 17, 2009

Here in New Orleans we like to romanticize our climate by calling it sultry. In reality, it means it is always humid, usually rainy, and when it isn’t raining the sun is so hot it bakes paint off of our houses. As you can imagine, it is difficult to find outdoor furniture that can stand up to these rigors. Wrought iron rusts eventually. (I don’t care how well it is protected against it). Most wood rots. Even teak turns silver very quickly and most of my customers don’t like that change. Loom wicker has to be repainted as often as real wicker. Even all-weather wicker will dry rot and fade if not heavily UV inhibited. Because of this, our “go to” product has always been aluminum. For the more traditionally minded that means cast aluminum. For everyone else it usually means extruded.

In addition to our unforgiving weather environment, many of our customers have a pool they are going to put their furniture around. So, one of the first questions we ask a prospective buyer is whether they have a pool or not. If the answer is yes, we explain that wrought iron rusts more easily around a pool because of the chemicals used in it to kill bacteria. Then we steer them to more maintenance-free aluminum. This has a safe bet for everyone concerned for years. . . that is until the advent of salt-water pools.

Salt-water pools are all the rage now here. Since they can add almost $2,000 to the cost of a new pool, builders love to put them in. They sell them by saying salt-water feels softer than traditionally chlorinated water. They also claim salt-water pools require less maintenance. I’m not sure about any of these claims; I just know more and more of my customers have salt-water pools.

For those of you not familiar with the mechanics of a salt-water pool; here is a little bit of education. The builder installs an electrical device called a chlorine generator by the filter equipment. Salt is added to the water. Then, the generator converts the salt into its two basic components, sodium and chlorine. From there, the chlorine keeps the pool bacteria free just as if pool had a more traditional chlorinator installed. In most cases, salt is added directly to the pool which turns the entire pool into a salt-water pool. However, there are some systems where the salt is added to a small reservoir attached to the chlorine generator.  The pool water is circulated through the reservoir and immediately goes into the converter. This process puts less salt in the pool.

There is no standard for the amount of salt that should be in a pool for a chlorine generator to work. One company may require 2,800 parts per million for its generator; another may require 4,000 ppm. Generally the rule is the level should be between 2,500 and 3,000 ppm. Below that and the chlorine generator won’t work. Above that, and I am quoting the instructions from an AquaChek Salt Water Test Kit, “the water may corrode metal parts and fixtures, it may become cloudy, and it may have a salty taste.”

May I draw your attention to the “may corrode metal” part of the warning? Now I would like to draw your attention to this photograph of the leg section of a cast aluminum chair that has been around a salt water pool for about 29 months.

Note the flaking paint and the white aluminum oxide corrosion. Originally, our customer sent us pictures of the problems. However, it looked so bad in the pictures that I didn’t trust what I was seeing. So, I had a driver pick up a chair for me to personally inpsect. At the same time, he got a sample of their pool water. When I tested the pool water for salt levels, it was at 3,400 ppm, high but not excessive. Apparently, the warning in the test kit should be taken seriously.

The feet of this chair were the worst; however, the flaking and oxidation could be seen on all parts of the chair including sling rails, stretcher bars, and arms . Because of this, neither the manufacturer nor I can say with 100% confidence that the problem wasn’t caused by a poorly applied finish. So, we are both stepping up to the plate to replace the furniture for the customer under warranty. We will pick up the affected piece and take the old slings off and send them to the manufacturer. They, in turn, will make new frames and put the old slings on them. Once we get the replacement furniture, we will deliver it to our customer. Each of us will experience nonrecoverable costs in this transaction.

Many manufacturers are becoming aware that more problems occur around a salt-water pool than not. They are all searching for answers. In the upcoming year, at least two will say their warranty is void if their furniture is used around a salt-water pool.

Where does that leave the retailer and the client? First, it seems the problem is worse for cast aluminum furniture. The problem isn’t as bad with extruded aluminum furntiure. But what do you sell a customer in a high wind situation where extruded is going to blow around? Second, sometimes the problem can be contained if the furniture is subject to a rigorous cleaning program. Great idea on paper! But, most of my customers are loathe to do any sort of maintenance. Just mention maintenance during the sales presentation and their eyes glaze over.  In their minds, rinsing the furniture off with a garden hose more than once a year is burdensome. Third, the client has to be sure there is not an excessive amount of salt in the pool. Most of my clients use pool services to take care of their pools. Unfortunately, many service companies don’t do as good a job as they could when it comes to salt levels. As an example, the client whose chair is pictured had a visit from their pool maintenance company just two hours before we took their water sample; yet, their salt level was too high!

I think more needs to be done on the manufacturing end. And, by more, I don’t mean voiding their warranty around salt-water pools.  I was talking to a friend who works for an oil company about this problem. He has worked off-shore and understands how corrosive salt-water can be. his company addresses this problem by making sure anything they use on a rig has an anti-corrosion finish. He was surprised outdoor manufacturer’s weren’t upgrading their finishing processes to accommodate this problem. I told him I thought the cost would be too high. He responded that compared to the cost of lost sales, the cost might not be as high as a manufacturer thinks. A good point.

I am not an expert in these matters and would like to hear from people with more experience and expertise than I have. I’d like to know:

  1. Is it true that cast aluminum is more susceptible to this corrosion that extruded? If so, is extruded a good substitute for cast?
  2. Is there anything a consumer can do to abate this problem? Does monthly washing help? Is there a protectorant that will prevent this? If so, how often does it need to be used?
  3. What can be done on the manufacturer’s end to address this?

I would appreciate any feedback you can give the casual furniture community about this.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce