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Saltwater Pools vs. Chlorine Pools (A Complete Comparison)

Saltwater and chlorine are the two most common pool sanitizers. Without enough chlorine or saltwater in the pool, the water will develop algae, bacteria, and insect infestations. These two sanitation methods have plenty of differences and similarities, so it’s essential to know which is better for your pool.

When comparing saltwater pools vs. chlorine pools, saltwater pools use salt to convert it into chlorine with a salt generator, whereas chlorine requires liquid, powder, or tablet chlorine. Saltwater pools require fewer chemicals, but they need to be drained more often. Both types sanitize equally.

In this post, I’ll break down the pros and cons of saltwater pools and chlorine pools. I’ll also cover a handful of differences and similarities to help you choose the best sanitizer for your swimming pool.

Differences Between Saltwater Pools and Chlorine Pools

Saltwater pools and chlorine pools are often thought of as polar opposites. One of them needs more cyanuric acid than the other, whereas both of them have unique chemicals required for optimal operation. There are several differences between saltwater and chlorine that you should know before making your decision.

Here are the five primary differences between these pool sanitizers:

  1. Saltwater uses salt rather than chlorine tablets or liquid chlorine. You have to add several bags of pool salt (table salt doesn’t work because it’s too thin and powdery compared to pool-grade salt). However, there’s no need for floating tablets or harsh liquid chlorine in the water.
  2. Saltwater pools need a salt cell and a salt generator to convert the salt into a sanitizer. The salt cell is a small block that converts NaCl into chlorine by splitting the sodium from the chlorine on a molecular level. The salt generator lets you decide how much chlorine you want in the water.
  3. Chlorine pools add much stronger concentrations of chlorine to the water. Saltwater evenly distributes the chlorine, whereas chlorinated pools typically have their chemicals dumped around the edges. It’s important to stay away from the concentration of chlorine until it dissolves in the pool water.
  4. Chlorine is much more popular than saltwater in most states. Saltwater requires unique equipment and a special maintenance routine. Chlorine is much more user-friendly and familiar, so people often stick to it. Furthermore, the salt in saltwater pools can charge high shipping costs in some locations.
  5. It’s extremely rare to find a saltwater generator on a spa-pool combo, whereas chlorine spa-pool combos are quite common. People almost never use a salt generator solely for a spa. It’s too much money, and you’d need less than a bag of salt. A salt generator would be far more than necessary for spas and most small pool-spa combos.

As you can see, these pool sanitizers are very different from one another. Not only do they require different chemicals, but they also have unique maintenance routines. In the following sections, I’ll describe the pros and cons of saltwater pools vs. chlorine pools.

What to Know About Saltwater Pools

Saltwater pools are becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Companies often tout the soft water, incredible comfort, and ease of maintenance. However, they’re not the best choice for people who haven’t owned a swimming pool in the past. These pools are much different from other sanitizer options.

Maintaining a saltwater pool requires close attention to detail that can quickly work against you. If you put too much salt, cyanuric acid, or TDS into the pool, the recovery methods are often extreme. A healthy, well-maintained saltwater pool can be a wonderful experience that doesn’t require too much effort after the initial routine is established.

So, what are the pros and cons of saltwater pools?

Pros of Saltwater Pools

  • Saltwater pools are much softer than any other type of pool. Swimmers often rejoice in how soft a saltwater pool feels compared to chlorinated water. It’s hard to describe without being in a saltwater pool. It’s best detailed as feeling like silky water rather than calcium-ridden water.
  • You don’t have to worry about liquid chlorine or chlorine tablets when maintaining a saltwater pool. Some people choose liquid chlorine over powder chlorine for their regular shock treatments, but chlorine tablets are never required. You can leave the floater at the store and enjoy whichever form of shock you prefer.
  • You can have a much higher TDS if you own a saltwater swimming pool. Saltwater pools have tons of salt in the water, which increases the residual TDS. The TDS can get over 4,000ppm in some saltwater pools, whereas it shouldn’t exceed 2,000ppm in chlorinated pools. This difference gives a lot of leeway before draining the water.
  • Saltwater pools naturally have a higher pH, which means you’ll rarely need to add soda ash or baking soda. These chemicals are heavy, powdery, and messy. Furthermore, they take up a lot of space in your pool shed. You might need them once a year if there’s an acidic rainstorm, but most treatments are few and far between.
  • Saltwater pools create passive chlorine that doesn’t require much of a routine schedule. You’ll have to dump the manufacturer’s recommended amount of salt into the pool when you install the salt generator. After that, you only have to add salt when the salt levels get lower than the desired range (which is only a couple of times annually).

Cons of Saltwater Pools

  • Saltwater pools require regular muriatic acid or dry acid treatments. Use Acid Blue Muriatic Acid to reduce the pool’s pH. One gallon is enough for several weekly treatments. Dump it around the edges of the pool as directed by the company. Circulate the pump for 4 to 6 hours after adding acid.
  • The only way to remove salt from the water is to drain and refill the swimming pool. Having too much salt in the water prevents other chemicals from dissolving. You can throw all sorts of chemicals in the water, but they’ll puddle at the bottom of the liner. Dilution from evaporation or drainage is the only solution.
  • The cyanuric acid in a saltwater pool needs to be higher than in chlorine pools. Cyanuric acid (also known as pool stabilizer or pool conditioner) protects the salt and chlorine from evaporating. Since the salt is much less dense than most forms of chlorine, it needs about 90ppm of CYA rather than the traditional 40ppm to 80ppm.
  • You’ll have to spend more on the initial startup to get the salt cell and salt generator. Salt generators usually cost between $500 to $1,500 (these prices vary based on location, quality, and a few other factors). You’ll also have to buy hundreds of pounds of pool salt to convert the pool to saltwater.
  • Dirty salt cells can damage your swimming pool equipment, so they need to be cleaned regularly. Place the salt cell in a five-gallon bucket and fill it with one part of muriatic acid to three parts of water for several minutes. Rinse the cell and place it back into the plumbing to get rid of the calcium and corrosive salt buildup.

What to Know About Chlorine Pools

Chlorine pools are undoubtedly the most common type of pool in the world. They have straightforward maintenance schedules and don’t require much of a startup cost (compared to saltwater pools). Furthermore, chlorinated pools don’t increase the TDS in the water beyond safe, manageable levels.

Unfortunately, chlorine pools use harsh chemicals that need to be dealt with with care and caution. You can quickly go overboard by adding too much chlorine, which can lead to skin irritation and other unwanted issues. It’s important to disclose all of the details before deciding if you should get a chlorinated pool.

Here are the pros and cons of chlorine pools:

Pros of Chlorine Pools

  • Chlorine pools require less cyanuric acid and muriatic acid than saltwater pools. Since there’s not too much salt in the water, the only things that influence the pH are natural debris and the type of chlorine you use. You’ll have to use baking soda, soda ash, and muriatic acid as necessary (there’s no weekly schedule for pH adjustments).
  • It’s much easier for a beginner to maintain a chlorine pool. Beginners won’t have to concern themselves with salt levels, cleaning a complicated salt cell, or adjusting a salt generator to the proper output. Furthermore, they won’t have to stick to a pH-reducing routine every week.
  • Most chlorine pools don’t use as much electricity as saltwater swimming pools. Salt generators require electricity to maintain the salt output, adjust the chlorine input, and run the pump more often. Keep in mind that the salt only converts to chlorine when the pump is circulating pool water through the salt cell.
  • You don’t have to adjust your equipment pad when using chlorine in a swimming pool. Chlorinated pools use floaters, liquid chlorine, and granules to sanitize the pool. They don’t need salt cells or salt generators. However, you can add an in-line or offline tablet feeder if you don’t want a floater in the water.
  • You don’t have to worry about heavy salt bags or settling granular salt on the liner. Pool salt is itchy and heavy and carries a strong odor. Furthermore, it takes up a lot of space and can corrode the liner if it sits in one spot for too long. Pool salt can stain, deteriorate, and weaken vinyl liners if it’s not stirred and circulated immediately.

Cons of Chlorine Pools

  • Chlorinated pools require several hours of no swimming after adding most of the chemicals. You shouldn’t swim in a pool with fresh liquid chlorine or powder chlorine. These chemicals are harsh and concentrated, so they can cause eye irritation and burning skin. However, it’s safe to swim with chlorine tablets.
  • You have to store a lot of harsh chemicals in a shed or garage for a chlorinated pool. Pool sheds often smell horrifically strong when there’s a lot of chlorine in them. These sheds should be vented to prevent chlorine inhalation, corrosion, flammability, and odors drifting around the structure.
  • Chlorinated pools have a much stronger odor than saltwater pools. You can’t escape the initial bleach-like smell in a chlorine pool. It dissipates in a few hours after adding the weekly treatment, though tablet floaters smell like chlorine around the clock. If your pool smells like chlorine at all times, you might have to remove the chloramines.
  • Too much chlorine requires drainage or chlorine neutralization. You can wait it out and let the chlorine evaporate. However, extremely high chlorine levels are dangerous for people and pets. Never swim in a pool that has a chlorine concentration above 6ppm. Use a neutralizer or add hose water to dilute the chlorine.
  • Chlorine pools are much more hands-on compared to saltwater pools. You’ll have to add liquid chlorine weekly or put enough tablets into the feeder every five to ten days. It’s best to wear gloves and eye protection when handling any type of chlorine to prevent chemical burns and inhalation.

Similarities Between Saltwater and Chlorine in Pools

Contrary to popular belief, saltwater pools and chlorine pools are much more similar than most pool owners think. For example, salt cells convert pool salt into chlorine, which means they essentially use the same sanitizer. Furthermore, both of them require the same pH range, cyanuric acid, alkalinity, and calcium hardness levels.

Here’s a quick list of similarities:

  • You need to shock both types of pools with granular chlorine. Powder chlorine, also known as granular pool shock, elevates the chlorine the manageable levels. Saltwater and chlorinated pools need shock weekly or bi-weekly, depending on the time of year, amount of swimmers, and debris. Never let the chlorine dip below 2ppm.
  • Both pools need cyanuric acid to preserve and protect the chlorine. Cyanuric acid is a must-have treatment for any swimming pool. I suggest the Pool Mate Stabilizer and Conditioner. Mix the powder in a five-gallon bucket with water, then dump it into the swimmer basket to circulate the solution through the water.
  • Chlorine and saltwater pools need pumps, filters, and vacuums. You can’t get around these essential pieces of equipment to circulate, filter, and clean the swimming pool. You can also add heaters, booster pumps, and pool solar panels to chlorine pools and saltwater pools (always place the salt cell after the heater).
  • Both sanitizers prevent algae, but they could use an algaecide during the warmer months. Try HTH Algae Guard to keep algae blooms at bay. This preventative treatment uses copper to naturally remove and prevent algae. Always test your pool’s metals before adding a copper-based algaecide to the water.
  • You will find traces of salt in chlorinated pools. Many types of chlorine are sodium-based. For example, liquid chlorine is sodium hypochlorite. Check your pool’s salt levels before adding salt into a saltwater pool. You might be surprised by how much salt is already in the water.

These sanitizers aren’t too different in their chemical composition. The primary differences lie in their maintenance schedules and the initial startup methods. However, they need the same chemistry (aside from the high salt levels and TDS) to sanitize the water and prevent algae growth.

Should You Get a Saltwater Pool or Chlorine Pool?

You should get a saltwater pool if you’re comfortable with cleaning the sell, adjusting the salt generator, and managing the salt levels. Those who want a simple, traditional pool setup should opt for chlorine. Both chemicals require cyanuric acid, shock treatments, pool acid, and algaecides.

Ask yourself the following questions to know which sanitizer works best for you:

  • Do you prefer initial startup costs in favor of long-term savings? If so, saltwater pools are the best option. You’ll likely have to spend around $1,000 to start a saltwater pool, but maintenance costs are usually less than $100 per month. You’ll save hundreds of dollars over the following years.
  • Are there a lot of people swimming in the pool? Chlorine pools are better for heavy usage because they can be shocked as often as needed. Saltwater pools rely on constant circulation. If there’s not enough salt or circulation, you’ll have trouble keeping up with the salt cell’s demands.
  • Is there enough room in the plumbing for a salt cell, sensor, and cables? I usually measure about nine to twelve inches for a salt cell. You should have a straight section of PVC pipe to mount the salt cell. Salt generators need a large space on a neighboring wall or wooden board (consider a 14” x 14” space).
  • Are you comfortable with handling concentrated chemicals? Chlorinated pools use concentrated chlorine that’s much more potent than pool salt. You can touch pool salt with your bare hands and wash it off without an issue, but concentrated chlorine will burn and irritate your skin and eyes.
  • How much salt is in the swimming pool? If you’re unsure of which option you prefer, test the salt levels in the water. If you have more than 1,500ppm of salt, you might as well convert it to a salt pool. You can add a salt cell and a few bags of salt for the conversion. The other option is to partially drain and refill the water to keep it as a chlorine pool.

Saltwater pools aren’t always better than chlorine pools, but they’re more than worth it for some pool owners. Rather than thinking of it as a competition based on effectiveness, consider which sanitizer will save you the most money and keep you on the most reliable schedule. If you’re concerned about the costs of chlorine pools and saltwater pools, read on.

Which is Cheaper to Maintain: Salt or Chlorine?

Saltwater pools are cheaper to maintain because they only require annual salt bags and acid for routine treatments. A saltwater pool often costs as little as $100 to $150 per year, whereas most chlorinated pools require about $350 annually. The startup cost of a saltwater pool will be much higher, though.

Swimming pools need a lot of chemicals, including cyanuric acid, pH adjusters, and calcium hardness. Remember that the sanitizer (salt or chlorine) is only one part of the process. You’ll have to spend money on the remaining chemicals to maintain the swimming pool’s chemistry.

How to Tell if a Pool is Saltwater or Chlorine

To tell if a pool is a saltwater or chlorine pool, follow these steps:

  1. Look for a salt cell and salt generator. Chlorinated pools never have salt cells or salt generators. A salt cell is a cylindrical block in the plumbing that has several lights on it and two cables. One of the cables goes into the plumbing with a sensor and the other cable goes to the wall-mounted salt generator.
  2. Test the salt levels in the water. Saltwater pools often have more than 3,000ppm of salt in the water. On the other hand, chlorinated pools shouldn’t have more than 500ppm or so of salt in the water. The salt increases the pool’s TDS, which can be detrimental to chlorinated pools since it saturates the water.
  3. Feel the water to know if it’s soft or hard (chlorine pools have harder water than saltwater pools). Saltwater pools typically feel soft and silky, whereas chlorinated pools smell like bleach and feel like regular tap water. Go for a swim in both types of pools to know the difference and decide if you prefer one over the other.
  4. Check the chemicals in the pool shed or garage. Saltwater pools won’t have chlorine tablets since they use salt as the passive form of chlorine. Some people use liquid chlorine to shock the water, but granular chlorine is the most popular form of pool shock. Furthermore, saltwater pool sheds often have a lot of acid and little to no soda ash.
  5. Test the TDS (total dissolved solids) in the swimming pool. A saltwater pool usually has more than 3,500ppm TDS, whereas a chlorine pool has below 2,000ppm. Many chlorinated pools have fewer than 500ppm. Testing these levels is the next best thing to checking the salt concentration in the swimming pool.

It can be difficult for a beginner to know what kind of sanitizer their pool requires. Adding too much salt to a chlorine pool can have disastrous consequences. Use these instructions to find out what kind of pool you have, so you’ll know which chemicals you need and what routine you should use.

To learn more about identifying a saltwater pool, watch this YouTube video by River Pools:

Does Saltwater Last Longer Than Chlorine in Pool Water?

Saltwater lasts longer than chlorine in pool water, but it needs to be circulated more often to convert the NaCl into free available chlorine. You’ll find traces of salt in a saltwater pool much longer than in a chlorinated pool due to high concentrations of NaCl and evaporation. Salt cells need to be cleaned three times a year to maintain their longevity.

So, how does salt water affect your pool’s longevity?

  • The only way to remove salt from the pool is through dilution. Natural evaporation often removes enough water to help you replace it with hose water. However, if you add too much salt to the water, you’ll have to drain a couple of feet to dilute the high concentration. Never drain more than ⅓ of the pool water.
  • Salt cells can cause corrosion if they’re not maintained and cleaned. These cells have acidic chlorine and high-pH salt. Both of these pH adjusters wreak havoc on the equipment pad if they’re not regulated. Clean the salt cell three times each year to prevent salt buildup and calcium issues in the equipment.
  • Pool salt is much more gentle on vinyl liners than concentrated chlorine. It’s a less dense form of chlorine than liquid chlorine or tablet chlorine, so it doesn’t harm the material. Vinyl is quite fragile compared to other pool liners. Dissolved pool salt won’t pile on the liner and corrode it.
  • A lack of pH adjustments in saltwater pools leads to chemical staining, calcium buildup, and algae growth. Saltwater pools naturally increase the water’s pH and calcium hardness. They have to be managed with dilution, muriatic acid, and stain removers. Failure to abide by these suggestions can quickly damage the pool.
  • Saltwater pools are much less likely to develop chloramines than chlorinated swimming pools. Liquid chlorine, granular chlorine, and chlorine tablets dispense free chlorine that binds to contaminants. This binding process turns the free chlorine into chloramine (useless chlorine). Salt cells recycle the chlorine, preventing most chloramines.

You can have a saltwater pool that lasts just as long as a chlorine pool. However, you’ll have to replace the salt cell and salt generator eventually. I suggest buying a salt cell from the same company since many manufacturers use the same footprints for their products. This setup helps you quickly install the salt cell for a plug-and-play replacement.

Pro-tip: Salt cells usually last about five years, whereas salt generators (the control panels) last up to ten years. Proper maintenance can improve the lifespan of both devices.